The Cultural War: Parental Rights or Parental Tyranny?

by John Ellis

This story is bonkers but predictable.

Earlier this week, reports surfaced that the principal of a Tallahassee charter school had been fired because an art teacher showed the 6th grade students a picture of Michelangelo’s David and some parents complained.[1]

There are so many exit ramps out of that previous sentence, it’s hard to know where to go next. Because of that, I’m going to begin with a personal anecdote.

Last year, towards the beginning of my daughter’s 10th grade year at a classical Christian school, I received an email from her English teacher. The email was a head’s up that the class would be reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and discussing it in class. The gist of the email was part parental guide about the “offensive” content and part defense of why the book was included in the curriculum. Parents were also instructed to let the teacher know if we didn’t want our child to read and/or discuss Brave New World. Like the sentence from above, that email provided my mind with lots of exit ramps. I’ll mention just one.

After reading the email, I commented to my wife, “I guess I appreciate the email’s intent, but I don’t understand the need for it. I expect our kids to read books like Brave New World and discuss them in class. I mean, that’s what we’re paying all that money to the school for.”

I have a few thousand books surrounding me as I write this. And there’s not a book on my shelves that is off limits to my kids. To be sure, if my kids (the two who can read) pull down The Jefferson Lies by David Barton or The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach, to list two examples, I will have discussions with them as they read.[2] My wife and I believe that our job is less gate-keeper and more docent, if not full-on professor, when it comes to the content they interact with, especially books and other forms of art. This doesn’t mean that our children are allowed complete freedom in choosing the media and/or art they consume. While we do have limits, we’re not only not afraid of our kids being exposed to ideas and expressions we disagree with, but we believe it is important that they be allowed to do so under our tutelage.

You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone holding to such a weirdly staunch libertarian view of children and education that they believe there is NOTHING off limits for kids to be exposed to. Those on the Left have their boundary of acceptable content, as do those on the Right. So do me and my wife. As I wrote in a previous article, pluralism is a myth and the controlling narrative – the center – of our society is no longer uniform (it never really was, but those in power required society to operate as if it were). This is largely what’s behind the parental rights in education movement. At its core, it’s not about parental rights, per se, but about who decides which narrative is the controlling narrative. No matter how loudly Republicans may denounce critical theory, they, too, accept Antonio Gramsci’s theories of cultural hegemony. What kids are taught is important, to be sure, but how kids are taught that what is even more important. Take Brave New World, for example.

I can envision educational scenarios where I would feel a specific sense of urgency in engaging with my daughter about how Brave New World is being taught to her. Not all interpretations nor applications are equal. This is why every evening at dinner, I ask my two school-aged kids what they learned in history that day. My wife and I are not exactly on the same page as their school when it comes to history. Now, to be fair, my one child’s history teacher this year is excellent, and I find myself in agreement with this teacher far more often than not. My other kid’s history class? Well, my disagreements aren’t so much with what’s taught but with what’s left out (although there have been several times where I’ve had to correct statements about historical events and/or interpretations of historical events). Through it all, though, I have never once emailed the school and complained.[3] My job as parent isn’t to ride strict herd over the curriculum. My job as a parent is to be intentionally engaged via conversations at home with what my children are being taught.[4]

I realize that I’m open to the charge, “But, John, you send your kids to a private school. You have options that a lot of parents don’t.” Fine. I get that. But I’m making a larger point. And that point isn’t really about the role of parents in the education of their children (although, that is an incredibly important topic). My point is twofold (I think): 1. This needs to stop being framed as “parental rights” because that’s not what is actually going on. 2. Christians need to resist the urge to allow the very real cultural war that is raging around us to swallow us. Doing so – being swallowed by it – is the recipe for epistemic hubris, among other idolatrous things.

Speaking to both subpoints, my Twitter feed is currently filled with professors aghast at how the parental rights movement has hijacked pedagogical authority from the experts. It should be noted that all the professors I’m alluding to are most decidedly on the Left. While I empathize with their concern and don’t believe they’re totally off base, one of the things that drives me crazy about many on the Left is – and maybe they’re unaware of it – how they’re seemingly blinded by a belief in some type of Rawlsian-styled thin pluralism. Much of what’s at the center of the cultural war are not things that the two sides can agree to disagree on. For example, the notion often promulgated by the Left that CRT isn’t a threat to Republicans is nonsense. CRT is a very real threat to Republicans because it utterly demolishes some of the most important aspects of the controlling narrative that Republicans worship and want cemented at the center of this society. For my part, I say good! I’m opposed to the controlling narrative of Republicans because it is Babylon and not Jerusalem. The controlling narrative of Republicans is the enemy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.[5]

However, Republican parents are correctly diagnosing, by and large, that the educational system in this country is at “war” with their (idolatrous and false) ideology. Of course, not all school districts, schools, and individual teachers reflect this. I feel badly for public school teachers who are caught in the middle. They’re overworked and underpaid as it is. They now find themselves drafted as foot soldiers in the cultural war. While many of them are vocal about which side they’re on, many others of them want it out of their classroom so they can do their job. To be clear, I don’t think neutrality is possible in any space, including classrooms, but I empathize with their Quixotic desire.

For the Left’s part, and setting aside their Rawlsian dream that we can all coexist, there is a nugget of truth embedded in their warnings about epistemic malfeasance. Most parents aren’t qualified to determine the curriculum for their children. My daughter is currently taking AP Physics. I am NOT qualified, by any stretch of the imagination, to either criticize or praise her textbook or, in certain ways, her teacher’s pedagogy.[6] Same with her Latin class.  Same, I’m sure, with some of her other classes but I can’t remember what all she’s currently taking.

I don’t know how many people are willing to embrace that level of epistemic humility, though. A couple of years ago, I wrote an article about how we are not entitled to have an opinion about everything. That article stands at the top of the list of my articles that angered friends and family members, taking me by surprise (although, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised). It’s obvious that while this problem has existed at certain levels for generations, it’s exponentially worsened over the last three years, if not last seven or nine or fifteen years – pick Trump’s election or Obama’s second or first election as when the added fuel was thrown on to the epistemic dumpster fire that is our post-1637 society.

Because of this heightened and continual heightening hubris, while recounting the story about the parents who complained because their 6th grade student had been “exposed” to Michelangelo’s David, I commented to my wife that I doubt if those same parents would’ve had a problem pre-COVID.

Added to the fact that it’s true that a war over the controlling narrative is taking place, the dominating lens through which Republicans now view almost everything is a solipsistic epistemology. This has been a long-time in the making and isn’t new, but the death of experts has been hastened. Autonomous individualism has reached the point of no return and not only is every hill now a hill to die on, *I believe that *I am the final arbiter of the rules of engagement on each and every hill. So now, lacking needed self-awareness that brings humility, parents don’t think twice before challenging the showing and discussion of a highly regarded classical art piece to students in an art class. Ironically, the Founders of this country would be appalled that the very people who claim to most identify with their worldview (at least a few in Tallahassee) now view Michelangelo’s David as some sort of threat to children. And they – parents and those calling for parent’s rights in education – do so because they’ve embraced a worldview that many of them likely aren’t even aware of, much less can articulate.

To be clear, I’m not dismissing the very real concerns many parents (on both ends of the political spectrum) have over how and what their children are being taught. I’ve already acknowledged that all of us, including myself, have expectations and standards regarding what’s acceptable in classrooms. My concern is that legitimately concerned brothers and sisters in Christ are allying with a totalizing worldview that demands their allegiance above and beyond allegiance to King Jesus.

I referenced Antonio Gramsci and cultural hegemony earlier. I encourage you to read this article where I unpack cultural hegemony to understand my arguments for why I claim that the Republican Party requires devotion to a contra-biblical worldview. For the remainder of this article, I want to focus on the epistemic hubris that is a specific ethical outworking of that worldview and its parental rights movement.

As I stated at the beginning, the story about parents being upset that 6th graders were shown Michelangelo’s David is bonkers. But it’s not an outlier. Also here in Florida, books about Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente have been pulled from school libraries and classrooms because the books talk about the racism those baseball players faced. Earlier this month, a lecture on civil rights in a U.S. Government class at Eastern Florida State College was canceled soon after the class began. The reason? One of the students said they were uncomfortable in the class.

GOP state governments are falling all over themselves to be the next state to pass bills giving parents control over course standards, curriculum, and books that are allowed in libraries (I have zero doubt that if unchecked, the GOP will soon begin extending these same types of prohibitions into the private sector, I mean, DeSantis has already tried). Just today, the GOP controlled House passed a so-called Parent’s Bill of Rights. On the surface, I understand the appeal it holds for concerned parents. But language isn’t neutral, and the bill’s language can’t be divorced from the overall program of the GOP. And that program is increasingly fascist in nature (please read my article I linked to above).

Maybe thinking of it this way will better reveal what I’m trying to say: I want my children to learn CRT in school. What about my parental rights? I understand that I choose to put my kids in a school that doesn’t teach CRT, so I might not be the most compelling voice at this point.[7] Okay. Fine. But what about all the other parents who want their kids to learn CRT at school? All these GOP sponsored bills carry the intention, often stated, to run roughshod over their “rights” as a parent. You see, it’s not about parental rights at all. It’s about defending a certain worldview, a worldview I believe to be idolatrous. And those bills feed all of our desire, including mine, to believe that we can be like God in relation to knowledge. Those bills call us to shed humility and embrace power in the service of our own flourishing.

To conclude, while I don’t think Christians should be engaged in this cultural war to begin with, I sadly recognize that some are. I also realize that I’m likely never going to persuade them to disengage and, instead, embrace their status as an exile in Babylon while they journey towards the Heavenly City. But one of the reasons I wish Christians would disengage is because part of the cultural war’s tactic is weaponizing personal opinions – unearned/unqualified personal opinions – by preaching epistemic egalitarianism. Doing so creates a form of individualistic tyranny that reduces everything to power and control and is the antithesis of being a servant and loving others more than we love ourselves that is at the ethical heart of Christianity. Following the Republican party, specifically in this current so-called parent’s rights push, greatly damages our ability to be a faithful witness to the Resurrection.

By all means, be involved in the education of your children. The number one variable that predicts academic success for students is parental involvement. But be involved in ways that engender, for both yourself and your children, humility, love for others above self, and the willingness to surrender our rights for the sake of the gospel. Don’t buy the lie that this current parental rights movement is good and right. It’s part of a cultural war that Christians shouldn’t be involved in.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] In an interview, the chair of the school’s board insisted that the “mainstream media” was wrong and that the principal had not been fired but had voluntarily resigned. However, in that same interview, he said that he had gone to the principal and offered her the choice of voluntarily resigning or being removed – I mean … potato or potato.

[2] I highly doubt either of them will read The Jefferson Lies because they already know that Barton is a Christian nationalist charlatan. I also doubt that either of them would get very far into The Essence of Christianity because it’s conceptually above their reading level at this point, especially our 12 yo son.

[3] Last year, I did email one of my kid’s history teacher and asked why some specific events of the historical time period the class was studying were omitted. While I found the teacher’s reply unsatisfactory, I let it go. After all, I have far more influence – because I’m intentional about it – over my children’s understanding of history than their teachers.

[4] I have fought hard to find a consistent thesis and through-line-of-action with this article. Today, I tweeted “I’ve met a lot of parents, and I don’t believe most parents should have any say over what’s taught in schools or the curriculum” … or something like that. There’s a practical aspect of the epistemic hubris I write about in this article that is demeaning to educators. And it also explains why I’m not a fan of homeschooling – just because you have the ability to have a baby doesn’t mean you have the ability to teach. But, as much as I tried to insert thoughts about this, I kept slamming into the realization that it made this article too scattergun and unfocused. Critics are already going to have a heyday with it, I don’t want to help them out. I’m still not sure the article is focused enough, but I’m tired of fighting with it and believe that what I want to say is worth the risk of any ire and scorn.

[5] I’m not saying that the Left – Democrats – aren’t the enemy of the gospel of Jesus Christ because I believe they are, too. But most of the people in my various communities are Republicans. If my intended audience were different, I’d write differently. However, that being said, I find the Republican worldview more distasteful than the Democrats because the Republicans hold out the devilish lie that they’re the ones concerned with what God wants. Between the two parties, the GOP is the more dangerous wolf seeking to devour my friends and family members. As I’ve written here, real religious persecution is going to come from the Right before it comes from the Left.

[6] Obviously, there are certain pedagogical standards that apply across disciplines that I would feel comfortable critiquing. I mean specific approaches to Physics. I’m so ignorant of the discipline, I can’t even begin to explain what pedagogical approaches a Physics teacher might or might not use that would make for a better classroom experience, enable the students to better grasp the subject matter, or better ways to approach Physic’s core standards, etc.

[7] Besides, I’m qualified to teach them CRT at home, and I do.

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