Like many of those in our global community, I was disgusted and outraged after listening to Donald Trump’s speech at the White House announcing the United States is pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord. What struck me was that Trump did not utter one word about the climate crisis that triggered the global commitment – however inadequate – to limit greenhouse gases. Nothing about the rising sea levels, the threat to global water supplies, the extinction of species, the loss of homes and livelihoods for millions of people, and countless other disasters on the horizon.
Trump represents the short-term interests of the fossil fuel industry. It was this same greed-soaked thinking that prompted the fossil fuel industry this spring to send climate denial textbooks to every science teacher in the country — courtesy of The Heartland Institute.
With your help, Rethinking Schools is defending the right of teachers to teach the truth about the enormity of the climate crisis. We are sending free copies of our book A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis to teachers in six states. These states — Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida, Indiana, and Idaho — are the most vulnerable to fossil fuel-inspired legislation that seeks to deny the reality of the climate crisis.
Did you see that the Koch brothers-supported Heartland Institute is sending a climate denial textbook to every science teacher in the country? As the Moms Clean Air Force writes, “Every science teacher across America will receive a ‘free’ copy of a book of climate lies.”
The climate crisis is threatening life on Earth, and the fossil fuel industry is so drunk with greed that they continue to poison the curriculum around climate change.
Teachers desperately need resources to teach the truth about climate change and to counter the Heartland Institute’s materials that are flooding into schools.
Donate nowso that we can send a copy of A People’s Curriculum for the Earth to every teacher who requests one in the states most threatened by lies spread by the fossil fuel industry.
The purpose of their book is to sow confusion and doubt, not unlike previous campaigns the Heartland Institute has conducted, such as the one in the 1990s, financed by the tobacco company Philip Morris, to raise doubts about the dangers of second-hand smoke.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Heartland Institute has for years, “received funding from fossil fuel interests such as ExxonMobil and the coal magnate Koch brothers.” Heartland even sponsored a billboard campaign in 2012 casting climate change activists as “murderers, tyrants, and madmen.”
This campaign has come under recent criticism by Curt Stager in a New York Times op-ed, but his exposé touches only the tip of a massive iceberg. School textbooks rarely do the issue justice, teachers are not well versed on the subject, and conservative politicians in many states frown on even discussing the issue. Moreover, the oil and coal industry continue to pour money into various pseudo-educational materials to obfuscate the truth.
Victories can be won against such corporate-financed curricular materials. Educator Bill Bigelow recounts how in 2012 a coalition of education and environmental groups, spearheaded by Rethinking Schools and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, exposed the cozy relationship between the coal industry and Scholastic, the world’s largest publisher of materials for children. After publication of an exposé of Scholastic’s propagandistic “The United States of Energy” in Rethinking Schools magazine, a campaign to pressure Scholastic to break its ties with the coal industry led to a New York Times editorial, “Scholastic’s Big Coal Mistake,” and then quickly to Scholastic pulling the curriculum off its website and promising not to shill for the coal industry any longer.
Last year the inadequacy of school textbooks on climate change led students, teachers, and climate activists to convince the Portland, Oregon, school board to adopt a climate justice resolution and to “abandon the use of any adopted text material that is found to express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis or its root in human activities.”
Despite attacks by the Heartland Institute and other climate deniers, the Portland schools are moving forward engaging parents, community members, students and parents to create a climate justice curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade.
People interested in learning how to organize similar resolutions in their school district can visit the Rethinking Schools site and download a free Climate Justice Kit.
People can also make sure their school library and child’s teacher has a copy A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, edited by Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart. The 410-page book contains resources, lessons, and engaging role-plays. Naomi Klein called it “an educators toolkit of our times.”
It is a good antidote to the poisons that are being spread by the Heartland Institute and other climate deniers.
As we march and organize for climate justice, the schools are an important battle ground. Our children and grandchildren should have the right to learn the science behind climate change, the stories of those most affected, the impact on all living fauna and flora and what they might do to work for climate justice.
Why the great historian would have loved what transpired over the past few weeks
By Bill Bigelow
Last week nearly 700 Arkansas teachers and school librarians received copies of books by Howard Zinn—thanks to a right-wing state representative.
Well, not exactly. But here’s the story.
Recently, Republican Kim Hendren, introduced legislation that would prohibit teachers in all public schools or state-supported charter schools from including any books in their curriculum by—or even “concerning”—the historian Howard Zinn, author of the classic A People’s History of the United States, who died in 2010.
In just a few days, we were flooded with requests. Many of them came accompanied by poignant notes about why people were eager to get the materials. One middle school librarian in Western Grove, Arkansas, near the Missouri border (population 373), wrote, “The proposed bill to ban Mr. Zinn’s book has fired up the Arkansas librarian world. To combat ignorance, I must have knowledge. I respectfully request a copy so I can educate my tiny corner of the world.”
A high school teacher in El Dorado, Arkansas, in the far south, near Louisiana, wrote defiantly, “Books and ideas are increasingly under attack in Arkansas. We need to defend our rights and freedoms and be willing to look at history from multiple viewpoints. As Orwell wrote, freedom is the freedom to say 2+2=4. Sometimes, speaking the truth is a revolutionary act. The truth will be taught in my classroom.”
I called Rep. Hendren’s office seeking comment about his proposed Zinn ban, and he quickly called me back. “I’ll talk with you because in your message you seemed respectful, but I’ve been called the F-word, people have wished me dead. Apparently, there is some organization out there of Zinn supporters stirring things up.” I assured him that my aim in calling was simply to hear why he sought to single out Howard Zinn’s work for banning.
“I think my constituents had seen some stuff on the internet or media. And Rick Santorum had mentioned it. I’d never heard of Howard Zinn. I’d never heard of the man.” He also mentioned former Republican Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ work to cut Zinn from the curriculum. “I don’t want indoctrination. Let’s just present the bill and see where it goes.” At the end of the call, my impression was that Rep. Hendren was running away from his own piece of legislation.
Mitch Daniels’ effort to ban Zinn from Indiana schools and colleges had been a more serious effort. Unlike Rep. Hendren, Gov. Daniels had clear opinions about Howard Zinn. Shortly after Zinn died, on January 27, 2010, Daniels wrote his education advisor: “The obits and commentaries mentioned [Zinn’s] book A People’s History of the United States is the ‘textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country.’ It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?” This email and others were uncovered thanks to sleuthing from the Associated Press.
The Trump right wing is all for “local control” until that “control” means a woman’s right to control her own body, or until a community decides not to cooperate with immigration bullies. Similarly, conservatives tout educational balance and fairness, until it means engaging students in asking critical questions about the behavior of U.S. elites or introducing them to voices of dissent and social movements throughout history. Which, no doubt, is why Republicans like Mitch Daniels or Kim Hendren get so exercised about the influence of Howard Zinn in schools today.
There is not one single piece of Zinn’s history-telling that the book-banners cite. No, I think it’s Zinn’s unapologetic partisanship that gets under their skin. Zinn sums up his approach in a famous passage from the first chapter of A People’s History in which he explores how all historians take sides in what they select and emphasize about the past:
I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by Black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by Southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by Blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America.
Zinn acknowledges that this effort to “see” history as others experienced it will always be limited—no matter how much we “strain.” At the heart of Zinn’s scholarship is not this or that conclusion about particular moments in history, it’s his invitation to empathy. And that’s what makes Zinn’s presence in schools so threatening to some: classrooms full of students straining to ask critical questions from the standpoint of all those not well-served by today’s arrangements of power and privilege.
I think Howard Zinn would have loved what transpired in the past few weeks in Arkansas: Amidst a flurry of White House executive orders to ban Muslims and build pipelines, a conservative legislator tries to jump on the bandwagon, with an attempt to ensure that his state’s children learn only a Fox News version of America’s past. But in response, teachers and librarians throughout the state reject his attempt to stifle critique and questioning; supporters around the country rally in solidarity, and people’s history materials pour into the state’s classrooms and libraries.
Howard Zinn’s writing is full of instances—big and small—of ordinary people gathering to oppose exploitation and schemes of the elites. Hendren’s bill just died in the education committee—offering the world one more instance that simply because people in positions of power want something to happen, does not make it so.
While it is doubtful that US President-elect Donald Trump ever read George Orwell’s 1984, Trump’s cabinet choices appear to come right out of the doublethink that ruled Orwell’s dystopian society. In Orwell’s book, the Ministry of Plenty rationed essentials while the Ministry of Truth manufactured falsehoods.
Trump’s pick for the Secretary of Energy said last year he wanted to abolish the department. His choice for the Environmental Protection Agency is best known for suing the agency. His proposed Labor Secretary has criticized overtime, minimum wage and sick leave initiatives. His attorney general nominee has a long history of opposing voting rights, women’s rights and once said he decided he didn’t like the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan only after he learned they smoked marijuana.
However, Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is perhaps the most extreme of Trump’s cabinet nominees. She has spent her entire adult life — and her family’s considerable wealth — mounting campaigns to transfer public dollars away from public schools and into private and religious schools.
The 59-year-old DeVos will be in charge of the U.S. Department of Education, which has 5,000 employees and a budget of $73 billion last year. Unlike many countries, the U.S. educational system is decentralized, with much power resting at the state and local level. However, federal policy initiatives have played a growing role in recent decades, particularly in shaping educational policy across the country.
Historically, the department has been focused on protecting civil rights in areas of class, race, and gender, and has focused its budget on public schools. Before he won the election, Trump announced his main education focus was to invest $20 billion in federal money to increase school choice.
In the United States, the term “school choice” has become code for supporting “independent” charter schools that are nominally public but privately controlled, More threatening, it is code for transferring public tax dollars to private schools, including religious schools, that operate with little to no public oversight. For instance, under U.S. law private schools are able to circumvent basic safeguards such as freedom of expression and gender rights. In general, neither their finances nor their curriculum are made public.
Betsy DeVos is the ideal candidate for such an unprecedented policy shift. She has had virtually nothing to do with public schools her entire life. She’s not an educator, nor has she worked for any public school institution. The main organizations she has headed, The Alliance for School Choice and the American Federation for Children, were specifically set up to promote school privatization, and have spent millions of dollars electing local, state and national politicians.
DeVos hails from a wealthy family and married into an even wealthier one. Her father, Edgar Prince, was a politically active auto parts businessman. When not making money, he supported the creation of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian religious group that has been called a “hate” group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-LGBT views. DeVos’s brother, Erik Prince, is founder of the security firm Blackwater, which ushered in the era of private contractors performing duties for the U.S. military in order to evade public outcry over U.S. operations in the Middle East. Its employees were found guilty of killing dozens of Iraqi civilians in a massacre in 2007.
When DeVos married Richard DeVos, Jr., her oligarchic empire expanded. Her father-in-law co-founded Amway, a pyramid marketing company that made millions for its founders. Richard DeVos, Sr., has also been a long-time supporter of right-wing religious and economic groups.
Forbes magazine estimated the net worth of the DeVos family as $5.1 billion. This puts DeVos in the top tier of Trump’s oligarchic cabinet — even richer than Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, who was the CEO of Exxon.
Betsy and her husband have continued their families’ right-wing political traditions. They have been powerbrokers in the Republican Party and have donated millions of dollars to right-wing think tanks, foundations, legal teams and political action committees.
Known as a smart and determined political organizer, Betsy DeVos understands the important role of labor unions, particularly public sector unions, in opposing privatization. Thus her strategy has long included attacks on unions and worker rights.
DeVos ability to bring religious groups into the privatization struggle is strengthened by her personal beliefs. In 2001, she told a group of Christian philanthropists that her work on school issues was a campaign to “advance God’s Kingdom.”
In fact, her positions are so extreme — against any form of government regulation of voucher or charter schools — that some supporters of school privatization have expressed concern about her appointment. The main association of charter schools in the state of Massachusetts, for instance, said that DeVos’s positions would “reduce the quality of charter schools across the country.”
The Republicans control both the Senate and House of Representatives of the U.S. Congress and it is expected that DeVos and Trump’s other nominees with be approved. But as the last year has made clear, political developments in the United States are highly unpredictable. The fight over the federal role in public education is far from settled.
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And so it begins. At a high school in rural Oregon, south of Portland, 30 to 40 white students celebrated Trump this week in front of a Confederate flag and taunted Latina/o students: “Pack your bags, you’re leaving tomorrow,” and “Tell your family goodbye.” Graffiti found in a Minnesota high school bathroom read,”#Gobacktoafrica Make America GReat again.” The Southern Poverty Law Centerreports over 200 incidents of racist, sexist, and homophobic harassment and intimidation.
These are harbingers of the dangerous new era launched by the election of Donald Trump. And they underscore the importance of the work we have ahead.
But racist and xenophobic celebrations were not the only response to Trump’s election. In San Francisco, more than a thousand students walked out of class to join protest marches. As one student said, “We’re trying to inform people about white supremacy, racism, homophobia, everything.” And in the New York City high school where Rethinking Schools editor Adam Sanchez teaches, the art club hosted a “No Allegiance to White Supremacy” t-shirt-making gathering, while the Feminism and Black Lives Matter clubs held a joint emergency meeting to discuss the election. These responses are also harbingers: anticipating our schools and classrooms as sites of resistance to everything that Trump stands for. As in San Francisco, students in New York later took to the streets—marching more than 40 blocks from Union Square to Trump Tower. As did students at that Minnesota high school and throughout the country, from Los Angeles to Phoenix, Boulder to Des Moines.
Trump’s election is the single worst political event in our lives. And it’s right to mourn. But a Trump administration is also a call to action. For now, we need to listen to our students and create a space where they can talk, ask questions, and analyze what has happened. We can tell students that we will do whatever we can to make our schools—and our world—safe for them and their families. Part of that involves what we say and do in our classrooms and our schools, including how we work with students doing the taunting and writing the racist graffiti. And part involves the work we do within our unions and community groups, and the alliances we build with other justice-oriented organizations.
We will redouble our efforts to provide the teaching resources that help our students make sense of what is happening in our society, and how we got here. We have resources at Rethinking Schoolsand the Zinn Education Projectthat look at other times when racial progress was rolled back by white supremacy. But social movements have made important progress during times that seemed hopeless, and we also have teaching materials that explore these.
There will be lots more to say—and lots more to do. For now, we simply want to thank you for the work you do that is more essential than ever and to assure you that we are in this together.
With love and hope, Rethinking Schools editors and staff