The caveman syndrome

Gerald Ott of Ankeny was a high school English teacher and for 30 years a school improvement consultant for the Iowa State Education Association.

My favorite memoir is Tara Westover’s EDUCATED: A memoir (2018). Apparently, I wasn’t alone. The book was number one on the New York Times best sellers list for over a year, and voted to the Times’ Ten Best Books for 2018. 

As Westover tells it, her parents, especially her father, were survivalists living off the grid at the base of a mountain in a Mormon pocket of southeastern Idaho. She didn’t have a birth certificate until she was nine. Her father’s distrust and disdain for government was so ferocious he barred his seven children from going to public school.

The children all worked in their father’s scrap metal business, where injuries were frequent. He refused formal medical treatment for disease or injury, and Tara once suffered through tonsillitis without seeing a doctor.  

Fortunately, Tara’s older brother taught her the basics of reading, and she self-taught by reading Mormon literature, the Bible, and other books brought home on the sly. Miraculously, she passed the ACT and got into Brigham Young University, where her talents were recognized. Pell Grants enabled her to thrive, so much so that she eventually got a scholarship and earned a PhD (2014) in history from Trinity College Cambridge Univetsity. 

Westover’s father took “parental rights” to the extreme and beyond. Abusive? Yes, of course. But beyond the reach of Idaho truant officers. He told his daughter public school was a ploy by the government to lead children away from God. The image I have of him is a caveman welding a club to control his family and deny them access to a secular life. What would have happened to Tara had she been unable to squirm her way out from under her father’s theologically terrorism? 

“Parental rights” is the grand theme of a grassroots movement Moms for Liberty, whose local leaders (exterminators) were invited to speak at an Iowa House Government Oversight Committee meeting on February 6. Moms for Liberty wants to ban from school libraries books like the award-winning Gender Queer. The presentation by five local women was a fulsome outing of books they think too juicy for school-age kids—reminiscent of Governor Kim Reynolds reading on TV of an excerpt from All Boys Aren't Blue.

All Boys Aren’t Blue is a series of essays George M. Johnson wrote about growing up as a queer Black, hardly something Reynolds could relate to. She’s a privileged white woman, an avowed prig, so (of course) not a queer Black person entering puberty with no road map.

Instead of curiosity, Reynolds and her Moms for Liberty allies feel squeamish, so they mock, deny, cancel, and try to legislate the “other” out of existence. It’s the same with African American History, LBGTQ affirmation, or social-emotional learning—all too diverse for their personal taste or right-wing purity.

Westover’s father comes to mind, as does the Scopes Monkey Trial where in 1925 a Tennessee high school teacher was accused of illegally teaching human evolution in a state-funded school. Prosecutors ‘claimed Darwinism was detrimental to our morality and “an assault on the very citadel of our Christian religion.”

One member of the House Government Oversight Committee, Representative Steven Holt from Denison, showed his cards when wrote in the Des Moines Register, “Our public school system once actually taught reading, writing and arithmetic, and the skills needed to become a responsible and productive citizen. Today, many of our schools teach values that are an affront to the faith-based values of our families, while also promoting a disdain of our nation that defies logic.”

A mouthful, I know, but every Republican on the committee seems to think like him.

Much like Westover’s father, Holt seems like an autocratic caveman wanting to club public schools back into citadels of faith-based indoctrination. I would say, he wants public schools to be “shills” for his personal canards. If he were merely an old fart siphoning Fox News into his brain and screeching it back to his comrades at Sunday services, he’d be harmless, a quaint throwback to the Inquisition. But his comrades have elected him (and his convictions) to the state legislature where he sits with the majority on both Oversight and Education, and chairs the Judiciary Committee. Fair warning, Denison voters, this man does not represent the majority in your town. He abuses his office. 2024 is your chance to send him back to the cave.

I’ve read Gender Queer and several other of the books the Moms for Liberty mentioned. First, Maia Kobabe wrote Gender Queer for young adult readers, not babies or legislators. It’s a detailed, coming-of-age memoir, a roadmap through the author’s puberty with all the bases covered and well illustrated. Too "woke" for the self-appointed Moms, of course.

For obvious reasons, the book was picked up by curious teens who read it and passed it on to others, eventually landing it in school libraries where it belongs. The book’s sales went up a thousand percent when some woman in Texas told a legislator she felt offended by the facts of Kobabe’s gender-questioning life. 

Since the author was telling their own story, I trust their authenticity and found it believable and artfully rendered, possibly shocking to the culturally naive. The illustrations are beautifully drawn and in no way offensive. It was instructive for me as an old man and, I assume, a valuable resource for young folks whose curiosity is peaking. To stand between a young person and their learning, even from a graphic novel, is quixotic at best, criminal at worse.

I’m wondering if members of the legislative committee have read Gender Queer? How is it that the Republican members (but not the Democrats) share the angst of the Moms for Liberty? Is this partisan, a mere GOP wedge issue? Have these folks ever experienced puberty? How did they get so uptight? Is it a church thing? Why would they think a school library is, even vaguely, under their jurisdiction? 

Oh yeah, I remember. The caveman syndrome.

Artwork courtesy of Clip Art Max.

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