The controversy over the “mouse” is part of a larger cultural struggle in Tennessee

ATHENS, Tennessee — After the McMinn County School Board voted to remove “Maus,” a graphic novel about the Holocaust, from the eighth-grade curriculum in January, the community quickly found itself at the center of a national frenzy over book censorship .

The book rose to the top of the Amazon bestseller list. Its author, Art Spiegelman, compared the board to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and suggested that McMinn officials would rather “teach a nicer Holocaust.” At a recent school board meeting, opponents of the book’s removal poured into an overflow room.

But the outcry didn’t move the school board to reconsider. And the panel’s objections don’t stop at the “mouse” or the school district’s Holocaust education materials.

“It appears the entire curriculum was designed to normalize sexuality, nudity and profanity,” said Mike Cochran, a school board member. “I think we need to rethink the whole curriculum.”

Such efforts are being encouraged statewide, putting Tennessee at the forefront of a statewide conservative effort to reshape what students learn and read in public schools.

A Tennessee bill bans textbooks that “promote LGBTQ issues or lifestyles”; one passed in June would ban material that makes someone “discomfort” because of their race or gender. Another allows partisan school board elections, which critics fear will introduce cultural grievances into educational debates. Nashville state lawmakers are considering a ban on “obscene material” in school libraries and a measure requiring school boards to establish procedures for reviewing school library collections. Governor Bill Lee recently announced a partnership with a Christian college to open 50 charter schools dedicated to raising children to become “informed patriots.”

The combined impact of all these activities has alarmed educators and others in the state concerned about academic freedom. “There’s just not one or two people here — there’s a mindset that’s coming down from the governor to ban conversation and compartmentalize communities and erase life experiences from classroom discussions,” said Hedy Weinberg, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.

Kailee Isham, a ninth-grade English teacher in McMinn County, said the environment changed her teaching. She is reluctant to raise issues such as racism and socioeconomic or LGBTQ issues in her classroom for fear of being attacked by conservative parents.

“A lot of my job is trying to figure out what’s okay,” Ms Isham said, adding, “Not being able to talk about the things that I think are really important – not being able to express myself – is a bit frustrating at times when it seems like everyone else has no trouble expressing themselves louder and louder.”

McMinn County’s decision to ban “Maus” was widely interpreted as a rejection or disregard for Holocaust education. The book, which portrays Jews as mice and Nazis as cats when it comes to the imprisonment of the author’s father in Auschwitz, has been used in social studies classes across the country since the early 1990s, when it became the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.

But school board members cited narrower concerns: multiple instances of “inappropriate words” — including “slut” and “goddamn” — and a picture of a partially nude woman.

“This board is the arbiter of community standards regarding the curriculum in McMinn County schools,” Scott Bennett, the board’s attorney, said at a packed board meeting in February. “At the end of the day, it’s that board that has the responsibility to make those decisions.”

The decision to remove “Mouse” began with complaints from parents and teachers around the beginning of the current semester, according to school board members. The district had recently switched to a new curriculum provider, and it was the first time the book had been awarded.

School staff were initially ordered to redact instances of “rough, offensive language” as well as the nude image. But the school board decided that wasn’t enough.

Tony Allman, a board member, noted that “Mouse” described people being hanged and children killed. “Why does the education system encourage something like this?” he asked. “It’s neither smart nor sane.”

Curriculum leaders defended the depictions of violence as essential to the telling of the story of the Holocaust.

“People have hung themselves from trees, people have committed suicide and people have been killed — over six million have been murdered,” Melasawn Knight, a curriculum leader, said at the January meeting at which the board voted to remove the book from the to delete the curriculum.

A board member expressed concern about the precedent the decision could set. “We could change a lot more things if we put that stance in just a few words,” Rob Shamblin said at the meeting.

Nonetheless, Mr Shamblin, along with the rest of the 10-member panel, voted to remove the book from the curriculum. The next day, the principal of the district schools notified principals throughout the school system that “all ‘Mouse’ books will be repatriated from your schools soon.”

Athens, the seat of McMinn County, is a quiet, rural community with an elegant white-columned courthouse, low-rise 19th-century brick buildings, and a reputation as a “friendly city.” The district school system serves only 5,300 students. But in the weeks since the “mouse” decision broke in the local media, it has become the focus of a new political activism, including among students.

Unsolicited, boxes of donated copies of the book flooded the local public library. High school students rushed to get copies and passed them between classes.

Emma Stratton, a McMinn County High School student, drove an hour away to Chattanooga with her mother and brother to purchase several copies of the graphic novel. “If they take this book away, what else are they taking away from us?” Emma asked, adding, “They’re trying to hide the story from us.”

A discussion of the book held on Zoom by a local church drew so much interest that the church had to turn people away. Two local residents have announced rare challenges to school board members up for re-election, with the support of a new local group leading the opposition.

The fight over the “mouse” is the latest focus of a nationwide wave of conservative attacks on teenage reading material in school libraries and classrooms. Dozens of bills aimed at banning the teaching of subjects derided as “critical race theory” have been introduced in state legislatures nationwide in recent years. Conservative groups have targeted books about race, gender and sexuality, with more than 300 book challenges reported last fall, according to the American Library Association, which called the number “unprecedented.”

In Tennessee, efforts to rethink what materials are taught and made available to public school students are being given serious encouragement at the state capitol, including by the governor, who has made the issue of parental rights a focus.

“We also need to empower parents with an open view of not just how their children are learning, but what their children are learning,” said Mr. Lee, a Republican, last month. “The vast majority of parents believe they should be allowed to see books, syllabuses and other items used in class. That’s how I felt about my children and I stand by those parents today.”

Legislators have drawn on bills in other states, policy research by conservative think tanks, and previous bills in Tennessee to compile a list of laws to limit materials and topics available to students. Pressure has increased from Moms for Liberty chapters, a parent rights advocacy group active in Tennessee.

“We have a perfect storm of circumstances encouraging lawmakers to address this issue,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office of Freedom of Thought.

The Republican agenda to reshape education goes even further: In his State of State address, Mr. Lee proposed creating a $6 million American civics institute at the University of Tennessee as a counterbalance to colleges and universities , which he says “centers the anti-American thought that leaves our students not only ill-equipped but confused.”

State Senator Heidi Campbell, a Democrat, is concerned about what she sees as a sweeping effort to undermine trust in public education. “It was a very effective way of whipping up the masses,” she said, adding, “It’s about instilling fear in the idea of ​​awakened socialists trying to take over our country and indoctrinate our children. And ironically, it’s all for the purpose of indoctrinating our children.”

Even before the McMinn County “mouse” vote, English teacher Ms. Isham reconsiders her career. She entered the profession because she wanted to help students work through difficult subjects, she said, but with the tightened exam, it feels pointless. She plans to retire by the end of this semester after only a year in the classroom. She doesn’t know what’s coming next.

“We’re getting to say less and less,” Ms Isham said. “Our hands are tied behind our backs at this point.” The controversy over the “mouse” is part of a larger cultural struggle in Tennessee

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