U.S. conservatives tend to rip China for its political indoctrination and surveillance state. They also frequently criticize states in the Middle East for being authoritarian and undemocratic. But in their most recent efforts to wrest control of the Culture Wars, many conservatives are twisting themselves into knots and in danger of becoming the thing they claim to hate.

In 2014, my wife and I traveled to Chengdu in the Sichuan Province of China, where I worked with high school students with aspirations of studying in the U.S. In our first year, I created a college preparatory course, teaching them about regional differences and their higher ed options in the states. People all over the world want to send their children to university in the U.S., but most only want to send them to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and Stanford. My goal was to teach students about other options: state land grant colleges, liberal arts colleges, regional colleges, and community colleges that offer the opportunity to transfer.

This was an evening program. We had about 20 students in each of our classes. We used our days for lesson planning and sightseeing. In my class, I also had two teacher’s aides: one helped me with translation, the second live streamed the class on QQ (the precursor to WeChat) to the parents waiting in the lobby, parking lot, or watching at a nearby café.

We returned in 2015. In our second stint, they asked us to build a U.S. History course that contained elements of public speaking and debate. We collected a series of short plays about U.S. history and in the tail end of our time, we progressed toward conversations about the United States’ influence in the Pacific. In one lesson, we decided to have students research and debate the conflict between China and the Philippines over control of the South China Sea. But our idea was shot down immediately by the program supervisors, and we were advised that this was a “forbidden topic.” We were not in a position to argue, so we relented.

Despite that tense moment, we enjoyed our experience in China, and when we announced we were headed overseas in 2019, many folks assumed China was our destination. Unfortunately, this summer has reminded me of our time in China, and not in good ways.

Driven by an online moral panic, state legislatures are trying to censor classroom discussions and curriculum to push a historical narrative that downplays the impact of race and slavery in U.S. history. Under a new Tennessee law, districts face a fine of up to $5 million when teachers “knowingly violate” the new teacher censorship law. Attempts to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory and restrict use of The New York Times1619 Project, are reminiscent of the memory-holing in China of the Cultural Revolution, the period of ideological purges that ravaged China from 1966 until Mao’s death in 1976.

In early August, I facilitated a panel for the OER Project’s online conference on “Cultivating Young Citizens.” In the discussion, an American teacher who works in Kuwait mentioned that they use the 1619 Project in their classroom. A teacher from Ohio replied that due to a recently passed law, they are forbidden from doing the same. This matches my experiences teaching in Abu Dhabi. The restrictions being placed on teacher speech by state legislatures across the US are more restrictive than any similar restrictions I and my students face in the Middle East.

To keep “forbidden knowledge” out of schools, there are also calls for stepped-up state surveillance. In July, one prominent Fox News host called for body cameras for teachers to make sure they are not teaching Critical Race Theory. People on the U.S. right are usually quite loud in their criticism of the Chinese state and its mass surveillance, but cultural conservatives tend to wage their culture wars without much intellectual consistency.

A society that cannot grapple with the complexity of its history is a diminished nation. A fairytale version of history — where we are ever triumphant, ever virtuous — does not prepare students, as future leaders, to confront coming societal challenges: climate change, continuing the fight for equality for all Americans, and maintaining and improving our democracy. The purpose of social studies is to give students the tools from history, economics, civics, and geography to navigate the world as adults. These laws take those tools and put them in a glass case labeled “forbidden knowledge.”

Students as future leaders will struggle to create policies to remedy voter disenfranchisement or police abuse if they are denied lessons about historical civil rights efforts. Students as future leaders will not create policies to remedy discrimination, if they are taught it doesn’t exist.

The current wave of legislation is an attempt by reactionary elements of the conservative movement to reclaim the narrative of American History. It is a replay of the Lost Cause narrative that emerged from the post-Reconstruction South — it is a backlash. They see the success of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project; they see the ascent of anti-racism and diversity initiatives in schools and the corporate world; they see the in-roads into the mainstream of the Black Lives Matter movement and the George Floyd protests. Now they want to use the tools of authoritarian states — surveillance and censorship — to roll it all back.


Entering his 16th year in the classroom, Nate Bowling is an award-winning teacher and the host of the Nerd Farmer Podcast. He teaches civics and geography at the American Community School of Abu Dhabi. Check out more of what Nate has to say in this episode of the EdTrusted podcast.