What If 2020 Teachers Copied 1980 Preachers?

They are two of the strongest traditions of American life. 1.) Teachers will refrain from indoctrinating students in partisan politics, and 2.) Preachers will stay out of elections. As states consider bills to legislate teacher non-politics, we have to wonder: What if teachers these days copied the (in)famous “New Christian Right” strategies of the 1970s? What if they abandoned their traditions of political neutrality in the classroom and starting pushing specific partisan politics on their students?

First, the usual caveats. Yes, some teachers are already very politically active. The Badass Teachers Association, for example, “reject profit-driven education reform” and offer a list of political demands. And back in the 1980s, the much-ballyhooed entrance of conservative evangelicals into politics was not really the revolution it was purported to be. Conservative evangelical preachers had ALWAYS been involved in politics. And, finally, conservative activists have always assumed that most teachers are already preaching left-wing doctrines in the classroom, even though we are not.

In spite of all that, it makes for an intriguing question. Consider the traditional story of the so-called New Christian Right. (And if you have time, read the longer, more accurate versions written by historians such as Daniel K. Williams, Matthew Avery Sutton, and yours truly.) Although it didn’t really match the historical facts, in the late 1970s conservative evangelical preachers such as Jerry Falwell claimed to be abandoning their previous political neutrality to encourage Americans to vote for “God’s Own Party,” the Republicans. It wasn’t really a leap into politics, but it was a dramatic leap into the arms of one political party.

President Ronald Reagan and Rev. Jerry Falwell

I love you, you love me, let’s all vote the GOP…

And it leads us to ask: What if large numbers of classroom teachers began openly to teach their students that the Democratic Party was correct? That only Joe Biden, or Anthony Brindisi, or Elizabeth Warren was on the right side of history?

It won’t happen. Though some progressive scholars, activists, and organizations have always yearned for a more partisan teaching force, teachers themselves have always—by and large—respected the tradition of their profession. Teach children about politics? Absolutely. But teach that only one political party is acceptable? Never. It’s just not part of how most teachers think about their proper jobs.

george counts

…time for teachers to wake up and smell the ballot box, c. 1936.

Consider the lament of George Counts, a leftist education profession who captured the imagination of progressive folks in the 1930s with his call for schools to “Build a New Social Order.”

Professor Counts wanted teachers to do more than teach. He hoped teachers would

be prepared to deal much more fundamentally, realistically, and positively with the American social situation.

In specific, Counts wanted teachers to tell their students more directly that one sort of politics was correct. But as even Counts realized, not many teachers would listen. As he put it,

when the word indoctrination is coupled with education there is scarcely one among us possessing the hardihood to refuse to be horrified.

The tradition of non-partisan teachers runs deep, despite the carping of paranoid conservative pundits. Most teachers, just like most evangelical preachers, would never stoop to pushing one partisan idea on their students. As Counts noticed, we are “horrified” at the idea that we should indoctrinate our students.

Even if teachers wanted to, classrooms aren’t like evangelical churches. Like-minded congregants don’t decide to attend one class or another, the way they do with their churches. Students in most public schools are a captured and constrained crowd and teachers could never build a politically like-minded following out of their come-one-come-all public schools.

This morning, though, we can’t help but wonder: What if they did? What would happen if a large group of teachers tried to impose partisan political beliefs on their students?

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