Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Next week, our neighbors to the South will head to the polls and select their next governor, and there is little doubt as to what will decide the election. Glenn Youngkin, the Republican nominee for Virginia governor, has made education the defining issue of the competition.
He has fallen in line with others in his party, vowing to ban the teaching of critical race theory and signaling he will die on the hill that parents should have power over their child’s education. He just released an ad supporting parents’ right to veto assigned reading material they deem too explicit, and his main line of attack against his Democratic opponent has been over this issue.
This kind of talk is certainly appealing to many people — but if we go down the path that Republicans like Youngkin want, students will lose out on key critical thinking skills. Not only that, but it allows parents to do exactly what they accuse the school system of: inserting their own politics into the classroom.
First, let’s talk about the role of parents. Of course, parents can raise their children however they want, but there is a reason that they don’t educate them most of the time — even homeschooling has a set of requirements you have to follow.
Students get educated outside the home so they can broaden their horizons beyond their parents’ beliefs, and learn about things that might make their parents uncomfortable, because that is really what this boils down to.
People don’t want critical race theory to be taught because the expansive and continuing history of white supremacy in our country — a history that all students should learn — makes them uncomfortable.
But this is where education needs to come in. Students need to be confronted with material that makes them uncomfortable not just because they need to know history, but so that they can think more critically about their own place in the world. Parents imposing their own personal beliefs on education will impede that learning process.
There is a long history in American schools of challenging books with material deemed too explicit or controversial. In fact, the American Library Association publishes an annual list of the most challenged books of the year, which often include books dealing with societal issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia or sexual violence. Books in this category include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple and the book that Youngkin’s ad referenced, Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
This is not a coincidence. Challenging these books is a not-so covert way of keeping the themes and messages they deem unacceptable out of the classroom. It is not an innocuous attempt to protect their child’s eyes and ears. More often than not, it is a political act.
These kinds of protestations are also explicitly anti-art. To me, one of the cardinal rules of artistic expression is that portrayal does not equal endorsement. That is to say, the author does not always agree with the actions their characters take. Just because a book contains offensive language or has descriptions of violent or explicit acts does not mean it is saying they are right.
Here is another place where critical thinking is so important. Students need to have critical thinking and literary analysis skills to ask why the author chose to portray these issues and use the language they did. Restricting certain books because of their content is incredibly simpleminded and robs students of the opportunity to ask these important questions.
Ultimately, the questions that people like Youngkin and his supporters refuse to ask are why these materials are taught in the first place and what the students are meant to get out of them. While they talk about choice, what they are actually choosing to do is keep their students in the dark because of their own beliefs. It’s time to stop the pearl-clutching and think seriously about what students should be getting out of their education.
Adam Cullen is a junior government and politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.