With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Is Moms For Liberty Out to Protect Kids or Scare Parents?

In August, 2020, Williamson County Schools, which serves more than forty thousand students in suburban Nashville, started using an English and Language Arts curriculum called Wit & Wisdom. The program, which is published by Great Minds, a company based in Washington, D.C., wasn’t a renegade choice: hundreds of school districts nationwide had adopted it. Both Massachusetts and Louisiana—states with sharply different political profiles—gave Wit & Wisdom high approval ratings.

The decision had followed a strict process. The Tennessee State Board of Education governs academic standards and updates them every five or six years, providing school districts with an opportunity to switch curricula. Williamson County Schools assembled a selection committee—twenty-six parents, twenty-eight elementary-school teachers of English and Language Arts. The committee presented four options to teachers, who voted on them in February, 2020. Wit & Wisdom was the overwhelming favorite. After the selection committee ratified the teachers’ choice, the school board, which has twelve members, unanimously adopted Wit & Wisdom, along with a traditional phonics program, for K-5 students.

Great Minds’s promotional materials explain that Wit & Wisdom is designed to let students “read books they love while building knowledge of important topics” in literature, science, history, and art. By immersing students in “content-rich” topics that spark lively discussion, the curriculum prepares them to tackle more complicated texts. The materials are challenging by design: studies have shown that students read better sooner when confronted with complex sentences and advanced vocabulary. Wit & Wisdom’s hundred and eighteen “core” texts, which range from picture books to nonfiction, emphasize diversity, but not in a strident way. They provide “mirrors and windows,” allowing readers both to see themselves in the stories and to learn about other people’s lives. The curriculum assigns or recommends portraits of heralded pioneers: Leonardo da Vinci, Sacagawea, Clara Barton, Duke Ellington, Ada Lovelace. The lessons revolve around readings, augmented with paintings, poetry, speeches, interviews, films, and music: in the module “A Hero’s Journey,” students explore an illustrated retelling of the Odyssey alongside the Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic, while also discussing “Star Wars.” A section on “Wordplay” pairs “The Phantom Tollbooth” with Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine.

Elsewhere in Tennessee, teachers were saying that Wit & Wisdom improved literacy. The superintendent of Lauderdale County, a rural area where nearly a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, published an essay reporting that his district’s teachers had noticed “an enormous difference in students’ writing” after implementing the curriculum. Wit & Wisdom encourages students to discuss readings with their families—a father in Sumner County, northeast of Nashville, was pleased that his daughters now talked about civil rights and the American Revolution at dinner.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Wit & Wisdom became the target of intense criticism. At first, the campaign in Williamson County was cryptic: stray e-mails, phone calls, public-information requests. Eric Welch, who was first elected to the school board in 2010, told me that the complainers “wouldn’t just e-mail us—they would copy the county commission, our state legislative delegation, and state representatives in other counties.” He said, “It was obviously an attempt to intimidate.”

The school board is an American institution whose members, until recently, enjoyed visibility on a par with that of the county tax collector. “There’s no glory in being a school-board member—and there shouldn’t be,” Anne McGraw, a former Williamson County Schools board member, said on a local podcast last year. Normally, the district’s public meetings were sedate affairs featuring polite exchanges among civic-minded locals. The system’s slogan was: “Be nice.”

In May, 2021, as the district finished its first academic year with Wit & Wisdom, women wearing “Moms for Liberty” T-shirts began appearing at school-board meetings. They brought large placards that contained images and text from thirty-one books that they didn’t want students to read. In public comments and in written complaints, the women claimed that Wit & Wisdom was teaching children to hate themselves, one another, their families, and America. “Rap a Tap Tap,” an illustrated story about the vaudeville-era tap dancer Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, by the Caldecott medalists Leo and Diane Dillon, harped on “skin color differences.” A picture book about seahorses, which touched on everything from their ability to change color to the independent movement of their eyes, threatened to “normalize that males can get pregnant” by explaining that male seahorses give birth; the Moms suspected a covert endorsement of “gender fluidity.” Greco-Roman myths: nudity, cannibalism. (Venus emerges naked from the sea; Tantalus cooks his son.)

Read entire article at The New Yorker