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Banning books. Curbing speech. Rejecting Advanced Placement curricula that help students do college-level work on race. Stacking local school boards with conservatives.
It seems that every day there is a news item about a multifaceted culture war targeting education, right-wing political attacks that seek to radically alter how history and social studies are taught and written. New laws passed in Florida, Texas, Idaho, and other states attempt to restrict or completely eliminate teaching about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and LGBTQ+ issues, undermining public education in the United States on all levels. They threaten academic freedom in higher education and professional autonomy in K-12 schools.
The education culture wars have many fronts, ranging from local school boards to state legislatures, from concepts and curricula to books in public and school libraries, from diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to job security and tenure for educators. Well-funded and well-networked right-wing foundations, activist NGOs and educational institutions, Republican state governors and legislators, conservative journalists, Christian nationalists, and homeschooling parents lead this right-wing assault.
This question is particularly acute for historians, as well as for those in women, gender, sexuality, queer studies, and critical race theory. History professors and social studies teachers are a particular target, attacked for ostensibly indoctrinating students, falsifying U.S. history, and making students—in other words, white students—feel “uncomfortable” or “guilty.”
So, how can we combat this right-wing hydra?
For the past two years, Historians for Peace and Democracy (HPAD) has been working to develop effective responses to the multiple threats to free speech, academic freedom, and truth in education. Many others, including PEN America, the American Historical Association (AHA), the African American Policy Forum (AAPF), and the American Association of University Professors are engaged in this struggle as well.
But HPAD takes a particular interest in how historians can shape and intervene in public debates. A national organization with 1,500 members at 400 colleges and universities, it was founded as Historians Against the War in January 2003 to challenge the distortions of history emanating from the Bush Administration that culminated in the disastrous invasion of Iraq.
During the Trump administration, HPAD broadened and reshaped its mission“to stand up for peace and diplomacy internationally, and for democracy and human rights at home.” Of necessity, HPAD’s primary focus is now the culture wars against education. It has undertaken three different initiatives—compiling the Culture Wars Against Education Archive, working with the Zinn Education Project on a project called Historians on Call, and supporting the African American Policy Forum’s Faculty Senate Resolution campaign.
The Culture Wars Against Education Archive speaks to the essence of what it means to learn history and is a compilation of over 125 documents, articles, and websites about the past and present of the culture wars and responses to them, updated every 3–4 months. Hyperlinks provide ready access to all materials, which are also briefly annotated by scholars. The principal authors of the archive are Molly Nolan, Professor Emerita of History at New York University; Ellen Schrecker, Professor of History Emerita at Yeshiva University; Andor Skotnes, Professor of History Emeritus at The Sage Colleges; and H-PAD Research Associate Sarah Sklaw. We hope that teachers and students on all levels, as well as journalists, commentators, politicians, and the general public will use the archive not just to educate themselves about the current dire situation, but also to learn how to work actively to protect education, books, and educators.
Regrettably, the Right has done a much better job of spreading its understanding of and aims in the culture wars than has the center and left; it has mobilized its base much more effectively.
Therefore, the archive opens with an overview of the current crisis and statements from key organizations that have spoken out against right-wing political control of educational institutions and libraries. These included the AHA, PEN America, the AAPF, the NAACP, and the American Association of Colleges and Universities. Section two tracks the educational gag orders targeting critical race theory (used by the Right as a shorthand for any discussions of race and slavery), legislation that has been passed or are being considered in nearly 40 states. Section three links to the ever-growing lists of banned books, a majority of which are by authors of color or deal with issues of race, gender, and sexuality.
Describing the current culture wars is only the beginning of our intervention: we also need to understand why these attacks are happening. So, the archive offers analytical articles that provide historical comparisons to the current situation and why the primary targets—critical race theory, LGBTQ+ issues, and public education—have been chosen. These analyses show how right-wing culture warriors such as Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida have demonized and weaponized a host of concepts, but also that he is working in a long tradition of demonizing marginalized Americans for political profit. Case studies that describe attacks on the teaching of race and gender in K-2 schools and in higher ed further illustrate how culture wars are waged.
Because the brains behind these campaigns often hide behind politicians, the archive then explores who the right-wing culture warriors are, who funds them, and what sorts of activities they engage in: again, we link to right-wing websites and analytical articles. Among the most important organizations we describe are The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which drafts sample legislation intended to ban concepts, curricula, and books. ALEC’s educational gag order templates circulate as widely as their voter suppression ones have.
Other organizations include the Manhattan Institute, where leading “scholar” Christopher Rufo proudly claims credit for weaponizing first CRT and then LGBTQ+ issues in education. Hillsdale College in Michigan is both a haven for right-wing professors and students and the producer of the 1776 Curriculum, a right-wing Christian and patriotic version of U.S. history that is widely used in religious schools and home-schooling. Turning Point USA, a youth organization is most active in higher ed, particularly in sending students out to record and report on their teachers, while Moms for Liberty is most visible in predominantly white and suburban school districts, where it runs candidates for school boards under the slogan of “parents’ rights” and protecting innocent children from accurate history.
These well-networked organizations receive extensive funding from conservative Wall Street donors, right-wing foundations, and the Koch brothers among others.
The final section of the site offers a variety of resources for teachers and students that explain their rights and provides both teaching materials and political support. We post examples of effective pushback against right-wing attacks and suggest concrete ways to combat censorship, book banning, “patriotic” curricula purged of so-called divisive concepts, and right-wing takeovers of school boards.
HPAD’s purpose is to document, but more importantly, to educate and to encourage activism in educational institutions, communities, and state and national elections. As the archive shows, the current culture wars are not the first time American politicians, educators, and religious leaders have censored curriculum, banned books, and fired teachers. And Americans have fought back before.
But as McCarthyism scholar Ellen Schrecker argues, today’s culture wars are more multifaceted, broadly supported, well-funded, and dangerous than earlier ones. They target not only the political beliefs of teachers, but the concepts, books, and curricula they teach. They want to substitute religious concerns and parental rights (or parental prejudices) for the expertise of teachers and scholars and curb the freedom to explore a variety of ideas.
And unlike earlier, these new laws and regulations target not only public schools and colleges on all levels, but importantly, the very idea of state-funded public education. Paradoxically, state and local governments and right-wing private organizations collaborate closely to both promote state control of education and defund it. Large war chests allow right-wing culture warriors to spread their message via social media in ways unimaginable in earlier periods. Today’s conservative extremists are frighteningly well-organized and are trying to do to education what they have already partly accomplished in the judiciary: implanting right-wing ideas, laws, and personnel in the institutions themselves.
But our educational institutions are far from lost to us. HPAD supported the African American Policy Forum’s 2021–22 campaign to get the faculty senates of flagship public universities to pass resolutions condemning legislation that prohibits the teaching of the so-called “divisive concepts”: CRT, LGBTQ+ issues, and specific books or curricula, such as The 1619 Project.
HPAD joined Valerie Johnson from the AAPF and Jennifer Ruth and reached out to public institutions in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic states, and the South. Some faculty senates never responded to repeated inquiries; others began formulating and voting on such resolutions immediately. Still others happily announced that they had already passed such a resolution or were in the process of so doing.
Over 55 universities have passed such resolutions, including the University of Texas-Austin, Rutgers, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and the University of South Carolina, and the University of Massachusetts. A full list of these schools, and the resolution, can be found at the AAPF website.
Interestingly, most private colleges and universities who were approached failed to respond, seemingly believing that only public institutions were endangered. Given the state and federal funding private colleges and universities receive, however, and the ever-expanding efforts of the right to regulate not only education, but also reproductive rights and gender-affirming therapies, that is a regrettably naïve view.
In January 2023, HPAD, in conjunction with the Zinn Education Project launched Historians on Call (HOC), an initiative to recruit academic historians to be available to help K-12 teachers, parents, and community activists with whatever expertise they might find useful. HOC offers to provide testimony at legislative hearings, attend school board meetings, write editorials and op-eds, and speak to parents’ organizations and community groups in order to help combat the culture wars at the state and local levels. Over 70 historians from nearly 20 states have volunteered. More are welcome to join this promising effort to increase cooperation between K-12 institutions and personnel and higher ed.
Much more needs to be done to educate teachers and students, parents and communities, politicians and the media about the dangers that a culture war poses to education. There should be teach-ins at colleges and universities; concerned citizens should run for their local school boards and participate in curriculum debates. Everyone must speak out against book banning and in defense of local libraries by writing letters to the editor and op-eds. Everyone needs to ask those running for election on every level where they stand on educational gag orders, censorship, and the future of public education.
At issue is not just the defense of this or that book, concept or teacher, vital as that is. The battle is about whether we can maintain a public education system that creates critical and open-minded democratic citizens who can promote equality, respect complexity, and tolerate diversity in their communities.
Molly Nolan is Professor Emerita of History at New York University.