Is THIS Okay?

It’s not easy to be a social-studies teacher these days. We are supposed to inspire our students to love history and to become active citizens, but we’re not supposed to dictate political beliefs to students. We are encouraged to share our own biases and political commitments with students, but we’re not encouraged to tell students what to think. Our job is to help form moral persons—real empowered humans—but we aren’t hired to cram our morality down anyone’s throats.

pa liberal indoctrination

Civics ed? Or sinister indoctrination?

Given all that, we ask today: Did this Philly school teacher go too far? The chair of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party says yes. He says a flyer handed out by Philadelphia Central High teacher Thomas Quinn crosses way over the line.

The flyer encourages students to vote. Nothing very controversial there. But it also tells students to support Black Lives Matter, abortion rights, and to oppose the “Trump regime.”

It will come as no surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH that I support this whole platform. I would love it if every student voted this way. But that’s not the most  important point here. The real question is about the proper political role of a good teacher.

What do you think? Should social-studies teachers encourage students to vote a certain way?

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Religious Extremists Capture Major Political Party

Old news, right? SAGLRROILYBYGTH won’t be surprised to hear that the Republican Party is addicted to the political support of conservative evangelicals. These days, though, we have a sad reminder of the fact that both major parties can fall victim to special-interest lobbies, lobbies that put children in a terrible educational position.

yeshiva

Who is watching out for the kids?

For Republicans, this is nothing new. For a long time now, Republicans have been trembling at the thought of angering evangelical creationists. The most egregious example, IMHO, was the waffling of former Governor Bobby Jindal.

Jindal, you may recall, was the popular governor of Louisiana who briefly made a bid for the GOP nomination in 2016. No matter what you might think of his politics, Governor Jindal is no dummy. He graduated from Brown with a degree in biology. He went on to Oxford, turning down acceptances at Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School. He may not have made much of a splash in the 2016 presidential race, but we can safely assume that Jindal knows plenty about evolution and many other things.

Yet in spite of all his knowledge, when asked what he thought about evolution in 2014, Jindal hedged. Yes, he wanted his own kids to learn about evolution. When it came to public schools, though, Jindal defended the rights of creationists. If a local school district wanted to teach creationism as science, Jindal argued, that should be up to them.

Bad thinking, but good politics, I suppose.

We see a similar tragedy unfolding these days in Arizona. To win election in the Republican Party, it seems, candidates felt pressed to endorse a bigger role for creationism in public schools.

It’s been true for a long time and it doesn’t seem like it is going to change any time soon. The Republican Party forces candidates to ignore their own ideas and truckle to the desires of radical young-earth creationist supporters.

Recent news from my adopted home state shows that this is not only a problem for the GOP. The Democratic Party, too, seems to have entered into a deal with religious extremists. Just as Republican pandering hurts schoolchildren in Louisiana and Arizona, so too does Democratic deal-making hurt kids in New York.

Here’s what we know: Governor Andrew Cuomo is accused of a sordid educational quid pro quo. He allegedly promised prominent Hasidic leaders that he would not interfere with their religious schools in exchange for a vital political endorsement.

If it’s true, it’s more than a shame. Politicians of every party have a duty to safeguard the educational chances of students. The schools in this case don’t seem to do that at all. As a lawsuit this summer charged, significant numbers of yeshiva students in New York aren’t adequately taught secular subjects such as English, history, and science. Their curricula for boys focus almost exclusively on studying ancient religious texts.

As the New York Times reported, the state has promised to investigate these schools.  As they wrote last summer,

In 2015, the city Department of Education said it was opening an investigation into about 36 private yeshivas to see if they were providing adequate secular education according to state law. But in the three years since that announcement, the city has not released any results. Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said the investigation is still active and the department would deliver the report “soon.” The city has visited 15 schools so far, according to Ms. Rothenberg.

A year ago, when asked when the education department planned to release a report on its investigation, a spokeswoman, Toya Holness, said the investigation is continuing. “We are treating this matter with utmost seriousness,” she said.

This month, Governor Cuomo was accused of promising the Hasidic community that the investigation would continue to languish in exchange for the political endorsement of an influential leader in the Hasidic community.

If true, the charges show how difficult it is to protect the educational rights of children. Children don’t vote.  Children don’t meet with governors to insist the law be obeyed. Children can’t promise a solid block of political support in exchange for special favors.

To be fair, I think the GOP problem is worse. But this story demonstrates that the problem is not only a “conservative” one. Rather, any political party risks being held in thrall to special-interest groups, groups that might not have the best interests of children at heart.

Where Are All the Books about This?

It’s a question that has stumped me for the past twenty years, and Stanford’s Larry Cuban brings it up again this morning. Where are all the books about conservatism in American education?

fight for local control

There ARE great books out there…

Professor Cuban makes the crucial point: Public schools in the USA have always been driven by all the same contradictory impulses that drive political life. Some people want schools to be more progressive; others want them to be more conservative. As Cuban puts it,

The contradictory obligations of reforming schools while conserving traditional knowledge and classroom practices has been in the DNA of tax-supported public education for well over a century. It won’t go away. Those cheerleaders for the next new reform need to understand this paradox at the heart of U.S. schooling.

As I started my graduate work lo so many years ago, I was curious about the deep educational conservatism that I saw, felt, and heard as a teacher. To my surprise—and, to be perfectly frank, fueling my academic ambition—there were not shelves and shelves of scholarly work analyzing conservatism in education.

To be sure, there are some historical works out there. Prof. Cuban mentions my look at twentieth century educational conservatism and Diane Ravitch’s Left Back.

There are other books he could have mentioned. Michael Apple’s Educating the “Right” Way, or Herbert Kliebard’s Struggle for the American Curriculum, for example. Hearteningly, newish books have come out that plumb the depth and diversity of conservative activism in American education. Cam Scribner’s The Fight for Local Control, for instance, and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s Classroom Wars. And I’m sure SAGLRROILYBYGTH could point out another key title or two.

classroom wars

…but where are the REST of the great books?

But considering the vastness of the topic, the lack of academic work about educational conservatism still baffles me. As Prof. Cuban points out, conservative ideas and impulses have always been at least as powerful as progressive ones. As Cuban writes this morning, if the first obligation of public schools was to serve as a way to change students and society,

The second obligation was for the tax-supported school to actively conserve personal, community and national values ranging from inculcating traditional knowledge, obeying authority including that of teachers, show respect for religious beliefs, practicing honesty, and displaying patriotism.

If these conservative assumptions about the proper role of school are so very influential, where are all the academic studies of them?

Of course, it’s not at all difficult to find conservative how-to books about schools. From the Gablers to Dorothy Sayers to everyone in between, there have never been a lack of guides to make schools more conservative or more authentically conservative.

When it comes to an academic understanding of the meanings and activism of conservative thinkers and activists, though, we still have a decided gap between what happens (and happened) in schools and what academics talk about.

So where are the armies of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and classroom researchers?

The Catholic Elephant in the Room

Why didn’t she mention it? For people familiar with the twentieth-century history of Catholic education, it looms as the biggest issue. Yet in a recent article about changing private-school enrollment in The Atlantic, Alia Wong leaves it out entirely. I’m stumped.

Students in class at St. John Villa Academy Catholic School

…or maybe it was the plaid?

Wong looks at the changing face of private education. With the dwindling enrollment in low-tuition Catholic schools, she notes, more expensive private schools are gobbling up a larger and larger share of the private-school market. The average tuition at private schools in the latest available data approached $11,000 annually. For most parents, that’s simply unaffordable.

So far, so good. If we really want to get a sense of the staggering inequalities built into America’s educational landscape, IMHO, the bigger story is the startling disparities between public schools. Even in the same city, some public schools resemble upscale educational hotels while others feel like seedy fleabags. But Wong makes a good point that private schools are becoming the province of a shrinking economic elite.

However, I can’t figure out why she left out the most obvious explanation for the shrinking of America’s Catholic school network. Here’s how she puts it,

A number of factors are contributing to the phasing-out of Catholic schools. One is a drop in the number of clergy members, who historically taught for relatively low wages. Another is the Church’s sex-abuse scandals, whose financial ramifications have undermined its ability to operate schools. In addition, demographic shifts such as falling birth rates, the growing concentration of black and Hispanic families in the bottom tier of the country’s income distribution, and a decline in religiosity among Americans, combined with the rise of charter schools, have led to lower enrollment in parochial education.

All true and important. But Wong doesn’t mention the impact of Vatican II. The public perception of the Church’s 1965 statement, Gravissimum Educationis, was that Catholic parents had been released from the requirement to send their children to Catholic schools. As the 1965 statement said,

Parents who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools.

Of course, at least as I read it, that statement is more about helping Catholic parents get a tax break to send their children to Catholic schools, but in the public eye the Vatican II agreement was often seen as freedom to attend public schools. Not surprisingly, given the choice between free-tuition public schools and low-tuition Catholic schools, huge numbers of Catholic parents began sending their children to local public schools instead.

Vatican II is not the only reason for shrinking enrollments in Catholic schools, for sure. At least in the popular understanding of American Catholic history, though, it played a huge role.

…so why wouldn’t Wong mention this epochal shift in American Catholic education? If we’re trying to understand the changing enrollment in private Catholic schools, it seems like an odd thing to leave out.

Sex Abuse at School: The Bad News from Chicago

It’s ugly enough as is. When we reflect on the lessons we should take from Chicago’s record of abusing students, though, it should leave us even more depressed.

Chicago abuse stats

The news from Chicago.

It has been too tempting for too many of us to explain away the sexual abuse of students in schools. Oh, we might say, that’s a problem for those fundamentalists at Pensacola and Bob Jones. Or, oh, we might think, that’s the danger of big-time sports. Or Catholic church hierarchies. Or homeschooling. Or fraternities. Or fancypants private schools.

Or any of a host of other explanations, all of which try to impose some vaguely reassuring line around the edges of sexual abuse at school. We shouldn’t. Sex abuse is part of the structure of schooling itself, difficult as that is to say out loud. When adults are put in power over vulnerable students—as is the case in almost every school on the planet—sex abuse will be a tragic but tragically predictable result.

In Chicago, investigative reporters uncovered a pattern of abuse and denial in Chicago Public Schools. Students who reported abuse were ignored. Teachers and coaches who were credibly accused of abuse were recommended or rehired. Over and over again, students were not protected.

As the Chicago Tribune report insists, better protections must be implemented. At the heart of the matter, though, is our shared unwillingness to confront the bitter roots of the problem.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing me say it, because I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Here it is: Any school, anywhere, with any system of reporting and control, is still a potentially dangerous place for children. If we don’t understand school as a fundamentally coercive institution, we’ll never be able to recognize its real dangers.

What Vouchers Can Do: Florida Tax-Funded Fundamentalism

I guess we shouldn’t really call it an “exposé” because it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t expect. Still, it can be eye-opening to see the sorts of things voucher programs can do. This week, the Orlando Sentinel explores the content of fundamentalist textbooks used at area private schools. The story prompts us to ask a tough question about voucher programs: Is it fair to limit voucher programs only to religions we like?

ACE florida 1

Should taxes pay for these textbooks?

As I’ve argued in a couple of academic articles, the history of fundamentalist textbook publishing is key to understanding both the “Christian-school” movement and the subsequent evangelical homeschooling exodus.

Without the work of school publishers such as A Beka Book, Accelerated Christian Education, and Bob Jones University Press, I believe, conservative evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s would not have been able to open so many small private schools. And without pre-made curricular materials, evangelicals would not have been able to leave school by their millions in the 1990s to homeschool.

Plus, no one should think that these fundamentalist textbooks are static or monolithic. As I explored in a chapter in AJ Angulo’s terrific book Miseducation, ACE, A Beka, and Bob Jones are all very different from one another, and all have radically changed their treatment of topics such as US History.

It’s not just me: Dr. Jonny Scaramanga has devoted his early academic career to exploring the curriculum to which he was subjected as a youth. Dr. Scaramanga argues that Accelerated Christian Education never escaped its racist, homophobic origins, despite some surface changes and lip service to liberalization.

As the Orlando Sentinel explains, voucher programs in Florida are sending tax dollars to schools that use textbooks by the “big three” fundamentalist school publishers. As the investigators discovered, the textbooks are full of creationism, ethnocentrism, and historical denialism. As OS puts it,

[Investigators] found numerous instances of distorted history and science lessons that are outside mainstream academics. The books denounce evolution as untrue, for example, and one shows a cartoon of men and dinosaurs together, telling students the Biblical Noah likely brought baby dinosaurs onto his ark. The science books, they added, seem to discourage students from doing experiments or even asking questions. . . .

The social studies books downplay the horrors of slavery and the mistreatment of Native Americans, they said. One book, in its brief section on the civil rights movement, said that “most black and white southerners had long lived together in harmony” and that “power-hungry individuals stirred up the people.”

We have to ask: Is this sort of thing okay for a tax-funded school? After all, there is nothing in this story that should come as a surprise. If we want to allow voucher programs that send tax money to private schools, we should expect some of those dollars to pay for curricula we disagree with. Is that okay?

ace florida 2

Hard-hitting curriculum for Florida’s third-graders. This sample comes from an Accelerated Christian Education reader.

Or, to put it in nerdier terms: How should policy-makers decide if religious schools qualify to participate in tax-funded programs? It can’t be simply on the basis of our own personal religious views. For example, I believe the ACE, BJU, and Abeka textbooks are terrible and I would never want my kid to use them in school. But my personal preferences can’t suffice to dictate policy. How can we decide which religious schools qualify for tax-funded voucher programs?

One option would simply be to make ALL religious schools off-limits for voucher-funded students. In some cases, though, that would seem to keep deserving kids from getting a higher-quality education than their local public schools can provide.

Another option would be to rule out schools that limit their students’ life chances. As one of the OS investigators argued, for example, using these creationist textbooks would hurt students. As the article explains,

“Students who have learned science in this kind of environment are not prepared for college experiences,” said Cynthia Bayer, a biology lecturer at the University of Central Florida who reviewed the science books. “They would be intellectually disadvantaged.”

But WOULD they? Anyone who knows the real story of American higher education knows that creationist students have plenty of creationist colleges they can attend. Is it fair to say that students can’t study creationist books because they don’t agree with mainstream science? Isn’t that the whole point of private schools in the first place?

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m firmly against using tax dollars to fund private religious schools. I think we should nix ALL religious schools from that sort of public funding. But we can’t do it only for some religious schools and not for others, based on the fact that we don’t like some of the religions. And we should not be surprised to find out that voucher programs are doing precisely what they were designed to do: Fund religious schools.

Bursting the Conservative Bubble about Educational History

How did American public schools get started? Like the rest of us, conservative intellectuals and activists have always told themselves stories that confirmed what they wanted to believe. This morning, we see another expression of century-old conservative myths about educational history.

As I found in the research for my book about educational conservatism, conservatism has always been fueled by a false notion of America’s past. When it comes to schools and schooling, conservative activists since at least the 1930s have told themselves that schools used to be great, but scheming progressive New Yorkers took over at some point and ruined everything.

rafferty what they are doing

Schools USED to be great…

Consider this example from my favorite twentieth-century educational conservative, Max Rafferty. Rafferty was the superintendent of California’s public schools in the 1960s. He was a popular syndicated columnist and almost won the US Senate race in 1968. One of the reasons for Rafferty’s popularity was his persuasive but false vision of educational history. He told readers over and over again that American public schools used to be great, local institutions. The problem came, Rafferty explained, when New York “progressives” took over.

As Rafferty wrote in his 1964 book What They Are Doing to Your Children,

Wherever progressive education was allowed in infiltrate—and this was almost everywhere—the mastery of basic skills began insensibly to erode, knowledge of the great cultures and contributions of past civilizations started to slip and slide, reverence for the heroes of our nation’s past faded and withered under the burning glare of pragmatism.

This morning we stumbled across a 2018 update of this twentieth-century just-so story. Writing from Pepperdine’s American Project, Bruce Frohnen tries to explain why conservatives hate public schools. Along the way, Prof. Frohnen makes big false assumptions about the history of those schools.

First example: Like a lot of conservatives, Frohnen incorrectly assumes that federal and state leaders call the shots in public schools. As Prof. Frohnen puts it,

The problem is precisely that they are run by people and according to rules that are too distant from, and consequently hostile toward, our local communities.

Not really. Most teachers ARE the local communities.  As Stanford’s Susanna Loeb found,

A full 61 percent of teachers first teach in schools located within 15 miles of their hometown; 85 percent get their first teaching job within 40 miles of their hometown. And 34 percent of new teachers took their first job in the same school district in which they attended high school.

Similarly, Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found that the most important factor driving teachers’ choices about evolution education was local values. If communities wanted evolution taught, teachers taught it. If they didn’t, they didn’t.

gallup local schools

If schools aren’t local, why are so many locals happy with them?

So, yes, the impact of federal funding has increased since 1950. But most of the day-to-day decisions about schooling and education are made at the very local level. This localism might explain why most American parents are actually very happy with their children’s schools. Gallup polls have consistently found that most people grade their kids’ schools highly, in spite of the hand-wringing by pundits like Dr. Frohnen.

Second example: Like a lot of people, Prof. Frohnen mischaracterizes the early history of American public education. As he argues [emphasis added by me],

Today, politicians, professional educators, and administrators all tell us that the federally-regulated public school is essential to American public life—that it is the place where children from widely divergent socio-economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds come together to learn what it means to be an American. It is understandable that Conservatives harken back to this vision as they face an education establishment determined to undermine our common culture. But we need to remember that historically American schools integrated students, not into some national community defined by ideology, but into local communities defined by tradition, history, and local relationships. Nationalized education got its start with the famous 19th century educator, Horace Mann.

Nope. From the get-go, ed reformers promised that publicly funded schools would serve a national purpose. And those reformers preceded the attention-hogging Horace Mann. Consider just a couple of examples from my recent research into the career of Joseph Lancaster. Starting in 1818, Lancaster swept into Philadelphia, New York, and other cities, promising that his “system” could educate a new nation’s children.

Lancaster and his fellow reformers insisted that their goal was precisely to train NATIONAL citizens, not local ones. As he wrote in a 1817 guide to his system [emphasis added again],

Another inducement to pursue the Lancasterian system, as it respects the state at large, is the uniformity of principles and habits, which would be thus inculcated among the children of those citizens who are the subjects of this kind of instruction, a desideratum essential to the formation of correct national feeling and character.

In all of his early writing, Lancaster explicitly promoted his scheme as a way to foster “NATIONAL EDUCATION” [his emphasis this time]. Indeed, one of the reasons Lancaster’s reform plan was so popular in the 1810s was precisely because it promised to train national citizens—at the time, the security of the new nation was extremely shaky.

So, SAGLRROILYBYGTH, agree with Prof. Frohnen’s ideas about public schools or don’t. Embrace his vision of conservative principles or don’t. But whatever you do, don’t listen to pundits who tell you that America’s public schools are ruled by any distant power. And don’t buy the old line that schools in the old days used to be about purely local values.

It just ain’t so.

We’ve All Got It All Wrong

Whether you call yourself a conservative, a progressive, or something else, if you’re like me you’ve probably got it all wrong. As I was reminded in a discussion last night, those of us who try to shape schools usually make a huge mistake—one we could recognize if we just thought about it for half a second.univ of hawaii

Here’s the background: I was happy last night to talk with some graduate students at the University of Hawaii. (No, I didn’t get to go there in real life. I wish. We used cutting-edge interwebs technology to talk.) They had read my book about the history of educational conservatism and they had some great questions, ideas, and experiences to share.

As I argue in the book, it’s difficult to generalize about conservative activists. Just like progressives, conservative thinkers and doers come from a dizzying array of backgrounds and they are motivated by a huge spectrum of ideas and beliefs. But one thing they do share—at least the ones I studied—is an unexamined faith that school shapes society. I hate to quote myself, but this is how I put it in the book:

Educational conservatives have insisted, in short, on two central ideas. First, schools matter. Conservatives, like their progressive foes, have rarely questioned the notion that the schools of today generate the society of tomorrow. Second, because schools matter, their content and structure must be guarded ferociously. Ideas that challenge inherited wisdom must not be crammed down the throats of young, trusting students. And teachers must not abdicate their roles as intellectual and moral authorities. Educational conservatism, in other words, has been the long and vibrant tradition of defending tradition itself in America’s schools. Without understanding this tradition, we will never truly understand either American conservatism or American education.

One idea on which everyone can agree, in other words, is that schools shape society. The reason so many of us spend so much energy on school reform is precisely because we think it matters. For some conservatives in the twentieth century, teaching kids evolution was dangerous because it threatened to take away their moral and religious compass. For others, teaching kids about sex was a bad idea because it tended to unhinge their self-control. And for yet others, teaching kids socialist ideas was obviously terrible because it would lead to the corruption of their morals and of the entire society.

OTR COVER

You can fix schools all you want, but you can’t fix the outcomes…

Last night, the Hawaii students shared stories that helped puncture those school-reform assumptions. One student, for example, reported that he came to the realization that he was conservative in high school. He was guided to that realization by his favorite teacher. At first, I assumed that the teacher was a conservative, too, and inspired the student by reading Hayek and Burke and smoking a pipe. In fact, the student told us, his favorite teacher was a heart-on-her-sleeve liberal. She taught social studies in a progressive way, one that hoped to help students examine their own ideas and decide questions for themselves. In the student’s case, that meant he came to the realization that his ideas were apparently “conservative.” The left-y teacher, in other words, didn’t indoctrinate this student into leftism, but precisely the opposite.

Another Hawaii student told a very different story. She only realized that she was a liberal when she was teaching Sunday school at her church. The goal was to help young people deepen their religious faith, but it had the opposite effect on her. Instead of becoming more religious, teaching Sunday school convinced this student that her church was full of hooey.

What’s the takeaway? Once we hear the stories, it seems pretty obvious. School doesn’t really work the way we sometimes think it will. No matter what our politics, we can’t control the future of our students by teaching them X or Y or by keeping them away from Z or A. Students are not predictable, programmable outputs. They have their own ideas and backgrounds and sometimes our best-laid plans at shaping America’s future will come out in ways we didn’t predict.

What’s Wrong with White Privilege?

You’ve probably heard about it by now. In my adopted home state of Wisconsin, a school district has effectively banned teachers and students from talking about white privilege. Why? With all the hot-button issues that could roil a school district—prayer, sex, school shootings, bullying—why is this issue so heated?

Here’s what we know: A week or so ago, Oconomowoc residents erupted in anger over a student-initiated program. The students had hoped to teach their fellows about the concept of white privilege. Due to parent anger, the principal is out and schools are officially banned from teaching white privilege except in classes dedicated to teaching white privilege.privilege test

The students had asked their fellows to complete a privilege survey created by the National Civil Rights Museum. Students were asked if they felt comfortable going into stores, if they thought people in power would look like them, if they had been taught to fear walking alone at night, if their schools had good resources, and other pointed questions.

The goal, as the survey explained, was to help students notice the ways they have experienced privilege. As the survey put it,

In the United States, there has been a history where people have been privileged to exercise all of their rights while others have not. So what happens to people who do not have privileges because of their race, creed, religion, gender, sexual orientation, class, ability or veteran status?

So far, so good. For the record, I applaud these students and their supporters for trying to help themselves understand the ways American society really works.privilege test 1

Not everyone does. In Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, this exercise proved extremely provocative. Parents absolutely refused to have their kids talk about these questions in school. They ousted the high-school principal and banned further talk of white privilege.

This robust anger leads us to our question for the day: Why do some people feel so angry about these questions? Why do they feel a need to ban them from their children?

I have a hunch and I’ll be curious to hear what SAGLRROILYBYGTH think.

The school board president explained it best, IMHO. As he told the local newspaper,

white privilege is a lightning rod for some parents. . . . We have poor people in Oconomowoc who are saying they’re not privileged … and people that say, ‘Don, we worked our butts off to have what we have’

Some parents in Oconomowoc apparently feel that teaching white kids that they are privileged is like teaching them that they are to blame for society’s faults. It is refusing to notice the hard work and sacrifice that their families have made. It is nothing less than a slap in the face to every penny-pinching Grandma, every two-job-working Dad, every after-school-job having kid.

As I see it, the topic of white privilege is so ferociously controversial because it strikes at the heart of our culture-war sore spot over victimhood. In the minds of many parents—in Oconomowoc at least—telling white kids they enjoy privilege is the same as telling them their struggles aren’t real; their sacrifices aren’t meaningful; their victories are vampiric.

My Heroes Have Always Been Teachers

Now I just don’t know what to think. I have long admired heroic teachers like Susan Epperson and all the less-famous Susan Eppersons out there. Our ILYBYGTH conversations lately, though, have me wondering. Are teachers heroic if they buck the rules to teach the way they should? …what if they think they should teach Christianity or white supremacy? Or if they’re gun-toting rage-aholics?

Maybe people don’t remember Susan Epperson anymore. She was a science teacher in Arkansas in the 1960s. Due to a law passed during the 1920s evolution/creation battles, she was legally barred from teaching her students about evolution. She did it anyway.

Instead of just keeping her science subversion quiet, Epperson took her case all the way to the Supreme Court, where the anti-evolution law was tossed out.

Epperson has always been a hero of mine. Not only her, but all the teachers out there who go against idiotic system rules to teach children the way they deserve to be taught. It can be as simple as ignoring an order to focus only on test-related content and instead help a student discover what she thinks about a poem or painting. It can be as fundamental as introducing students to the real, ugly history of race relations in the USA, even though a school principal advises against doing anything “controversial.”

But with recent stories about white-supremacist teachers and the history of left-wing teacher purges I’m not sure what to think anymore. If teachers are heroic for teaching “what’s right” instead of what’s in the state-approved curriculum, how can we police creationist and other teachers for breaking the rules to teach their own peculiar moral visions?

reclaim your school

Can my heroes out-sneak your heroes?

After all, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found, the most important influence on most high-school biology teachers is not the state curriculum. It is the values of the local community. If teachers think creationism is the right thing for their students, they’ll teach it, no matter what the curriculum says.

And activists on both the right and the left encourage teachers to ignore the rules and teach “what’s right.” Brad and Susanne Dacus, for example, have published a handy-dandy guide for teachers who want to inject more Christianity into their teaching. As they put it,

Worrying about your public schools changes nothing. . . Knowing how YOU can make an impact in your school can change everything!  Public schools have dramatically changed over the last several years.  Now is not the time to give up on your school.  Now is the time to stand up and be heard!

For those of us who want secular public schools, these promises sound worrisome. Yet we can’t help but recognize that the same heroic impulse to fight the system underlies both Epperson’s pro-science activism and the Dacus’s pro-Jesus work.

Is there any way we can encourage heroic teachers, but only the kinds we agree with? Sounds pretty hypocritical to me. As Professor Clarence Taylor argued recently in these pages, do we need to defend ALL teachers’ rights to political activism, even if we hate it? Or is there some way to support teacher activism for “our” side while fighting teacher activism for “theirs?”