Conservatives Attack Anti-bias Education

By Barbara Miner

The right-wing attack against multiculturalism has moved from the college campuses into kindergarten, spearheaded by an article in the New Republic.

The attack, which specifically targets the early childhood book, Anti-Bias Curriculum, and the Council on Interracial Books for Children, escalated in November when Reader’s Digest condensed the New Republic article. It did so in a column called “That’s Outrageous” and subtitled, “Spotlighting absurdities in our society is the first step toward eliminating them.”

The articles ridicule attempts to make young children aware of cultural biases. Their basic message is clear: America, wake up! These uptight, politically correct, multicultural fanatics are even trying to take away our most cherished childhood stories, from Cinderella to Hansel and Gretel.

The “That’s Outrageous” reaction could equally be applied to the Reader’s Digest article. Why, early childhood educators are asking, is the right-wing trying to ridicule, slander, and stifle a movement whose only political crime is helping young children to learn tolerance and respect for diversity?

Louise Derman-Sparks, author of the highly praised Anti-Bias Curriculum, said she sees the controversy in the larger political framework of not only attacks on multiculturalism, but growing appeals to overt racism and bigotry as manifested in the gubernatorial candidacy of David Duke.

“The struggle over the ideology of this country is getting more and more polarized, between those who want to hold on to a white and male control over all aspects of society, versus those who want to transform society to be more just and inclusive,” she said. “And the conservative right has always seen education as a key place to gain control.”

Anti-Bias Curriculum, published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, has been nationally recognized for its efforts to give teachers concrete ways to counter bias among young children. It covers issues from racial and cultural differences and similarities, to bias against the disabled, to how children learn about gender identity. The New York-based Council on Interracial Books for Children, founded 25 years ago, has long been held in esteem for its pioneering work on exposing biases and stereotypes in children’s books.

Radio Station Begins Attack

Derman-Sparks said Anti-Bias Curriculum was first attacked last spring by a right-wing fundamentalist radio station in California. During a program called Focus on Family, the station accused her book of promoting homosexuality and witchcraft.

The irony, Derman-Sparks said, is that the 149-page book deals only briefly with witchcraft. It does so in the context of discussing Halloween and how the “mean, ugly, evil witch myth” is related to witch hunts historically used against midwives and other independent women.

Derman-Sparks also said there is almost nothing in Anti-Bias Curriculum about dealing with kids from gay and lesbian families —“not enough frankly,” she added — precisely because people were worried about accusations of promoting homosexuality.

“Somebody had to go through the book very carefully to find those sections,” Derman-Sparks said. “It isn’t something that would leap out at you.”

The attack seemed contained to the right-wing fringe. Then came the article in the New Republic, which has made a journalistic hobby out of attacking multiculturalism, Afro-centrism, and so-called “political correctness.” Written by free-lance writer Kay Sunstein Hymowitz, the article was entitled, “PC In Nursery School. Babar the Racist”. The opening sentences set the ridiculing tone of the article: “Perhaps it was inevitable. But the latest minority to join the plethora of ethnic, sexual, and cultural groups now seeking the status of victimhood are, yes, witches.”

Derman-Sparks said her first inclination was to let the article slide. But then the Sept. 23 issue of Fortune recapitulated the arguments of the New Republic article. And then Reader’s Digest let loose with its attack, sending its message to millions of readers. Further, one of the women quoted in the New Republic and Fortune articles, Pat Ramsey, received a number of hate letters. Ramsey is the author of the book Teaching and Learning in a Diverse World, and director of the Gorse Child Studies Center in Mount Holyoke, Mass.

Ramsey said she is particularly disturbed by the condescending, ridiculing approach of the articles. “It’s all designed to make multicultural education look very silly,” she said.

This in turn, she said, might make people back away from attempts to incorporate a multicultural perspective in their teaching, “It’s infuriating,” she said of the attacks. “But it also makes me concerned for the future.”