Harvey Graff

The state attacks its young people: Why? Of what are the state legislature, the majority on the State Board of Education, the governor, the secretary of state and attorney general afraid? What fears of losing power and control motivate them to institutionalize infantilization and its consequences of infanticide and stunted growth, all threats to the wholeness, wellness, and maturity of our nation? Why do they act unconstitutionally, against recognized modes of child development, with ignorance of the history and books they anti-democratically and inhumanely seek to ban?

This essay builds on my recent writing in Publishers Weekly and elsewhere on book banning as “the new illiteracy” and my testimony in the American Civil Liberties Union case suing a Missouri school district for its unconstitutional removal of books.

Multiple measures proposed or threatened for proposal by members of the State Legislature and actions of the majority of the State Board of Education (led by the unelected members, who are committed to private rather than public schooling) deny constitutional rights of children (and teachers). These actions contradict the more than a century-long fight to recognize the legitimate rights of children.

As a group, these anti-Constitutional actors wave an extra-legal, false flag of “parental freedom” or “parental rights” that does not exist anywhere in U.S. law and which denies the legal, moral, and ethical rights of the young.

The same radical minority actors, underwritten by special-interest groups with dark money, endorse the deadly expansion of unconstitutional “gun rights.” Opposed by large majorities of citizens, police and law enforcement, and judges, these measures place guns without requirement for licensing, training, or security too close to children. On almost a daily basis, children either shoot family members or are shot accidentally. It is well-documented that the widening distribution of guns (in which the United States by far leads the world) results in a significant rise in homicide by gunshot. (For immediate examples, see Morgan Trau, “Ohio makes it easier to get firearms despite rise in gun violence”; Jonathan Edwards, “A shooter fired at officers. Police say it was a 4-year-old, acting on his dad’s instructions”; Hannah Knowles, “‘Stand your ground’ laws linked to 11% rise in U.S. firearm homicides, study says.”)

At this moment, sex education—long recognized as central to young people’s well-being and preparation for self-protection, puberty, and growing up—is the new frontier for anti-child and anti-youth Ohio right-wingers. (See Haley BeMiller, “Why a bill to educate kids about sex abuse prevention has stalled in the Ohio legislature.”) Despite the passage of “Erin’s Law” requiring Ohio schools to teach child sexual abuse prevention less than a year ago, the Center for Christian Virtue moves for its undercutting. They voice no legitimate grounds for their campaign. That doesn’t stop them or their anti-child, intolerant allies in the legislature. Their partisan politics are in effect anti-Christian.

More than six months ago, the undemocratic, anti-child, anti-public education State Board of Education voted along partisan lines to repeal its earlier noncontroversial resolution committing Ohio schools to anti-racism. With no strong public demand, members of this odd group purposely confused critical race theory—which has never been taught in K-12 schools—with anti-racism, and in effect endorsed racist education. The Republican-appointed board president promptly resigned. (See Michelle Newman, “Public education is under attack in Ohio”; Susan Tebben, “State Board of Ed to consider allowing race theory discussion”; Tebben, “State school board to ask AG for opinion on anti-racism resolution”; Anna Staver, “Ohio State Board of Education repeals its anti-racism resolution”; Staver, “Ohio Board of Education president to resign over anti-racism resolution”; Kelly Capatosto, “State board of education sent clear message: Black and brown kids don’t matter”; Thomas Suddes, “Ohio Republicans stoking base with flames that will burn history”; Laura Kohler, “Not resigning was not an option.”)

At the same, time Gov. DeWine, accompanied by his cabinet members Yost, LaRose, and Husted, ignorantly and self-contradictorily endorsed dishonest, distorted, incomplete, and noninclusive history and civics education. Having no idea what critical race theory is or if it is taught, they rejected inclusive history on the dubious grounds that it “might make someone uncomfortable” or be “divisive.”

They remain willfully ignorant of the twin facts that school-age children hunger for inclusive and truthful curricula and lessons, and literature—they know that it helps them to grow and stimulates active learning—and that surveys by the American Historical Association and other professional organizations show that overwhelmingly Americans support “uncomfortable” history lessons as necessary, and do so across parties, ages, gender, and education levels. (See Anna Staver, “Gov. Mike DeWine opposes teaching critical race theory in Ohio’s K-12 schools”; Staver, “Ohio AG: Critical race theory requirements in school could violate state constitution.”)

Now we have the unconstitutional, illiterate, anti-child-development, and inhumane book-banning effort coming to Ohio as part of a national, right-wing campaign funded by dark money, thanks to Ohio legislators’ imitation of other states.

Currently in the State House is an unconstitutional proposal to criminalize First Amendment-guaranteed rights to protest peacefully. It would also give police unacceptably wide discretion without accountability. Law enforcement does not support these measures. Problematic on all fronts, bans on legitimate public protests remove longstanding and proven modes of preparation for adolescent and youth citizenship.

Finally, Ohio has so-called “public vouchers” explicitly aimed at strengthening private, parochial, for-profit, and at-home schooling at the expense of the constitutionally established public school system for all Ohio children. Ohio’s nonpublic “public vouchers” are under constitutional challenge by 100 school districts as I write. (See David Hodges, “Ohio kids merely ‘income statements on a balance sheet’ to school voucher opponent”; Denis Smith, “School vouchers not about ‘choice’ or ‘justice,’ but about taking your money”; William L. Phillis, “Ohio pays schools that discriminate based on race, religion and disability.”)

Ohio wages an active war on children and against “the public,” the law, the young, humanity, and our collective future. (See among a large national literature, Marilou Johanek, “Real education issues ignored by lawmakers inventing culture war to stoke parents, undermine schools.”)

Dare we not rise up to stop it now?


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History and Ohio Eminent Scholar at The Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history. Palgrave Macmillan published his Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies this year. His essays appear in Inside Higher Education, Times Higher Education, Washington Monthly, Academe, Publishers Weekly, and other outlets. His specialties include the history and present condition of literacy and education including higher education, children and families, cities, interdisciplinarity, and contemporary politics, culture, and society.