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A Book Too Dangerous To Assign?

By: Julia Eklund Koza | Date: May 17, 2024 | Tags: Higher Education, Author Post
A Book Too Dangerous To Assign?

This guest post is by Julia Eklund Koza, author of "Destined to Fail": Carl Seashore’s World of Eugenics, Psychology, Education, and Music, which is available in hardcover and ebook. “Destined to Fail” was named the Winner of the 2022 Outstanding Book of the Year Award in Division B: Curriculum Studies by the American Educational Research Association (AERA). Because of the book’s timeliness (especially Chapter 10, as the author notes), the entire book will be available free-to-read for the rest of 2024.

“It would be too dangerous to assign Chapter 10 on this campus.” These were the words of the full professor who had invited me to talk to graduate students at a major research university about my award-winning book “Destined to Fail”: Carl Seashore’s World of Eugenics, Psychology, Education, and Music. The hosting professor had asked me which chapters students should read in advance. I had recommended Chapter 10, “Resemblances,” in which I map out connections between past and present that illustrate the continuing influence of eugenics. For example, I document connections between eugenicists of a century ago and some supporters of Donald Trump, members of his administration, and then-president Trump, himself. I had worked eighteen years on the book, never dreaming at the outset that my historical research on a long-dead psychologist who had profoundly influenced music education would lead me to the doorstep of a sitting president. But it did. A historian of eugenics told me I was brave and said that decades earlier, he had received death threats. Concerned that the alt-right might weaponize even small inaccuracies, I carefully documented my claims and meticulously fact-checked my sources. I had written about hot topics my whole career, but the host’s remark prompted me to consider the possibility that for the first time, my work might end up on a banned book list.

The hosting professor was concerned about students’ safety in the wake of troubling recent incidents on that campus. I respect my host and appreciate this concern, especially given the political polarization and pervasive climate of fear in the US today. I know that knowledge can be dangerous. I recognize that attempts to create a more just nation are under siege and that speaking truth to power can have brutal consequences. However, at a time when a powerful, vocal, right-wing minority in the US wants students to be taught history that is incomplete and not evidence based, we who oppose this should emphatically stress that promulgating falsehoods and suppressing or omitting critical information have universally harmful effects.

First, there is the matter of lying. In 1894, Frederick Douglass said, “In old times when it was asked, ‘How can we abolish slavery?’ the answer was ‘Quit stealing.’ The same is the solution of the Race problem to-day.” Adding to his line of thought, I argue that in 2024, one way to abolish racial injustice in the US is for white people to quit lying. (I reject the term “disinformation” because it prettifies lies.) When people testify in court, they swear to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Historians and teachers of history are testifiers and should be held to a similarly high standard. I am far from the first person to note that the version of history students are commonly taught tends to be riddled with inaccuracies. But when inaccuracies are knowingly promulgated, they become lies. In 2024, using lack of knowledge as an excuse is disingenuous; the brutal racism that has shaped US policies, practices, and attitudes for centuries is well documented, including in my book.

The dangers of lying to students, whether they are in kindergarten or graduate school, are incalculable. Lying is harmful to those lied to and those lied about. Moreover, it destroys liars—from the inside out. It eats away at trust and can erode the foundations of a nation. As we face the possible return to office of a former president whose philosophy can be summarized by the words “lying works,” we need to keep in mind the destructive effects of lying—in histories and elsewhere, and we should push back.

Next, there are the matters of omission and suppression. Recognizing that silence can be a form of violence, I argue that misleading people by suppressing or omitting critical information is as dangerous and harmful as outright lying. My book is the kind of evidence-based history that Ron DeSantis and others want to eradicate, and yet it is the history that must be told and believed if this nation is to bend the “arc of the moral universe” toward justice, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Omitting the violent, tragic, unjust aspects of the US past and telling rose-colored lies will not bend that arc, at least not in the direction of justice. Accurate histories of the US should trouble readers—for the right reasons. They should make people think and question received “truths.” Mine does. Accurate histories of the US, including mine, do not flatter white people.

Connecting past to present, my book brings to light troubling, untold truths—many of them about education and music education in the early twentieth century—that continue to shape the present. Chapter 10 helps readers understand that those who promote replacement theory today are deploying racist, antisemitic concepts having deep roots in the US. The inflammatory rhetoric currently in circulation surrounding immigration is traceable directly to the centuries-old racism that undergirded eugenical thought in the US in the early twentieth century, including ideas Carl Seashore espoused. Adolph Hitler read this eugenical thought and said it influenced him. Reading Chapter 10 may help people realize that the past lives on in the present and affects everyone, including students, teachers, and researchers in music education, many of whom believe that the field stands outside the realm of cultural politics.

Finally, based on what I admit is anecdotal information, I am concerned that some white academics in my field are responding to the current climate of fear and repression by ducking and covering—by tiptoeing away from topics that might stir the pot and retreating to the supposed safety of less controversial subjects and research. If this is the case, then the right-wing minority that seeks to suppress is succeeding, partly because those who can duck and cover are doing so. Some may say that ducking and covering is a wise strategy because it allows justice-minded professors to “live to fight another day.” However, being able to duck and cover exemplifies white privilege, privilege that white people need to acknowledge and fiercely interrogate. As Adrian Davis powerfully reminds us, “Engaging in allyship only at a convenient level is pseudo-allyship.” Furthermore, when I talked about this with Gloria Ladson-Billings, she observed that ducking and covering may not be protective, and she pointed to the illusory nuclear-attack school drills of the Cold War era. Hiding under desks will not protect us.

Juliet Hess has called upon white academics to be courageous. I think that going it alone is too dangerous, however, and so I issue a challenge to all white people in academe and elsewhere who recognize lies as lies: together, let’s take the responsibilities of privilege seriously. Together, let’s try and stop the lying. We can start by reading—and assigning—Chapter 10.