by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Last month, the ten members of the McMinn County, Tennessee school board voted unanimously to remove the book Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, from the eighth-grade curriculum. School board members expressed concerns about “rough, objectionable language” and “unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.”
The decision prompted outrage and a decent share of hyperbole from progressives. David Corn of Mother Jones proclaimed that students’ “intellectual development is being held hostage by board members who are stuck in another era.” In an op-ed published in The Tennessean, Christine Johnson-Duell declared that the decision was “a half step — or a goose step — away from burning them.”
Most recently, the panelists on the inexplicably popular television show The View claimed that the decision created “confusion” and left students unprepared for “the real world.” Ironically, that discussion also laid bare Whoopi Goldberg’s confusion about the Holocaust and led to her real-world suspension from the show.
The pedagogical case for including Maus in the curriculum is not as cut-and-dry as many believe. I consulted an experienced and accomplished middle school social studies educator (my wife) to offer a classroom teacher perspective. She has used Maus selectively and strategically, noting that immature students get distracted by the book’s language, nudity, and violence. In classes with a critical mass of such students, she found a more traditional approach to be more effective. This would often include selections from I Survived The Nazi Invasion, 1944 by Lauren Tarshis, Elie Wiesel’s Night, or other books about the Holocaust written for general audiences or young adults.
Simply put, good teachers understand that one size does not fit all. They are aware of the multitude of curricular resources at their disposal, making instructional adjustments accordingly. That is why removing Maus from the curriculum will not stunt children’s “intellectual development.” Outstanding teachers know how to select alternatives that ensure all children have a sound understanding of the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools, libraries, and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.Article IX, Section 1 of the North Carolina Constitution
There are legitimate disagreements within conservative and progressive communities about how our major institutions should navigate these issues. The dilemma for conservatives is that several competing principles are in play.
On the one hand, conservatives are champions of free expression and defend the marketplace of ideas. After all, censorship cuts both ways both. For example, conservatives were appalled when Amazon.com executives banned a book critical of the transgender movement, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment by Ryan T. Anderson. Broad efforts to suppress a similar book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters by Abigail Shrier, materialized a year later. Left-wing activists argued that these books constituted a form of hate speech and violence against transgender people. If “cancel culture” is a problem for conservatives, perhaps embracing liberty is the solution.
On the other hand, school boards are democratically elected representatives of the electorate and have the right to use their position to reinforce the perceived values and norms of the community, so long as their policies do not violate laws, regulations, and mandates.
And if local control and parental input are core principles of sound educational governance, then there is no greater expression of it than management of the curriculum, reading materials, and classroom instruction. Again, this principle cuts both ways. Just as the McMinn County school board had the authority to pull Maus from the curriculum despite objections from educators, one could contend that the Orange County, North Carolina school board had the right to keep three LGBTQ+ books in district libraries despite complaints from parents.
My friend Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute regularly points out that public schooling is a source of social and political conflict, not an antidote to it. One way to address the issue of clashing values within public schools is to allow parents and guardians to enroll their children (and redirect government funding set aside for them) to schools that correspond to their values.
This would not eliminate conflict in public schools, but it likely would mitigate it. Playing devil’s advocate, one could argue that policymakers should focus on reforming institutions that appear to be more serious threats to social solidarity, such as the media or electoral politics. While public policy responses for improving other troubled institutions are mirky, the expansion of parental choice could begin to ease long-standing ideological tensions originating in public schools.