Category Archives: Critical Pedagogy

IndoctriNation: Can We Avoid Our Dystopian Republican Future?

“I guess irony can be pretty ironic sometimes,” Commander Buck Murdock (William Shatner) muses in Airplane 2: The Sequel.

I immediately thought of this iconic Shatner scene from the Jerry Zucker-Jim Abrahams-David Zucker film when I saw a brilliant and urgently serious post on Facebook from a former student of mine currently advocating for all that is Good and Right in her crumbling state of Virginia:

While Stephanie hits succinctly right at the heart of the irony surrounding the current push by Republicans to mandate educational gag orders, parental trigger bills, and a wide range of censorship for not only school and colleges but also throughout society, I want to highlight how the irony is a veneer for the Republican long game.

Many people have now exposed that the Republican use of “Critical Race Theory” is an orchestrated lie for larger political goals since their definitions of CRT are distortions and misinformation.

But what exactly is that end game?

First, let’s unpack the monumental irony in the “Education Not Indoctrination” claims of Republicans.

A related element of the anti-CRT movement is linking CRT to “Marxism” (itself a distortion bordering on a lie), but the more telling aspect of that connection is that Marxist and critical educators forefront a genuine and resolute rejection of indoctrination. As Joe Kincheloe details, seeking out and exposing those who indoctrinate is a “central tenet” of being critical:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive….

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students. This is a central tenet of critical pedagogy.

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner. Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom. (pp. 2, 11)

JOE KINCHELOE, CRITICAL PEDAGOGY PRIMER

Therefore, if an educator is leftist, Marxist, or critical, they are dedicated to not only seeking out and contesting anyone who indoctrinates, but also working continuously to avoid allowing their own teaching to devolve into indoctrination.

To indoctrinate is to be authoritarian (see Paulo Freire’s distinction between “authoritarian” and “authoritative” in the context of critical pedagogy).

Along with the foundational strategy of using lies and mischaracterized terms to advance a political agenda, Republicans also are guilty of projection: Almost everything Republicans attribute to the “Left” is what they actually do (Republicans decry a false specter of “cancel culture” while actually passing legislation that censors, cancels, and bans materials and ideas) or what they would do given the opportunity and the power.

And that leads to the end game.

To understand the Republican end game, you must address that “Education Not Indoctrination” is yet another Orwellian misdirection. Republicans are not anti-indoctrination; in fact, Republicans are actually seeking a world in which they completely control the indoctrinating.

In short, Kincheloe’s “who’s indoctrinating whom” can be addressed simply by acknowledging that given the opportunity and power (see legislation in Republican-led states) the “who” will always be Republicans and the “whom” will be the rest of us.

Republicans are organizing and enacting a broad campaign to create their dystopia, IndoctriNation.

They are counting on a common flaw in the U.S.: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” (“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats).

Privilege as a Barrier to Learning

I am deeply skeptical about two things—criticism of “young people today” as if this younger generation is somehow significantly less capable than older generations and student evaluations of teaching (SETs).

So nothing would be worse, in my opinion, than launching into a “young people today” screed based on SETs. Therefore, what follows is intended as an evidence-based observation toward understanding, not a criticism, grounded in both recent SETs and my 20 years teaching at a selective liberal arts university (after teaching 18 years at a rural high school).

My almost four decades of teaching have been in two contexts with significant social class differences. My high school students were mostly working class and poor; my university students are quite privileged in terms of social class but also in terms of the quality of education they received before entering high education (many are from private school backgrounds).

Across both populations, I often am perceived (at first) as extremely demanding, and even harsh (or “mean”).

My high school students, many working class as I was (and I also attended the school where I taught), within a few weeks tended to flip in their opinion of my courses and even me. Many years later, I have very warm relationships with many of those students; and even those who still openly express that they aren’t fans of me as a person confirm that they appreciate the work I did as a teacher.

Achieving that level of connection and warmth with my university students has been rare to mostly absent. My university students, overwhelmingly privileged in many ways, are quite unlike me, having grown up working class and receiving my BA, MEd, and EdD from state universities.

I just reviewed my fall 2021 SETs, and despite efforts to address the negativity (and even antagonism) in my spring 2021 SETs, I once again read a significant amount of negative, angry, and harsh responses to my courses.

A few things are going on, I think. First, I believe the Covid-era has in many ways inflated student stress, which is reflected in the increase of negative comments (a point I am making not to criticize students, but to acknowledge the larger forces at work and how SET data are rarely about teacher quality).

Second, while I reject the credibility and validity of SETs (as reflected in research on the practice), I do think the data say less about teacher quality and more about the students themselves.

Now, putting those two points together allows me to draw some important conclusions about privilege as a barrier to learning.

Before I explore that thought, let me offer a few caveats.

Socioeconomic status is the strongest correlation to measurable student achievement; therefore, wealthy and white students disproportionately are labeled as “good” or “excellent” students.

However, if you dig deeper in that data, you discover that eduction is not the “great equalizer” but a marker for privilege; privilege itself actually trumps having more and so-called better education (extensive research supports that claim); for one example, see the following data:

People born into socioeconomic and/or race privilege tend to navigate and achieve advanced education degrees, but the privilege itself is the primary driver of their “success” (attaining high-paying jobs), not the education.

My university students often have backgrounds in selective private schools, and almost all of them have completed high school as top students (many having made As throughout their schooling).

When I examine the types of things students are critical of and even angry about, I am increasingly concerned that privilege is a barrier to learning even as these students successfully navigate college and continue to earn high grades.

Here are the types of things privileged students are critical of in my courses recently (again, I am not criticizing these students but offering this as a way to describe and understand why they are struggling):

  • Privileged students are disproportionately offended by feedback and requirements for revision*. Living in privilege that contributes to years of praise and success have created students who are very thin-skinned and frail. As I have examined before, many students perceive all feedback as negative. Many of these students want to submit work once and have it immediately praised, and assigned an A. Being show ways to revise and improve, being asked to revise—these approaches trigger students of privilege.
  • Privileged students have a “banking” concept of teaching and learning (that Paulo Freire criticized). In other words, my privileged students view my job as dispensing for them knowledge as capital; I, however, reject the “banking” concept of teaching and see the role of teacher as facilitator. Privileged students tend to resist having their autonomy as learners increased, viewing a teacher-as-facilitator as negligent or even lazy (not doing their job).
  • Privileged students are very skeptical of and often paralyzed by de-grading practices. Grades for privileged students have been positive experiences that confirm their belief that they are “good” students who have earned those grades. People in privilege often interpret success as mostly a reflection of their effort—and not their privilege. Removing grades removes their safety blanket. (One student from last fall claimed they were reduced to crying often in my course due to my non-grading practices.)
  • Privileged students prefer knowledge-based courses to process-and-product-based courses. Although certainly not exclusively so, privileged students seem to view knowledge as “objective” and process/product as “subjective”; therefore, the latter creates anxiety in them that they will not be successful (not make an A).
  • Privileged students perceive “being smart” as something you achieve and not a journey. Since they have often been told they are smart, they can misinterpret “smart” as their being “finished”; being challenged to learn more or, especially, to re-think their learning is perceived as an attack on their Selves.
  • Privileged students are hyper-sensitive to decorum, formality, and tone. While I recognize some of this point is grounded in my personality, I am increasingly aware that some of the tone tension between my students and me is class-based. I despise formality and do my work at a very high level of efficiency; my emails and my written feedback are terse and direct. Privileged students tend to interpret that style as mean, harsh, and discouraging. This issue with tone overlaps, I think, with my efforts to shift responsibility away from me doing work for students and toward students taking agency over their own learning (many students dislike my use of highlighting when I return written work, for example). As one of the most unexpected examples from my fall SETs, a student recommended I start using “Hi” to start my emails.
  • Privileged students cling desperately to playing school and performing as students. Tests, grades, assignment rubrics and grade scales/weights, lectures, etc., are the environment where they have flourished; anything that deviates from these traditional practices creates anxiety—and skepticism about the teacher.
  • Privileged students (like their conservative parents) fear radical ideas and change. This is basic human nature; when the world works for you, you fear change to that system. I am a critical educator and scholar so my approach to ideas and the world are perceived as not just radical, but threatening to their way of life.

In the grand scheme of my career as a teacher, I realize the folly in SETs because, once again, my fall SETs included dramatically contradictory responses side-by-side—praise for my feedback and willingness to help students learn followed by claims that my feedback is “vague” and “mean,” ultimately discouraging the student to learn.

Again, the feedback says far more about the students than my work as a teacher.

None the less, I believe I have turned a corner in my understanding of the complex nature of privilege in the teaching/learning dynamic.

Yes, on balance, of course, privilege is an incredible advantage, but like being labeled gifted, privilege can also be a barrier to learning—and being happy.


*

The Eternal Darkness of the Empty Mind

My childhood and adolescence were a paradox.

I was born in Woodruff, South Carolina, and spent some of my childhood in nearby Enoree. Both were very small (Enoree was essentially a cross roads, not far from even smaller Cross Anchor); both were mill towns that had not quite begun to crumble in the 1960s and 1970s.

Woodruff seems like parody now, an ugly parody since the town had literal racial divisions with the Black neighborhood, Pine Ridge, on the other side of the railroad tracks dividing the town.

Racism and a bitter fundamentalism were the norm among white people, although most of these cancers remained unspoken and carefully navigated.

What I heard and witnessed in white-only spaces, including my home, contrasted disturbingly with what I heard and witnessed in mixed-race spaces—notably the vibrant high school sports arenas that much of my hometown worshipped. Yes, my hometown was a high school Friday night football sort of world that, again, almost seems like parody now.

Tradition and authority governed schooling and parenting. Conservative ideology was so pervasive there was little to no evidence any other way of thinking was possible.

There was a bitterness and fatalism among white people, among my family members, that I am deeply aware of now. I see it in the far-right Trump movement, reminding me of my parents railing against Muhammad Ali and blaming Dan Rather for the fall of Richard Nixon.

A darkness of empty minds. Irrational and certain.

By some inexplicable twist of fate, the paradox, I found myself in a series of events that allowed me to rise above that emptiness, allowed me the freedom of the human mind that quite literally saved my life.

I wasn’t quite bookish as a child, but I grew up surrounded by books and reading; my mother was a very bright woman with sparse formal education, a natural teacher with a tendency toward nurturing and mothering (she spent a good bit of her life running an in-home daycare and raised my sister’s three sons).

The secular miracle of my life was that for some odd reason my parents never censored my world, especially my intellectual life. By the time I was a teenager, I had graduated from relentlessly watching science fiction B-movies with my mother to reading covertly hundreds of comic books and novels by Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven and Jerry Purnell, and other science fiction not assigned in school (and there were several assigned novels in school I simply did not read, like Charles Dickens, even though I fell in love with Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, which I read in a literal fever while home sick).

In tenth grade, the miracle of miracles, I entered Lynn Harrill’s English class. Lynn was a fairly new teacher, a kind and passionate educator who eventually became a mentor and the primary impetus for my life as a teacher, scholar, and writer.

Lynn was perceptive, and bold. I spent many days hanging out in Lynn’s room when I wasn’t in class (a kindness I learned and mimicked when I became a teacher, the first years in the exact room where Lynn taught me).

His perception was recognizing my proclivities and how traditional schooling wasn’t serving me fully. His boldness was whispering to me one day when I was taking up his valuable time that I should read D.H. Lawrence (he added that since he knew my parents the recommendation would be fine but Lawrence was a controversial writer).

Lynn was right about the recommendation and my parents.

By high school, in fact, my mother patiently wrote checks each month for my subscription to a few comic books and Playboy, delivered to my home as if this sort of thing was completely normal in 1970s SC.

Of course, as a teen, Playboy and Lawrence spoke to my sexual curiosity of adolescence, but that was a very small fraction of my intellectual life that they both spurred. I recall to this day several interviews I read in Playboy by thoughtful people dramatically unlike the adults of my hometown.

Lawrence became my first literary crush (Clark as well as Niven and Purnell was my first nerd-reading crush). Over the next few years, I read everything by Lawrence. In college as I drifted toward education and English, I gathered as much literary analysis of Lawrence as I could.

Hovering beneath all this, of course, was my comic book collecting. For almost 50 years, I have been a collector of some kind. When I discover a writer, I plow through all their work, proudly buying and displaying all their books.

From that first affair with Lawrence to the more recent obsessions with Haruki Murakami, there have been too many love affairs with authors’ works to list them all—Kurt Vonnegut, Milan Kundera, Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, and on and on.

And as I noted many times, one of the pivotal moments of my life was finding a used copy of the non-economic writing of Karl Marx, including the foundational pieces that turned me on to being an educator.

Yes, Karl Marx inspired me to a life of service and a commitment as a teacher to foster in students a vibrant mind of possibilities and ideas—and a robust, unyielding repulsion for indoctrination, and even authority.

Many years later, I discovered Paulo Freire and bell hooks. Freire gave me an important framing—the choice of being authoritative (earning the respect of students and readers because I demonstrate authority over content) instead of authoritarian (demanding compliance because of my status).

It is 2022 and I am terrified.

That terror isn’t grounded in the never-ending threat of Covid (although that is certainly terrifying), but in the spreading threat from Republicans determined to censor and control curriculum and what books anyone has access too.

The current Republican playbook isn’t new. Consider this from 1961 in an Oklahoma newspaper:

Jack Hamm, Oklahoma City Star, 6/2/1961 (H/T Randall Stephens)

Notice the second tentacle from the left: “Millions spent for Godless literature.”

I was born about 6 months before this editorial cartoon, and today read the following from Judd Legum:

In Indiana, State Senator Scott Baldwin (R) has introduced sweeping legislation that Baldwin says is designed to ban Critical Race Theory (CRT) and related concepts in K-12 education. During a committee hearing on the bill earlier this month, Baldwin told a high school English teacher that he should be “impartial” when discussing Nazism. It is a case study about how the frantic efforts to ban CRT can quickly lead to absurd outcomes. 

Author of anti-CRT bill tells teacher he should stay “impartial” on Nazism

Republicans all across the U.S. are introducing and passing legislation censoring curriculum (targeting anti-racism content) and banning books from classrooms, school libraries, and public libraries (focusing on LGBTQ+ authors and works); some school board members have even called for book burnings.

My home state of SC is following the lead of other Republican-led states (notably Texas) by proposing guidelines that allow anyone to censor books for others.

It is incredibly important to emphasize that Republicans are actively removing books from school and public libraries—using government to decide what books and ideas people have access to.

These actions are tyranny. The antithesis of being free people.

There is no individual freedom without intellectual freedom.

No one should be held hostage to a life of an empty mind. Everyone deserves the accidental great fortune of my youth, including the kindness and boldness of my teacher, Lynn Harrill.

But none of this should be done in whispers, or with fear.

Republicans are calling for the eternal darkness of the empty mind, and we must resist because censorship erodes both American freedom and human dignity.

Also in 1961, Lou LaBrant recognized the failure of education as conformity:

Throughout our country today we have great pressure to improve our schools. By far too much of that pressure tends toward a uniformity, a conformity, a lock-step which precludes the very excellence we claim to desire….Only a teacher who thinks about his work can think in class; only a thinking teacher can stimulate as they should be stimulated the minds with which he works. Freedom of any sort is a precious thing; but freedom to be our best, in the sense of our highest, is not only our right but our moral responsibility. “They”—the public, the administrators, the critics—have no right to take freedom from us, the teachers; but freedom is not something one wins and then possesses; freedom is something we rewin every day, as much a quality of ourselves as it is a concession from others. Speaking and writing and exploring the books of the world are prime fields for freedom. (pp. 390-391)

LaBrant, L. (1961). The rights and responsibilities of the teacher of EnglishEnglish Journal, 50(6), 379–383, 391. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/810824

We must rewin our freedom.

Freedom and the Politics of Canceling Teachers and Curriculum

By mid-December of 2021, Matthew Hawn, a former teacher in Tennessee, will once again have his appeal heard after being fired for violating the state’s restrictions on curriculum:

The Tennessee General Assembly has banned the teaching of critical race theory, passing a law at the very end of the legislative session to withhold funding from public schools that teach about white privilege.

Republicans in the House made the legislation a last-minute priority, introducing provisions that ban schools from instructing students that one race bears responsibility for the past actions against another, that the United States is fundamentally racist or that a person is inherently privileged or oppressive due to their race.

Tennessee bans public schools from teaching critical race theory amid national debate, Natalie Allison

As Allison reported in May, several states across the U.S. have filed or passed copy-cat legislation aimed at banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory.

By October and November, the consequences of Tennessee’s law have moved from silencing and canceling teachers to attempts to cancel curriculum [1]:

The Tennessee Department of Education recently declined to investigate a complaint filed under a new state law prohibiting the teaching of certain topics regarding race and bias.

The complaint, the first directed to the state under the new law passed this spring, was filed by Robin Steenman, chair of the Moms for Liberty Williamson County chapter, a conservative parent group sweeping the nation. 

The 11-page complaint alleged that the literacy curriculum, Wit and Wisdom, used by Williamson County Schools and at least 30 other districts, has a “heavily biased agenda” that makes children “hate their country, each other and/or themselves.”

Tennessee Department of Education rejects complaint filed under anti-critical race theory law, Meghan Mangrum

Although the complaint was rejected, Mangrum noted, “The group detailed concerns with four specific books on subjects like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, the integration of California schools by advocate Sylvia Mendez and her family, and the autobiography of Ruby Bridges, adapted for younger learners.”

A teacher fired for teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates, parents calling for bans on MLK and teaching about Ruby Bridges—these events are not unique to Tennessee, but they reflect a pattern of efforts to control not only teachers, but what students are allowed to learn and read.

Notable in these examples is that many of the consequences of legislation are canceling Black writers and key aspects of Black history; additionally, legislation and calls for book banning are targeting LGBTQ+ writers and topics.

Teaching and curriculum in the U.S. are being systematically and politically whitewashed.

One aspect not being addressed often is that political dynamic. Parents, political activists, and politicians are impacting who teaches and what is being taught in the context of a historical and current demand that teachers themselves remain apolitical, both in their classrooms and their lives beyond school.

As I have discussed often, teaching is necessarily political, and teaching as well as writing are necessarily types of activism.

For teachers, then, we must recognize that calls for teachers to be objective, neutral, and apolitical are themselves political acts. Currently, laws being passed and parents/activists confronting school boards are exercising their political power at the expense of teachers and schools—both of which are required to remain somehow politically neutral.

From historian/activist Howard Zinn to critical scholars such as Joe Kincheloe and to poet Adrienne Rich, we have ample evidence that taking a neutral stance is a political act that passively endorses the status quo and that silencing words is an act of canceling thought, eradicating ideas.

Zinn’s commitment to transparency as a teacher and activist is hauntingly relevant to the current political attack on teachers and curriculum:

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order [emphasis added]….

From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than “objectivity”; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, Howard Zinn

And Kincheloe confronted not only who is actually indoctrinating students but the imperative that teachers recognize teaching as inherently political:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive [emphasis added].

Critical Pedagogy Primer, Joe L. Kincheloe

The great irony is that critical educators (often smeared as “Marxists”) are committed, as Kincheloe asserts, to a foundational concern: “Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom.”

The Orwellian named “Moms for LIberty,” then, by calling for canceling curriculum are in fact being “totalitarian and oppressive,” calling for not education, but indoctrination. To ban words and ideas is to ban the possibility of thinking, of learning:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there [emphasis in original] to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido [emphasis in original], rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Arts of the Possible, Adrienne Rich

A final powerful point is that many of these political acts to silence teachers and cancel curriculum are occurring in right-to-work states controlled by Republicans. Teachers not only are expected to be neutral, objective, and apolitical, but also work with a distinct awareness they have almost no job security.

Hawn fired in Tennessee simply taught a text and now is fighting for his career; the text in most ways just a year ago was considered non-controversial and even celebrated as Coates had attained recognition as one of the country’s leading Black voices.

During this holiday season at the end of 2021, teachers honestly have no decision about whether or not to be political. We are faced with only two political choices: conform to the demand that we take a neutral pose, resulting in endorsing whatever status quo legislators and parents/activist impose on schools; or recognize and embrace the essential political nature of being a teacher by actively opposing efforts to cancel teachers and curriculum.


[1] Twitter thread:

Reading Matters

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?

Hamlet: Between who?

Polonius: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.

Hamlet: Slanders, sir: for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards….

Polonius: [Aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.

–Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii.

Reading matters.

I imagine you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would disagree with those two simple words. But the reality is that those two words have dramatically different meanings among people advocating for teaching children to read in schools.

“[S]ociety should get behind teaching everybody to read the right way,” explains John McWhorter, linguist turned public intellectual who uses his bully pulpit at the New York Times to join the long list of Black celebrities and notable people invited into the white mainstream of conservative thought cloaking racism and racial stereotyping.

The problem in McWhorter’s words, of course, is that “right way.”

Since early 2018, the U.S. has once again lifted the Reading War into public consciousness with a misleading refrain, “the science of reading” (SoR). The media has maintained a steady beat claiming that teacher education and practicing teachers have failed to embrace the SoR, and as a result, children are failing to learn to read.

The SoR media movement has merged with some aggressive parent advocacy groups, notably related to dyslexia, and the result is copy-cat SoR reading legislation being passed throughout the country. Ironically, and disturbingly, that legislation often codifies policies and practices that are strongly refuted by scientific research—grade retention, universal screening for and oversimplification of dyslexia [1], systematic intensive phonics programs for all students [2], bans on popular reading programs, and efforts to mimic policies implemented in Mississippi [3] (after one round of improved NAEP scores in reading at grade 4).

While I am certain that people advocating for improved reading instruction in our schools all have mostly good intentions (except for a powerful lobby for phonics programs and some media/journalists seeing an opportunity to cash in on SoR), the problem remains with what anyone means by “reading matters.”

We must acknowledge two contexts here.

One context is approaching a common term but a rare case that it may be accurate—crisis.

Since the SoR movement and advocates such as McWhorter are speaking into a conservative and traditional ideology about language, reading, and literature (used broadly to mean any texts students reading), the SoR movement has been swept into a concurrent movement against public education broadly begun under Trump with the purposeful and orchestrated attacks on the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory (McWhorter’s “right way” comment sits inside his joining the anti-woke movement).

What merges the anti-woke education movement and the SoR movement is the focus on parental rights to monitor and control what students learn and how students learn.

The crisis we are approaching, I think, is the ironically disturbing part. The merging of the SoR movement with the anti-woke movement means that so-called advocates for better reading instruction have joined forces with a new rise in censorship that includes book banning, removing books from libraries (lists of 850+ books identified in Texas), proposing bans on terms deemed “woke,” and even calls for burn burnings.

A significant but less powerful group of literacy advocates, teachers, scholars, and writers have noted the problem with emphasizing the need for children to learn to read while simultaneously reducing what they can read, and even what those students are allowed to consider or think.

A second context is the contradiction between the narrow demands of the SoR movement and the likelihood that policies and practices being implemented in the name of SoR are likely to inhibit and even discourage children from reading.

I have detailed several times that I grew up in a racist and deeply conservative community and household. The conditions that saved my life, my mind, and my soul include the coincidence that my very misguided parents happened to respect intellectual freedom; I was allowed to read anything throughout my childhood and teen years.

Once I moved beyond my home and community—college—I was then liberated by reading Black authors assigned and recommended by wonderful professors, again a context that respected intellectual freedom and my mind.

Not an exhaustive list, but for me, someone who has spent almost 40 years as a literacy educator, I want to offer some reasons reading matters for me, highlighting John Dewey, William Ayers, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde:

The allure of SoR for the media, parents, and politicians is grounded in silver-bullet “all students must” thinking that is antithetical to the reasons I believe reading matters.

At the core of the tension in debates about teaching reading and what texts students are assigned or allowed to read is those embracing indoctrination (“teaching everybody to read the right way”) versus those embracing education as liberation (from Dewey to Ayers to hooks and to Lorde).

Indoctrination depends on someone not only controlling what people read, hear, and think, but also erasing what people read, hear, and think.

The SoR movement ultimately fails because it resists being student centered and allows far too often for reading to be reduced to decoding (systematic intensive phonics for all); further, while SoR advocates often demonize popular reading programs (and I am a strong critic of all reading programs), they make the same essential mistake by simply choosing different programs to endorse as rigid expectations for students and teachers (LETRS, DIBLES).

Reading matters, but if we become distracted by raising reading test scores, our practices are likely to produce non-readers (Dewey).

Reading matters, but if we fail to distinguish between indoctrination and education for liberation (hooks), we reduce reading instruction to training (Ayers).

Reading matters, but our commitments must be to how reading matters for the individual, especially for those “who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable” (Lorde).

If we truly believe every person deserves the human dignity of intellectual freedom, as my parents and teachers afforded me, then reading matters only if we refuse silver-bullet scripts, only if we protect all the books and ideas available to free people.

That is the only “right way” worth evoking.


[1] See the following:

An Examination of Dyslexia Research and Instruction, with Policy Implications, Peter Johnston and Donna Scanlon

Research Advisory: Dyslexia (ILA)

[2] See the following:

A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Reading Comprehension Interventions on the Reading Comprehension Outcomes of Struggling Readers in Third Through 12th Grades, Marissa J. Filderman, Christy R. Austin, Alexis N. Boucher, Katherine O’Donnell, Elizabeth A. Swanson

“the simple view of reading does not comprehensively explain all skills that influence reading comprehension, nor does it inform what comprehension instruction requires.”

The Sciences of Reading Instruction, Rachael Gabriel (Educational Leadership)

The Trouble With Binaries: A Perspective on the Science of Reading, David B. Yaden Jr., David Reinking, and Peter Smagorinsky

Reconsidering the Evidence That Systematic Phonics Is More Effective Than Alternative Methods of Reading Instruction, Jeffrey S. Bowers (2020)

[3] UPDATED 23 February 2020: Mississippi Miracle or Mirage?: 2019 NAEP Reading Scores Prompt Questions, Not Answers

See Also

The Problem with Balanced Literacy

Failing Balanced Literacy Is Failing Readers, Katie Kelly and Paul Thomas

The Trap: The Ends v. Means Tension in the Pursuit of Content Knowledge

Over the course of almost 40 years, I have taught writing/composition to high school, undergraduate, and graduate students. I am well aware of the cumulative toll of reading and responding to 10s of thousands of essays by students who are both learning to think and learning to write.

Those essays are often vapid and jumbled, and thus, the work of a writing teacher can be incredibly tedious.

The Onion parody of student writing, Since The Beginning Of Time, Mankind Has Discussed What It Did On Summer Vacation, is too accurate for me to laugh since, despite sharing the piece with students, I still often read essays that begin with the same sort of dramatic and over-simplified claims fictitious Jeremy Ryan offers:

For as far back as historians can go, summer vacations have been celebrated by people everywhere as a time for rest and relaxation. Many advancements have been made in summer breaks since these early times, but it is also true that many different traditions have lived on and continue to remain with us today. This is why, since the beginning of time, mankind has discussed what it did on its summer vacation.

This is what I intend to prove within the course of this essay.

Since The Beginning Of Time, Mankind Has Discussed What It Did On Summer Vacation

So when I noticed a Twitter thread about teachers/professors struggling with responding to student essays, I offered the following responses:

The trap, as I note above, results from any teacher’s perception of the role of content knowledge and the acquisition of the knowledge in the teaching/learning process.

Is that content knowledge the ends of instruction and learning, or the means of instruction and learning?

I think Rod Graham speaks for many teachers who incorporate student writing in order to assess whether or not students have acquired essential content knowledge as an ends of the lesson, unit, or course.

However, I have a different view of what constitutes “content” and I tend to place that content in the context of the means of learning.

For example, this week in my first-year writing seminars we have begun our journey toward their submitting a formally cited essay. My guiding goals for this assignment is helping students make the transition from high school thinking and writing to behaving and thinking as writers and scholars (especially in ways that are expected in undergraduate education).

First, I cautioned students about what it means to gather sources in order to write a cited essay. Students tend to begin their search of sources with a predetermined outcome in mind (they will lament, often, that they didn’t find what they wanted to find) so I tell them they are seeking a body of evidence in order to learn more deeply about a topic (thus, start with a question, not a conclusion/claim); and then, their job as student-scholars is to credibly represent what the evidence shows (whether that is what they “wanted” to find or not).

Next, I introduce them to the difference between mainstream approaches to topics (the “both sides” approach) and scholarly approaches to topics (more nuanced, and often resulting in only one credible “side”).

To engage with the problems of “both sides” approaches, I shared the current controversy in Texas: Books on Holocaust should be balanced with ‘opposing’ views, Southlake school leader tells teachers.

Several students were visibly shocked by the “both sides” mandate about the Holocaust (much to my relief) so we explored exactly what those “sides” might be, and then applied that to other topics such as slavery in the U.S., sexual assault, etc.

However, when I shared my own work on corporal punishment and the negative backlashes I experience for my public work against corporal punishment, the student reactions shifted dramatically; as is typical, several students argued for corporal punishment (although I clearly noted the evidence overwhelmingly rejects any positive outcome for corporal punishment).

Of course, this is an ideal example of the power of cultural norms and ideology (specifically religious training and beliefs) to trump empirical evidence, and it serves my larger instructional goals, but this dynamic is troubling none the less.

This lesson as well as the cited essay assignment represents my practice of using content as a means to acquiring authentic ways of thinking and writing (a different type of “content”) regardless of the content knowledge being interrogated or explored.

Students are free to choose any topic for this essay, and ultimately, I will be assessing how well they explore and incorporate sources and then how credibly they represent their sources over the course of synthesizing a coherent essay; I also trust that these students will acquire content knowledge (ends) as a result of interacting with that content as a means.

I do recognize that many teachers will and should continue to use writing as a mechanism for assessing the acquisition of content/knowledge, but I also must stress that this dynamic will necessarily be tedious for teachers and students—and that it likely inhibits many important goals for students as independent thinkers/scholars and writers.

As I Tweeted above, students experience content as an ends far too often, and are invited to use content as a means far too rarely.

Prompts and rubrics do most of the work for students, and in effect, infantilize those students, guaranteeing any acquisition of content is superficial and transitory.

If we want students to think and write with sophistication and nuance, we must provide students many, many opportunities to choose what content they engage with and then practice those sophisticated and nuance moves with content/knowledge as a means to their own growth as scholars and writers.

Conservatives Seeking Education as a Buffet of Ignorance

Several decades ago, the following true story about teaching in a small, conservative Southern town, seemed like a once-in-a-career experience: A new social studies teacher at my high school was challenged by a parent because this new teacher covered Middle East geography by detailing the regional tensions correlated with religion among Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

Ultimately, the parent wanted their child removed from the class because, as the parent announced to the principal, “I don’t want my son knowing religions other than Christianity exist.”

Fast forward about three decades—passing through several rounds of school choice movements (which I will connect later)—and now public school teachers and college professors across the U.S. find themselves challenged in a similar but far more extensive and organized way concerning Critical Race Theory (CRT).

Mike Gonzalez, for example, at the Heritage Foundation, has constructed Try This “Critical Race Theory” Checklist for conservative and Christian parents who, like the parent above, want to opt their children out of knowledge.

Along with explosive and even violent school board meetings about mask mandates, Covid, and, yes, CRT, parents are now organizing to opt their children out of education; for example, the Orwellian-named Families for Educational Freedom offer a CRT Lessons Letter and a Intrusive Survey Letter; the former outlines what parents want their children to have freedom from [1]:

We/I,________________________________, the parent(s) of _______________________________, grade ________, are/is exercising our/my fundamental parental rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, and/or any other state and federal laws to opt our/my child out of any instruction in Critical Race Theory (CRT), including but not limited to the following ideas or principles —

• That any race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, and/or socioeconomic status is inherently superior or inferior to any other race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin and/or socioeconomic status.

• That any race, gender, sexual orientation, and/or national origin is privileged or oppressed.

• That race-based stereotyping and labeling are acceptable as part of “anti-racism” education.

• That an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual’s race.

• That an individual’s moral character is determined by the individual’s race.

• That America and its institutions are fundamentally racist.

• That the values, principles, and/or ideals of one’s own family or religion are fundamentally incorrect, racist, and/or preventing them from social and emotional growth. 

These teachings of CRT foster discrimination and harassment on the basis of race and are a violation of our family’s values and religious beliefs.  It is well-established that parents have a fundamental right to direct the religious upbringing and education of their children.  Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972).  You are not to instruct or inculcate my child on the aforementioned or following subjects, without providing me at least fifteen (15) days prior written notice and providing me with the intended materials and lesson plans. 

The prohibition extends to any promotion, legitimization, or normalization of CRT, no matter how your program or approach is defined or packaged, including but not limited to any instruction, materials, or conversations related to “equity,” “privilege,” “intersectionality,” “diversity, tolerance and inclusion,” “anti-racism,” “microaggressions,” “white privilege,” “white adjacency,” “hate speech,” “hate crimes,” “critical social justice,” “postcolonial theory,” “postcolonialism,” “sensitivity education,” or the like.

CRT Lessons Letter

The bullet points may look familiar since they are occurring, often verbatim, in state legislation attacking CRT directly and indirectly as well as banning the use of the 1619 Project.

These misleading but purposeful strategies parents are using to censor curriculum in public schools is a logical evolution from how a minority of parents have been leveraging control over public education for decades—opting students out of sex education, book challenges and banning, a revolving door of school choice schemes that pander to what parents want their children to learn (without the price tag of private schools that are often appealing because there parents can and do monitor and control what is and isn’t taught), periodic challenges to the teaching of evolution, etc.

If polls are even remotely good indicators, the current Republican Party remains about 40% loyal to Trump, suggesting about 10-15% of Americans constitute this movement against CRT (likely a similar percentage to the Moral Majority movement coinciding with the Reagan presidency).

While this is a significant minority, the U.S. has long had a powerful and very vocal conservative and Christian influence that is solidly anti-education.

One of the great ironies (similar to the organization’s name noted above, Families for Educational Freedom) of the backlash against CRT (beyond that CRT doesn’t really exist in K-12 education) is that it rests on an old and tired argument that leftist teachers are indoctrinating students; this is projection from conservatives who are, in fact, seeking to indoctrinate students.

While leftists are extremely rare in K-12 education, marginalized in higher education, and nearly powerless in the economic/political system of the U.S., as I have noted often, true leftists, critical educators, are adamantly opposed to indoctrination and recent efforts by Republicans mirror commitments to indoctrination found in China.

Ultimately, this CRT mania isn’t about CRT, but is part of the steady and determined effort by an anti-education minority to dismantle universal public education and academic freedom because at their core, as William Ayers concludes:

Education will unfit anyone to be a slave. That is because education is bold, adventurous, creative, vivid, illuminating — in other words education is for self-activating explorers of life, for those who would challenge fate, for doers and activists, for citizens. Training is for slaves, for loyal subjects, for tractable employees, for willing consumers, for obedient soldiers. Education tears down walls; training is all barbed wire.

excerpt from To Teach, William Ayers

Conservatives and Christians embrace education as training, indoctrination, as mere preparation for work or passive compliance with the dogma of religion.

The attacks on CRT and efforts by parents to opt out of curriculum deemed “indoctrination” or claimed to cause “racial discomfort” are poised to turn education into a buffet of ignorance leaving our children and teens intellectually starved and the status quo safely protected.


[1] See:

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. in the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it….

We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice. (pp. 24, 25)

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

The Politics of Childhood in an Era of Authoritarian Education

While on vacation, a friend and I were discussing the paradox of parenting.

A parent often feels a tension between fostering and supporting a child to be the person they want to be as that contrasts with dictating what is best for the child (knowing as adults do that children, teens, and young adults often make decisions necessarily without the context of experience that would certainly change many decisions).

That paradox, that tension has existed for me as a teacher/professor, parent, grandparent, and coach.

I am constantly checking myself in roles of authority to determine if I am imposing my authority onto children and young people (authoritarian) or if I am mentoring and fostering those humans in the cone of my authority in ways that support their own autonomy and development along lines they actively choose for themselves (authoritative).

This is a dichotomy examined by Paulo Freire, and a central concern for any critical educator.

The current misguided attacks on anything “critical” is particularly frustrating for critical educators since these attacks are designed to fulfill the demands of authoritarian systems, partisan politics and formal education.

It has occurred to me recently that I have been in roles of authority for a very long time, beginning with working as a lifeguard in my mid- to late teens. My role of authority literally began, then, with the expectations that I would guard human life—any human life that came into the sphere of the pool where I was charged with monitoring swimming and the safety of not only individual swimmers but all of the people in the pool.

I was a very good and capable swimmer, and for a teen, I was reasonably responsible (although I cringe thinking about being a head lifeguard when only 17 or so). But having the level of authority and responsibility that being a lifeguard entails was quite likely asking far more of me that I deserved.

Those days of lifeguarding set me on course for being the responsible person for the next 40-plus years, exacting a significant toll on me psychologically and emotionally.

Maintaining a critical authoritative pose when in positions of authority is extremely hard, much harder than being authoritarian.

Way back in the 1980s and 1990s, I was practicing in many ways the sort of critical teaching that is coming under attack in 2021, even resulting in a teacher in Tennessee being fired:

At issue was Hawn assigning the essay “The First White President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates to students in his Contemporary Issues class in February, and later in March, playing a video of “White Privilege,” a spoken word poem by Kyla Jenée Lacey to the same students.

A Tennessee teacher taught a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay and a poem about white privilege. He was fired for it

Many conservatives see the work of Coates, for example, as radical, while those of us on the left would argue Coates’s work is quite mainstream and accessible—but far from radical. This is the same dynamic around Barack Obama, for example; Obama is a moderate and an incrementalist, but certainly not a radical leftist or Marxist (as conservatives like to suggest).

While I taught high school English in the very conservative rural South, I was mostly allowed to teach texts with only occasional complaints from parents. What looks quite odd now is that I included Howard Zinn in my classes for many years without a peep from anyone (Zinn is a key target of the ant-CRT movement now).

But I also included Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythology in my classes in order to help students navigate metaphorical approaches to narratives (a key skill needed in the Advanced Placement course I taught and as preparation for college).

Including Campbell did cause problems since his work complicated the literalism many of students experienced in their religious lives. Fundamentalist Christianity was the background of nearly all my students, and Campbell’s casual claims that all religions and mythologies told similar archetypal stories stepped on the toes of arguments that accepting Jesus was the only way into heaven.

I aroused similar complaints by including Gandhi in my Emerson/Thoreau/MLK unit.

The parental challenges to Campbell and Gandhi were grounded in a type of insecurity that had never been examined critically by those parents, all of which was the result of having been raised in authoritarian environments.

I did have my students interrogate that Sunday school and preaching were not places where they were encouraged to ask questions or challenge any of the “lessons” they received.

So in 2021, I cannot stress too much that the Republican attack on critical race theory and how history is taught is simply a battle for the integrity of the mind of children, teens, and young adults.

Learning and knowledge—especially if we genuinely believe in human autonomy and democracy—are not simply about accumulating facts determined to be true or important by some authority, but are about learning how to know what we believe is true and why.

Human freedom is most threatened by unexamined beliefs, not by the act of questioning itself.

Authority doesn’t just resist questioning, but entirely rejects it as an act.

Republicans and the conservatives drawn to authoritarianism do not trust human agency, do not believe in the free exchange of ideas, and do not believe in the essential power of questioning, especially when the questions are aimed at their authority.

Nothing is as simple as “both sides,” and certainly we should never fall into traps of “only know this.”

There can never be free people, however, without free minds cultivated in the guarantee of academic freedom.

And the free exchange of ideas will never be spaces without discomfort, which now seems to be a smokescreen used by Republicans in their pursuit of securing authority.

Suddenly, Republicans are concerned about uncomfortable white students, but seem oblivious to the discomfort, for example, of thousands and thousands of Black students experience reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird.

Teachers must now tip-toe around the uncomfortable texts and conversations about race and racism because of the possibility of white discomfort (note that Black discomfort about Huck Finn has been repeatedly swept aside under the guise of “classic literature”)—a stance once again disregarding the daily discomfort of Black children experiencing racism.

Intellectual discomfort (what texts and discussions prompt in formal schooling) is often necessary for learning, but existential discomfort (what targets of racism and sexism experience) are not necessary and are essentially harmful.

Authoritarian education is willing to sacrifice the existential comfort of marginalized children in order to shield some children from intellectual discomfort.

Even more disturbing, however, is that what is really being protected is the frailty of those students’ parents and those people in authority who are not willing to risk being challenged or questioned in any way.

Who’s Indoctrinating Whom?

The best way I can express it, I think, is that I have always wanted to be smart.

“Always” in the sense of whenever I first had something like independent awareness, which I assume occurred gradually as my autonomous self slowly and painfully separated myself from the powerful urge to remain at the center of my mother’s universe.

I idealized being “smart,” and thus “knowing stuff,” as essential for that autonomy.

I have never wanted to be smart to lord it over others (although I am still accused of being arrogant, a misreading of passion, I think), but I have always sought out and consumed knowledge as my lifelong quest to be my own person.

This urge has put me in a sort of Emerson/Thoreau camp that cherishes the individual mind and rejects organizations and group-think—a sort of libertarian intellectualism that now sits uncomfortably where that intellectual individuality has led me.

Over my first couple years of college—spent at a junior college where more of my energy was dedicated to playing pick-up basketball and drinking beer than my studies—I was eagerly reading and studying on my own existential philosophy and literature.

On the day Ronald Reagan was shot, I sat in the college library reading Sartre.

My mind and soul teetered on a dangerous edge during my teen years and into early adulthood; I was a perfect candidate for the sort of adolescent Ayn Rand know-it-all-ism many young white men fall into—and never escape.

Something, maybe just dumb luck, never allowed me to stop learning and thinking; something never allowed me to think I was “finished” learning or to assume that my current state of knowing was finished.

This is where my story includes Karl Marx. This is where the story of my mind looks absolutely nothing like what conservative Americans think Marxism and “critical” look like.

I found a copy of Marx’s non-economic writing that included a section on education. Having grown up in the rural South in the 1960s and 1970s, I picked up Marx with all the misconceptions you can imagine about communism, socialism, and such.

That paperback still sits on my shelf in my office and is heavily underlined with (mostly embarrassing) comments scribbled in the margins.

Just as I self-taught about existentialism, I was becoming a Marxist educator on my own time while I went through my final 2.5 years of college, majoring in secondary English education.

My certification program was extremely moderate even though my education professors were uniformly white progressives who tip-toed around being confrontational or in any way revolutionary.

These experiences were steeped in idealism and painful naivety.

I entered the K-12 classroom as a high school English teacher in 1984, none the less, with the belief that I could help change the lives of my students and even change the world. This ambition was based on my own experiences since my life was profoundly changed by formal education, teachers and professors, and my own relentless self-education.

That belief was grounded in wanting not to shape what my students thought but in helping them develop the tools needed for how to think independently, including how to step back from beliefs and assumptions about the world in order to make their knowledge their own.

As an English teacher, I knew those tools were mostly literacy—reading and writing as essential for human autonomy and dignity.

Over about a decade, I did this work often badly but with a great deal of earnestness. College had humbled me so I was determined to help my students avoid skipping off to college with the sort of redneck provincialism that had shot out of my mouth in several college classes.

Again, contrary to what conservatives often claim, the only places I was indoctrinated had been in my home, my community, and my church. The students in my hometown had also experienced mostly authoritarian homes, authoritarian schools and classes, and authoritarian churches.

They had lived unexamined lives because that had been demanded of them.

At times, then, I was a very unpopular redneck among rednecks.

Things changed dramatically for me as a person, an educator, and a scholar when I entered my doctoral program in 1995.

Dots were connected from those naive days reading the non-economic writings of Marx and discovering that a complex and vibrant world of Marxist education scholars existed.

Reading Paulo Freire was switching on a light in my brain and my soul. Freire had thought through all the lazy and careless ideas that had led me to the classroom. But Freire also confirmed that my intentions were valid even as they needed a great deal of development and rethinking.

Another decade passed before one of my scholarly mentors, Joe Kincheloe, wrote exactly what it means to be a critical educator, an explanation that expresses almost perfectly the critical educator I had become:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.

Joe Kincheloe, Critical Pedagogy Primer

Critical pedagogy was, then, a body of thought that aggressively rejected indoctrination and recognized that traditional approaches to education were in fact mostly indoctrination, as Kincheloe adds:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner.

Joe Kincheloe, Critical Pedagogy Primer

In the most succinct expression of what it means to be a critical educator, Kincheloe concludes, ““Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom.”

As a critical educator whose teaching and scholarship are informed by Marxist ideology (although not exclusively), I enter my 40th year watching conservatives and Republicans present a cartoon version of what I actually practice in order to institutionalize further the indoctrination they seek.

Who’s indoctrinating whom?

If Republicans and conservatives have it their way, it will be conservatives indoctrinating everyone.

So here are the commitments of my work as a critical educator and scholar, commitments that refute the many and ugly lies coming from Republicans and conservative talking heads:

  • The most sacred thing is the autonomy of the human mind and life, especially when a person with power has authority over children and young adults.
  • The work of being “critical” must interrogate the role of power in all human action—who has power over whom and why.
  • Any idea or system that has become “normal” or dominant must be challenged regularly in order to protect the sacred nature of human autonomy.
  • All human interaction is political and no human action is “objective.”
  • The needs and interests of all and the needs and interests of one are not mutually exclusive, but interrelated realities that must be openly and freely negotiated by humans with protected autonomy (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness).
  • Love and kindness are the very best qualities of humans.

And the ultimately irony, I think, is that we critical educators are the ones most dedicated to the pursuit of democracy, as Freire expains:

To the extent that I become clearer about my choices and my dreams, which are substantively political and attributively pedagogical, and to the extent that I recognize that though an educator I am also a political agent, I can better understand why I fear and realize how far we still have to go to improve our democracy. I also understand that as we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against the myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology. (p. 41)

Teachers As Cultural Workers, Paulo Freire

Today in the U.S. we have a choice to make between “the myths that deform us” and the possibility of a democracy yet realized.

But without critical education, there will only be those myths.

Dear Parents, Your Children’s K-12 Education Is Already Very Conservative

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.