Is our governor dismantling Iowa?

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

Marilynne Robinson has been called “America’s greatest living writer.” When she calls out Iowa’s governor over our state’s new education policies, we need to pay heed.

Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus in the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop (1991-2016). She continues to live in Iowa City where she writes, plans her lectures, and attends to worship at the Congregational United Church of Christ

She is the author of the Pulitzer-winning novel Gilead (2004) and four other novels, all my favorites, plus hundreds of essays, lectures, and collections. Her four novels in the Gilead series were selected as a set for Oprah’s Book Club in 2021.

Photo of Marilynne Robinson is by Christian Scott Heinen Bell, available via Wikimedia Commons

Since this photo was taken in 2012, Robinson has grown a bit older (of course), and her hair grayer and longer. She turns 80 years this month, still a competitor with the powerful Jedi master Yoda for the best-teacher-in-the-universe award. This is evident to me in her collection of essays entitled When I Was a Child I Read Books (2013). In the book’s first essay, she writes:

I have reached the point in my life when I can see what has mattered, what has become a part of its substance—I might say a part of my substance. Some of these things are obvious, since they have been important to me in my career as a student and teacher. But some of them I could never have anticipated. The importance to me of elderly and old American hymns is certainly one example. They can move me so deeply that I have difficulty even speaking about them….There is something about being human that makes us love and crave grand narratives….

After my first reading of Gilead, I became a fan. So is Barack Obama. Reading her corpus would require a decade. Understanding, a lifetime of worthwhile work. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, once described Robinson as “one of the world’s most compelling English-speaking novelists,” adding that “Robinson’s is a voice we urgently need to attend to in both Church and society.

President Obama quoted Robinson in his eulogy (June 26, 2015) for Clementa C. Pinckney, who was murdered by a white supremacist at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In speaking about “an open heart,” Obama said: “[w]hat a friend of mine, the writer Marilynne Robinson, calls ‘that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.'”

In the fall of 2015, The New York Review of Books published a two-part conversation between Obama and Robinson, covering topics in American history and the role of faith in society, which, by the way, should be required reading for governors, each member of states’ legislatures, and every member of the public education family, including our Iowa Department of Education Director McKenzie Snow. It’s that important. 

Robinson has won numerous prestigious awards since 1982, including the National Humanities Medal in 2012 for “grace and intelligence in writing.”

The New Yorker writer Casey Cep wrote an in-depth biographical essay for the September 25, 2020, issue entitled “Marilynne Robinson’s Essential American Stories.” Cep chronicled Robinson’s writing life from childhood in Idaho, her university education, to her first novel Housekeeping, and up to her latest, entitled Jack (2020). 

Robinson Rebukes Governor Reynolds

So, my whole being jerked to attention when I read Robinson’s rebuke of Governor Kim Reynolds’ education policies in the New York Review of Books‘ November 2, 2023 edition. I recommend the publication—your public library should have copies.

Her essay is entitled ”Dismantling Iowa: American higher education is premised on liberal ideals, intended to make young people independent thinkers and capable citizens. What’s happening in Iowa undermines that legacy.” Robinson is careful with words, so her choice of the words “dismantling Iowa” is not haphazard. It’s meant as a graceful kick in the proverbial butt to awaken us to the statewide fracturing she sees in the pillars of statehood.

She begins her essay saying, “I once loved Iowa.” And details the long history, since before statehood, when the territory was dotted with colleges and harbored an antislavery culture, even maintaining an Underground Railroad used by the abolitionist John Brown and others to ferry freed Negroes to safety. The real town of Tabor, Iowa, a rest stop on the “railroad,” became Robinson’s model for the setting of the fictional Gilead. 

Now, she says, “I am obliged to look at Iowa as a far less reassuring paradigm of our possible future.” She asks, “What do these people want?” These people are the governor, her Republican majorities in both chambers of the Iowa legislature, and their supporters.

In fact, Robinson calls out Governor Reynolds by name: “She was elected to a full term in 2018, then reelected in a landslide in 2022, bringing with her an overwhelming majority of Republican legislators. Since then, Iowa has become a theater and a laboratory for root-and-branch retrogression. I am glad for Iowa’s sake that nationally so few people know or care what its (Iowa’s) legislature does. At the same time, there is benefit to be had in watching how this important faction governs, given a free hand.”

If it happens that their goal is to create a permanent underclass, they are doing many things right. This is not at all the objective they claim for themselves. They pose as champions of the people. But they are making a wholesale attack on the basic institutions of the country, by policy and by the spread of pernicious distrust that undercuts the authority of institutions they do not control. This has led to an important reconfiguring of society on the basis of nothing worthier of respect than anger and resentment.

The New York Review of Books

Pernicious Distrust

I am fascinated with the phrase “pernicious distrust that undercuts the authority of institutions.” I could read no further in her essay and understand completely what she’s getting at. We all can turn back to February 2023, amidst the legislative season, when Reynolds spoke to an assemblage of her people, the book-maligning Moms for Liberty, in a meetup still available on YouTube. There, the governor (in my view) spawned and disseminated pernicious distrust of public education:

You know.  In the last few years, even here in Iowa, we’ve seen policies direct staff to conceal 12-year old children’s preferred pronouns from their own parents.

We’ve seen kids taught by trusted adults that they’re either oppressors or they’re being oppressed.

We’ve seen schools look at so sexually graphic books that, as you heard, a local TV station couldn’t air an excerpt of it as I read them out loud on the camera without a warning. (We’re not going to be silent.)

What I love about this group [Moms for Liberty] is that you’re not just angry. You’re doing something about it. You’re fighting for the fundamental principle that parents are the primary decision-makers for their children.

There was a time that this would have been so obvious, and for most people that truly is still the case.

It’s just a small, but loud minority that’s trying to change our educational system and indoctrinate our children.

They think “patriotism” is racist. Pornographic library books are education. They believe the content of our character is less important than the color of our skin. They believe children should be encouraged to pick their gender . And, as for parents, well,  they’re just in the way.

But I do want to make one thing clear. The vast majority of our educators the ones that I know and the ones you encounter every day are doing great work. They want what we want. And that is the best for our children.

Again, it’s just a small, but loud minority that’s trying to change our educational system and indoctrinate our children. So when you see educators doing what they should be and doing it well, be sure to thank them because we need these teachers now more than ever.

But, because that small but loud minority want to take over, and they are growing in numbers everyday, it truly is time we take a stand. It’s that you’re not just angry. You’re doing something about it. You’re fighting for the fundamental principle that parents are the primary decision-makers for their children.

Robinson writes in her New York Review of Books essay,

In keeping with their lockstep “conservatism,” the Iowa governor and her legislature have launched a campaign to embarrass the public grade schools. Of course there is now great perturbation about what can or cannot be included in their libraries. This intrusion of the state government on traditionally more or less autonomous communities has the tenor of a moral crackdown. New laws have been enacted to bring unruly librarians to heel. Educational standards for new librarians have been lowered. The governor says, of course, that the legislation “sets boundaries to protect Iowa’s children from woke indoctrination.” It is as if parents zipping up their five-year-old’s jacket feel a qualm of fear because of potential classroom exposure to sinister ideas, not because their state now allows permitless concealed and open carry.

I would add that Obama’s Pinckney eulogy is recognized for its eloquence, scope, and grace as a work of great American literature. Fifty years ago, had a public high school English teacher assigned it for class reading and discussion, she would have been celebrated as Teacher of the Week and gotten her name and picture in the newspaper. Today, such an assignment might get her fired for teaching woke lit that might cause a student to “feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” based on their race as a result of actions by others in the past.

Importance of Higher Education

Robinson writes,

Americans are generally unaware of the singular development and importance of higher education in their own country. What impulse has built, maintained, and continuously developed all these institutions? Why are they typically beautiful? Iowa was very much a part of the zeal for education that characterized the early Midwest, an inheritance from its activist settlers. 

It’s worth noting that the National Defense Education Act of 1958 became one of the most successful legislative initiatives in higher education. President Eisenhower signed the bill in response to a perceived national threat: the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik I satellite the previous year. 

The law established the legitimacy of federal funding of higher education and made substantial funds available for low-cost student loans, boosting public and private colleges and universities. 

Although aimed primarily at education in science, mathematics, and foreign languages, the act also helped expand college libraries and other services for all students. The funding began in 1958 and was increased over the next several years. The results were conspicuous: in 1960 there were 3.6 million students in college, and by 1970 there were 7.5 million. Many of them got their college education only because of the availability of National Defense Education Act loans.

Robinson notes,

In 2015 the National Institutes of Health published a study showing that the life expectancy of white Americans who did not finish high school was lower by ten years than that of those who completed four years of college. This figure was arrived at without reference to the colleges the graduates had attended or their fields of study. Eliminating race as a variable excluded other considerations that affect span of life. It is reasonable to assume that income and status enter into this striking result. To the extent that they do, they are another demonstration of the importance of education in America and of the need to make it more broadly accessible. This is an issue of social justice and of public health as well—we would celebrate a medical breakthrough with comparable impact.

“Despite these benefits, we are in a period when the value of education is disputed,” Robinson adds.

Importance of Childhood

Robinson emphasizes the importance of childhood: “Education is a special case within the larger issue of the inequities that arise from social injustice as it has an impact on children.”

For Robinson, Iowa’s governor has claimed to pursue “equality as she understands it for Iowa students.” Her school voucher plan provides public funding for every child who is approved by the state to attend a private school, the money to be released when the child is accepted there.

As for the character of these schools, actual or imagined, the implicit promise seems to be that contact with ideas and people some find problematic can be avoided, that they can be and will be excluded on what are called religious grounds.

I would highlight one irony of the wholesale rape of public schooling: the GOP-controlled legislature forbade public schools from teaching all students about ideas some parents find problematic. A single objection from a parent can redirect instruction for every child away from an idea or book a teacher might otherwise include in her lessons.

If the image of an anchor cast over the side of a sleek sailing vessel amidst competition comes to mind, you’ve got the picture. The anchor is emblematic of the governor’s new policy enforcing “the fundamental principle that parents are the primary decision-makers for their children,” and apparently all children.

In her speech to Moms for Liberty, the governor mocked the assumption that there are universal truths, so crucial to the continuity of democracy, that society’s discretion must override a parent’s contrary viewpoint.

I encourage you to read Robinson’s essay in full, as she discusses other things conservatives have dismantled in Iowa, from gun laws to child labor regulations. “Social inequities can always be and usually are institutionalized and exploited,” she notes. “The escape from them in the US, besides law and protest, has been education. The governor of Iowa prefers reforms that will lead directly from public school to apprenticeship and the workforce.”

If this essay is overly long, I apologize. I join Marilynne Robinson in ruing this wave of MAGA insults on learning and its conveyances we call public schools. I am heartened by the rebound of progressives who won seats on many Iowa school boards this month. 

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  • I Wonder

    This is an excellent essay Gerald. Thanks for introducing me to this great thinker.

    It’s a refreshing reminder that Iowa is the home or chosen home of many great minds that contribute to our society’s blessings.

    I wonder . . . will such people soon pass us by as the Governor and the legislature take a wrecking ball to the foundational things that once made Iowa “a place to grow?”

  • she's better at making things up then telling actual history

    the idea that all of this started with our current Gov’s new education policy is absurd and profoundly ahistorical, she ignores Iowa’s central place in the development and dissemination of Christian Nationalism, ignores the Branstad admin, ignores the work of reporters like Nikole Hannah-Jones, the removal of the Justices who voted for marriage equality, years of disinvestment in public schools including her own, and perhaps most importantly the stripping of the right to strike for teachers.
    If folks are interested in the actual history of the long history of the struggles for public education and better work and living conditions I recommend the Have You Heard podcast:
    “For decades, the idea that education is the primary driver of economic opportunity has held sway. The education myth, as our guest Jon Shelton describes it, has attained the status of common sense, captivating politicians from left to right. But the overselling of education as the fix for economic inequality has been politically disastrous, not to mention bad for schools and teachers. Shelton argues that we desperately need a new way to talk about education, one that puts schools in a larger context of social democracy and economic security.”

  • Dirkiniowacity

    You are quite right. There are other historical examples of dismantling that MR might have included in her essay. There’s a book that could be written: “The Rise and Fall of Public Education in Iowa.” I was a teacher in Keokuk the year (1970) of the strike, and rode that stallion as an ISEA staffer from 1973 to early 90s. Robinson chooses to focus on the recent legislative insults, including the child-labor laws, banning critical instruction, removing books, denigrating public schools while praising (funding) the privates, and of course the underfunding all public schools. The greatest insult is the elevation of “parents’ rights” as an authority over curriculum, child development, etc. etc. Thank you for feedback.