Florida Bans More than Just Science

The science parts are bad enough. Since 2017, Florida has passed and proposed laws to restrict and confuse the teaching of science. The latest attempt came this week. These laws, though, hit a bigger target. By banning “pornography” they mark a signal conservative victory in long-simmering educational culture wars.

Here’s what we know: According to the National Center for Science Education and EdWeek, this batch of bills and laws takes the sting out of evolution education for religious conservatives. As Glenn Branch of NCSE explained,

The bill would revise a statute that presently requires instructional materials to be “accurate, objective, balanced, noninflammatory, current, [and] free of pornography” to require such materials to be “accurate and factual; provide objective, balanced, and noninflammatory viewpoints on controversial issues; [and] free of pornography.”

The target of these changes seems to be the teaching of evolution and global warming. As one affidavit submitted in 2017 complained,

I have witnessed students being taught evolution as fact … rather than theory … I have witnessed children being taught that Global Warming is a reality.

These laws and bills intend to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Or at least to make sure that conservatives and science skeptics could clamp down on it whenever they wanted. Moreover, the bills and laws would open up the curriculum to any interested parties, not just parents of school-age children. As one critic noted,

It essentially gives special interest groups . . .  immense power to bully school boards into submission.

To this reporter, there doesn’t seem to be any doubt of the tendency of these bills in the science classroom. But evolution and climate change are not the only targets. I’m sure SAGLRROILYBYGTH noticed the odd language quoted above. Not only would these bills promote “balanced” teaching of mainstream science and dissenting religious/conservative “science,” they would also ban “pornography.”

Sound non-controversial? Sound like plain ol-fashioned common sense? Not so fast.

Throughout the twentieth century, as I noted in The Other School Reformers, conservatives accused progressives of cramming “pornography” down their kids’ throats. Some of it was in sex-ed classes, but even more of it came with the teaching of literature and history.

Consider, for example, the 1960s controversy over a California history textbook. Conservative critics blasted The Land of the Free for a host of reasons, as Prof. Elaine Lewinnek noted. The new textbook was supposed to tell a more inclusive history, one that included more than just the story of White Christian America.

land of the free

Full of porn…?

Not surprisingly, many conservatives objected. They thought the book denigrated American traditions, insulted American heroes, and that the book, in Prof. Lewinnek’s words,

included pornography that had somehow influenced the Free Speech demonstrations at Berkeley in 1964.

The California critics weren’t alone. In Kanahwa County, West Virginia, the 1974-75 textbook controversy was riddled with charges of pornography. Conservatives blasted a new series of literature textbooks as playgrounds for promoting drug abuse, reverse racism, and, you guessed it, pornography. As one leading conservative activist wrote at the time,

there is very little in the books that is inspiring or uplifting; they attack the social values that make up civilization.  Repeatedly they pit black against white accentuating their differences and, thereby, stirring up racial animosity.  They dwell at length on the sexual aspects of human relationships in such an explicit way as to encourage promiscuity.

The conservative charges of “pornography” were so ubiquitous, in fact, that one progressive parent group tried to rebut them with a starkly printed flyer. On one side, the flyer read,

These textbooks are NOT anti-religious !!! NOT unpatriotic !!! NOT pornographic !!!

In the 1980s, too, conservative parents accused schoolbooks in Hawkins County, Tennessee of choosing pornographic books for their children. One of their complaints was about Up in Seth’s Room, a novel that dealt frankly with issues of teen sex and dating.

up in seths room

Do YOU know it when you see it?

Was it “pornographic?” Was it good literature? These are famously difficult questions to unravel, but the current batch of Florida bills and laws wants to tip the scales heavily in favor of deeply conservative interpretations. They hope to discourage any school-district personnel from selecting literature that any parent might consider risqué. As a bill filed last month specifies,

any person who purchases a textbook, novel, or material that is pornographic or prohibited under s. 847.012 with the intent to expose students to such material commits a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084. Every textbook, novel, or material purchased shall constitute a separate offense and is punishable as such.

What does that mean? First of all, the language makes clear that this bill is targeting more than just science education. It is meant to strike terror into any superintendent’s heart. If a superintendent buys a district any novel or literature textbook that conservatives consider pornographic—and remember, conservatives consider a lot of mainstream selections pornographic—he or she can be charged with a felony FOR EVERY SEPARATE COPY PURCHASED.

A classroom set of twenty-five copies of Up in Seth’s Room? Twenty-five counts of a third-degree felony.

Make no mistake: This certainly is a fight about science education. But it is also about much more than that. Florida’s bills and laws hope to give conservative activist groups the right to dictate the books and textbooks in ALL of Florida’s classes, weeding out anything that conservatives consider questionable.

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  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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