My granddaughter will go to school next week. So may your child or grandchild. For many, it will be their first time back in classrooms in a year and a half.
What do we want for these young people? At least three things.
First and most obviously, to learn the verbal, mathematical and other thinking tools they’ll need to successfully navigate the world.
But that’s not all. We also want them to become responsible citizens. This means, among other things, becoming aware of the noble aspects of our history as well as the shameful aspects, so they grow into adults who can intelligently participate in our democracy.
Yet some Republican lawmakers don’t want our children to have the whole picture.
Over the last few months, some 26 states have curbed how teachers discuss America’s racist past. Some of these restrictions impose penalties on teachers and administrators who violate them, including the loss of licenses and fines. Many curbs take effect next week.
These legislators prefer that our children learn only the sanitized, vanilla version of America, as if ignorance will make them better citizens.
Why should learning the truth be a politically partisan issue?
The third thing we want for our children and grandchildren heading back to school is even more basic. We want them to be safe.
Yet even as the number of American children hospitalized with Covid-19 has hit a record high, some Republican lawmakers don’t want them to wear masks in school to protect themselves and others.
The governors of Texas and Florida, where Covid is surging, have sought to prohibit school districts from requiring masks. Lawmakers in Kentucky, also experiencing a surge, have repudiated a statewide school mask mandate.
Why should the simple precaution of wearing a mask be a politically partisan issue?
Paradoxically, many of these same Republican lawmakers want people to have easy access to guns, even though school shootings have become tragically predictable.
Between last March and the end of the school year in June – despite most elementary, middle and high schools being partially or entirely closed due to the pandemic – there were 14 school shootings, the highest total over that period since at least 1999.
Since the massacre 22 years ago at Columbine high school near Denver, more than a quarter of a million children have been exposed to gun violence during school hours.
How can lawmakers justify preventing children from masking up against Covid while allowing almost anyone to buy a gun?
The answer to all of this, I think, is a warped sense of the meaning of freedom.
These lawmakers – and many of the people they represent – equate “freedom” with being allowed to go without a mask and to own a gun, while also being ignorant of the shameful aspects of America.
To them, personal freedom means taking no responsibility.
Yet this definition of freedom is precisely the opposite lesson our children and grandchildren need. To be truly free is to learn to be responsible for knowing the truth even if it’s sometimes painful, and responsible for the health and safety of others even if it’s sometimes inconvenient.
The duty to help our children become responsible adults falls mainly on us as parents and grandparents. But our children also need schools that teach and practice the same lessons.
America’s children shouldn’t be held hostage to a partisan political brawl. It’s time we focused solely on their learning and their safety.
Robert Reich, a former US secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few and The Common Good. His new book, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It, is out now. He is a Guardian US columnist