By Column Editor: David Parker (Publisher and Consultant; Phone: 201-673-8784)
Against the Grain v34#1
The impetus to my column, Learning Belongs in the Library, grew from my view that the university library should be a more central resource to faculty in selecting materials from which to design their courses. The abundance of digital content owned or subscribed to in the library collection, along with the library’s focus on the curation of open access content and open educational resources, provides an alternative to student-purchased textbooks and courseware that is the typical “stuff” of most college courses. But in the past year I have come to realize there is a much more fundamental and profound argument regarding learning belonging in the library to which I must lend my voice and this column.
Efforts to limit, curtail, or remove critical race theory from curriculum, supported by campaigns to ban or remove books from libraries, need to be loudly opposed by publishers.
Critical race theory (CRT) emerged in the 1980s from and in response to the critical legal studies movement of the 1970s, which challenged the premise that laws and the legal system were neutral and equal before all, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, disability or any other marker of difference. The promise and gains of the 1960s civil rights legislation were under attack, and proponents of critical legal theory and critical race theory were fighting back.
For all the (current?) vilifying of critical race theory, at its core, CRT seeks to fulfill a promise that should be without debate for all who have been raised on the promise of the American democratic experiment; that is, we are all presented with a relatively equal opportunity to achieve success as we define it. Critical race theory asks us to “… pay attention to what has happened in this country and how what has happened is continuing to create differential outcomes, so that we can become the democratic republic we say we are.”1
Teachers who integrate CRT into their courses are asking students to consider how the disparate histories of the many different peoples and races that make up our present community have impinged on their current opportunities. Why is this so threatening? It is a competing perspective on history and engaging with competing perspectives on any course of study is essential for students of all ages. Without the interplay of competing perspectives, and without CRT in the curriculum specifically, we are asking students to accept a static view of American history that fails to offer a sound explanation for the differential present experience of black and brown people.
Many of us know or are familiar with families that have accrued generational wealth. I count among my friends and colleagues several people that I am certain are, or will be upon inheritance, millionaires. And those millions of dollars were cultivated and expanded, over time, through wise investment of family assets owned by grandparents and great-grandparents that were passed down. We do not vilify these fortunate individuals and, indeed, we often celebrate their wealth and their philanthropic donations. But we cannot help but admit the massive leg up this provided our friends.
Similarly, many of us know or are familiar with families from the opposite side of the economic spectrum. These are present-day folks struggling to survive on minimum wage and side hustles, whose great grandparents were slaves or the children of slaves. Or these current day laborers are the grandchildren of itinerant farm workers brought from Mexico or Central America during World War Two under US government sponsored programs like the Bracero program.2
The fundamental point of critical race theory, from my vantage point, is that just as generational wealth accrues obvious benefit to people today, generational disadvantage, discrimination, absence of access to education, and on and on, accrues a debt carried by many working and living among us today. Critical race theory asks that we acknowledge this fact and seek to remedy it. Why would we not teach this to students?
The unfortunate corollary to efforts to remove critical race theory from school curriculum is the effort to undo the collection development practices of librarians. Librarians, be they working in public schools, public libraries, universities, or other institutions of knowledge curation, are highly trained in and deeply committed to preserving (and expanding) the record of knowledge. I assume this often means collecting works that individual librarians find personally objectionable but worthy of the collection. We place librarians in the position of curating knowledge for the collective precisely so that the collective of us, in all our diversity, is represented in the catalog of resources for our collective access. Some of the books we will “like” and some of the books we will find “objectionable.”
From my window at the desk where I write, I can see banners and proclamations to which I object. When I turn on the television, or open my newsfeed, I see perspectives I do not support. I do not shield my 11 year old son from these views; in fact, I enjoy the discussion they provoke. He is cultivating his worldview as a Latinx. The least of my concerns are the books in the library. When our children have questions to explore regarding their identity, developing personal beliefs, understanding of their sexuality, and their core questions of identity and ideology, we must trust the librarians and the library collection to be the resource of first resort.
I am a publisher, a writer, and an adviser to companies and organizations in the development of and delivery of content for education. Our publishing, distribution, and library systems work, and work well. I also serve on the educational technology committee of our school district and in this role, I see that our teachers and the curriculum they develop and deliver works. Critical race theory and books that expose different perspectives on race, gender, sexual orientation and identity are necessary and provide a different perspective that challenges a dominant narrative. We publishers, regardless of our personal perspective and the themes of the content we publish, must be outspoken in our support of competing historical narratives and access to books that our faculty and our librarians support.
1. Crenshaw, Kimberle W., [quoted in] What is Critical Race Theory and Why is Everybody Talking About it?, Columbia News, July 1, 2021.
2. Library of Congress Research Guide: https://guides.loc.gov/latinx-civil-rights/bracero-program