Curriculum regulations and book bans: Modern day anti-literacy laws?
Katherine Kapustka is an Associate Professor of Education at DePaul University, the co-author of Integrating Social and Emotional Learning with Content: Using Picture Books for Differentiated Teaching in K-3 Classrooms, and a Public Voices Fellow at The OpEd Project.
“No person shall keep or teach any school for the instruction of negroes or mulattos, in reading or writing, in this State.” This quote from Missouri’s 1847 anti-literacy law is a stark reminder that in the 19th century, like today, education was a powerful tool wielded by people in power.
Missouri, like other slave states, passed anti-literacy laws, making it a crime for enslaved people or people of color to learn to read or write, or for anyone to teach them these skills. The reasoning was clear; an enslaved person who knew how to read could envision a life outside of slavery, and one who knew how to write could forge passes needed to travel north to freedom.
Education, as they knew, was empowering.
This troubling period in our history is rearing its ugly head again. Four days before the nation paused to commemorate the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida sent a letter to the College Board, the non-profit organization that oversees both the Advanced Placement (AP) Program and the SAT, explaining that a new AP African American Studies course would not be allowed in Florida.
Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter
This course that is piloted in 60 high schools throughout the nation for use beginning in 2024, uses an interdisciplinary framework to guide students as they “explore the vital contributions and experiences of African Americans.”
This denial comes at the same time that “1619,” the project spearheaded by Nikole Hannah-Jones on the legacy of slavery in the United States, is streaming on television.
While DeSantis’s rejection is not surprising given his signature on the 2022 Stop W.O.K.E. (Wrongs to Kids and Employees) Act, it is essential to consider what King might have expressed about this turn of events.
Writing in his college newspaper in 1947, King asserted: “The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” Interestingly, King wrote that sentence when he was 18, not much older than the high school students who would enroll in the AP African American Studies course.
What began as “Negro History Week” in 1926, 50 years later was first recognized as Black History Month by President Gerald Ford. In 1986, Congress passed Public Law 99-244, which designated February 1986 as "National Black (Afro-American) History Month” and that same month, President Ronald Regan issued a proclamation stating that this month “not only offers black Americans an occasion to explore their heritage, but it also offers all Americans an occasion and opportunity to gain a fuller perspective of the contributions of black Americans to our Nation.”
Presidents Ford and Reagan, both Republicans, were not what some critics claim are stereotypical “woke liberals.” They knew that everyone would benefit from understanding the history, experiences, and contributions of African Americans in the United States.
What has shifted in the minds of Americans that a course in African American studies becomes too problematic for the almost 900,000 high school students in Florida to take and when 427 books for children of all ages with protagonists of color, including King, are found on lists of banned books?
Fear is once again at the heart of the current anti-literacy agenda. While no one is denying people of color the right to learn to read or write, they are being denied a comprehensive education, and along with the detrimental effects on students of color when they do not see themselves reflected in the curriculum, white students are also denied an opportunity to learn the true and complex history of the United States.
The fear this time is about a changing country, and the role of the majority culture as the percentage of white people in the United States shrinks each year. These bans, like the anti-literacy laws during the time of slavery, are an attempt to maintain a status quo that is beneficial to the current majority population.
King stated he wanted schools to teach students to “think intensively and to think critically.” As the United States becomes increasingly polarized, this is needed more than ever, both in schools, and outside of them. In schools, students should be exposed to diverse perspectives and individuals.
And when a course, curriculum, or book is banned, restricted, or otherwise called out for its agenda, adults who care about the future of this country should read it, consider it, and identify what is being kept hidden.
Perhaps, again, fear will be at the heart of an anti-literacy movement: a fear of an educated populace that can think critically and question the status quo.
Policy makers, historians, educators, administrators, students, citizens, and anyone interested in the integrity of history must not allow for a repeat of this unjust history.