By Judi Markowitz / Detroit
I was an English teacher for 34 years. But given the political environment that now surrounds public schools, colleges, and universities, I would never elect to become an educator—way too much stress. I am frightened about the prospects of rapidly changing education. I wonder what schools will look like in the future if this current road we’re on isn’t shut down for repairs soon.
I spent my mornings teaching at Berkley High School and in the afternoon, I taught at CASA (Center for Advanced Studies and the Arts). My colleagues and I formulated a curriculum that I believe was challenging and thought-provoking. Literature, essays, and debate-worthy topics were the main thoroughfares to navigate complex societal issues. Banned books were always on our reading lists, and the community didn’t interfere.
But now, in many school districts across the U.S., parents and politicians are running the show and they often lack the teaching credentials to know what is in the best interest of the students.
Today. topics such as issues relating to the LGBTQ+ community would be deemed too hot to handle in some districts, and students would not be given an opportunity to express their views. The ACLU recently reported, “There are close to 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills that have gone before state legislatures since the start of this year, an unprecedented number.”
Dismantling DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) programs in schools appears to be the newest trend. Most high schools offer diversity classes and clubs with such themes as LGTBQ+ that promote inclusion. Students have a need to belong, and hunger for a space in which to feel comfortable with their peers. Acceptance and understanding are fostered in these programs, and taking away these opportunities will have adverse consequences for students.
In May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill banning the state’s public colleges and universities from spending money on DEI programs. It’s obvious that a more conservative philosophy is being promoted. DeSantis declared, “This bill says the whole experiment with DEI is coming to an end in the state of Florida.” Sadly, other states are following suit. Texas has been trying to overhaul its DEI programs as well.
In Ottawa County, Mich., a newly elected conservative school board just abolished its DEI office and cleaned house. They fired its staff and shut down its website. The board had the temerity to take matters into their own hands without placing it on a public agenda ahead of its actions. These types of issues are popping up all around the country. Sometimes, I hardly recognize this country. Society seems to be going backwards.
Irene Mulvey, president of The American Association of University Professors, told Nature Journal in March 2023, “When you see elected leaders demonizing educators and weaponizing education, it’s a five-alarm fire for democracy.” Mulvey went on to discuss targeted attacks on DEI programs. She stressed “It’s important to understand that when governors attack DEI efforts, they completely mischaracterize them to create a straw-man demon that they now have to do away with.” This strategy is gaining momentum and it’s a frightening prospect for education.
Retailers have even caved to demands which stem from a small group of customers. The Detroit Free Press reported on May 25th, “Target is removing certain items from its stores and making changes to its LGTBQ+ merchandise ahead of Pride Month (June), after an intense backlash from some customers including violent confrontations with its workers.”
When I was hired in 1991 to teach Debate and Forensics (not the science one, but public speaking), CASA was considered a premier school and students gravitated toward its exceptional programming. Through the years, CASA grew from a consortium of two school districts to seven. Students were either bused to the school or they drove themselves. Many thought the program wouldn’t survive but determination made it a lasting landmark.
CASA was the brainchild of educators and administrators from two neighboring school districts – Oak Park and Berkley. The program offered a wide variety of classes that couldn’t be found in most schools. CASA ensured the best learning environment for its students. There was strong support from the community, not an abiding sense to control the books and classes offered.
There were only a handful of teachers at the beginning. It started as a two-hour program each afternoon and eventually another hour was added. CASA was so ahead of its time that administrators, teachers, and directors made presentations at educational conferences in Michigan and other states.
The variety of classes throughout the years was truly impressive. Having many Advanced Placement (AP) courses was an incentive for students to attend. World Religions, Literature of the ’60s, Physics, Art, Dance, Music History, and Food for Thought was just a small slice of the offerings. Students also met new friends from other districts. It was a wonderful environment that nurtured inquisitive minds. And a personal bonus–I was able to teach in the classroom next to my sister Gayle for 29 years.
While I was teaching Debate back in the 1990s, the hot topics were the legalization of marijuana and gambling, gay rights and gay marriage, racism and rap music lyrics. When preparing to debate the national resolution each semester, students would practice their skills with these thought-provoking subjects. As time marched on some of these debate topics were no longer needed as society grew more accepting and laws changed.
The books read at CASA were thought provoking and never considered harmful to its student population. Banning books isn’t a 21st century phenomenon. There have been banned book lists for centuries. Just because a book is on these lists doesn’t mean it’s not a proper instructional piece for high school students. Books such as The Color Purple, The Bluest Eye, The Kite Runner, To Kill a Mockingbird, Fences, Animal Farm, Maus, and Slaughterhouse-Five are a few of the distinguished books that have come under attack as of late.
They have been pulled from libraries and eliminated from high school curricula. Students attending CASA and Berkley High School have routinely read most of these books. If a student feels uncomfortable with a particular novel, they are accommodated. This is a rarity, but nonetheless it occurs, and provisions are made.
Many of these controversial books address issues such as sexual abuse, drug use, suicide, racism, death, rape, trauma, and violence, and many contain profane language. Do parents and legislators think that high school students haven’t been exposed to these topics? Are they afraid that reality-based scenarios aren’t in their children’s best interest, or do they just want to erase the terrible truth about what some people have experienced in their lives? Listening to the news, reading a magazine or newspaper will drive these subjects home as well. Are they next for the chopping block?
Reflecting on my years at CASA, students were surrounded with forward-thinking instructors. Now, public schools are being threatened by the abrupt changes that are sweeping this country stemming from conservative ideology. School districts are being challenged about their curricula, books, and the diversity programs they endorse for their student population.
I became an educator because I had a desire to open minds, connect with students and promote free thought — not to discourage it. CASA was created to uplift education. This progressive program is now celebrating its 40-year anniversary. It’s a true reflection of parents, teachers and administrators who want a robust future for their students. CASA should be a model in these troubled times.
On occasion, I feel like a character in a novel viewing the destruction of society. Burning books, not being allowed to discuss certain subjects, and fear of repercussions if caught reading are issues discussed in Fahrenheit 451 by author Ray Bradbury. This book is about censorship— banning books, ignorance and conformity. Fahrenheit 451 has been a topic of controversy for 70 years. And increasingly, you can find it on the banned book list. I’m not ready for another 70 years of intellectual suppression in the classroom.
Judi Markowitz is a retired high school English teacher of 34 years. She primarily taught 12th grade and had the pleasure of her three sons gracing her classes. In addition, she taught debate, forensics, and Detroit film. Judi has four adult children and seven wonderful grandchildren. She is married to Jeffrey Markowitz, whom she met in high school.
Judi grew up in Oak Park, Mich. which had a stellar school district, with excellent teachers. The city provided activities for all–and there were even sidewalks. Judi moved to Huntington Woods as an adult, which is a half mile from her childhood home. She wanted the same experience for her children as she had growing up, and Huntington Woods provided that. The View from Four Foot Two is Judi’s first book.