Hold High the Children

It’s that crucial scene near the end of The Dead Zone. Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) has just bungled an assassination attempt, the bullet from his rifle missing Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), a ruthless and ambitious presidential candidate. In panic and fear, Stillson wrenches a small child from the grasp of his mother and holds the boy before him as a shield to any other bullet that might follow.

Today, in Texas and elsewhere, children are held aloft by pretentious adults. It’s meant to appear as a protective act, and it is, but it’s not the children that are being protected. In the manner of a cowardly Mr. Stillson, parents and politicians hide behind the amplified fragility of children to shield their own fears and political ambitions.

It’s most evident in the brouhaha that school systems find themselves enmeshed in over the trope of “Critical Race Theory.” There’s an absurdity to the brawl: CRT doesn’t exist where it’s fought over most. “Critical Race Theory” is a graduate-level study course (beyond K-12) that examines the presence and ramifications of institutional racism. That it does exist somewhere is enough for fear mongers to charge its presence in any K-12 book or classroom setting where the expected topic of race or racism might arise. Its phraseology, unfortunately, lends itself to an additional diversionary controversy. Use of the word “theory” is easily misappropriated to imply a minority’s experience is “theoretical” and that its inclusion in the presentation of history or current events will taint the “proven” experience of the larger population.

So, we have parents, educators, and school board members screaming and threatening one another, primarily over the possibility of including a minority’s experience and perspective in history and sociology classes. It’s only just that, the inclusion of a perspective that’s often gone missing. It’s not the introduction of a theory; it’s information; it’s knowledge; it’s data. Providing historical context to classrooms or libraries shouldn’t be cringe-worthy, but the triggered reaction is, “OMG, what are we subjecting our innocent little children to?” Politicians fan the flames and “heroically” propose laws that would prohibit schools from teaching lessons that might make students feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race.

If you’ve ever had children in school, if you’ve ever been a child in school, you know that “psychological distress” is more likely to be experienced on the playground than in the classroom. When you were a child, did you even once feel “guilt” or “anguish” when history lessons touched upon topics like the institution of slavery or the annihilation of Native Americans? Probably not; in our young minds it was only “history” and it all happened like a million years ago. Anguish may have been experienced in our attempts to fit-in or to socialize with classmates, but do you recall ever feeling angst through exposure to a history book or a current event lesson? Books and lectures were either somewhat interesting or totally boring and held about as much threat to the psyche as did the description of a dangling participle. Those (it’s primarily white parents and politicians) who allege their fragile white children will be traumatized by classroom discussions of racial issues are either disingenuous or have forgotten how little they personalized their own exposure to history or sociology lessons as children.

It’s not about the children, it’s the grown-ups, and it’s as much political as parental. Holding children aloft is a red herring, an attempt to draw attention away from the angst felt by parents and projecting it upon the children. The angst stems from fear of a challenge to comfortably held mindsets, fear that a child will learn a reality at school that challenges the accepted reality at home. Politicians seize the opportunity, stoke smoldering fears into raging flame, and everyone pretends it’s all about saving the children.

By holding their children aloft, agitated conservatives have gained control of the school board in Southlake, Texas. In early November, Andrew Yeager became the third board member supported by Southlake Families PAC, a group formed by local Republican leaders. The PAC describes itself as “unapologetically rooted in Judeo-Christian values.” Texas State Rep. Matt Krause, an ally of the PAC, recently proposed a list of 850 books to ban from school libraries. He also directed districts to identify any other books that could make students feel guilt or anguish because of their race or sex. Thus far, the Judeo-Christian Bible does not appear on the list of dangerous books. Why not? What could be more distressful to children than learning some of their best friends and perhaps a few relatives will be condemned to an eternity of pain and suffering in Hell? What book could possibly bring more anguish to the mind of an impressionable child? It certainly wouldn’t be a publication like “What is White Privilege” or any of the other 850 books deemed threatening to the comfort level of young children.

It could be held that public schools are secular and the Bible wouldn’t be found in their libraries whether banned or not. That may be true, but the children are being held aloft by a PAC that is “unapologetically rooted in Judeo-Christian values.” Is it possible to be rooted in Christian values and not have a Bible at home? Assuming its fixture in the home (and that it’s read), why would parents be so concerned with the presence of a book in school that might cause a child’s discomfort, but have no concern with the presence of a book at home that’s sure to cause anguish (if it’s read)? The answer of course, is that the discomfort of children is not really the issue; it’s the discomfort of adults.

That the discomfort’s initial focus was on “critical race theory” is an indication of parental reluctance to disturb comfortably held sentiments on issues of race. The initial focus has expanded, but the same can be said for parental/PAC reluctance to have LGBTQ issues addressed in classroom settings. As with CRT, it’s not concern for what the children might feel; it’s concern for what the children might learn, and what the children might learn might make the parents feel challenged, and if the parents feel challenged, they might feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress.” Yes, it is about the fragility of vulnerable minds, but it’s the brittle minds of adults that feel threatened.

Making it appear to be about the children allows parents, politicians, and a PAC rooted in Judeo-Christian values to hide their fear and ambition behind the pretense of a noble cause: It’s all about the children. Sure it is, Mr. Stillson; hold high the children; hold high the cross.