ATHENS, Tenn. — After the McMinn County School Board voted in January to drop “Maus,” a graphic novel about the Holocaust, from its eighth-grade curriculum, the community quickly found itself at the center of a national frenzy over book censorship.
The book rose to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. Its author, Art Spiegelman, compared the board to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and suggested that McMinn officials would rather “teach a nicer Holocaust.” At a recent school board meeting, opponents of the book’s removal spilled into an overflow room.
“It seems like the whole curriculum is developed to normalize sexuality, normalize nudity and normalize offensive language,” said school board member Mike Cochran. “I think we have to review the whole program.”
Such efforts are encouraged statewide, placing Tennessee at the forefront of a nationwide conservative effort to reshape what students learn and read in public schools.
Tennessee proposed law bans textbooks that ‘promote LGBTQ issues or lifestyles’; the one passed in June would ban content that makes someone feel “unwell” because of their race or gender. Another allows partisan school board elections, which critics say will inject cultural grievances into education policy debates. Nashville state lawmakers are considering a ban on “obscene materials” in school libraries as well as a measure requiring school boards to establish procedures for reviewing school library collections. Governor Bill Lee recently announced a partnership with a Christian college to open 50 charter schools designed to educate children to be “informed patriots.”
The combined effect of all this activity has alarmed educators and others in the state who are concerned about academic freedom. “It’s just not one or two people here — there’s a mindset coming from the Governor to ban conversation and segment communities and erase life experiences from classroom discussions,” said Hedy Weinberg, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.
Kailee Isham, a ninth-grade English teacher in McMinn County, said the environment changed her teaching. She is reluctant to bring up topics like racism and socio-economic or LGBTQ issues in her class for fear of being targeted by conservative parents.
‘A lot of my job is trying to figure out what’s going well,’ Ms Isham said, adding: ‘Not being able to talk about the things that I think are really important – not being able to express myself – is a bit frustrating. sometimes when it seems like everyone has no trouble speaking up louder and louder.
McMinn County’s decision to ban “Maus” has been widely interpreted as a rejection or disregard for Holocaust education. The book, which depicts Jews as mice and Nazis as cats while recounting the imprisonment of the author’s father in Auschwitz, has been used in social studies classes across the country since the early 1990s, when it became the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.
But school board members cited narrower concerns: several examples of “inappropriate words” – including “bitch” and “whore” – and an image of a partially nude woman.
“This board is the arbiter of community standards as it relates to the McMinn County schools program,” Scott Bennett, the board’s attorney, said at a board meeting in February. “At the end of the day, it’s this board that has the responsibility to make those decisions.”
The decision to scrap “Maus” began near the start of the current semester with complaints from parents and teachers, according to school board members. The district had recently switched to a new curriculum provider, and this was the first time the book would be awarded.
School staff members were first asked to redact instances of “coarse and objectionable language” as well as the nude image. But the school board decided that was not enough.
Board member Tony Allman noted that “Maus” depicted people being hanged and children being killed. “Why does the education system promote this stuff? ” He asked. “It is neither wise nor healthy.”
Program supervisors championed depictions of violence as central to telling the story of the Holocaust.
“People hung themselves from trees, people committed suicide and people were killed – over six million were murdered,” said Melasawn Knight, a program supervisor, at the January meeting during which the board voted to remove the book from the program.
A board member seemed concerned about the precedent the decision might set. “We could throw away a lot more stuff if we take this position on just a few words,” Rob Shamblin said during the meeting.
Nonetheless, Mr. Shamblin voted with the rest of the 10-person council to remove the book from the program. The following day, the county superintendent of schools informed principals throughout the school system that “all ‘Maus’ books will soon be picked up from your schools.”
Athens, the county seat of McMinn County, is a quiet rural community with an elegant white-columned courthouse, low 19th-century brick buildings, and a reputation as a “friendly city.” The county school system only serves 5,300 students. But in the weeks since the Maus decision was reported by local media, it has become the focus of new political activism, including among students.
Uninvited, boxes of donated copies of the book flooded the local public library. High school students rushed to get copies, passing them between classes.
Emma Stratton, a junior from McMinn County High School, drove with her mother and brother an hour-long drive to Chattanooga to purchase several copies of the graphic novel. “If they take this book away from us, what else are they going to take away from us?” Emma asked, adding, “They’re trying to hide the story from us.”
A discussion about the book held on Zoom by a local church generated so much interest that the church had to turn people away. Two residents announced rare challenges to school board members seeking re-election, with the support of a new group of residents leading the opposition.
The fight against “Maus” is the latest flashpoint in a nationwide wave of conservative challenges to reading materials for young people in school libraries and classrooms. Dozens of bills seeking to ban the teaching of topics labeled as “critical race theory” have been introduced in state legislatures across the country in recent years. Conservative groups have targeted books about race, gender and sexuality, with more than 300 book challenges reported last fall, according to the American Library Association, which called the number “unprecedented.”
In Tennessee, the effort to rethink the materials taught and made available to public school students is being promoted in earnest at the state Capitol, including by the governor, who has framed the issue of parental rights.
“We also need to empower parents to have a candid look at not just how their kids are learning, but what their kids are learning,” Mr. Lee, a Republican, said last month. “The vast majority of parents think they should be allowed to see the books, curriculum and other materials used in the classroom. That’s how I felt about my children, and I stand with those parents today.
Lawmakers drew on bills from other states, policy research by conservative think tanks, and previous bills proposed in Tennessee to assemble a slate of laws aimed at limiting materials and topics. available for students. Pressure has mounted from local chapters of Moms for Liberty, a parent advocacy group active in Tennessee.
“We have a perfect storm of circumstances encouraging lawmakers to address this issue,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
The Republican education overhaul agenda goes even further: In his state of the state address, Mr. Lee proposed establishing a $6 million American Civics Institute at the University of Tennessee as a counterbalance to colleges and universities which he says have become “centers of anti-American thought, leaving our students not only ill-equipped but confused.”
State Sen. Heidi Campbell, a Democrat, is concerned about what she sees as a sweeping effort to erode trust in public education. “It’s been a very effective way to stir up the crowds,” she said, adding, “The whole thing is to create fear about the idea that woke socialists are trying to take over our country. and indoctrinate our children. And ironically, it all serves the purpose of indoctrinating our children.
Even before the “Maus” vote in McMinn County, Ms. Isham, the English teacher, was rethinking her career. She entered the profession because she wanted to help students work through difficult subjects, she said, but with the scrutiny it seems futile. She plans to quit teaching at the end of this semester, after only one year in the classroom. She doesn’t know what will come next.
“We are allowed to say less and less,” Ms Isham said. “Our hands are tied behind our backs at this point.”