Ever since Homo sapiens left the Great Rift Valley a few hundred thousand years ago, we’ve been worrying that the kids aren’t all right. The children are our future, we’re told, but they’re also susceptible to bad ideas. That most children turn out basically fine—and, on average, outperform their elders—has not served to ameliorate our concerns. Twenty-two years ago, America asked itself, in the undying words of George W. Bush: “Is our children learning?” Now we ask ourselves: Is our children learning . . . too much?
The moral panic kicked into a new gear last year over the alleged teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools. The Texas Legislature banned the teaching of CRT, despite not being able to define it. (CRT is a theory of the law that pops up in university courses—to its detractors, it seemed to encompass any information that might make students feel doubt about the nation’s glorious past.) Then Governor Greg Abbott directed a special session of the Legislature to ban it again. Further bannings, elected officials say, may be necessary next year.
The outrage next found expression over the alleged presence of LGBTQ “pornography” in school libraries. This again attracted the attention of our governor, who issued a fatwa against “criminal activity involving pornography in Texas public schools” and directed the Texas Education Agency to investigate whether teachers or librarians should be prosecuted for providing smut to kids in the form of books that feature characters who aren’t straight having sex. Many Texans are now of the belief that educators and Democrats are consciously attempting to “groom” the next generation, turning them queer and making them available for sexual abuse.
The rhetoric keeps getting weirder. Last week Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick pointed his fire hose at Disney, perhaps the only American institution as powerful as the Republican party. His most recent newsletter screams, “DISNEY HAS VIOLATED THEIR SACRED TRUST WITH PARENTS AS THEY ACTIVELY PLAN TO INDOCTRINATE AND SEXUALIZE THEIR CHILDREN,” over an image of a sad-looking and potentially groomed Mickey Mouse. Disney’s offenses, according to Patrick, include promising to include more LGBTQ characters in media it produces and no longer referring to park guests as “ladies and gentlemen.” The tirade continued. “Disney is a massive international company planning to indoctrinate children around the world with radical ideas,” the lieutenant governor wrote. “If we cannot fight for our children, then what can we fight for?”
What’s behind the newest moral panics? One key factor is that the anger they incite is useful to GOP elected officials and candidates. Republicans nationally and in Texas lost ground in suburban districts throughout Donald Trump’s presidency. The state’s largest suburban counties, such as Collin (outside Dallas), Denton (Dallas–Fort Worth), and Williamson (Austin), all swung to the left by at least 11 points between 2016 and 2020. A panic about dangers lurking in neighborhood schools seems like a good play to bring wavering moms and dads back home.
The moral panic is also useful if your goal is to weaken public education in favor of parochial and other private schools. Christopher Rufo, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, has helped kick-start and nurture the fight over CRT and school “pornography” in the past several years. In early April, he spoke at Hillsdale College, in Michigan, and outlined a teleology of his crusade. “To get universal school choice, you really need to operate from the position of universal public school distrust,” he said. “In order for people to take significant action, you have to make them feel like they have something at stake.” Offering parents a taxpayer-funded choice among public and private schools has been a hard sell, in Texas and elsewhere. Perhaps calling school librarians pedophiles will do the trick.
Patrick has long advocated for school choice and vouchers. So too has Matt Krause, a state representative from Fort Worth who’s now a candidate for Tarrant County district attorney. Last fall, during a brief bid for Texas attorney general, Krause sent a list of 850 potentially “offensive” books to school districts across the state, asking each to report which ones were shelved in its libraries. Krause’s list consisted of novels and nonfiction that include discussion of racial and LGBTQ issues—from children’s picture books such as “Pink Is a Girl Color” . . . and Other Silly Things People Say to literary memoirs such as the National Book Award–winning Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Krause expressed worry that such books “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”
That’s a bizarre sentiment. For one thing, every fourteen-year-old in Texas (and elsewhere) feels discomfort, guilt, anguish, and psychological distress nearly every waking hour, regardless of what they’re reading. Not to mention that any textbook on European history, say, has the potential to cause Jewish children psychological distress, just as any American history textbook has the potential to cause Black and Latino and Indigenous children psychological distress.
More to the point, middle school and high school come at the precise point in students’ lives when we ask them to engage with difficult ideas. We experience psychological distress when we learn. Part of growing up is being asked to take in contradictory information and knowledge that might make us uncomfortable and synthesize it. Just a few years ago, this was conventional wisdom in conservative media; pundits and politicians complained that our youth were growing febrile brains in so-called safe spaces in which they would never encounter challenging arguments or unpopular beliefs.
There may well be factually unsupported arguments in some of the recent wave of “anti-racist” writing that set off this backlash, and historians have levied criticism at a select few texts that the Texas Legislature has banned from schools. The answer isn’t to root out all contentious ideas, however, but to try to present children with factually grounded material and let them make their own decisions. You reach emotional maturity when it becomes possible to, say, love your nation and your neighbors while understanding that your country’s history is often ugly—and when it becomes possible to love, or at least accept, others who don’t live life as you do. Some people never learn.
A generation ago, another controversy about book smut in Texas erupted over health, science, and sex-education textbooks. In the mid-nineties, many conservatives objected to schools teaching about condoms and birth control, and even to drawings showing how to conduct breast and testicular cancer self-examinations. The panic culminated in 1997, when the State Board of Education approved a new abstinence-only sex ed curriculum that emphasized that kids shouldn’t have intercourse, and basically stopped there.
It’s easier to understand why a parent might object to instruction on prophylactic use more than to a book about racism, but the advocates of abstinence-centered education were guilty of a kind of naivete about the extent to which kids could be shielded from knowledge about sex and sexuality. Similarly, the folks trying to take challenging books out of schools are asking for an abstinence-only policy on information. But this is 2022, and every child has access to the internet. In 1990 it may have made sense to scrutinize a school library’s contents. But it’s now largely irrelevant.
That’s the strangest thing about the moral panic, in which parents are concerned that, for instance, a book in their kid’s high school library contains a written description of lesbian sex. Parents, if your kids are reading this, shield their eyes for the next few sentences: There is no shortage of lesbian sex online. Nor is there any shortage of information about the darkest moments in American history. I was four when Netscape launched, so trust me: by the time your kid graduates from high school, he or she will have received more instruction on the full spectrum of human sexuality than a medieval village would have accumulated in three centuries. One 2008 survey of more than five hundred college students found that 93 percent of boys and 62 percent of girls had watched pornography before they turned eighteen.
The problem is not what information kids get. That cat’s out of the bag. It’s how we strengthen kids’ ability to sort through and contextualize the avalanche of information—good, bad, and weird—that they’re getting, not only about sex but about history and politics and culture. Right now, the debate we’re having is whether schools should even be allowed to talk about those topics. It remains to be seen whether this panic, like others in the past, will work in November, but it’s clearly gaining some traction. A recent Dallas Morning News poll of Texans of both political parties found that 47 percent of parents said they lacked confidence in school librarians to know what is appropriate material for children—although 65 percent reported they also lacked confidence in elected officials to figure that out.
It’s easy to sympathize with parents who are protective of the innocence of their children. But there’s never been a kid who has made it to adulthood unscathed. When I found X-rated material for the first time, it came from a source no one around me could have guessed: Disclosure, by Michael Crichton, who wrote adventure books such as Congo and Jurassic Park. In the middle of a pretty boring novel about a tech company, I stumbled upon a shockingly explicit sex scene that introduced me to some eyebrow-raising concepts in human anatomy—in the form of a misogynistic parable about a woman who entraps a man into a sexual harassment lawsuit out of spite. Recently I was curious, so I checked: even though Disclosure was not on Krause’s list of questionable books, every high school library catalog I searched around Texas listed a copy.