I first read George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” while in high school almost a decade past its titular date.
At that time, it didn’t seem to be a prediction. It seemed to be a description of life in the Soviet Union.
I never would have guessed that it could be a warning of what the public school system could become in this country if Republican lawmakers have their way.
Far right legislators have proposed bans on so-called Critical Race Theory in at least 20 states that would muzzle classroom teachers from discussing racism and other “controversial” and “divisive” topics or risk being disciplined, fired or facing other legal consequences if they don’t obey.
It is an attempt to legislate history.
These lawmakers are working to control information and let politics – not facts – be the guiding principle of what gets accepted in our chronicle of the past.
Those of us who’ve read “1984” have seen this before.
The text is set in Oceania, a state where the government controls the media, education and even people’s thoughts.
The main character, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth where he rewrites history to match the party line – whatever it is this week.
For example, at a “Hate Week” demonstration near the beginning of the story, people are gathered to cheer their country’s alliance with Eastasia. However, when the speaker abruptly declares that Eastasia is the enemy, people quickly crumple up their banners and acknowledge that Eastasia was always the enemy and they must have been mistaken to think otherwise.
The prospective ban on Critical Race Theory is strikingly similar.
Politicos are trying to erase the United States’ troubled history of systemic racism, gas light any discussion of its current existence and otherwise stifle and control any topic that goes against their party line.
It’s a policy enshrined in page after page of the most famous description of totalitarianism in modern literature.
Let’s take a closer look at some key passages.
‘”There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”‘
Central to the book is a belief in objective truth.
No matter what we think or say, there are facts out there in the world.
For example, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, millions of people were kidnapped from Africa, forced into slavery in the American colonies and exploited in the production of tobacco and cotton. Any denial of that fact, any minimization of the degree of dehumanization in it, is a rejection of reality.
Sanity is our adherence to that reality. Psychological well being is the attempt to bring our thoughts and ideas about what was and what is in line with these facts.
Moreover, doing so is the definition of freedom, itself.
“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”
If we take away an individual’s right to try and square the reality of the world with their internal ideas about it, we take away all of their freedoms.
One must come to an understanding of the world. It cannot be handed down. It must be the result of observation and understanding.
In short, it is a product of education. We’re taught the facts, but it is up to us to make sense of them.
If the facts are obscured from us or if they are misrepresented, our freedom is impinged.
“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present…”
In direct opposition to the idea of objective truth is the mutability of history.
To some extent it is completely natural. Over time we come to new understandings. We discover things that had been accepted as facts were misunderstood.
For example, it was long accepted as true that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Now we realize that not only wasn’t he the first European to come to these shores, the idea that he “discovered” anything is incoherent. You can’t “discover” lands where people are already living. More over, given the details of pillage, rape and violence in his own journals, Columbus’ accomplishment should be viewed in far less positive terms than it has been up to this point.
Ideas change and we must keep up with that changing understanding.
However, the danger is when that change is NOT the result of new information or recontextualizing what we already knew. It’s when we allow history to be dictated by politics.
“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'”
This idea is essential to the work Winston does at the Ministry of Truth. By rewriting the events of the past and controlling the narrative of history, the Party maintains its authority.
This is the goal of the proposed bans on Critical Race Theory. One political party is attempting to stop the freedom of history based on facts and replace it with history based on whatever is in the best interests of that party maintaining power.
Whitewashing the history of slavery as less exploitative and more mutually beneficial to both the white owners and black enslaved peoples helps to reduce the impetus to contemporary reform in the systems of racism maintained in this country since our failed Reconstruction. Likewise, representing Columbus as a hero and adventurer instead of a murderer and tyrant helps justify similar actions today.
Or as Orwell puts it:
‘”The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware they are oppressed.”‘
Much of the book is focused on how fascist regimes control thought. And primarily this is done through education and the media.
“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
That’s a kind of education. Replacing what is known with whatever the Party wants to be known.
“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”
If you don’t have the words to express an idea, it’s incredibly difficult to have that idea. We do, after all, think in language.
For example, the definition of “Racism” has shifted over time to mean more than just prejudice or discrimination against a person or people based on their race or ethnicity.
It is now more commonly understood as prejudice plus power – racial prejudice, AND social power to codify and enforce this prejudice into an entire society.
This is what is meant by Systemic Racism, a concept at the core of this fight. Much of the battle against Critical Race Theory is really an attempt to stop this concept of racism from becoming widespread and codified through our school system.
It is an attempt to keep the original definition of racism, to stop people from seeing systemic racism by refusing to accept its reality through control over speech.
Yet the movement, itself, is based on redefinitions and insinuations.
Critical Race Theory is not a concept taught at public schools. It’s a decades old legal framework. It’s about how laws function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities.
It’s as much a part of K-12 public schools curriculum as torts, contract law or civil forfeiture. Which is to say, not at all.
However, the GOP is using it because they think it sounds scary. It’s a self-created boogeyman to incite the Republican base against a nebulous and ever changing idea of what they take to be liberal indoctrination.
As Orwell wrote:
‘”It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”‘
And that’s what we have here. The destruction of words, the destruction of Critical Race Theory from its actual meaning into a trigger point.
It is about insinuation instead of talking about Republican grievances of what this so-called liberal indoctrination is head on. Because if they were to discuss the issue openly, it could never be proven. However, to imply, to hint, to whisper avoids the ability to disprove.
It is Newspeak, the fictional language of Oceania where simplified grammar and restricted vocabulary limit the individual’s ability to think and even articulate certain facts or concepts.
PURPOSE OF EDUCATION
But what is the difference between what Republicans are doing with these bans and the naturally evolving course of history? If education is the process of forming an individual’s ideas and thoughts, how is any of it ever free?
Consider this. Orwell describes the goal of education in Oceania:
‘”Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”‘
That is not the goal of our current education system.
We do not want students to be handed down information and simply accept it even if it doesn’t make sense.
Teachers strive to get their students to interact with information, to look at it critically.
And that is the important point – CRITICALLY.
At some point even in Oceania, everyone comes across different ideas, concepts that you may not have considered before or may have actively rejected.
What do you do when this happens?
Winston is expected to believe what the Party tells him to believe. And even in the USA we often act as if being confronted with this reality is the worst case scenario for students. It is the end of the world if they are confronted with a different point of view.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
It is essential that they be confronted with opposing views so that they can think critically.
That is the purpose of education.
Not to tell students what to think, but to give them the tools to think.
It is up to each and every student to come to their own conclusions.
Educators should give them the facts and even expose them to varying concepts about the facts.
But it is up to the individual student what to do with them.
This makes some parents and politicians uneasy because it treats students as human beings with freedom of choice.
Such freedom is not allowed in Oceania, and if Republicans have their way, it will not be allowed here, either.
We must preserve academic freedom for both students and their teachers.
It is absolutely essential.
Otherwise Orwell’s book will be less a warning than a guide.
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