Category Archives: indoctrination

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.


Republicans Adopt China’s Approach to Indoctrinating Students

Eesha Pendharkar reports in Education Week Four Things Schools Won’t Be Able to Do Under ‘Critical Race Theory’ Laws, including the following:

  • Discussions of racism will be limited
  • Anti-bias training and other anti-racism efforts could be curtailed or canceled
  • Administrators will have to change their curriculum
  • Teachers and administrators will have to restrict conversations about sexism and gender identity

Many states, such as my home state of South Carolina, are also prescribing that schools adopt patriotic approaches to teaching history, citing the debunked 1776 Project directly.

These attacks on teaching race, racism, and history—directly mentioning CRT—however, are ultimately unmasked as political theater since CRT is not a part of K-12 teaching:

Greenville County Schools, the largest district in the state, has over 76,000 students enrolled. All of them are taught state-approved curriculum, said Tim Waller, spokesperson for the school district.

“Critical race theory is not something that actually happens in schools,” he said. “With the pandemic last year, most of our conversations have been around operating schools safely.”

SC will not give money to teach critical race theory. But we never taught it, say schools

And when critics are pushed for evidence of CRT, this is what happens:

Burns said an example of critical race theory in South Carolina includes a student in the Upstate who told him coursework including writing an essay on why “whiteness is bad.” Burns would not name the school, the student or the assignment.

SC will not give money to teach critical race theory. But we never taught it, say schools

And this from Texas:

Texas’ new law in fact has two major problems. First, and most alarmingly for educators, it bans public school teachers from requiring students to read specific educational materials or even learn about particular ideas — specifically the idea that “the advent of slavery … constituted the true founding of the United States.” The law also forbids teachers from even teaching the 1619 Project.

But there’s a second and even more fundamental problem with bills like this one: they are inherently self-contradictory. They require teachers to present specific people and ideas in American history. Then they also aim to prevent teachers from discussing anything in those stories that might hint at inherent racism or slavery. Lawmakers may wish to maintain this contradiction, but when teachers teach these stories and documents, the contradiction cannot stand.

Texas Republicans take aim at history this Juneteenth. It could backfire.

The Republican attack on critical race theory (CRT) and the 1619 Project is shockingly similar to China’s mandates controlling how children are taught; from Vivian Wang and Alexandra Stevenson in the New York Times:

The Hong Kong government has issued hundreds of pages of new curriculum guidelines designed to instill “affection for the Chinese people.” Geography classes must affirm China’s control over disputed areas of the South China Sea. Students as young as 6 will learn the offenses under the security law.

Lo Kit Ling, who teaches a high school civics course, is now careful to say only positive things about China in class. While she had always tried to offer multiple perspectives on any topic, she said, she worries that a critical view could be quoted out of context by a student or parent.

Ms. Lo’s subject is especially fraught; the city’s leaders have accused it of poisoning Hong Kong’s youth. The course had encouraged students to analyze China critically, teaching the country’s economic successes alongside topics such as the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Officials have ordered the subject replaced with a truncated version that emphasizes the positive.

“It’s not teaching,” Ms. Lo said. “It’s just like a kind of brainwashing.” She will teach an elective on hospitality studies instead.

‘A Form of Brainwashing’: China Remakes Hong Kong

While many conservatives and Republicans have tried to frame China as some sort of threat to the American way of life—notably related to the spread of Covid—the truth is that the Republican Party is practicing China’s indoctrination strategies across the country.

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.

South Carolina Republicans Seek to Politicize History

[See here: MY TURN: S.C. Republican bill would corrupt teaching of history and here: Opinion: The battle over teaching history in SC]

For over 40 years, George Graham Vest served first as a Missouri state Representative, next as a state Senator in the Confederacy, and finally as a U.S. Senator for Missouri from 1879 to 1903.

In a speech from August 21, 1891, Vest included a claim about history that has been echoed by many: “In all revolutions the vanquished are the ones who are guilty of treason, even by the historians, for history is written by the victors and framed according to the prejudices and bias existing on their side.”

Considering Vest’s complicated relationship with the state and country that he served, we should keep in mind that his comment represents something many people misunderstand about history: All history is biased, and history is created by whoever is telling the story.

Often associated with Winston Churchill, the adage “history is written by the victors” seems to repeat itself in times of great upheaval.

One of our most recent moments of political conflict was the siege on the U.S. Capitol in early January 2021. Less dramatic but more significant, that was soon followed by the Trump administration releasing the 1776 Commission report, a rejection of the 1619 Project published in The New York Times.

“The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine,” as noted in the Project’s opening, and Jake Silverstein explains,

The goal of The 1619 Project is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.

The 1776 Commission is a direct rebuttal of centering slavery in U.S. history, calling for a return to viewing the U.S. through the lens of the Founding Fathers as well as emphasizing a patriotic message about the country.

While there has been some tension among historians about the 1619 Project, most historians have rejected the 1776 Commission.

Although the Biden administration removed the 1776 Commission report, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) issued a response to the political legacy of that report: The NCSS “strongly rejects the recent development of proposed bills in state legislatures which are designed to censor specific curricular resources from being used for instruction in K-12 schools.”

Now we can add to the list of misguided state legislation South Carolina, where a bill seeks, as reported in The Hill, the following:

Lawmakers in South Carolina are considering a bill that would use former President Trump’s 1776 report to help develop the U.S. history curriculum for public middle and high school students, WCSC reports.

The Restore America’s Foundation Act would require South Carolina’s State Superintendent of Education to “review and prescribe suitable texts and online materials aligned with the principles and concepts of the January 2021 report of the 1776 Commission.” 

South Carolina may implement Trump’s controversial ‘1776 Report’ in its schools

The essential problem with this bill is it contradicts its own goals. The 1619 Project is a source for teaching history, but it has no direct political power, and any influence it has on classroom teaching is entirely voluntary.

Yet, SC Republicans are claiming that the teaching of history and social studies is politically corrupt (the basic argument of the 1776 Commission), and then proposing a bill that politically corrupts the teaching of history and social studies.

Further, this bill is endorsing a report discredited by historians across the U.S. For example, the American Historical Association asserted: “The authors [of the 1776 Commission report] call for a form of government indoctrination of American students, and in the process elevate ignorance about the past to a civic virtue.”

That statement has nearly 50 signees, and this sort of critique from historians discredits the value of the report for teaching students in SC.

Additionally, the 1776 Commission report is not suitable for use in education since the report is plagiarized, further eroding its credibility in addition to its partisan use of historical facts.

The irony here is that this bill is politicizing SC social studies and history classrooms in the exact ways that Republicans have falsely criticized the 1619 Project for doing. The difference is that legislation does change how students are taught, but newspapers do not.

“If we really want to ‘save American history,’” NCSS concludes in their rebuking of misguided state legislation similar to the one being proposed in SC, “we should address the marginalization of social studies, and why instructional time for history and social studies learning has declined so rapidly in the 21st century—especially at the elementary level.”

Mandating debunked history is political theater, but it certainly isn’t serving the students of South Carolina.

Patriotic Education and the Politics of Lies

Not long after my daughter started losing baby teeth and going to bed excited about visits from the Tooth Fairy, she confronted me in our upstairs bonus room while I sat working at my computer.

“You and Mom are the Tooth Fairy,” she asserted, with no hint of asking.

When I admitted such, she replied, “Why did y’all lie to me?”

I can still recall that moment vividly—just as I can one of my moments of having to face the disconnect between mythology and reality concerning my father.

During my first year of marriage, we lived in the converted garage of my parents’ house, and one night we were awaked by my sister yelling and pulling the screen door off the hinges to our room. My mother had found my father collapsed and covered in blood in their bathroom.

I rushed to help him. In the next few hours, our roles shifted and would continue to transform until he died a couple years ago, very frail and worn down by both the myth and reality of his invincibility and job as provider.

As a parent and grandparent, coach, and career-long educator, I have had to wrestle with the role of myths in how adults interact with children and teenagers. Explaining to my daughter that stories such as the Tooth Fairy (like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny) aren’t lies, but metaphors fell on deaf ears, closed off by a loss of innocence, an awareness of a harsh world that was being hidden from her because she was a child.

My father, of course, was never superhuman, invincible, or even uniquely capable of being the ideal manufactured in a son’s mind.

That tension between harsh, uncomfortable reality and the intoxicating allure of myth and the Ideal has now confronted the U.S. in vivid and disturbing ways; the Trump administration has launched an assault on harsh, uncomfortable reality and called for a return to the soma of the Ideal concerning America.

Ironically, a call for patriotic education is embracing the very indoctrination that many conservatives claim to be refuting.

I was a high school English teacher throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s. The first quarter of my American literature course was devoted to nonfiction, and one of the first texts we examined was the Christopher Columbus chapter of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

For my very provincial students in rural upstate South Carolina, this was the beginning of a disorienting nine weeks that included works by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X.

Many of these students responded as my daughter did, feeling as if they had been lied to, deceived, disrespected for being young.

An interesting part of conservatives demonizing much of formal education as liberal propaganda is that they completely misread how young people respond to adults and ignore that institutionalized education has always been overwhelmingly conservative itself.

I watched as my daughter was fed a deeply distorted and incomplete version of Hellen Keller during her third grade; the Hellen Keller students meet is a myth of rugged individualism that erases Keller’s leftwing political activism.

For most K-12 students in the U.S., the education they receive in social studies and history is primarily idealized, incomplete, and patriotic education.

For fifty or sixty years, some have been chipping away at that distortion of history—the “I cannot tell a lie” George Washington of my education in the 1960s was mostly gone by my teaching career in the 1980s-1990s—and there has been a slow process of including the stories and voices traditionally omitted, women and Black Americans, for example.

The Trump administration first attacked critical race theory and then Zinn directly, so a few days ago, I asked my foundations in education students to consider why we in the U.S. have formal schooling. We had briefly examined Thomas Jefferson’s commitments and framing of why a free people and a democracy needed universal public schooling, but my students were keenly aware that K-16 schooling in practice is primarily focused on preparing young people to enter the workforce.

In another twist of irony, saying public schooling is for fostering citizens and to fertilize the soil of democracy is itself an idealized myth that is refuted by how the country actually works.

And here is an important point: I became and continue to be a teacher because I believe in the promise of equity, liberty, and democracy that the U.S. and public education aspire to; and therefore, as James Baldwin implored, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually” (Notes of a Native Son).

I am not sure I primarily aspire to patriotism or loving my country, however, since I think those are steps away from the ideals I do embrace. A country should not be loved until it deserves that love.

I am sure that the many young people I have taught did not immediately believe anything I taught them; I am certain that my students did not respect me or the implication of my authority simply because I had the title of “teacher” and stood before them with that power every day.

Respect, like love, and the gift of knowledge and facts cannot be demanded—must not be demanded—but certainly can be attained when humans are free to recognize and embrace them.

And now the final irony: Conservatives reinvigorated by Trump have long resented critical educators, who continue to be marginalized and discredited as the purveyors of indoctrination, yet critical educators, scholars, and activists (see those who practice critical race theory as well as Howard Zinn) “[want] to know who’s indoctrinating whom” (Joe Kincheloe, Critical Pedagogy Primer).

I often see my daughter standing there beside me in a moment when I had to confront that what seemed like a harmless myth had denied her basic human dignity; she deserved reality, the truth, simply by being a human being trying to navigate a reality that often seems determined to erase us.

The daily tally of lies trafficked by Trump and his enablers has reached a logical conclusion, a demand that the entire country double-down on the delusions of myths, white-washed history, and plain and simple lies.

Conservatives have long buckled under the weight of genuinely not trusting children and young people, of believing so deeply in Original Sin and flawed humanity that they cannot see the paradox of yielding to authoritarianism that must eradicate their liberty, their humanity.

Calling for patriotic education is the next step in the politics of lies.

If we truly believe in individual freedom, we are now faced with the choice of who we will be as people, whether or not we deserve that freedom.

You don’t have to teach people to love their country if that country deserves to be loved.

Howard Zinn: “education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time”

24 August 1922—Howard Zinn was born. His life and career spanned the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first. It is his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, for me, that speaks to the enduring power of Zinn’s metaphor, particularly for teachers.

Historically and currently, teacher remain under the demand that their teaching—and even their lives—remain neutral, not political. University professors—such as Zinn—also face disciplinary and public expectations of objectivity, dispassion—their work as public intellectuals either shunned or unrecognized.

In that context, K-12 education and university education suffer the same ultimate failure found in journalism, a flawed pursuit of objectivity, the faux-neutral pose of representing both sides.

So on the day of Zinn’s birth, it continues to be important not only to read and listen to Zinn, but also to act on Zinn, for it is action, after all, that Zinn lived and called for.

“When I became a teacher,” Zinn explains in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, “I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences”:

I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of lives they have led, where their ideas come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.

Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?

Concealment is a political act, and in the face of the tragedy surrounding the police shooting of Michael Brown, the educational response has been exactly that, concealment. But as poet Adrienne Rich has confronted:

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

Instead of striking the masked political poses of neutrality, objectivity, and dispassion, Zinn called for transparency:

In my teaching I never concealed my political views: my detestation of war and militarism, my anger at racial inequality, my belief in democratic socialism, in a rational and just distribution of the world’s wealth. I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.

Having taught in rural Southern public schools for 18 years and then 13 more years in higher education, I can attest that Zinn’s argument is challenged only because of the positions he holds and not because he took positions. You see, in K-12 classrooms, especially in history classes, textbooks, curriculum, and teachers always represented positions by framing as neutral the mainstream perspectives found among them all: a blind allegiance to capitalism, representing the U.S. as a righteous military victor, whitewashing every struggle in the country’s history, celebrating the wealthy and powerful while turning a blind eye to their many sins.

It has never been that our classrooms are neutral, as Zinn confronts, but that our classrooms have been passive passengers on the moving train of social and cultural indoctrination, the sort of indoctrination that benefits the few who have wealth and power built on their privilege at the expense of the many—workers, racial minorities, women, children, and the impoverished.

As Zinn recognized:

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.

And although written well before the current education reform movement built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, Zinn’s memoir has identified the Orwellian reality of that movement: Those decrying the status quo are those in service of the status quo. Education reform is the pursuit of maintaining, not reforming.

This call for teaching as activism was join by Zinn’s disciplinary challenge as well:

History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history—while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance—might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.

Here, Zinn recognizes both the power of disciplinary knowledge and the concurrent danger of codified disciplinary knowledge (prescriptive standards, curriculum). Zinn’s confrontation, then, speaks to the foundational principles expressed by critical scholar Kincheloe:

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.

These critical principles replace the dissembling of neutrality in the classroom, as Kincheloe explains:

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.

“Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom,” Kincheloe concludes. Teaching and history as activism, for Zinn, were moral imperatives, and thus:

From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.

Zinn, activist, radical, speaks to us now, the “us” of any classroom, the “us” charged with the learning and lives of any child:

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.

Today on the date of Zinn’s birth, I argue, it is a recipe we must follow.

On Children and Kindness: A Principled Rejection of “No Excuses”

In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.

—Thomas Jefferson

The Furman University spring commencement in 2008 was mostly overshadowed by two events—the speech presented by President George W. Bush and the protest and controversy surrounding that speech in the weeks leading up to and during the speech.

A concurrent controversy to Bush’s commencement address centered on the large number of faculty at the center of the protest, a protest named “We Object.” South Carolina is a traditional and deeply conservative state, and Furman tends to have a distinct contrast between the relatively conservative student body and the moderate/leaning left faculty. The Bush protest of 2008 exaggerated that divide—notably in the reaction of the Conservative Students for a Better Tomorrow (CSTB) organization and an Op-Ed in The Greenville News by two Furman professors opposing the protesting faculty.

The conservative faculty view expressed in the Op-Ed is important because it characterized the protesting faculty as post-modern, the implication being that protesting faculty held liberal/left views that were grounded in relativism (a common use of “post-modern” in public discourse). In other words, the implication was that protesting faculty were motivated by an absence of principle, or at least only relative principle.

The irony here is that the protesting faculty (among whom I was one, despite my having not yet achieved tenure) tended to reject both the post-modern label and post-modernism; in fact, our protests were deeply principled.

Having been born and raised in SC and having now lived my entire life and taught for over thirty years in my home state, I am an anomaly in both my broad ideology (I lean Marxist—although it is more complicated than that) and my principles (I am deeply principled in ways that contrast with the dogma and tradition of my treasured South).

My focal point during the Bush debate and protest (my name was frequently in news accounts and in rebuttals from CSTB) was an exaggerated but representative example of the tension that my ideology and principles create in my daily work at Furman, particularly in the classroom.

For example, I often teach an introductory education course, and one topic we address in that course very much parallels the more publicized conflicts surrounding Bush’s appearance at the 2008 graduation—corporal punishment.

When the topic comes up, students tend to support corporal punishment, reflecting the general embracing of the practice throughout the South. Many students are quick to qualify their support for corporal punishment with the “spare the rod, spoil the child” justification of their Christian faith.

I often explain to my students that I was spanked as a child in the 1960s, but that I had not spanked my daughter (who often announced to her friends that I didn’t spank, including a story of the one time I did when she ran away from us in the mall as a small child). I then add that a considerable body of research [1]  has shown that corporal punishment has overwhelming negative consequences and only one so-called positive outcome (immediate compliance).

My principled stance against corporal punishment creates noticeable tension with students’ dogmatic faith in corporal punishment. This same dynamic occurs when I confront the public and political support for grade retention, which I regularly refute—again based on a substantial body of evidence (which parallels in many ways the research on corporal punishment in that both practices have some quick and apparently positive outcomes but many long-term negative consequences).

As the Jefferson quote implores, in my positions on corporal punishment and grade retention, I stand like a rock.

And this helps explain my principled stance rejecting “no excuses” ideologies and practices as well as deficit views of children, race, and class.

Some Issues Beyond Debate

Three ideologies are powerful and foundational in both traditional educational practices and recent education reform agendas over the past thirty years—paternalism, “no excuses” ideology, and deficit perspectives (of children and impoverished people).

Traditional schooling is typified by behaviorism: in the grading, in the classroom management. Punishing and rewarding are types of paternalism and are justified by the belief that children are lacking something that some authority must provide.

Ironically, education reform committed to accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing is really no reform at all since many of the reform policies are simply exaggerated versions of traditional practices—both of which are grounded in paternalism, “no excuses” ideology, and deficit perspectives.

“No excuses” practices (represented by KIPP charter schools, but certainly not exclusive to that chain or charter schools since the ideology permeates almost all schooling to some degree) match social norms in the U.S., and in fact, aren’t very controversial. Yet, since “no excuses” policies are part of the dominant reform agenda, advocates feel compelled to justify those policies and practices.

To be honest, critics of “no excuses” ideology are in the minority and tend to be powerless. Nonetheless, Alexandra Boyd, Robert Maranto and Caleb Rose have published an article in Education Next designed to refute “no excuses” critics and to justify KIPP charters narrowly and “no excuses” ideology more broadly.

While I will not elaborate here on this, advocates of deficit-based strategies aimed at children in poverty and popularized by Ruby Payne tend to make parallel arguments as those endorsing “no excuses” schools and practices.

Corporal punishment, grade retention, paternalism, “no excuses” ideologies, and deficit perspectives of children, class, and race—all of these ideologies and concurrent practices conform to social norms of the U.S. (politicians and the public support them overwhelmingly) and tend to be discredited by large and robust research bases. All of these ideologies and practices also produce the appearance of effectiveness in the short term but create many long-term negative outcomes.

Paternalism, “no excuses” ideologies, and deficit perspectives reflect and perpetuate racism, classism, and sexism—even though many of the people who are and would be negatively impacted by these beliefs are often actively participating in and supporting institutions, policies, and practices driven by all three.

History has revealed numerous examples of people in reduced circumstances behaving in ways that were counter to their and other people’s freedom and equity. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale remains to me one of the best literary cautionary tales of that disturbing and complicated reality; Atwood dramatizes the historical reality of women contributing to the oppression of women. As a powerful work of scholarship, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow details well that a culture of mass incarceration (an era paralleling the accountability era in education) has reduced the lives of many minorities living in poverty to the point that they appear to support practices that, in fact, as Alexander describes, constitute the new Jim Crow—as I have explained while connecting mass incarceration with education reform:

This last point – that African Americans seem to support both the war on crime and “no excuses” charter schools – presents the most problematic aspect of charges that mass incarceration and education reform are ultimately racist, significant contributions to the New Jim Crow.

For example, Carr reports that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons’” (p. 210).

New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters – and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools – the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters.

And all of this, I suppose, may have been more than many people wanted to read for me to reach my big point, which is this:

There is no evidence that will convince me to reverse my stance against “no excuses” practices.

There is no evidence that will convince me to reverse my stance against deficit perspectives.

There is no evidence that will convince me to reverse my stance against paternalism.

There is no evidence that will convince me to reverse my stance against corporal punishment.

There is no evidence that will convince me to reverse my stance against grade retention.


Especially when it concerns children, the ends can never justify the means so I couldn’t care less about test scores at KIPP schools.

Can we debate these? Sure, but if you want to debate me in order to change my mind, you would be wasting your time.

I am approaching 53, and I remain a work in progress. There is much I do not know, and there remains much that I am deeply conflicted about. But there is one thing that I know deep into my bones—children are wonderful and precious.

Children are wonderful and precious and there isn’t a damned thing you can show me or argue that can justify anything that is unkind to a child.

Not one damn thing.

For the adults who disagree with me and believe I am wrong or fool-headed, I love you too. But if you force me to choose, you lose.

Few things fill me with confidence in my principles like the novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut and I see the same world, have the same regrets about that would, but also share the same idealistic hope. In the beginning of his Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut blends confessional memoir with his fiction as he explains how the novel came to have the full title Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death.

While visiting a fellow veteran of WWII and his friend Bernard V. O’Hare, Vonnegut is confronted by O’Hare’s wife Mary, who is angry about Vonnegut’s considering writing a novel about his experience at the firebombing of Dresden:

“You were just babies then!” [Mary] said.

“What?” I said.

“You were just babies in the war—like the ones upstairs!”

I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood. (p. 14)

And from this Vonnegut promised Mary not to glorify war and to add the extended title.

There is something sacred about childhood, about innocence. Something sacred that deserves and should inspire all humans toward kindness.

I see little evidence we are inspired, but I remain committed to the possibility of the kindness school—and even a kind society populated by kind people.

Nothing there to debate.

For Further Reading

anyone lived in a pretty how town, e. e. cummings

[1] See Is Corporal Punishment an Effective Means of Discipline? (APA); and Spanking and Child Development Across the First Decade of Life.