I entered public education in the fall of 1984, a naive and idealistic first-year English teacher vividly aware of the literary significance of that year.
Of course, I was not yet aware that I was completely wrong about the essential purposes of public education because I had been gifted parents who trusted not only my intellect but the foundational good of knowledge and academic freedom.
My parents were wrong about quite a lot, it turns out, but they were magnificent in the freedom they allowed my mind and the support they gave to my often wonderful teachers.
The first few years of my teaching career included a series of visits to the principal’s office to discuss complaints from parents. It was something akin to the hazing period people experience when joining fraternities.
One of the earliest clashes I had with parents—and I should note that my students were often deeply appreciative of my classes, supportive of the work I was doing—centered on complaints about my assigning John Gardner’s Grendel to my advanced tenth graders (students on track to take Advanced Placement their senior year).
Grendel is a retelling of the Beowulf epic poem in novel form, and it does include a few graphic scenes and some so-called adult language. But these were 15 and 16 year olds planning to go to college, and unbeknownst to their parents, many of these students were sexually active and used language that was far more profane that the few “offensive” words in the novel. (Treating young adults as intellectual children when they are asserting adult behavior in their lives outside of school is inexcusable, I think.)
Yet, a few (maybe only two) parents launched a campaign to teach this new teacher a lesson about what parents expected from their children’s teachers.
Of course, the short version of this is that the novel was removed from my required list (although I left copies on my shelf and many students continued to choose the novel along with many other commonly banned works).
This pattern continued for several years: I was challenging my students intellectually, often seeking ways to prepare them for college, and parents here and there asserted disproportionate influence on whether or not I was allowed to do my work as an educator.
A key moment in those first years was me sitting once again in the principal’s office listening to Mr. Simpkins (also the man who was principal when I attended this school and father of two of my childhood friends) chastise me about crossing lines parents created; these sessions were also punctuated with not-so-subtle threat that my teaching career could be ended at any moment (South Carolina is a right-to-work state, by the way).
One time, exasperated, I responded with, “Mr. Simpkins, I am simply trying to teach these students to think.”
With a half-smile and without hesitation, Mr. Simpkins replied, “Paul, some parents don’t want their children to think.”
It is important to emphasize here that his comment carried the implication “and thus, we have no right to make those students think.”
Fast forward almost 40 years, over which I have been in education in SC the entire time, and consider that those experiences I encountered in the mid-1980s are now how the entire nation is dealing with K-12 education in the U.S.
Republicans are creating a false narrative about public schools indoctrinating students in leftwing ideologies (often mislabeled as Critical Race Theory or Marxism) and whipping up parental anger at their local schools.
And the paradox, of course, is that Republicans are passing and signing legislation that is designed to indoctrinate:
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced new state programs for students Tuesday that will require civics and patriotism education as well as CPR training.
“Once students graduate high school, some will go to college, some of them will do other things…whatever you do, this civics is gonna be relevant because you are going to be a citizen,” DeSantis said at an afternoon news briefing in Fort Myers.
It will also require high school students to learn about “the evils of communism and totalitarian ideologies.”Florida will require schools to teach civics and ‘evils of communism’
Currently, about 25 states are doing something similar to Florida—mandating what and how schools teach about race, racism, and history.
Two points need to be made about these efforts.
First, K-12 public education in the U.S. has always been and remains very conservative.
Let me emphasize that my experience noted above is common for new teachers, who quickly learn to self-censor and avoid parental complaints and administrative reprimands.
As I have written about before, I taught with a wonderful young teacher, himself a well-known and well-loved active Christian in the church just across the street from the high school, who taught geography. He found himself “in trouble” because he taught Middle East geography, including how the countries were aligned with different religions.
One parent was outraged, and asked that his son be moved to another teacher because the parent didn’t want his son to know there were religions other than Christianity.
What did the principal do? Moved the student to a geography class taught by a coach (a very conservative man who taught in ways that would likely thrill Republicans).
This leads to a second point: Conservatives are deeply confused about indoctrination and education.
And a great example of that misconception comes from an unlikely place, a brilliant response from chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, about charges by Republicans that the military is “woke” (another misuse of a term designed by conservatives to be a criticism):
“I’ve read Mao Zedong. I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist. So what is wrong with understanding — having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend?” Milley said.
He continued brusquely: “And I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military, our general officers, our commissioned, noncommissioned officers of being, quote, ‘woke’ or something else, because we’re studying some theories that are out there.”…
“I want to understand white rage, and I’m white, and I want to understand it,” he said. “So what is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America? What caused that? I want to find that out.”Top General Defends Studying Critical Race Theory In The Military
Gen. Milley understands—like my parents—that knowledge, reading, and awareness are powerful, but that simply being exposed to an idea doesn’t mean anyone is immediately indoctrinated by those ideas.
Most of us have studied the Holocaust, and we know the ideology of Hitler and the Nazis. Yet, most people decide to reject those ideas and beliefs.
I also want to emphasize that Gen. Milley is defending academic freedom, the essential nature of an academic institution and the sacredness of the human mind.
These are concepts entirely lost on Republicans who seek ways to use schools to decide for students what they learn and what they believe.
I want to end by returning to the central point everyone should understand, especially parents: U.S. K-12 public education is extremely conservative.
A vivid example of that is the enduring ways that children are taught about Hellen Keller, through the play The Miracle Worker.
Keller has been and remains a tool of educational indoctrination aimed at inculcating into children a belief in rugged individualism; if a person such as Keller can overcome her many sensory challenges, the message goes, then anyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps.
But just like the mis-teaching of Martin Luther King Jr. in public schools (the overemphasis on his “I Have a Dream” speech and the de-contextualizing of his “content of their character” assertion), Keller of The Miracle Worker is not the full and complicated (or even accurate) story of this woman.
Keller was a socialist and political activist—something I am certain most students never hear in a K-12 classroom.
The Miracle Worker is the sort of “safe” text that most teachers default to, like King’s “I Have a Dream,” in order to avoid the relentless interference of parents and administrators.
K-12 public education is mostly conservative because teachers learn to self-censor, to tip-toe around anything that the most extreme parents may complain about.
Critical Race Theory and liberal indoctrination simply do not exist in K-12 public schools in the U.S.
But there is a problem parents should be concerned about; your children are often being cheated out of knowledge and awareness because academic freedom died a long time ago when the first administrator defaulted to parental complaints at the expense of any student’s right to read and think widely and openly.
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