When schools are scared of Dr. Seuss, we've gone too far on race

A needless kerfuffle over "The Sneetches" highlights how overly cautious Americans have become.

A customer in a bookstore looks at a full stand of books by Dr. Seuss, including Hop on Pop, Dr. Seuss's ABC, There's a Wocket in My Pocket, A Fish Out of Water and so on.
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It may not be the most dramatic moment in America’s escalating education wars. But as a dad with some concerns about what we are — and aren’t — teaching our kids about race these days, I can’t stop thinking about it.

And the more I think about it, the more I realize that this small moment matters precisely because it doesn’t feel like such a big deal.

Last month, NPR’s "Planet Money" ran a segment about using classic children’s books to teach kids about economics. For the first 20 minutes, a third-grade teacher in Ohio, Mandy Robek of the Olentangy school district, leads her lesson without incident.

But then Amanda Beeman, the district’s assistant director for communications, suddenly stops Robek from reading the last book on NPR’s list — Dr. Seuss’s "The Sneetches"  after students start to ask about a different subject: discrimination.

Jill Doran, holding a copy of the book, wears a tall hat with red-and-white stripes referring to Dr. Suess's book The Cat in the Hat.
Jill Doran, a Laguna Beach, Calif., parent and volunteer reader, wearing an appropriate hat for the occasion, reads "The Sneetches" by Dr. Seuss to a first-grade class. (Don Tormey/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“I don't know if I feel comfortable with the book being one of the ones featured,” Beeman is heard saying. “I just feel like this isn't teaching anything about economics, and this is a little bit more about differences with race.”

We’re all accustomed to “woke” vs. “anti-woke” bickering at this point. Conservatives claim schools are indoctrinating students in critical race theory (CRT). Liberals argue that conservatives don’t even know what critical race theory is — and that if they did, they’d realize teachers aren’t actually exposing kids to it.

But what strikes me about the NPR moment is that no one — no ban, no school board, no parents — had told Beeman to shut down "The Sneetches." Instead, she censored herself, and closed off conversation, in anticipation of some imagined political blowback.

Bills banning CRT get all the headlines, but I bet this sort of chilling effect is far more common. And the more common it becomes — the more educators avoid stories like "The Sneetches" to avoid appearing to be “political” the more it will mean that our schools have lost the plot on race.

People talk before the start of a rally against a banner swathed in the Stars and Stripes that reads: Education Not Indoctrination, Stop Critical Race Theory Now!
A rally in Leesburg, Va., on June 12, 2021, against critical race theory being taught in schools. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

In Seuss’s book, there are Star-Belly Sneetches, who consider themselves the superior species, and Plain-Belly Sneetches, who are treated like second-class citizens. When a slick salesman offers to stamp the Plain-Bellies with stars, they jump at the opportunity. Aghast, the Star-Bellies then pay to remove their once-special markings. On and off the stars go, until the Sneetches can’t tell “which one was what one ... or what one was who” — and they finally realize that “no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.”

The simple point of Seuss’s 1953 story is not lost on the Olentangy third-graders. “It's almost like what happened back then, how people were treated — like, disrespected — like, white people disrespected Black people,” one boy says.

And yet it’s too much for Beeman.

I don’t mean to villainize Beeman here. It’s understandable that a PR professional was squeamish about veering off script on National Public Radio. The students’ parents probably agreed to let NPR record a lesson about economics — not race.

What’s less understandable, and a lot sadder, is why any educator should be squeamish about something like "The Sneetches" to begin with.

Full disclosure: This whole tale is weirdly personal for me. Remember the big “cancel culture” fit that erupted after the Seuss estate announced in March 2021 that it was halting publication of six lesser-known titles because they contained “hurtful” stereotypes?

A row of books by Dr. Seuss are displayed in a bookstore.
Books by Dr. Seuss on a shelf in a Brooklyn bookstore. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Well, a few weeks earlier, my wife, a children’s screenwriter, had been hired by Netflix to adapt five other Seuss titles for preschool TV — and when the news became public in mid-March, conservative commentators like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson were still accusing the “forces of wokeness” of “hating” Dr. Seuss.

One of the Seuss titles that Netflix hired my wife to adapt was (you guessed it) "The Sneetches." So she’s spent the last two years trying to transform Seuss’s 70-year-old story into a contemporary streaming special, which has required her to navigate the same crosscurrents — how America sees Seuss, how parents see race — that unsettled Beeman. It’s a delicate dance.

But the NPR story also hit home because we have a kindergartner and a second-grader ourselves. And I have to be honest: Their relationship to race has been one of the most eye-opening aspects of parenting.

It turns out children are extremely observant, inquisitive and unfiltered. So they notice all the racial differences that we “civilized” adults tend to gloss over — that most waiters have “white skin,” for instance, while most kitchen workers have “brown skin” — and ask very direct questions about those differences.

Experts say this is totally normal. According to the American Psychological Association, studies have shown that 3-month-olds prefer faces from certain racial groups, 9-month-olds use race to categorize faces and American 3-year-olds link some racial groups with negative traits. By age 4, children in the U.S. associate “whites with wealth and higher status” — and by the time they start elementary school, “race-based discrimination is already widespread.”

Three white elementary school children point at a Black boy, also wearing a backpack, who hugs a folder and looks despondently at the ground.
Getty Images

The problem, says Jessica Sullivan, a psychology professor at Skidmore College, is that “if adults don't talk to kids about race, [they] will work to make sense of their world and will come up with their own ideas — which may be inaccurate or detrimental.”

As a dad, I do my best to explain why so many imbalances endure and why they can be really unfair. But it requires lots of vigilance to keep kids from normalizing this stuff — from dividing their world into “deserving” Star-Bellies and “undeserving” Plain-Bellies. They have to learn, in other words, how not to be racist. And I admit I often fall short in the teachable-moment department, because I am distracted, or lazy, or just plain human.

That’s why I was so shaken by the NPR story. Robek’s third-graders rightly demanded education; they were rewarded with evasion. I’d want my own kids to react to "The Sneetches" exactly the way they did. I’d want their teacher to talk to them about treating everyone equally — or even better, why Dr. Seuss’s 1950s version of equality ("We’re equal because we’re all the same!") has evolved into something a bit more enlightened ("We’re equal even though we’re all different!").

And I’m pretty sure most parents agree.

Wherever we stand in the debate over critical race theory, stories about how “no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches” should still have a place in the classroom.

And yet here we are, with political combatants on both sides cowing teachers into silence — and teaching students to be silent in turn.