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Bonfire of the Humanities

Bonfire of the Humanities


“I would burn them.”

This was the response given by Tennessee Republican Jerry Sexton when asked what he would do with the many books he and his conservative colleagues propose to remove from Tennessee’s school libraries.   Sexton has also worked tirelessly, although unsuccessfully so far, to have the Holy Bible ordained as Tennessee’s official state book.  I was heretofore unaware that states had official books.

Pressed by a more rational colleague to name at least one school library or book therein that he objected to, he came up empty, muttering that there were many, somewhere, probably, certainly, perhaps that were pretty awful.

It reminds me of a music critic who confused Mozart with Schoenberg when reviewing a concert in Detroit.  When confronted with the fact that the Mozart he so despised was actually not Mozart, he puffed out his chest and said, “Well, whatever.  I didn’t like it.”  For the non-classical reader,  a critic confusing  Mozart with Schoenberg is a bit like a sommelier confusing Chateau Lafite Rothschild with Mad Dog 20 20.

Although the dirty book plague has not yet infected the Colorado legislature, the national trend is alarming.  According to PEN America, 33 states have passed or introduced 133 book banning bills.  The lists of prohibited volumes are comprised of anything mentioning, alluding to, or hinting at race, racism, gender, sexuality, LGTBQ, socialism, Marxism or, in all likelihood, Bernie Sanders, Colonel Sanders, AOC or the word “squad.”

This would be humorous if it weren’t so damn serious.

Much attention has rightfully been given the insurrection attempt on January 6, 2021, both the attack on the Capitol and the political shenanigans aimed at overturning the election.  The insidious attacks on public education may do even more harm to our democratic republic than the Proud Boys and Marjorie Taylor Greene combined.

The campaign to turn education into a white-centric, jingoistic, God-fearing propaganda machine is orchestrated by more than a few slack-jawed yahoos in Tennessee.  In virtually every corner of the country efforts are underway to ban diversity education, disempower teachers, have curricula reviewed by (majority Republican) state legislatures, and divert public funding to private religious academies, for-profit schools and ideologically conservative charter schools.

Hillsdale College, a small but feisty conservative college in Michigan, is looking to expand its already considerable network of charter schools.  The aforementioned Tennessee has offered to support 50 Hillsdale charters with public funding, including $32 million in seed money to support facilities.  Hillsdale is a favorite of anti-liberal icons like Clarence Thomas, who called Hillsdale “a shining city on a hill.”   Hillsdale promises to fight “progressivism” and “leftist academics.”

Hillsdale developed the 1776 Curriculum as rebuttal to the 1619 Curriculum based on the 1619 Project developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones which reframed – unfortunately with a few flaws – American history as stained through the centuries by slavery and its persistent, systemic and systematic residue – an uncomfortable truth.

For several decades, conservatives have sought to undermine public education through starvation by diverting funds, vilifying teachers, attacking unions and now, throwing red herrings in the form of fear mongering and dog whistles.  Glenn Youngkin was elected Governor of Virginia by lying about Critical Race Theory in schools.  As in Tennessee, legislatures and school boards in many states are being populated by ultra-conservatives who scare parents by claiming their children are being brainwashed into socialism, might be molested by trans kids in their bathrooms, are losing 400 meter races to boys competing as girls,  being soiled by pornography in the school library and are often brought to tears by mean teachers who tell them they are personally responsible for slavery.

That none of these things are true is of no consequence to the unprincipled architects of the propaganda, like the reprehensible Christopher Rufo, a particularly nasty pitchman who is like Donald Trump with a brain.  I’ve seen him in multiple television interviews, chortling with glee at the gullibility of his low information fan club.

Public education, like democracy itself, is in great peril.  The guns, God and limited government forces have convinced a rapidly growing segment of the population that public schools are not only performing poorly, but are indoctrinating children into an immoral sense of the world, where gender is fluid, “whiteness” is bad and our great Judeo-Christian traditions and values are undermined.

This has been a long time coming.  The political “right” has feared a loss of control as previously manageable minorities have ascended in number and influence.  The backlash to civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights has simmered for decades and is now boiling over.   

These folks want “their” exceptional country back and will stop at nothing to restore the “shining city on the hill.”  As is true with democracy, if we lose public education we will never get it back.




Steve Nelson
Steve Nelson is a retired educator, author, and newspaper columnist. He and his wife Wendy moved to Erie from Manhattan in 2017 to be near family. He was a serious violinist and athlete until a catastrophic mountain bike accident in 2020. He now specializes in gratitude and kindness.

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