“There needs to be … in our society room for the whole intellectual buffet. And this material [SkyTree Books] is positive and enriching for kids. And we just want to give it an opportunity to have some attention, too.”
— Mark Taylor, WRVA, ‘Richmond’s Morning News with John Reid,’ November 30, 2023
“Spotsylvania schools superintendent Mark Taylor has removed 23 more books from county high school libraries, the division announced late Monday night, bringing the total number of titles he has removed to 37.”
— Adele Uphaus, ‘23 more books removed from Spotsylvania school libraries’ in the Free Lance-Star, October 10, 2023
Perhaps had Mark Taylor come into his position as Spotsylvania school superintendent speaking as he did Thursday on the John Reid Show, we wouldn’t be here. “Here” is a school system in disarray with falling SOL scores, teacher shortages, and little confidence in the man with no background in education who is being paid almost a quarter-million dollars annually to lead one of the larger school systems in the Commonwealth.
That lack of confidence led to two independent and two Democratic-backed candidates winning all the seats up for grabs on November 7 in deeply Red Spotsylvania.
Rather, we are here because instead of promoting the whole intellectual buffet, Taylor has dedicated his time as superintendent to creating a system that serves up books like so much slop in a chow line. “Here’s what you get; shut up and read it.”
Too little, too late.
Facing an uncertain future in January when those who gave him his contract — which guarantees pay for three years if he is terminated without cause — either leave the Board or must turn over power to a new group of leaders, Taylor is shifting tactics in an effort to save himself by paying lip service to the “whole intellectual buffet.”
His change in rhetoric is fooling no one.
“One of the most salient features of our culture,” wrote the late Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, “is that there is so much bullshit.”
That’s what Taylor was serving on Thursday.
Intellectual Diversity Requires an Open Public Square
Taylor showed his stripes early and often in Spotsylvania County. Among his actions, Taylor has thus far:
- Advocated shuttering school libraries in order to save money (despite state law requiring school libraries).
- Acted unilaterally to ban 14 books in the spring from school libraries.
- Acted unilaterally to ban another 23 books this fall from school libraries.
- Taken such actions under the guise of protecting children from “pornography,” though his reading of the state code is questionable.
- Threatened to ban books for reasons other than “pornography” by creating “other pathways” to challenging books.
- Misrepresented Virginia’s NAEP scores in April by saying “Virginia came in last in math and reading for 4th graders and 8th graders in the United States.”
- Granted his first interview as superintendent to The Spotsy Wire, an anonymously run partisan blog.
And he showed his stripes again on Thursday.
Despite all the talk about the importance of literacy and the “whole intellectual buffet,” Taylor again misrepresented what is happening with student achievement in Spotsylvania.
“We have been making progress with improvements in … standardized test scores in reading,” he told Reid. “That’s good.”
Except the county hasn’t.
An analysis in October of SOL scores in Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, and Stafford by Matt Hurt, a leading authority on standardized testing in Virginia, showed just the opposite.
From 2022 to 2023, SOL reading scores across all grades in Spotsylvania fell 2.13 percentage points (they were down 1.76 in Stafford, and up 0.66 in Fredericksburg).
Over the same period, SOL reading scores for Asian students in Spotsylvania were down 8.47 percentage points; down 2.93 for Hispanic students; down 0.63 for Black students; and down 1.63 for white students.
It got worse.
At the same time Taylor was trying to terminate school libraries and banning books, he was unresponsive to select Board Members’ emails, and greeted the parents who took the time to write him emails — the parents whose taxes pay his salary — with an auto response email saying, essentially, I’m too busy to speak with you.
That is hardly the mind of an individual who’s dined on the best books crafted by the finest minds the world has produced — Chaucer, Lao Tzu, Shakespeare, Percy, Marx, Smith, Morrison, and so many more — and values an open exchange about ideas.
Taylor remains no less openminded toward the Fourth Estate — the free press that is responsible for serving as a government watchdog.
In my time as Opinion Editor at the Free Lance-Star, and now as Editor-in-Chief of Fredericksburg Advance, Taylor has returned nary a phone call nor granted any of my several requests for interviews. My colleague at FLS, and now the Advance, Adele Uphaus, has fared no better.
I had hopes that with Taylor’s repudiation at the polls in November, things might change.
Diversity in Choices and Robust Discussion is the Only True Intellectual Diversity
My affirmative response received a less than affirming reply.
Over the course of eight emails between myself and the PR agency, I was told:
Hopefully you understand the concerns of politicians and celebrities to not interview with media that doesn’t align with their beliefs …
Whether this was the publicist’s response, or Taylor relaying that response through the publicist, is impossible to know. But the language speaks volumes about the attitude too many politicians have toward the Fourth Estate.
America is based on a complex conversation of checks and balances. Whether those are the checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution, or the commonsense checks implied in Ronald Reagan’s argument that we should “trust but verify,” the idea is the same. Everyone is accountable. Corruption blooms where accountability is lacking.
Those who function under the idea that they need not speak with media (or anyone else) that does not “align” with their beliefs is anti-democratic at its core.
Mark Taylor is first and foremost a public servant charged with overseeing the education of more than 23,000 children and is paid handsomely for his services. Pay that comes not from anything he does or produces, but from the pockets of hardworking Spotsylvanians.
As such, he owes an accounting to every one of those taxpayers — whether they “align” with his worldview or not.
Citizens need not agree with his policies, but they deserve an honest answer to the questions that they ask. In America, the media is the vehicle through which those questions are often delivered.
Taylor’s inability to grasp this basic reality suggests that the “intellectual buffet” he was raised on and educated in was lacking in diversity and seriousness.
Perhaps after the first of the year, Taylor will find some time to go back to school and take some classes that would introduce (or re-introduce) him to the world’s intellectual buffet.
He’s more than welcome to start by finally accepting an invitation to interview with Shaun Kenney and myself on the New Dominion Podcast, where we regularly feast on the ideas of people and books that quite literally span the globe — and challenge many of the ideas of presuppositions we bring to the table.
If you do finally accept our offer, Mark, leave your pickiness about what you will read and allow others to read at home. The intellectual world is rich, varied, exotic, and satisfying. You have to be willing to try a little bit of everything.