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Colson: A partial primer on school-based culture wars

John Colson
Hit & Run
John Colson
Courtesy photo

OK, we all know we’re in the midst of some monstrous cultural warfare in the USA right now, based on a wide range of conflicting beliefs and attitudes among our general population.

Rather than try to enumerate all the ways we are fighting and hating each other, a gargantuan task if ever there was one, I’d like to take a look at one particular arena of battle — our nation’s educational system.

For more than a century, our public schools system was held up as a paragon for other nations to emulate, and for that same period, our role as a technological leader of the free world was happily and productively dependent on that educational system.



But in the waning years of the 20th century, a strange thing started to happen — the more conservative portions of our population became convinced that our schools were being turned into enemy camps, in effect, by what are called, derisively by some, the “progressive” elements of our society.

In arenas ranging from the much-maligned and largely mischaracterized critical race theory, to gender fluidity, to the simple instruction in civics lessons that we once received as a matter of course, critics of our nation’s schools have been raining down insults, threats and other forms of mental mayhem on the heads of our nation’s teachers and educational administrators.




One particular aspect of this deluge has been the undermining of a seemingly popular curriculum known as Wit & Wisdom, which is billed as a way of encouraging intellectual curiosity, critical thinking and improved reading skills.

According to a Nov. 7 story in The New Yorker magazine, this curriculum has been adopted by “hundreds of school districts nationwide” and has been widely credited with boosting reading levels, writing abilities, general literacy and other measures of student success.

But over the course of the past year, Wit & Wisdom has come under increasing partisan ire and political fire from the right-wing fringe, who maintain that the curriculum is teaching students to “hate” themselves when it exposes them to texts, images and other materials examining this country’s historic trends toward racism, discrimination against people of color generally, and the institution of slavery specifically.

Let us examine one particular example of this conflict about learning, the case involving the Williamson County Schools of Tennessee.

Wit & Wisdom, created by Great Minds, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit publisher of curricula and instructional materials, was adopted and used after a careful, deliberative process, by the Williamson County district starting in 2020.

From the first, the program got high marks from educators there, in other parts of Tennessee, and in other states as diverse as Massachusetts and Louisiana, “states with sharply different political profiles,” according to the New Yorker piece.

Among other things, critics of Wit & Wisdom claim it is forcing young students to confront racism and other disturbing undercurrents in our nation’s past and present, and that the students are too young to absorb this kind of teaching.

A leading voice in the chorus against Wit & Wisdom (and stories have indicated this chorus is in no way representative of a majority of parents in Tennessee) has been a group calling itself Moms for Liberty, which last May started showing up in force at Williamson County school board meetings bearing placards containing the names of a couple of dozen books “they didn’t want students to read,” The New Yorker article noted.

A story last June in The Tennessean reported that a leader of the Moms named Robin Steenman (who at that time reportedly had no kids in public schools anywhere) held up a particular book, “Ruby Bridges Goes to School,” written by and about the experience of the author in desegregating a New Orleans school in 1960. Bridges was the first black student to attend an all-white school in that city.

Steenman objected to the book’s depiction of angry white people yelling at Bridges, saying it caused today’s students “psychological distress” to learn about such matters. She also objected to the use of another book, “Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington,” because it contained historical photos of such things as segregated drinking fountains, firefighters blasting black civil rights activists with fire hoses, and basically anything that showed whites being nasty to blacks.

This is revisionist history at its worst, a movement aiming to whitewash our past by deleting any reference to the ugly realities of slavery, the Jim Crow era, the Ku Klux Klan’s terror campaigns, and other reminders of a shameful chapter that has yet to close in this nation’s history.

I’m not sure how much of this kind of conflict has been felt in Colorado, though I have read about incidents wherein parents were reportedly berating and belittling school board members in our region and other places in the state.

And I learned from the Chalkbeat website (it’s a Denver-based platform for discussing school issues) that a bill has been introduced by Republican Tim Geithner in the Colorado Legislature that would require teachers to post their instructional materials online, a clear invitation to outfits like Moms For Liberty to attack the schools along similar lines.

I should note that Chalkbeat also highlighted that last May, the state House passed a bipartisan civics education law calling for schools to teach certain government-related concepts, including the national and state constitutions, and how to participate in the electoral process. The bill also calls for the state’s education overseers to revise learning standards to insure that students learn “the history, cultural and social contributions of people of color, religious minorities and LGBTQ people.”

So there is some hope for students receiving an honest examination of our nation’s past and present, regardless of how badly some people would like to bury it all in a pile of rubbish and forget about it.

jbcolson51@gmail.com