Written by Deborah Fillman
The Difference a Cultural Revolution Makes
Throughout our history, there have been people putting books in public schools that pushed boundaries and challenged the status quo. Likewise, there have always been parents using their freedom of speech to challenge the presence of those books.
Challenges usually work like this: one side insists freedom of speech includes a right to access speech in the form of books and other printed and visual materials, while the other side insists the setting, and captive audience of minor children in a school, necessitate reasonable restrictions on the content of those materials. Eventually, either they reach a compromise, or one side concedes to the other, and the matter is resolved until the next challenge.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
So book challenges in and of themselves, and the pushback they face, are nothing new. What’s new is the degree of distance between the two sides, especially where the word “reasonable” is concerned. In the past, even people who disagreed politically shared the same basic definition of “age-appropriate” and “pornographic.” No matter how you voted, you didn’t have to wonder whether your child’s middle school teacher thought it was “reasonable” to give your 11 year-old easy access to a book about how to have gay sex, including instructions for using an app on their phone to find adult strangers with whom to have it.
The difference today is, we are in the middle of a cultural revolution. It’s not just that the definitions of “age-inappropriate” and “pornographic” are changing either; the definition of “reasonable” is a moving target too. That’s why today, what seemed unthinkable in a public school classroom just a couple of years ago, can now be described with a straight face as helping to foster “Open and honest conversations,” that “can open doors, create acceptance, and save lives.”
Cultural Revolutions, as grassroots as they pretend to be, rarely are. Therefore, it should be no surprise that today’s book challenges are facing stronger pushback, from well-organized, well-funded groups far away from our individual school buildings. The people defending challenge books today aren’t interested in working with parents to find solutions. Revolutionaries don’t compromise. They fight until the battle is won or lost.
What does that mean for parents who want to challenge books at their kids’ schools?
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
―Sun Tzu,The Art of War
We know ourselves already, and that has delivered a few victories, but until we fully understand the enemy, we can never win.
Rather than debate whether schools have the authority to do what they’re doing, we should focus instead on why they’re so intent on getting and keeping these books in front of our kids in the first place.
The “Critical” Common-Denominator
In my opinion, the literary value of many, if not most of the books we’ve identified as “inappropriate” is nil. They’re not particularly well-written, rely heavily on stereotyping to fit their narratives, and their characters are one-dimensional, and often disconnected from reality, even those depicted in realistic, historical or contemporary settings.
I agree with book challengers that many of these books are age-inappropriate based on what we’ve known for decades about cognitive and emotional development, and I agree many of these books are objectively pornographic. The trouble is, many teachers also agree, they just don’t care. They’re fighting a war, and these books are weapons in their arsenal, so the ends justify the means.
How are they “weapons?” The vast majority of challenge books either directly promote narratives and ideas grounded in “critical theories,” or contain narratives and ideas that can easily be adapted to teach these theories. Critical theories include: critical race theory, gender theory, and queer theory.
For example, a book like Jacob’s New Dress explicitly promotes gender theory, whereas The Story of Ruby Bridges — on its face just a harmless biography of a black historical figure — can easily be taught as part of a critical race theory (anti-racist) curriculum.
A critical theorist using Ruby Bridges would not teach the book purely as an historical account of the Civil Rights Movement, but as evidence that America, and white people in general, are inherently racist, even the white children listening to the story in the classroom.
So before we challenge books, we need to fully understand whether the book is itself inappropriate, or is being used inappropriately. To do that, we must first understand the definition of “critical theory:”
Critical Theory has a narrow and a broad meaning in philosophy and in the history of the social sciences. “Critical Theory” in the narrow sense designates several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. According to these theorists, a “critical” theory may be distinguished from a “traditional” theory according to a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human “emancipation from slavery”, acts as a “liberating … influence”, and works “to create a world which satisfies the needs and powers of” human beings (Horkheimer 1972b [1992, 246]).
For the purposes of this article, I will stick to gender and queer theory for two reasons:
1. most book challenges relate to “inappropriate” books about gender and sexuality;
2. these critical theories have the greatest potential to physically and emotionally scar children for life.
That said, you can infer that books about race, even some that would otherwise be perfectly appropriate, will be used inappropriately by teachers who are critical theorists.
Freirean Educators and Generative Themes
Most of the books we call “inappropriate” are perfectly appropriate, even ideally-suited to teaching methods grounded in critical theories. Also known as “critical pedagogy,” these methods are the norm rather than the exception in American schools.
Dr. James Lindsay calls these educators “Freirean” after the educational theorist and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire because
- most “educators” today have probably read at least portions of Freire’s work, because it is the foundational text used in American education colleges and graduate programs;
- Paulo Freire said the following (emphasis mine):
There’s no such thing as neutral education.
The educator has the duty of not being neutral.”
— Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Incidentally (and ironically), the last book “banned” in America, for reasons unrelated to national security or copyright law, was Freire’s book, in Tucson, Arizona, in 1968.
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Getting back to “Freirean” educators, Dr. Lindsay explains how they create and use “generative themes” (emphasis mine):
A generative theme is a theme in the learners’ lives to be discovered by a Freirean educator through dialogue (or, in the twenty-first century, direct device-enabled data mining). The goal is to find seventeen (for whatever reason) themes that have emotional, social, and political relevance to the structural injustices experienced by the learners in their everyday lives. These themes will be fed back to the “learners” by the “educators as facilitators” to increase their interest in learning.
The key in the Freirean approach is that the generative themes meet two primary criteria. They must match the actual contexts of the lives of the learners, and they must be emotionally engaging on politically relevant topics. Of course, “engaging” here is a euphemism. The themes are carefully selected entry points for radicalization. They are points of soreness or inflammation by which “learners” can be radicalized by their “facilitators” into a Marxist view of those very inflaming conditions that were drawn out of them through the dialogical approach in the first place. Proceeding with academic teaching from generative themes therefore constitutes the first big step in the Freirean theft of education.
“Inappropriate books” thus serve as a catalyst to “engage” the students; they are meant to serve as “points of soreness or inflammation” by which their Freirean “facilitators” can radicalize them.
Friend or Foe: Finding the Freireans
Does this mean every teacher and librarian is consciously trying to radicalize our kids? No, but does it matter if the net result is that our children end up radicalized? Do “good intentions” matter much if lessons result in our children believing we and our values are “oppressive,” and they should trust strangers more than they trust us?
Most of these Friereans probably don’t fully understand why they believe what they believe any more than their students will. That’s how the Freirean model works; it inflames the emotions, and fools the student into believing they have “learned” something, when in fact they have merely been manipulated into feeling the set of emotions most likely to incite them to act against for or against a specific set of people or ideas.
First, let’s take a look at what a Freirean educator sounds like. As you can see, they work hard to avoid presenting students with any opposing viewpoints. They also cleverly reframe what they’re trying to do as an effort to “protect” the students.
A prime example can be found in the following conversation about how librarians can justify excluding conservative Matt Walsh’s book, Johnny the Walrus:
They admit to using their discretionary authority to collect “progressive” books, which is just a re-framing of the more accurate, but also more obviously censorious “avoiding collecting conservative books.”
Then the first librarian frames non-progressive points of view as “hate” speech, and analogizes Johnny the Walrus to a book about “how to commit hate crimes and get away with it.”
This is a conversation between Freireans. These two women behave as if they and only they can keep the students safe, or liberate them from the “oppression” of ideas with which they disagree, which are defined as “hateful” without challenge.
The Freirean Weapon of Choice:
The problem for Freireans who want to use gender theory as a generative theme is the vast majority of children don’t start Kindergarten feeling “oppressed”by gender norms. Why would they? The vast majority of human beings “identify” as their biological sex, and always have.
Whether Freireans are aware of this fact or not, they reject it when they teach the idea that sex is “assigned at birth,” rather than observed, but their students don’t arrive at school genderless, nor are most of their parents gender theorists. As a consequence, the Freirean’s first objective is to teach lessons that will make gender theory “match the actual context” of their students’ lives.
To accomplish this, Freireans introduce gender lessons early, and repeat them often, before the child accepts the reality of their biological sex. They use “age inappropriate” materials to confuse the children, and cast doubt on the accuracy of their own self-perception, and the truthfulness of their parents.
Freireans consciously and conspicuously use terms like “assigned at birth,” even with very young students who don’t understand concepts like “assigned,” never mind “gender,” and ask questions like “what are your pronouns?” Such questions make no sense whatsoever except within the context of gender theory, which asserts that gender is a social construct, not an observable, biological fact. They also make no sense to a pre-literate, pre-rational child. Children under the age of ten typically can’t understand something as abstract as a “social construct” either.
So the lessons, never mind the materials, are “age-inappropriate.” Tragically, that’s the point. The younger the child, the less capable they are of thinking abstractly, the easier it is to indoctrinate them into simply “believing,” and the less grounded they are in the reality of their own sex. Now add the tendency of young children to engage in magical thinking, like believing in Santa or the Tooth Fairy, and you have the ideal conditions for Freirean gender theorists, and have created a generative theme.
In the elementary grades, if a teacher tells students they can be whatever “gender” they want to be, and provides them a litany of options, especially using colorful, fun, picture books, posters, and flags, the students are likely to become curious, and ask lots of follow-up questions.
Most young children probably do end up at least a little confused by these lessons, but for most, the confusion will subside. However, there will always be some (perhaps many) who are primed to interpret their confusion as a sign they are “trans” or “queer.”
Helpful Freirean educators can now step in and encourage all the students to support their newly-identified trans and queer peers, and can make clear if they don’t, they are “oppressing” them, which is wrong, shameful, and generally socially unacceptable.
In a Freirean classroom, there is no middle-ground where a student could safely say “No thanks, I disagree that this is how gender works,” and that’s if they are old enough, and cognitively capable of doing the kind of analytical thinking required to question the theme in the first place.
As long as students are emotionally “engaged” through peer relationships and social shame, or gender theory matches the “actual context” of their individual lives, it is serving its intended purpose as a “generative theme.”
The Generative Theme in Action
To better understand what life is like for our kids in the care of their Freirean “facilitators,” let’s imagine ourselves inside the Freirean classroom. Though hypothetical, the following scenario closely aligns with lesson plans I’ve read, and stories parents have told me:
- The Freirean introduces a book about a trans child, telling students that gender is “assigned” at birth;
- Students are shocked to learn their parents may have been wrong all this time about them;
- The Freirean says only the children can identify their own gender, and they cannot get it wrong;
- The Freirean says children who self-identify as something other than their “sex assigned at birth” are “oppressed,” “marginalized,” “at-risk,” “in need of allies,” etc;
- Some students self-identify as “trans,” “non-binary,” “queer,” or something other than their biological sex; those who don’t are labeled by the Freirean as “cis;”
- The Freirean says “cis” is the “dominant” gender identity because people have not been “liberated” to self-identify their gender until recently, and if they had been, more people would not be “cis.” Some Freireans go so far as to say they’ve helped their students “figure out” they’re queer, others claim gender identity that matches biological sex was invented for the sole purpose of oppressing, because everyone is really “queer;”
- Students who do not identify as “queer” or “trans” are suddenly part of the “normative” group, which is presumed “oppressive” to those who are not;
- The Freirean explains how important it is for the “cis” kids to be good allies to the “queer” and “trans” kids;
- One way to be a good “ally” is to participate in “LGBTQIA+ action” or protests;”
- Students become activists, in many cases at odds with their parents, in all cases at odds with societal and cultural norms, and firmly on the side of a very specific political “tribe” or agenda.
At no point in the above process will a Freirean invite, or allow dissent. They won’t read Matt Walsh’s Johnny the Walrus for comparison, nor will they prominently display it alongside Jacob’s New Dress, not even for “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” points.
As Paulo Freire instructed, Freireans will not be neutral. If one of them tells you they teach ““critical thinking” remember they are Freireans. To them, that term means “use your mind to interrogate, and deconstruct the status quo.”
The goal is liberation, the status quo is oppressive, and “learning” is synonymous with activism. Never forget that generative themes are designed to radicalize students to fight perceived “injustice.” Where gender and queer theories are concerned, social and cultural norms are “unjust” because they allegedly “oppress” queer and trans people.
Simply put, the end-game for the Freirean educators who proliferate, promote, and defend “inappropriate” and pornographic books is no less than the deconstruction of our culture and norms, for the purpose of achieving their version of “social justice.”
Generative Themes Justify Ideological Grooming
Most parents aren’t prudes, nor are we overly concerned about our kids accidentally happening upon material we’d rather they didn’t read without our supervision. We’ve taught them our values, and we did so knowing full well we won’t always be there when they encounter inappropriate or harmful ideas. We gave them information we thought they’d need to make good choices, and we hoped they’d trust us enough to come to us with questions.
Most parents instinctively understand there’s a major difference between our kids discovering something inappropriate, even pornographic, on their own, and having adults encouraging them to consume these materials. We were kids once. We can easily imagine how much creepier it would be learning about gender and sexuality during Drag Queen Story Hour, rather than reading about these topics privately, at home. We can even imagine how nice it would be not learning about this subject at school, because we didn’t have to.
There’s a massive difference between a child reading something privately, and reading it for a class assignment. In the latter case, it’s harder to avoid messaging about what the reader should think and feel about the material, and what it means about them as a person if they don’t.
So when we parents recoil at the promotion of books like This Book is Gay, Lawn Boy, and Gender Queer, it’s not just because the material in them is “adult,” it’s because we know the teachers who assign and promote them are celebrating those who agree with the ideas they contain, and shunning those who disagree. This implicit shunning is part of the ideological grooming process.
What really activates our parental outrage is our belief that the adults promoting these materials don’t have our kids’ best interests at heart, and are using them to further an agenda. We don’t need PhDs to understand that the sudden proliferation of books about “gender identity” in schools and libraries has nothing to do with teaching our children to love and accept who they are! In fact we know the opposite is true.
The ideological groomer seeks to separate their target from anyone who might challenge their motives, narratives, or objectives. They use generative themes about gender and sexuality to create confusion, doubt, and mistrust, especially of parents as a source of truth, love and support.
“Just think,” (they want our kids to say) “if our parents couldn’t get the most fundamental thing about us right — our gender — how can they really understand us at all?”
Freirean educators are handy with an answer: “They can’t,” followed by grandiose claims that they, and only they, are trustworthy, and understanding. This kind of love-bombing is textbook manipulation, and grooming behavior. We parents know it, and we’re not having it.
That’s why we don’t buy it when Freirean educators respond to our book challenges with statements like “We have to address these topics because children are asking questions about them,” or “We are just exposing children to the real world; you want to shelter them from reality,” and the perennial favorite, “Parents who won’t allow children the freedom to learn about gender are abusive.”
We know they’re projecting, and we know they are the ones generating the questions that fit the answers they want to give. They are the ones hiding reality from our kids, and they are the ones who refuse to be “neutral” in their teaching because they know their ideas can’t hold up under scrutiny. Ultimately, they are the ones abusing our children.
Fighting the Freireans
The key to fighting Freirean educators and their ideological grooming is to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Now you know why they choose inappropriate books and materials: to make students emotionally uncomfortable and at odds with you, so they’ll ask a lot of questions, and give educators opportunities to give the answers they want to give.
That means you should be careful to avoid fighting them in ways that create more opportunities for students to feel emotionally uncomfortable, or to ask the Freireans further questions.
Take reading pornographic books aloud at a school board meetings: making other adults uncomfortable does do a great job of making clueless board members and parents aware that there is porn in the school, but at what cost? Yes, some adults will be uncomfortable, and be as eager to get these books out of the schools as you are, but Freireans, for all their faux outrage, are thrilled.
- You are debasing yourself by reading what you have called pornographic literature aloud; either it is depraved, in which case you’re being depraved by reading it aloud in public, or it isn’t really, and the proof is you’re willing to read it in public;
- Your kids, and other people’s kids are watching and listening; they’re thinking the same: is it really bad, and if so, why is mom reading it out loud, where I and all my friends can hear her, if not live, then later, on YouTube or TV news?
- Freireans, and their supporters in the media and politics can leverage what you’ve done as further evidence of the “oppression” they claim LGBTQIA+ people face in their daily lives. They will harness your outrage, no matter how justified, and use it as another excuse to use these materials in defense of your child and their peers (doubling-down on parental alienation in the process).
- Even when parents score a win, and get some books removed, the Streisand effect kicks in all by itself; students are more aware of the book than they were before the challenge reading, and are more inclined than ever to seek it out privately, when they might not otherwise have done so. Their Freirean teachers will be more than happy to provide them with copies from their private libraries as well.
- For every book removed, authors are busy writing new titles, forcing parents to play an exhausting game of “Whack-a-Mole,” and creating even more opportunities for Freireans to “generate” gender and sexuality-based discussions in the classroom.
No matter how you slice it, it comes up Paulo. As long as there’s conflict, Freireans will call it “status quo oppression.” As long as they call it that, students will ask how to fight it. As long as they ask, Freireans will tell them to blame you and their normative peers for making it essential to teach critical theory-based lessons. As long as they teach this way, they will succeed in radicalizing many, if not most of the students, and undermining the learning of truth, justice, and what we once called “the American Way.”
What should you do instead, or at least differently? First, don’t hear me saying “give up,” because that is the last thing you should do! Now that you understand the war they’re waging, and how it works, double-down, and fight harder, but more strategically.
Before your children attend school:
- Discuss gender, sex and sexuality earlier than you’d planned, and reenforce reality, and the importance of going through puberty to be whole and healthy.
- Clearly explain what your values around sex and personal boundaries are, and why you hold them, and why you want your kids to do the same.
- Tell your children what topics they should and should not discuss with strangers, and include ALL school staff in the category of “stranger.” Make sure they know to come to you immediately if the teacher asks them personal questions of any kind; let them know they will never get in trouble for refusing to answer or participate in any lesson about anything that makes them personally uncomfortable.
- Find as many books and materials that counter the critical theories as you possibly can, and try to donate them to the school in some formal way; make clear at a school board meeting you are pursuing “diversity, equity and inclusion,” and want your minority point of view included. If they push back, don’t take no for an answer, demand to know why. If they still refuse, ask why the comfort of some matters more than the comfort of others. Insist on clear, unequivocal, definitions of terms like “bigoted,” “racist,” “harmful,” “threatening,” and “marginalizing.”
- Make clear you are concerned about bigotry, racism, harm, threat, and marginalization of kids who disagree with the theories and themes being presented. Use terms like “empathy” and “compassion” a lot so when they say no, they will sound harsh, cold, and like the flaming hypocrites they are.
- Make sure this is all on the record. Now when your kids and their peers hear about your time at the mic, they’ll start to wonder why the school wouldn’t let other ideas in, and why they’re so sure they’re right? Go ahead and ask them too: “How do you know you’re right?” and ”What if you’re wrong?”
- Continue to push for legislation protecting children from these materials, but try leveraging regulations already in place for what appears on the school’s computers. If there are rules at the local level against them watching Internet porn, or accessing adult sites, or even adult Google searches, ask legislators to pass a law prohibiting these “educators” from using the same category of “sensitive” materials in their offline teaching as well.
- If there are already laws on the books in your state defining pornographic or sensitive materials, themes or performances, ask legislators to pass a law mandating that schools filter materials, including public speakers and guests (e.g., Drag Queens) through an evaluation process based on them. Use Utah’s sensitive materials law as a guide. The policy isn’t foolproof, but schools will not be able to ignore parent complaints if there is one.
The key is to behave in such a way that the Freireans can’t leverage your actions as another weapon against you and your kids. Reading porn aloud at a school board meeting definitely activates a lot of parents, but it likely embarrasses and further confuses children, and yes, they are watching. Even when you think they’re unaware of what you’re doing at the board meetings, Freireans will make them aware in class, through generative conversations, or retaliatory bullying.
REMEMBER: Freireans do not have your child’s best interests at heart! Give them a reason to psychologically or emotionally bully your child, and they will use it, gladly. They are not neutral. They see themselves as “liberators,” and parents and students who disagree as “oppressors.” They are not “teachers,” they are revolutionaries. This is a war, and they’re in it to win it.