Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Friday Night Lights and Public Education: A Reflection

I've come to love Friday Night Lights: cheering for my high school football team and (more important, since my daughter's in the band) for the pride of Stillwater, the Pioneer Marching Band.

I love the fact that I am united with a whole bunch of people I don't know in a shared set of rituals, cheering for OUR team, cheering on OUR band, watching the dance/pom squad and the cheer squad show off their competition routines, cheering for all the young people who have accomplished great things in our community and are brought to the crowd's attention during breaks in game play.

You know what wouldn't achieve this kind of community unity, bring people from all over town together from a wide range of different demographics and economic brackets? The football game of the McUppity Private College-Preparatory School.

Conservativism, at its heart, is about valuing traditions and long-standing institutions and being very cautious about upending or damaging them. Our public schools are one such long-standing institution, and so much of our collective life--so much of our culture--has grown up and taken shape in and through our public schools.

At their best, our public schools bring divergent parts of our communities together in the shared project of supporting and education and cheering for our kids. Nothing symbolizes this more than Friday Night Lights, when people from different economic brackets, different political parties, and different faith communities, come together to cheer the community’s kids. 

But there is a growing ideological opposition to our public schools, one that prefers a vision of everyone-for-themselves fragmentation in which public dollars are funneled into private schools instead--schools that by their nature aren't for everyone. "School choice" sounds nice, but private schools aren't required to let everyone in--they can refuse to educate those with special needs or can insist on educating only the gifted and talented or the people who belong to their particular faith tradition, etc. Channeling tax dollars towards these schools means the public schools will shrink and have fewer resources, and this will become a feedback loop: As they become less equipped to educate our kids, more families will choose to send their kids and public tax dollars to a private school. Eventually, the public school will be replaced by private schools for high-performing students and a public remedial school where the students with special needs or challenges are segregated from their peers and have too few resources to succeed. 

One clear cost of this approach is that we will see an increase in inequality in the form of unequal access to the goods of education. But this point aside, were this anti-public-school vision for the future of education to succeed, there would no longer be the community’s school. Instead, there’d be the school of the rich country club set, the school of the Roman Catholic parish, etc. 

None of these private institutions will draw the community together in a version of Friday Night Lights—because none of these belong to the community. 

Of course, those who are critical of the institution of public education don't get up on a debate stage and tell us they aim to bring an end to Friday Night Lights. (In the current state superintendent race, the representative of this anti-public-school ideology hasn't gotten up on the debate stage at all. He was a no-show for the recent agreed-upon debate, perhaps afraid of what truths about him would be exposed.) 

But even if they don’t get up and say it, the gutting of public schools is the gutting of a center of community life in America. In addition to jeopardizing democratic access to quality education, it would hasten the fragmentation of our communities.

This is an element of our public school system that doesn’t get the attention it deserves in our public discussions, even though it is an element we experience directly in all kinds of ways. Maybe we don’t pay attention to it because it is so integral to our lives that we take it for granted. 

We shouldn’t. It is a robust public school system that makes Friday Night Lights possible. The marching band of the college-prep school on the rich end of MyTown won’t be the Pride of MyTown. It’ll be the Pride of the Rich Elites.

The very existence of so many of the valuable things we take for granted have been built up around and depend on long-standing public institutions. This is where the deep truth of conservatism lies: we shouldn’t be cavalier about upending such institutions or gutting our traditions, because it is sometimes hard to see how much of what we value is tied to them and depends on them.

I believe in public education. Its community-building importance, symbolized and embodied in Friday Night Lights, is just one of many reasons. When it comes to public education, I’m a conservative: I believe we should be deeply careful about policy proposals that threaten to undercut support for something that has been such a central part of American life for generations. 

I never discovered Friday Night Lights before moving to Oklahoma, but I'm glad I did. And I hope that it continues to be a part of American culture into the future. Because it is a bastion against community fragmentation. It is a time and place where neighbors and strangers can come together to cheer as a community for the accomplishments of our kids. 

It wouldn't exist without the public school--the community's school, the school that belongs to the community as a whole. But that is part of what makes it so meaningful to me. So often today we think only of ourselves, only own own kids, our own success. Friday Night Lights is the community coming together to celebrate its most important collective project: working together as a team to successfully prepare the next generation.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

An Open Letter to Oklahoma Voters

Yesterday, Oklahoma State Secretary of Education Ryan Walters asked the Oklahoma State Board of Education to revoke the teaching license of Summer Boismier, who was recently fired from Norman Public Schools for sharing with her students a link to the Brooklyn Public Library (which has recently made access to their digital collection free to teens across the US as a way to help mute the impact of various book-banning efforts at public school libraries). Here's a copy of his letter:

Even if I'm not impressed with the substance of his letter, the structure of it is pretty nice--worthy of emulation, even. Unfortunately, I found it very difficult to use only slanted language without any argument or explanation or clarification, so I couldn't get myself to follow the form of the letter exactly. Even so, I was able to get pretty close. Here is the result. 

Oklahoma Voters:

In light of recent events leading to the subsequent firing of Norman High School English Teach Summer Boismier, I am asking the voters of Oklahoma to revoke Ryan Walters’ capacity to further damage public schools and undermine the quality of education in Oklahoma. There is no place for a politician with a radical anti-education political agenda in any political leadership position in Oklahoma, let alone in such positions as Secretary of Education or Superintendent of Public Schools (Walters currently holds the former appointed position and is running for the latter).

Ms. Boismier providing the link to a collection of books in the Brooklyn Public Library system, available free to all teens, is evidence of a good teacher's interest in expanding young minds through access to quality books. Ryan Walters representing this act as a case of “providing access to banned and pornographic material to students” is an unacceptable misrepresentation, and his call to have Ms. Boismier’s teaching certification revoked is evidence that he cares more about using his power to deprive students of access to ideas that don’t conform to his narrow ideology, while instilling a culture of fear among teachers, than about the quality of education in Oklahoma. These actions must be dealt with swiftly and with respect to all our kids and parents.

Teachers are one of our state’s greatest assets and it is unfortunate that one of our state leaders overseeing education would use his power in draconian ways to pursue an extreme agenda, causing quality teachers to be fired and driving others out of the profession at a time when we are experiencing an unprecedented teacher shortage. This type of behavior will not be tolerated in Oklahoma and I speak for students, teachers, parents, and concerned citizens across the state who are demanding swift and immediate action.

Kids first (notice I put students first in the last sentence),

Eric Reitan

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

The New Book-Banning Movement: Scrubbing Schools Clean of Diversity, Profanity, and Sexual Content

The New Book Banning Surge

Recently, some parents here in Stillwater, OK, have started following a national trend of trying to get books pulled from school library shelves for being inappropriate. Banning books from school libraries has seen an unprecedented rise in the last year or two, and the evidence indicates that targets for removal are disproportionately books that feature diverse characters and themes, especially books by or about LGBT+ persons and people of color, and books that wrestle with issues of race in America.

Accordingto Education Week, in the recent wave 41% of books banned from school libraries feature people of color as protagonists, 22% are books that address issues of race and racism, and 33% are books with LGBT+ themes.

If diverse books were not being explicitly targeted we wouldn’t expect these numbers, given how recently school libraries have started diversifying their collections to include these minority voices and perspectives, and hence what a small percentage of the total collection these books represent.


Co-Opting Parents with Concerns about Sex and Profanity

But many parents are brought into the book-banning fight not by an explicit appeal to diversity but by appeal to worries about sex, violence, and offensive language in the targeted books—with sexual content and offensive language being especially significant in getting parents energized.

So, for example, the far right group Moms for Liberty has been at the forefront of efforts to ban books from schools, and they use the strategy of extracting passages with sexual content or profanity from the books they want banned and calling these passages to the attention of parents in the hope of triggering outrage.

Among their tools for pursuing book bans is the creation of a book-rating resource for parents, called BookLooks, that rates books based on content, especially focusing on sex and profanity. Books that score a 4 or 5 on a 0-5 scale of increasingly objectionable content are then lifted up as targets for banning. (It is worth noting that violence and drug/alcohol use are part of the rating system, but what puts you into the 4 or 5 category is sexual content alone: a book with extreme and explicit depictions of brutal violence but no sexual content would be rated as a 3.)

One big problem, of course, is that only a small number of books—out of the huge number available in public school libraries—have actually been rated. Based on the disproportionate degree to which diverse books are the targets of bans, one can assume that selection of which books are read with enough care to discover the “objectionable content” appears to be guided by things that have nothing to do with sex and cussing and everything to do with limiting diversity on the school library shelves.

But even if that is true, the sex and cussing are highlighted, and many parents who are swept up in the book-banning movement are drawn into it by concerns about sexual content and profanity. When more egalitarian-minded parents and teachers and librarians point out that there are many books not targeted for removal that have just as much foul language and sex, these parents happily declare, “Remove them, too!” (This was the immediate response of one Stillwater parent in a Facebook discussion thread about the local book-banning efforts here in town.)

In other words, because a desire to limit diversity and representation in school libraries is an obviously problematic reason to deny our kids access to books, objections to sex and cussing have become a driving public justification that can drum up the support of parents who wouldn’t be keen on a call to “eliminate diversity and representation in our public school libraries!” Bigots can work behind the scenes, looking for objectionable content in the diverse books—and since parents don’t have the time or energy to read all the books in the school library, the effect is that parents concerned about limiting access to sex and cussing will call for the banning of the identified books, books with diverse themes and authors, while letting similarly sexy and cussy books remain on the shelves.

In short, parents concerned about sex and cussing are being co-opted to serve the agendas of operators behind the scenes who are motivated by different aims. But here’s the thing: even if parental worries about profanity and sex in books weren’t being co-opted for the purpose of removing diverse books from our shelves, there are still reasons to question reliance on sexual or profane content as a basis for deciding what books should be available to our children.


My Parents’ Policy—and its Effects

When I was growing up, my parents had the following policy with respect to my book-choices: they raised their eyebrows slightly when I came home with genre fiction. Which I did a lot, in spite of their raised eyebrows, because (my parents’ snooty preference for literary fiction notwithstanding) there are lots of great books in genre fiction.

In short, I was given carte blanche freedom to read whatever I wanted to read. Usually it was fantasy and science fiction novels (JRR Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin were favorites). I loved Kurt Vonnegut. Sometimes I read something as weighty as Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev...or Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.

Did I end up reading books laced with profanity? Yes. Sexual content? Yes. Explicit violence? Oh yes. Great, thought-provoking literature? Yes. Stories about people very different from myself and those I grew up with, with perspectives on life radically unlike that of my community? Yes.

My parents didn’t care what I was reading. They cared that I was reading. And what was the effect of their hands-off policy? I almost never cuss, despite the cussing I read in books growing up. My sexual life is extremely tame, even though that wasn’t always true of the characters in the books I read. As far as I can recall I have never committed an act of physical violence since childhood (I believe I punched someone once when I was three and another time in junior high), even though there was lots and lots of violence in the books I read.

If there’s one really obvious effect that my childhood reading habits had on my life, it’s this: I was very successful in college and graduate school, and today I’m a college professor who still spends a lot of time reading and writing. Less obvious, perhaps, but just as real and more important: my prolific reading, especially of fiction, has had an impact on my capacity for empathy and compassion, my ability to imagine myself into the circumstances of people quite different from myself.

Now I’m not saying we should put soft porn novels in our grade school libraries. But I am saying that a fixation on sex and cussing in our high school library collections is a misguided fixation, one that could deprive our children of things with enormous value for their lives--and as such do them harm.



Let’s start with foul language. Apparently BookLooks, created by Moms for Liberty to serve their book-banning efforts, gives a count of the number of cuss words in a book, using that to help determine where to place the book on the 0-5 ratings system. But how important is the amount of profanity?

When it comes to cussing in novels, so much of the impact it will have on readers depends on the broader context. Who is doing the cussing in the book? Someone the reader admires and wants to emulate? Someone who’s a jerk? Or someone the reader feels sorry for? Is the cussing happening because the author is trying to honestly represent the character—something the teen reader will likely recognize, because they know people in real life who follow the same pattern of cussing? Or is the cussing happening gratuitously, as a way to spice up the story and make the characters seem more dangerous? All of these factors will affect how the cussing in the book affects teen readers.

And let’s be honest about two things. First, we all hear cussing in real life, because there are people who cuss. Some cuss a lot. If you want to protect your kids from cussing, maybe try pretending that the COVID quarantine is still ongoing and hope your kids believe you and stay home. You certainly don’t want them sitting in a school cafeteria. Ever. But you’ll need to control your kids’ viewing habits, too. If your kids have access to TV or internet it will take a lot of effort to shield them from foul language. Books are hardly the main thing to worry about here—and in great books, the exposure to cussing is far more likely to have an important pay-off, in terms of deepened empathy for others or a broader understanding the human condition, than will the cussing they encounter in school hallways every day.

The second thing is this: We all know really good human beings, people with big hearts, who cuss. And we know some truly nasty people who are cussing-teetotalers, with never a salty word escaping their lips. The correlation between good character and cussing is…very thin, verging on nonexistent. Sure, we want to encourage people to avoid giving needless offense. But guess what? A novel in which a good person who cusses a lot ends up giving needless offense might just teach that lesson—and would be banned under policies that only care about how frequently cuss words appear in the text.


Sexual Content

So what about sexual content in books?

Here’s a small confession: As a teenage boy I thought a lot about sex (the sex I never actually had). I tried to get my hands on dirty magazines (there was a kind of black market of dirty magazines among my peers—magazines pilfered from trash cans or stolen from some father’s or older brother’s stash—the 20th Century equivalent of working around parental internet controls). But I also was lured by the promise of literary depictions of sex in books.

The promise that a book contained a sex scene was often enough to get me to read it cover to cover. But the books I had access to which promised such scenes were good books. My parents didn’t have porn or erotica on their shelves, and neither did the public or high school libraries, even if they had books with sexual content.

I ended up reading a lot of great fiction—powerful literature with important themes, works that moved and transformed me—because I was hunting for the promised sex scene.

The scenes are long forgotten (if they were there at all--I sometimes got bad tips, such as when I read Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front in junior high on the promise of a sex scene). The big themes and the true-to-life characters and their struggles to belong, to find meaning, to figure out who they were and how they fit in, to rise up against challenges and confront injustice—those things stayed with me. They made me a wiser person than I would have been. A better person.

Again, I’m not saying we should be leaving soft core erotica lying around for pre-teens to read. And I don’t mean we should deliberately use the promise of sex scenes in books to lure kids into reading. What I’m saying is that some sexual content in a novel with literary merit is not the sort of thing we should be especially worried about, because that is not the sort of thing that will damage teenagers who, even if they aren’t having sex, are already thinking about sex, already obsessing about sex, already finding ways around parental controls on internet and streaming content, etc.

In my own childhood, there was only one time I can remember stumbling into something in a book that fired up my “prurient” interests. It wasn’t in any of those significant works of literature that deal honestly with human struggles, sometimes including sexuality (the kinds of books school librarians are apt to put on high school shelves).

Instead, it was in a cheesy teen romance I filched from my older sister, a book that involved no sex at all—what today would be classified as “clean” YA (young adult), since it avoided all the forbidden things: no drugs or alcohol use, no sex, no cussing. Just lots of kissing, kissing described in a way that fired up my teen hormones. When I encountered a sex scene in a serious work of literature, the deeper themes had me so absorbed that it never occurred to me to wallow in the sex. That wallowing happened with the shallow book, the one with no big ideas or important human truths to distract me from the way the depictions of kissing made me feel.

One of the scenes I read as a young adult had a profound effect on me. I can no longer remember the book, but the scene was one in which a young woman is the victim of date rape (although I think it was written before that concept was part of our shared vocabulary). It was just explicit enough to make it clear what was happening, but the weight of the writing was on the psychological experience of the girl—her anguish, the horror she felt at what was done to her by a guy she’d been attracted to, someone she’d chosen to trust, the psychological forces that kept her from refusing more forcefully, and her perverse guilt and self-blame in the aftermath. For the first time in my life, I—a straight white teenage boy obsessed with sex—found myself imagining what it would be like to be the victim of rape. I was crying in empathy with the girl’s experience.

Would I have become a date rapist had I not read that scene? I certainly hope not. But reading that changed me, making me more vividly aware than I had been before of just how utterly crucial it was for both parties to a sexual encounter to be fully, completely consenting, with no hint of ambiguity or uncertainty. It was the kind of thing that, after you finished reading it, exploded any notion some guy might have that silence was consent, or that someone who stopped saying no and just lay there had changed their mind.

Just yesterday, I read another scene a bit like the one that impacted me as a kid (although different). I read it while researching for this essay. Where did I read it? It was an excerpt from the book The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed. It was the main excerpt that the BookLooks rating site extracted from the book as an example of objectionable content. Moms for Liberty is using this rating as a rationale for seeking to have the book banned from school library shelves. (I now know the next book on my to-read list, one I'll almost certainly be passing it on to my teenage children.) 

A world where more kids read books like this is a world where sexual assault victims will have more allies, where more social and personal forces will be marshalled against the forces that spit out rapists--a world, in short, where our children are safer and better off.

The point is this: if you care about your kids’ healthy emotional development and growth as a person but what you focus on is whether a book contains sex, you are focusing on the wrong thing. What matters the most for your child’s emotional and spiritual and personal growth is whether the book offers insight into the human condition and understanding of other people, whether it encourages empathy with struggles your kids have never faced as well as identification with struggles they know well (except they now feel less alone in the struggle, less isolated and less likely to fall into despair).

The Value of Good Books, Sexual Content or Not

Good books offer insights into the human condition and opportunities for cultivating greater understanding and empathy towards others. In short, good books increase our wisdom. Sometimes the wisdom is wisdom about sex, the sort of wisdom I want my teenage children to have. But even if the wisdom is mainly about something else, I don’t want my children to be deprived of that wisdom because of a sex scene. In good books—the kinds of books our school librarians are trained to look for and add to school collections—if there is sex it is not gratuitous and disconnected from the story. Rather, it is integral to a larger story and as such can offer insight into the significance of sex, the risks of sex, and its  place in the broader context of human life.

Lousy books, by contrast, can lead us to wallow in the very shallow waters that encourage fixation on superficial desires, including sexual ones—even if they assiduously avoid explicit sex.

Our teens are going to be thinking about sex whether or not there are books in the library that have sexual content. But if there are good books that do, that may help them think about sex more wisely.

Many teens will be having sex whether or not there are books in the library with sexual content. But if there are good books with such content—books that are honest about teen sexuality, its consequences and impact on the lives of those who choose it—they may make better sexual choices than they would have otherwise.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Bumbling Idiocy, Reticent Dutifulness, or Superhuman Conspiracy: Alternate Versions of the Mar-a-Lago Search Decision

Let us consider some alternative versions of what happened behind the scenes in the FBI and DOJ prior to and leading up to the execution of a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago. Which version is the most likely or most plausible?

Version 1--the Bumbling Idiocy Version:

“Let’s find a judge who’ll sign off on a legally unjustified, politically-motivated fishing expedition--um, that is, search warrant--against an ex-President! With a nefarious scheme of this scale and with this many people involved, there’s no way the legal fishiness of our rationale will be exposed! It’s not like Trump will start screaming bloody murder and riling up a base that’s already shown they’ll storm the Capitol for him, and it’s certainly not like the Republicans in Congress would paint it as politically motivated misuse of power in a bid to win votes. Nothing to lose and everything to gain! Now which judge will look at a bunch of piss-poor evidence and call it good enough for a search warrant against an ex-President—and won’t worry about his unjustified decision being put under the microscope?”


Version 2--the Reticent Dutifulness Version:

“Holy $#!*. We’re talking about executing a search warrant on an ex-President. Half the country is going to scream that it’s political, and Republican politicians will encourage that! The credibility of the FBI and DOJ will be the immediate topic of national conversation. Are we absolutely sure our professional duty and the evidence before us demands that we do this? Because it's going to be a $#!*-storm. Okay, okay. So if we’re going to do this, we’ve got to be absolutely sure that our case is ten times stronger than would be sufficient for executing such a search in any other case, that everything is so by-the-book, with such an air-tight legal justification & such impeccable documentation, that we can answer every challenge that is going to be raised. Because even then, a third of the country is going to believe that we did this as an unjustified political attack rather than as an effort to ensure no one is above the law.”

Which version is more plausible, given that we are talking about both the FBI and the DOJ, organizations filled with career public servants of varying political allegiances, many of them very smart, at least some of them very principled, and all of them surely operating with the understanding that this action will put them under the microscope in an unprecedented way?

Maybe it's a third alternative. Maybe, rather than bumbling idiocy (version 1) or reticent dutifulness (version 2), you think the behind-the-scenes-story is a conspiracy

Version 3--the Superhuman Conspiracy Version:

"We, the Deep State, are a highly secretive and hidden cabal within the US that actually pulls the strings of national and global events without public knowledge. We have agents everywhere who are absolutely loyal. And our reach extends into every dimension of public life. We've achieved all this without anyone giving us away, and we will draw on these superhuman resources to fabricate a legal justification for the search of an ex-President's home and offices, one so meticulous and carefully constructed that there is no way it will fall apart in the light of even unprecedented public scrutiny. And just to be safe, we will have Judge X sign off on the warrant, since we have such damning dirt on him that he'll sign it no matter what. And we have dirt on every journalist who might be inclined to investigate Judge X and his decision! Not that we'll need to use that dirt, because all the journalists are in our pocket except Alex Jones, and we've managed to shut him down with that lawsuit. We're that powerful! Bwahahaha!"


Conspiracies happen. They do. But they depend for their success on secrecy. Such secrecy is maintained by staying under the radar as much as possible and by having as few people as possible aware of what is going on. The kind of raid we're talking about is exactly the sort of thing conspirators would want to avoid: the scale if it and the resultant massive scrutiny are the greatest enemies of the secrecy on which conspiracies depend. 

The idea that the conspirators are so powerful that they don't need to worry about threats to secrecy--that's what, inspired by philosopher Brian Keeley, I'd be inclined to identify as one defining hallmark of a "conspiracy theory." In a conspiracy theory, we begin with a story that explains events in terms of the operation of a group of hidden conspirators--but as objections to this story are raised, the objections are handled by increasing the size and reach of the conspirators. The judicial branch approved it because they're in on it! Your objection is based on information provided by the news media, but they're part of it, too! Eventually, the conspiracy reaches a size and level of power and unity of purpose--and continued secrecy--essentially impossible to reconcile with the messy realities of fallible human enterprises. 

(In addition to the above, in his seminal philosophical work on conspiracy theories Brian Keeley focuses special attention on another dimension of conspiracy theories: in order to be sustained, they require adopting a kind of global skepticism about our ordinary sources of public knowledge. I find this a rich source of reflection about the dynamics of conspiracy theories.)

Superhuman conspiracies have been popularized in films and TV shows and novels--and they make for great fiction. But in real-world conspiracies, there is a real possibility of exposure, increasing as more people are involved and more public scrutiny is directed at the events the conspirators are involved with. And this means that conspirators don't tend to work through such things as highly-publicized officially-sanctioned raids that are guaranteed, by virtue of the political climate, to inspire many powerful politicians to demand and bring about unprecedented levels of scrutiny. 

In short, a realistic formulation of the conspiracy version of the story folds into the bumbling idiocy version (version 1).

One more thought: Someone might think that the "reticent dutifulness" version (version 2) is too idealistic about public servants working in agencies like the FBI and the DOJ. But here's the thing. It might be too idealistic to assume that the people working at these agencies are so overwhelmingly guided by a sense of principle and duty that it would be impossible to pull off a less-than-above-board search. It is not too idealistic to assume that most people want to be seen as good people, and most people don't want to be caught in the act of doing something unsavory--and on those grounds posit that when they know they are going to be subjected to intense public scrutiny--as they will when they are involved in ordering a search of the property of an ex-President--they try to be as professional and above-board as possible.

That's just a basic inference about the way people generally are. Given that fact, and the competence and intelligence of so many who work in these agencies--along with the fact that many of them are professional and principled human beings who take the rule of law seriously and come from a diversity of political persuasions--it seems to me that the reticent dutifulness version of the story is considerably more plausible than the bumbling idiocy version.

But if the bumbling idiocy version is true, that should become apparent in the days and weeks to come (unless, of course, there is a superhuman conspiracy working to systematically silence all evidence of bumbling idiocy--and doing it so successfully that the truth is only known to that one guy who posts earnest YouTube videos about these conspiracies from inside his car, referencing unnamed sources that are "really high up" and have entrusted their secrets to him).

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Shutting Down Racial Bias Education in Oklahoma? The Chilling Impact of HB 1775 and Recent OSBE Decisions

On July 28, 2022, the Oklahoma State Board of Education voted to lower the accreditation status of both Tulsa Public Schools and Mustang Public Schools to the status of “accredited with warning.” In both cases, it was because of an alleged violation of Oklahoma’s new (as of 2021) law, HB 1775, originally developed in order to preclude the teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools (although what the law specifically prohibits—enumerated below—is not what critical race theory, a field of legal study developed in law schools, actually says).

I would like to spend a few minutes reflecting on this law and the recent OSBE decisions, with an eye towards the likely future impact of HB 1775 given these decisions—and what implications that has for the state of Oklahoma.


What Does HB 1775 Say?

The crucial section of HB 1775 is the “General Prohibition” section, which begins with these words: “No teacher, administrator or other school employee shall require or make part of any Course offered in a public school the following discriminatory principles.” It then enumerates the prohibited principles as follows:

(1) One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,

(2) An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,

(3) An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex,

(4) Members of one race or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex,

(5) An individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex,

(6) An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex,

(7) Any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex, or

(8) Meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist or were created by members of a particular race to oppress members of another race.

Many—included Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction, Joy Hofmeister—have commented that the wording of the law is vague, meaning that even if we have the law in front of us it may be less than clear what the law actually prohibits.

One immediate problem of this sort has to do with what it means to “make part of any Course” one or more of the prohibited principles. The charitable part of me would like to assume that the intent here is not to prohibit bringing up these principles for the sake of critical discussion in a classroom, but rather to prohibit endorsing them (and encouraging students to endorse them). But the wording could go either way. And that creates some serious worries.

Consider the first prohibited principle: one race or sex is inherently superior to another. This principle was accepted by many Americans in history and was used to justify the institution of slavery, Jim Crow laws, etc. A history teacher who did not call attention to this racist ideology and how it shaped historical institutions and events would be failing to provide a proper understanding of our history. But to call attention to this ideology, to make it explicit and look at how it shaped American history, would clearly involve making principle (1) “part of” a history course in one obvious meaning of that phrase.

And so, the wording of the law leaves open the possibility that a history teacher could be found guilty of violating the law simply because they are doing a good job of teaching history.

Or take prohibited principle (6): ”An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.”

Suppose a high school history teacher wanted to consider the issue of reparations for the Tulsa Race Massacre. There are lots of interesting and important arguments here. Property ownership is one of the most significant ways that wealth is passed down from one generation to another, and in the Tulsa Race Massacre, Black Wall Street was burned down—and with it, the property of its citizens. We can reasonably infer that the descendants of those who were killed and dispossessed by the massacre would have been financially better off today had white Tulsans not committed brutal murder and destruction, or had the state compensated the victims at the time. In short, past injustices reach into the present, affecting people alive today. Does Oklahoma as a community have an obligation to try to remedy the injustice that current Oklahomans are experiencing because of the misdeeds of people in the past?

Suppose a history teacher decided to explore this question and consider arguments on both sides of it. Let’s suppose no one is arguing that the students in the classroom are guilty of the crime that was committed by people long dead. No one is arguing, absurdly, that they are responsible in that sense of the word. But some are arguing that the current generation has a moral responsibility to remedy existing injustices in our state, and that the crimes of past generations have cast a long shadow into the present, one which means current Black Oklahomans are worse off than they would have been had the massacre never occurred.

If a teacher in Oklahoma leads a discussion on this question, taking seriously arguments of the latter sort, are they then “teaching” principle (6) in violation of HB1775? Or are they only violating it if they dub their students morally blameworthy for crimes committed before they were born (something no thoughtful person would actually claim)?



Setting aside problems of vagueness, there are other serious problems with HB 1775, problems that have the potential to hamper excellence in education and impede efforts to fight racism in Oklahoma. These problems arise because HB 1775 emerged out the 2020 culture wars surrounding racism and so-called “critical race theory” in America—and those culture wars featured a lot of straw-manning of views, straw-manning that continues to cause enormous misunderstanding.

If a law is regulating what people are allowed to say, and if we are in the habit of grossly misunderstanding what people say (especially across the culture-war battle lines), then the law is in serious danger of being used to condemn people who didn’t actually violate the law.

To see what I mean, let’s consider principle (2): “An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” This principle is worth thinking about with care, because it’s the principle that takes center stage in the complaint against Tulsa Public Schools.

Given its wording, I have no objection as such to prohibiting the teaching of this principle in public schools, since it is clearly false: the idea that people are inherently racist because of their race is nonsense. Simply having certain physiological features, such as pale skin, has zero impact as such on what you believe about human beings and how you act towards other. How we think about and treat people who look different from us is a function of upbringing and life experiences, education and cultural influence—things that might be influenced by our skin color, but only because we live in a society where skin color impacts life experiences.

That I am racist by nature because of my innate “whiteness” is also problematic because it assumes that race is an actual thing, a biological reality that can have actual effects on what a person is like all by itself. But we know now that race is a cultural construct: it has no biological foundation. Instead, human cultures pick out certain physiological traits that in themselves are meaningless and treat them as if they were significant, grouping people into different categories based on these traits, treating them differently because of them, etc. Race is very real in the sense that it impacts people’s lives and experience, but it is a reality created by culture, not by nature.

Principle (2) supposes that race is a “natural kind” rather than a social construct. As such, it conflicts with everything we now understand about race. Teachers should not be in the business of teaching nonsense to kids, not when public tax dollars are paying their salaries.

But I know, based on carefully following recent public discussions around what has been dubbed “critical race theory,” that the nonsense that is principle (2) is being routinely attributed to people who don’t hold it—people who agree that it is nonsense, who would never endorse principle (2), but who are being treated as if they endorsed (2).

In philosophy, we talk about something called “the straw man fallacy.” This is where, instead of critiquing what a person actually thinks or holds, you attribute to them a distortion of their view, some mischaracterization of it that is clearly false. You then show that this view (the one they don’t actually hold) is false, and condemn them for holding it. It’s called the straw man fallacy because what you’ve basically done is set fire to a straw effigy of someone and then behaved as if you set fire to the actual person.

Some people engage in such “straw-manning” on purpose. If you’re really clever (and unprincipled) you can get lots of people on board, condemning someone you don’t like—a political opponent, say—for an absurd view they don’t hold. This is especially easy to do when your targets express their views using technical terms, terms that are not well understood and take some time and effort to explain. The person engaged in straw-manning can then just attach a false meaning to the term. If they do that loudly and persistently enough in public platforms, the target of straw-manning (who is trying to use the term properly to explain their view) will end up routinely misunderstood—and perhaps mocked or scorned or condemned for views they don’t actually hold.

Relatedly, it can be disturbingly easy for unscrupulous pundits to straw-man ideas that emerge out academic research. Often, understanding those ideas requires studying the body of research, something most people don’t have the time or energy or training to do. And so it can be especially easy for an unprincipled pundit with an audience to mischaracterize the target’s views, express horror about those views, and get the audience to be equally horrified. By the time people who understand the research and are good at explaining it realize what is going on, it may be too late. People don’t like to admit they’ve been duped.

The Straw-Manning of Implicit Bias

In the public debates about so-called “critical race theory,” there’s been a lot of straw-manning going on. And one of the victims of that straw-manning is the concept of “implicit bias” and the research surrounding it. The basic idea of implicit bias is this: all of us develop, based on our socialization and life experiences, certain short-cuts for decision-making that we aren’t conscious of, short-cuts that lead us to prefer some things to others based not on a careful examination of the evidence but just kind of…automatically. Given how many decisions we need to make and how much information is out there, a certain level of automation is essential if we’re going to live our lives and not be paralyzed. But the necessity of implicit bias explains why it is a universal feature of the human condition. It doesn’t entail that implicit bias is always unproblematic.

Some of these automated preferences a pretty odd—such as the fact that the order in which things are presented to us influences our judgments about them. A bias like that can be harmless if you’re choosing which t-shirt to buy, but it’s more serious when it comes to making judgments about which job candidate had the best interview. Since implicit biases are implicit—that is, unconscious and automatic in their operation, like our breathing—we can miss when a bias that really has no bearing on which candidate is better is influencing our judgment.

But also like breathing, we can make ourselves aware of the operation of our biases. And so we can try to control for them in some way. It may not always be easy to figure out how—we can’t exactly interview all the job candidates simultaneously—but knowing that these biases could be at work will allow us to explore ways to minimize their influence.

Most often, “implicit bias” is used to refer to such unconscious/automated preferences as they relate to classes of people. Shawn Marsh, in addition to offering an accessible overview of the research, offers the following helpful definition of implicit bias in this sense: “Implicit bias is a preference—positive or negative—for a group based on stereotypes or attitudes we hold and that tend to develop early in life. In contrast to explicit bias, whereby we are aware of our biases toward a group, implicit bias operates outside our awareness: we don’t even know it is there.”

As noted above, implicit biases emerge because there’s just too much information and too many choices for us to be able to sit down and figure out the best choice, based on all the available information, every time we have a choice to make. We’d be paralyzed. So our brain is designed to automate a lot of things, shaping our split-second judgments.

The process of forming implicit biases starts very early and is shaped by lots of social forces and personal experiences: who raised you and what they looked like, whether they were loving or abusive, what kinds of people you were surrounded by, who your earliest friends were, who scared you, what stories you were told, what kinds of TV shows you watched, how people in your community talked about or reacted to different sorts of people, etc.

Unfortunately, the automated preferences shaped by these experiences can influence our responses to people of different races and sexes, leading to discriminatory treatment that we aren’t even aware we’re engaging in. Some implicit biases take the form of automated trust or automated fear: if some stranger you meet on the street looks like the caretakers who nurtured you, you are likely to give them the benefit of the doubt automatically, to assume they have your best interests at heart until they prove otherwise. So, if that person pulls out a cell phone, you’ll probably assume it’s a cell phone and be shocked when it’s actually a gun and the person is an evil assassin sent to kill you.

In contrast, if someone doesn't look anything like the friends and family you grew up with, your brain will automatically be more cautious—seeing them more truly as a stranger rather than as a friend you haven’t met yet. And if, by contrast, they look like someone you’ve only ever seen on TV, generally in the role of the gun-slinging gangster, they may pull out a cell phone and you’ll swear it’s a gun.

The point is that our split-second judgments about the people we meet are shaped by our personal history and our socialization. Personal experience and culture shape who we find trustworthy at first sight and who we don’t, who we feel at home with and who we are uncomfortable around, etc. Often, this bias is slight and easily corrected with more information. But even that slight unconscious bias could be the reason the black candidate for the job didn’t give white interviewers the same warm feeling as the white candidate and so didn’t get the job—or the reason why police officers slightly more often mistake cell-phones for guns in the hands of black men than in the hands of white women, leading to tragic outcomes in the former case more often than the latter.

And to the extent that the prevailing culture shapes implicit biases, one could have a society where far more people have these small unconscious biases against black people than white people. And the cumulative effect could be more than small. It could make life significantly harder for black people than white people, all else being equal—even when nobody is consciously being racist.

The evidence suggests that the US is such a country. See, for example, here and here. What does that mean? It means that if people do not investigate their own biases and recognize them and work on mitigating them, and if institutions do not control for them, the cumulative impact of these biases is likely to make it harder for blacks than whites to succeed in life, even if no one is overtly racist. When something like a widespread unconscious bias has such a cumulative effect, it serves as a dimension of what is called “systemic racism”: the social system makes life harder for one race than another, even if no individuals are setting out to do this or are actively supporting it based on racist beliefs, etc.

That implicit bias exists is a well-establish fact about human psychology. That white people raised in the US are, in general, likely to have implicit biases that collectively lead to social patterns that disadvantage blacks, is well-supported by the social-scientific evidence.

Someone might sum up these well-supported claims by making the following implicit-bias claim: “In general, white Americans are likely to harbor unconscious or implicit racial biases that disadvantage black people or, in other words, contribute to systemic racism.”

In saying this, is the person saying that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously”?


Implicit bias is an established fact of human psychology, but “inherent racism”—which I assume means racism as a matter of one’s very nature—does not exist. Implicit biases are acquired, not “inherent.” No one has them “by virtue of their race or sex.” We have them by virtue of our lived experience and social environment. My race and sex will surely influence my lived experience and social environment, and hence which implicit biases I have. But nobody is born racist just by virtue of their race. Those who say white Americans are likely to harbor implicit racial biases that disadvantage black people are not claiming otherwise.

So, the implicit bias claim above is very different from prohibited principle (2).

But teachers and trainers and scholars who have made the implicit bias claim above, based on their understanding of the research, have routinely been mischaracterized, accused of asserting the prohibited principle (2) as well as some of the others, such as (5). These accusations are often repeated again and again, loudly, by pundits who benefit from doing so. And since the general public is not always very familiar with the exact meaning of terms like “implicit racial bias” and “systemic racism,” it is easy for pundits who don’t care about truth but only about silencing and discrediting their political opponents to shut down discussions of implicit racial bias and how to overcome it by straw-manning the people who are trying to lay out the problem and identify solutions.

And so, when I first saw HB 1775, my immediate worry was that the law would be used to penalize those who are doing this kind of work—the work of calling attention to the way implicit biases generate systemic racism even when people consciously reject racism; the work of trying to raise consciousness about this problem and promote solutions, thereby helping promote greater racial equity in Oklahoma.


Bias Education and Defensiveness

Some social problems can only be fixed when people are willing to introspect honestly—when they are prepared to be vulnerable enough to see how they might be part of the problem, and thereby see how they can work to be part of the solution. Implicit bias education is aimed at inspiring that kind of honesty and vulnerability, but for that very reason it can also inspire defensiveness.

Few of us want to admit that we are part of a problem that hurts people. We might feel guilty about it. And in our defensiveness, we might be motivated to embrace mischaracterizations of those whose words are the occasion for our discomfort. We might be inclined to too-quickly believe uncharitable accounts about the trainer’s or teacher’s intentions—accounts that free us from the responsibility that comes with admitting we contribute to such a problem. We might blame the messenger for making us feel guilty, instead of seeing the messenger as inviting us to take responsibility for making our society a better place, starting with ourselves: looking for ways we can shake off harmful social programming and help others do likewise.

The point here is this: predictably, those doing the work of teaching implicit bias are going to sometimes be accused of trying to make people feel guilty or uncomfortable for being white. The teachers aren’t actually trying to do that, but because the insights they have to share hit home, exposing ways we might be unwittingly contributing to a serious social problem, they sometimes inspire feelings of discomfort and guilt. And so, when I looked at HB 1775, I am immediately struck by principle (7): “Any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”

Of course, implicit bias teachers/trainers are not out to tell people they should feel guilty for being white. First of all, you don’t have implicit bias because you’re white. Everyone has implicit biases because that is part of human nature. The precise biases you have are not a function of your race but a function of your social environment and life experiences. Your race will influence those things, because people of different races have different social experiences. But a white person in one culture may have very different implicit biases than a white person in another.

Second, implicit bias isn’t something you should feel guilty about, because implicit bias is something you are unaware of and that is wired into you by social and environmental conditioning. It’s not something you have consciously chosen out of bad motives. It’s more like catching a cold: something in your environment is responsible, not you. The trainer is trying to make you aware that you’ve been affected in this way, not to make you feel guilty about something you didn’t choose. Awareness means you can choose to make helpful changes. More often than not, feeling guilty just leads to wallowing or hiding from the thing that makes us feel guilty.

The response implicit bias trainers are hoping for is not guilt but something more practical. Again, the cold analogy is helpful. If I find out I have a cold, it doesn’t make sense to feel guilty. What makes sense is to treat the symptoms, take steps to promote recovery, and try not to spread the cold.

Likewise, while I’m not responsible for having the implicit biases I have, I am responsible for how I respond to discovering my implicit biases. While I shouldn’t feel guilty about having a bias, there might be a reason to feel guilty about attacking the messenger and rebuffing the message with a knee-jerk response of “You’re just trying to make me feel guilty for being white!” That kind of distortion of what is happening may make me feel better in the moment: if they’re just out to get me, then I don’t have to do anything about my implicit bias. I’m off the hook! Whew. But I’ve gotten myself off the hook by attributing false motives to the teacher who’s trying to help me discover ways to improve myself.

That's something that, if I did it, I should maybe feel guilty about.


False Accusations and the Chilling Effect of HB 1775

HB 1775, however, enables this defensive response to go a step further: once I’ve shaken off the message and the responsibility it brings by blaming the teacher for the bad feelings I have about it—once I’ve falsely accused the teacher of trying to make me feel bad just because I’m white—there’s now a law that says it’s illegal for them to do this thing (the thing they’re not actually doing but which I have accused them of doing in order to defend my ego). And so, in addition to storming away from the training or the class, fuming because the message challenged me in ways I don’t want to be challenged, I can take the further step of striking back


I can file a complaint that accuses the trainer or teacher of violating HB 1775.

In short, it is entirely predictable that those who teach and train about implicit bias, while not in fact guilty of teaching principle (7), will occasionally inspire defensive responses that lead to them being falsely accused of (7). And if decision-makers assessing whether the law has been broken have been primed to misunderstand the relevant ideas by our culture wars’ straw-manning pundits—or if they are psychologically prone to feel defensive themselves—then you can easily see how the law might end up shutting down important work whose aim is to make our society a less racist place.

It doesn’t even have to actually happen for the law to have a chilling effect on these important discussion. It is enough if it looks like it happened. And this brings me back to the recent decisions made by the Oklahoma State Board of Education, in a vote of 4-2, to slap two Oklahoma school districts with warning and threats to their accreditation based on supposed violations of HB 1775.

In the case of Tulsa Public Schools, this penalty was based on a supposed violation of HB 1775 that took place during a required bias training for Tulsa schools staff. It was the result of a complaint by a single teacher who attended this training. Now maybe there really was a violation. Maybe the trainer completely misunderstood implicit bias, and said something like the following: “All white people have implicit bias just because they are white. Their race alone makes them inherently biased against black people. White people are born that way!”

But it strikes me as highly unlikely that someone chosen to lead a training on this issue for a school district would so radically misunderstand the concept of implicit bias. And I’ve also seen sound explanations of implicit bias routinely mischaracterized as statements like the one above. And so I find myself immediately suspicious of the claim that any of the prohibited principles in HB 1775 were actually taught.

And here’s the problem: the grounds for reaching the decision that HB 1775 was violated haven’t been made public. The thing that might allay my suspicion—a transcript of the recording of the training, or copies of the recording itself, showing that the trainer was not misunderstood or mischaracterized or uncharitably interpreted but really was saying that people are innately racist just because of their race and should feel guilty for being white—are not available.

The person who lodged the complaint against Tulsa Public Schools claimed that in the training, she was made to feel guilty about past wrongs by white people and that she and others were told that white people “are implicitly racially biased by nature.” But were the words “by nature” actually spoken, or was that the accuser’s take-away, their own misunderstanding? Again, since implicit bias is a matter of social conditioning—nurture, not nature—it seems unlikely that anyone leading a training on the topic would make such a claim.

Apparently, there is audio recording of the training. It was reviewed by a team investigating the complaint. But not only has it not been made available to the public; it appears to have not been made available to all the board members who were supposed to vote on the matter. In fact, one board member who voted against the downgrade—Carlisha Williams Bradley—complained that she had not been given theopportunity to review the audio for herself.

That said, part or all of the transcript of the audio was presumably made available, since during the meeting Bradley pointed out that OSDE general counsel Brad Clark “had to make an inference based on the audio that never explicitly said that an individual by virtue of his race or her race or sex is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive. None of these things were ever said.”

So, we have the public testimony of one board member who presumably has seen a transcript of the most relevant parts of the training audio—and according to that public testimony, the prohibited principles were never asserted. Instead, the judgment that HB 1775 was violated was based on an inference or an interpretation.

This is not comforting for anyone who is working in or for Oklahoma’s public schools and who cares about racial bias education. Given how our culture wars have led to straw-manning of people’s views and arguments, especially in relation to implicit racial bias, and given how defensiveness can lead to misrepresentations, we find ourselves in a social climate in which people are routinely accused, mistakenly or wrongly, of saying things prohibited by HB 1775. And now, school districts in Oklahoma have been penalized for violating HB 1775 based not on anything that was actually said in clear violation of HB 1775, but based on an inference.

In a social climate so littered with straw-manning and defensive misrepresentation, such inferences are always suspect, because they are so unreliable. How, then, can anyone working in the public school system have any confidence, based on the results of the Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting, that they will not incur penalties for violating HB 1775 even when they take pains not to do so? How can they be sure that if they take up the important conversations about reducing racial bias in our culture, they won’t have their words misinterpreted to mean things that, according to HB 1775, one is not legally permitted to say as a teacher or trainer in Oklahoma’s public schools?

In short, given the recent OSBE decisions, I cannot see how HB 1775 can have any effect other than a chilling one: keeping important research and information out of the hands of teachers who could use it to promote greater inclusivity and fairness in their classrooms, and keeping high school teachers from having some really important conversations with their students (out of fear that they’ll lose their jobs based on a straw-man mangling of their words).

Racism is bad. We need tools to fight it. Among those tools are challenging conversations about implicit bias in our high school classrooms, and training for teachers aimed at helping them avoid unintended bias in their interactions with a diversity of students. When HB 1775 is combined with the recent OSBE decision, the effect is to make our schools and teachers afraid to take up these crucial tools.

And our state will be the worse for it.

Based on all of this, I can only conclude that either HB 1775 should be rescinded, or new and more exacting guidance on its use be issued that prohibits penalizing schools, school districts, teachers, or trainers for contestable interpretations of what they said or meant to say.

Addendum--Added 8/19/22

Originally, OSBE spokespersons indicated that while the slides for the Tulsa Public Schools training did not violate HB 1775, elaborations found on the audio did. Since then, there has been a revelation:the Tulsa World has reviewed the audio and found it to be identical to the slides. Despite this revelation, OSBE stands by their ruling because, apparently, the impact of the words on the slides being read aloud gave them the impression that the spirit of the law had been violated. And that justified a legal penalty.

So, are we to infer from this that someone's tone of voice can change whether they are found to be in violation of HB 1775, and hence whether a school district will be legally penalized or a teacher fired?

This revelation drives home further the fact that the trainer did not in fact say anything explicitly prohibited by HB 1775. Instead, the judgment that a violation occurred is based on some perceived meaning beyond what was explicitly said--and/or some "spirit" of the law beyond what is explicitly prohibited.

The former option is that the trainer meant something by their words that's not only different from what they actually said but opposed to what they actually said. Recall that OSBE took the trainer to be violating the rule against saying that people are inherently racist because of their race. But implicit bias is a matter of nurture not nature (hence, implicit bias is not inherent), and implicit bias research understands biases to derive from personal experience and socialization, not because of their race. An implicit bias trainer knows this, and so it seems highly implausible to claim that the trainer meant to say what HB 1775 explicitly prohibits, even if they didn't explicitly say it.

The more plausible interpretation of the OSBE decision, then turns on their explicit invocation of the "spirit" of HB 1775--something that the law prohibits even if it doesn't come right out and say so. But what do they take this "spirit" to be?

The trainer presented research findings about bias that--while true and important to disseminate if we want a more equitable society, and while not in violation of anything that HB 1775 explicitly prohibits-- are uncomfortable truths: truths that many don't like to hear, because it means they might be unconsciously contributing to racial inequity even if they don't mean to be, and even if they denounce racism.

Is OSBE saying here that they take the law to mean it's illegal for any teacher or trainer in Oklahoma schools to say anything about race that, even if true and not included in the list of prohibited "principles", makes someone uncomfortable? Because if that is what they take the law to mean, they are treating it as prohibiting way more than what it says it prohibits--probably ruling out any effort in public schools to share research that could help reduce racial inequity (since such research is sure to make someone uncomfortable).

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Remembering Rune Engebretsen

Today, at Emmaus Church in Northfield, Minnesota, a service was held in memory of my Uncle, Rune Engebretsen, who died a few months ago. In his memory, I share the following reflections.

In Memory of Rune Engebretsen

My much-loved uncle, Rune Engebretsen (always “Onkel Rune” to me), passed away last week. A Scandinavian Studies professor and a skilled translator (from Norwegian/Danish into English), his special interest in Kierkegaard created a distinctive intellectual connection between us that I didn’t have with other members of my family. To oversimplify it, he was the relative I could always count on to talk philosophy with me. On a deeper level, I enjoyed his enthusiastic interest in deep questions about truth and meaning and values, about God and Christianity. When my first book came out, he was one of its loudest cheerleaders (at one point hyperbolically calling it “essential reading for all humanity”—which I took to mean he was proud of me).

He was also a collector of books. Apparently it got a little out of control.

But these are not the things I will most remember about him. Perhaps one of the best ways to capture his essence is to say that his personality made him quite naturally and easily one of the best Jule Nisses my family ever had. 

That may require a bit of explanation. In our family, we’ve always followed the Norwegian Christmas Eve tradition of having a visit from Jule Nissen: the Christmas Elf. He’d sweep into the home, distribute presents, and dance around the tree with the family. As I was growing up, we had neighbors and family friends don the Nisse outfit to help out with the task. As an adult my sister and I have often enough taken on the job, and in recent years my daughter has been eager to put on the beard, Norwegian sweater, and knit stockings.

But Rune, during one of the Christmas Eves we spent with him and his kids, stands out in my memory as being one of the most delightful. Bantering in English and Norwegian as he stomped into the house, telling jokes as he distributed gifts from his sack—I can’t remember details so much as the way he made us feel: full of joy and laughter. 

To say he always had a twinkle in his eye is a bit of a cliché—but when I think of Onkel Rune, the expression “a twinkle in his eye” comes to mind with such force that he’s who I’d want to point to if anyone hadn’t heard that expression and wanted to know what it meant. He had a way of smiling at you that invited you to share in his personal delight at the world. And he was charming. It wasn’t something he turned on in order to achieve some end, bust something he was: a charming man, in large measure because you really got the sense that he wanted the best for everyone.

This does not mean, of course, that he never disappointed those around him. All of us are imperfect in our own ways. My sense is Onkel Rune always meant well, but wouldn’t always follow through. My mother frequently said to me, “You’re just like my brother!”—especially at moments when despite my initial good intentions I failed to follow through. She’s right about me, so I’m not one to hold this too much against him.

More importantly, there’s the fact that at key moments in my life when I needed him, he had more than just good intentions to offer. One time in particular stands out. The summer after my freshman year in college, my friend Lou and I decided to drive across the country to Washington State (where Lou was from) to work at a fruit orchard for the summer. We started out the journey in an old AMC Spirit whose road-worthiness was a bit sketchy—and which, while paid for, was not yet legally registered in any state (Lou’s plan was to take care of that in Washington once we got there). Needless to say, this journey did not go smoothly. A breakdown and emergency repair, followed by a police stop, took all the cash we’d saved up for the journey and most of our spirits (except, of course, for the AMC Spirit, which we were stuck with).

The good news is that we were a few hours drive from Northfield, Minnesota, where Onkel Rune lived at the time. When we limped into town, Rune gave us safe haven. He offered rest, food, and a renewal of our spirits. And he gave us enough cash to make the rest of the trip to Washington (with no expectation of repayment). As a fan of the Lord of the Rings books, I felt like the hobbits arriving in Rivendell.

One final memory of Onkel Rune also relates to a road trip—this one from when I was a teenager, and our families traveled together on a summer trip to Washington DC and Philadelphia. I remember little from that trip, but what stands out is this silly little mantra that Rune had created, and which he repeatedly offered up to eye rolls and laughter. The mantra went like this:

Are you happy now?

Happy go lucky, you know.

Happy as a flutterby!

Yes, sir, he said. Do you know him?

On the day I learned he’d died, as I was driving my daughter Izzie home from school, I spoke those words to her—finding it a bit difficult to finish the whole thing, because I was starting to cry. But I finished it, and I told her that this silliness came from her Great Uncle Rune, and I was sharing it with her in his memory, because he had died.

Izzie hesitated, then said, “So that’s where that stupid saying comes from.”

Apparently, Rune’s silliness made enough of a long-term impression on me that, without even really realizing it, this bit of delightful nonsense made its way into my own repertoire of dad jokes and absurdities that I’ve used through the years to elicit eye rolls in my kids. 

All of this is to say that Rune’s spirit lives on in those who knew and loved him; that his life has touched and changed the world for the better; and that, since I find it hard to imagine the world without him out there somewhere offering his twinkling glance, his charm, his intelligence, and his silliness, I refuse to do it. Instead, I will believe that he lives on in some different way, a way we may not fully know or understand, a way that—whether wholly metaphorical or metaphysically real—makes the world a better place.