Pleasantville. A movie I just absolutely adore. It was released back in 1998 and, slowly but surely, creeped upon my cinematic pallet. There’s not a lot of action or suspense. It’s not the typical adventure/sci-fi I go after, but more of a family-friendly type with several pointed allegories to our culture and society. It’s about these kids that get stuck in a black and white television show where everything is the idealized 1950s version of “pleasant”. And over the course of the movie, the more the characters begin to act or think in ways that weren’t exactly pleasant, like goofy or sad, angry or even lustful and excited, something in their world would change color. First it would start with small things like flowers or garments that would change from black and white to it’s natural hue. As the movie progressed it would come to include whole places and even people who would be, for an intention term, colored. As I write this, I’m reminded of the scene where the pleasant Black and White people made a set of rules for the town of Pleasantville to follow, particularly for the colored citizens. Rules on places they could go, colors they could use in art, music they could play and even what they’re able to teach and learn in school. The allegory from here mirrors the restrictions upon Black Americans during Jim Crow and of course those put upon European Jews in Nazi Germany.
And this is where we find ourselves today.
I’m sure many of you have read the recent news story coming out of Texas of the school district that is said to have told their teachers that they must teach the “opposing view” of subjects like the Holocaust. It’s jarring to even think about it. But the story has gotten out across the country that Texas wants its teachers to teach the virtues of anti-Semitism, bigotry and White Supremacy. And rational thinking people everywhere immediately were up in arms over something so ludicrous to think that someone wants to teach school children how Nazism was good.
Well, fortunately, the truth of the matter is a lot less salacious, but much more revealing of a larger issue that was bound to come to a head. The school official at the center of the story, Gina Peddy, was caught on a recording during a meeting with teachers about books and other materials in the school library. During the meeting, the subject of recent legislation signed into law came up in conjunction with an inquiry about the Holocaust. Peddy, who fully recognized how terrified teachers are to even teach under these conditions, was recorded reminding the teachers to be mindful of the new laws in the state and that if they have a book on the Holocaust that they, by law, had to have opposing or other perspectives. Of course, the immediate reaction of the room was the one everyone else in America had when they heard the story. Peddy was asked how could they give an oppose view of the Holocaust, as in who in their right mind wouldn’t oppose a systematic mass murder of millions of people.
And this was exactly what Peddy was highlighting. To her credit, she immediately acknowledged the impossibility of the demands she explained. It’s not something the news talks about, but as a reminder, the discussion was less about the Holocaust itself but more about the law, specifically Texas’ House Bill 3979 and the situation it has put educators in. House Bill 3979 is a new law in Texas that says, among other things, “teachers who choose to discuss current events or widely debated and currently controversial issues of public policy or social affairs shall, to the best of their ability, strive to explore such issues from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective”. It was passed over the summer during the heated debates surrounding Critical Race Theory and it’s application in Public School curriculum. Of course, Critical Race Theory is a graduate level study that has nothing to do with what elementary, middle and high school kids learn but it became the placeholder for a larger debate and rage reaction by conservatives who were alarmed by the idea of teachers teaching factual lessons on American history. Unfortunately, American history is not filled with all sunshine and rainbows. It’s full of people who are prone to doing fallible people things. Like enslaving an entire race of people strictly because of their race. Or massacring native inhabitants of their land and taking their homes. The stuff people do if they think their race is inherently better than others. And so, Republicans everywhere, particularly in Texas were so bothered by people learning about their country and their race committing horrific atrocities, they created and passed a law made to punish anyone who would, as the law says, discuss controversial issues of public policy and social affairs. And who exactly determines what “controversial issues” under this new law are? Not the state. Definitely not the teachers. But, as it’s typically been, it’s the parents.
The law was passed in the middle of June of this year. And barely two months later, teachers across the state were expected to capably comply and interpret the law. They were expected to know what they could or could not teach, what they could and could not talk about and what they were now, by law, having to introduce and know all they were expected to have in classrooms and libraries by the start of the school year. And if they did not, if anything they taught or made accessible to students was deemed controversial by a student’s parent, they could be reported to the school board and face disciplinary action. Inevitably, of course, teachers immediately faced criticism. Last month, a 4th Grade teacher in that very district was reprimanded for having an anti-racism book in her class that a parent complained about. She could now lose her job. For teaching AGAINST racism. Teachers have a metaphorical gun to their heads, with their very jobs now on the line set at the whims of parents and legislators who made a law to keep American life Pleasant. Unfortunately, that is not real life. That is not real America or the real world.
Back in Pleasantville, when the kid was reading the list of do’s and don’ts that Black and White Pleasant citizens placed upon their Colored citizens, the last ordinance he read actually said “all elementary and high school curriculums shall teach the “non-changist” view of history- emphasizing continuity over alteration.” They did not want their society to change and codified that by law. Texas’ House Bill 3979 tried to do the same thing but is horribly written even by the ficticous facist rules of a 1950s era TV show. At least they came out and said what teachers are allowed to teach. In Texas’ classrooms, parents can now deem actual historical facts as “controversial issues” and place demands upon willing school boards to target educators. And while something like the Holocaust should be throughly taught and opposed, doing so could mean teachers having to explain the White Supremacy that drives it and that of course can be objected to by parents who feels even that unfairly targets white people. As ugly as it seems, Peddy’s demand to teach Nazism, as we assumed, it’s actually more of a warning, pointing out the hypocrisy of the law and trying to protect her teachers who are teaching in a brand new world.
You know it’s hard to not think about the Virginia Gubernatorial election this year and Glenn Youngkin’s attack of Terry McAuliffe. Youngkin has found fault with McAuliffe saying that he does not want parents telling teachers what they should or should not teach. Well this is why. Even local school boards and parents have found fault with certain books and materials in classrooms. Left to Glenn Youngkin and the parents who support him, some kids would receive no instruction on Jim Crow or White Supremacy. They would receive no instruction on police accountability and the value of Black lives. Learning about their racial, sexual and gender identity would also be taboo. And yes, even Nazism and the Holocaust is debatable by this standard. Welcome to the new Real World folks. Texas might be the first houseguest, but if we’re not careful we’ll be voted in that crazy house too.