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?”

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Clarence Taylor on Purging Racist Teachers

[Editor’s Note: We are delighted to welcome comments today from eminent historian Clarence Taylor. Taylor is the author, among other things, of Reds at the Blackboard. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH recall, last week we wondered if Florida’s firing of a racist teacher was similar to Cold-war-era firings of socialist teachers. Instead of flapping our gums more, we asked the expert. Here is Professor Taylor’s perspective:]

The decision to remove Dayanna Volitich, a 25 year old social studies teacher at a middle school in Florida, from the classroom, after it was discovered that she hosted a white nationalist podcast raised the question of the right to free speech. Was Volitich denied freedom of speech?  She expressed horrendous beliefs on her podcast, including agreeing with a guest who maintained that an African child has a lower IQ than a child born in Sweden.  On her February 26, 2018 podcast, Volitich, who went by the pseudonym Tiana Dalichov, maintained that there is scientific evidence that some races are more intelligent than others.  But should she have been removed from the classroom because she expressed racist views on a podcast?

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Grounds for dismissal?

There is a long history of targeting teachers for their political beliefs.   By the First World War teachers were forced to sign loyalty oaths to assure that they would not take part in what those in power deemed as unpatriotic activities.  As scholars Charles Howlett and Audrey Cohan note, “there was a time in United States history when loyalty oaths struck fear in the hearts and minds of those who encouraged free inquiry and open discussion on controversial issues.”

During the Cold War teachers, college professors and others were targeted for their political beliefs.   Hundreds of New York City public school teachers were forced to resign, retire, or were fired because they were members of the Communist Party.  Not one of the teachers fired, forced to retire or forced to resign because of their political affiliation were ever found to be derelict in the classroom.  None were found guilty of spreading Communist propaganda to their students.  They simply lost their positions because of their membership in the Communist Party.

No matter how appalling Volitich’s views are she has the constitutional right to express those views.  I am sure that a vast majority of Americans think that Volitich’s ideas are distasteful.  But the views of Communist teachers were distasteful to many.  Because views are seen as repugnant to a large number of people does not mean that those expressing those views should have their constitutional rights revoked.

taylor reds at the blackboard

A different world? Or just a different context?

One may argue that unlike the victims of the Cold War, where they were purged for just Communist Party membership and taking part in communist led activities outside of the classroom, it is claimed that Volitich eagerly touted her white supremacist views to her students.  She even confessed on her podcast, that she shared her white supremacist ideas in the classroom.  According to Volitich when parents complained to the principal that she was espousing her racial ideology to her students, she admitted that she lied to the principal by denying she was attempting to spread her racist views.

But even with her claim on her podcast and a few parents complaining that she advocated her Nazi doctrine in class, at this point there is no hard evidence that Volitich was advocating white supremacy in the classroom.  Nowhere is it mentioned that school officials, including those who must observe her in the classroom, ever complained that she was spreading white supremacist doctrine to her students.    Moreover none of her colleagues ever complained of her views.  Is what someone claimed on a podcast grounds for dismissing her from her position as a teacher? Shouldn’t a teacher be judged for what she does in her classroom and for service to her school?

One may argue that the ideas Volitich expressed are dangerous to the larger society therefore she should be fired. But that was the same argument that was used to purge teachers and professors from their position.  Those who were responsible for the dismissal of teachers during the Cold War maintained that their membership in the Communist Party deemed them as dangerous to the country.  There was no need to prove that they were indoctrinating students.  Cold War crusaders argued that the mere fact that they were communists and communist sympathizers disqualified them from the classroom.

Today many recognize that the New York City teachers were simply victims of overzealous anti-Communist warriors.  Let’s not make the same mistake with those on the extreme right.

Whites at the Blackboard

I get it. I wouldn’t want a middle-school social-studies teacher who hosts a white-supremacist podcast teaching my kid. I wouldn’t want her in my local school at all. But does everyone–even a teacher–have a right to free speech? Does our history of teacher purges have a lesson to teach us here?

voliltich tweet

Grounds for dismissal?

You’ve probably heard the story by now. Florida’s Dayanna Volitich has admitted she hosted a white supremacist podcast and twitter account. As her alter ego “Tiana Dalichov” Volitich noted that preferring one’s own race was not a bad thing. She wondered about the “Jewish Question.” She noted that some “races . . . have higher IQs than others.”

Does all this make her unfit for service as a public-school teacher? How about the fact that she bragged about disguising her views when her supervisor came around, but did her best to secretly promote them among her students?

In her own defense, Volitich has insisted that her online persona was nothing more than “political satire and exaggeration.”

Should she be fired? IMHO, if Volitich really did engage in this sort of racist diatribe, she’s not worthy of the role of social-studies teacher. Moreover, if she knowingly and intentionally taught her ideas to her students subversively, she should be out on her ear.

taylor reds at the blackboard

A different world? Or just a different context?

But the historian in me can’t help but ask: Is this situation different from Local 5? As Clarence Taylor has demonstrated, socialist teachers in New York City were purged for their political views. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, left-wing teachers were fired for their socialist ideas. They weren’t accused of bad teaching, but only of bad politics.

It can be difficult to remember the heat and fury of America’s anti-socialism movement. For long decades, though, as I argue in my book about educational conservatism, socialism was viewed as nothing less than intellectual poison. Teaching it to students–or even harboring a teacher who harbored socialist ideals–was seen by many Americans as an outrageous abdication of educational justice.

I feel the same way about this case. I can’t imagine allowing a white-supremacist teacher to sneakily insert her horrible views into a middle-school classroom. But when I call for her dismissal, am I repeating the travesties of the twentieth century, only from the other side?

What do you think?

Always Look for the Union Label

It’s back. The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear another teacher-union case. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, the conservative sport of teacher-union-bashing has a long history. The current case will likely redefine the landscape of school unionism.

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Commies, unions, and teachers, c. 1938

As I explored in my book about educational conservatism, beginning in the 1930s conservative activists attacked teachers’ unions as dangerous fronts for communist subversion. Conservative patriotic groups exposed the connection of unions to leftist academics such as Harold Rugg. They pushed successfully for loyalty laws to sniff out subversive teachers.

In cities like New York, during the 1940s and 1950s, such union-bashing achieved great political success. Fueled by the testimony of former-communist-turned-witness Bella Dodd, the New York City School Board declared war on communist-affiliated teachers’ unions.

In her 1954 book School of Darkness, Dodd explained that communists actively sought influence—secret influence—in teachers’ unions. They fought for innocuous-sounding perks such as teacher tenure. They screened their subversion, Dodd claimed, by using intentionally misleading labels such as the “Friends of the Free Public Schools.”

In reality, Dodd warned, the Communist Party

establishes such authority over its members that it can swing their emotions now for and now against the same person or issue.

Teachers might be well-meaning folks, Dodd wrote, but at best they served as dupes for mind-controlling communist spies and sneaks. Such warnings carried great political weight. As historian Clarence Taylor has pointed out, by 1955 239 teachers and board personnel had been forced out of New York City schools, accused of subversion.

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From Hearst’s New York Journal-American, July 7, 1948.

No one these days is going to stand in front of SCOTUS and accuse teacher unions of communist subversion. The issue is still one of left-leaning political influence, though. The most recent case before this one, Friedrichs v. California, hoped to give teachers freedom to refuse to pay union dues. In many states, even if they don’t join the union, teachers have to pay a portion of the union’s dues, since the union bargains collectively for all teachers.

Justice Scalia’s death forced that case into a 4-4 deadlock.

Plaintiffs in the new case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, hope the new court will give them a decisive win. The plaintiffs are hoping to be allowed to opt out, since, as Rebecca Friedrichs argued in the previous case, union support is “quintessentially political.” Forcing teachers or other workers to pay for political activism, plaintiffs insist, violates their rights.

With Neil Gorsuch filling Justice Scalia’s seat, it’s likely they’ll win. No one’s saying “communist subversion” anymore, but the long legacy of conservative anxiety about teachers’ unions remains politically potent.

Teachers’ Unions: The Root of All Evil

Last week a California judge decided that bad teachers can be fired.  In his decision in Vergara v. California, Judge Rolf M. Treu dealt a severe blow to the power of teachers’ unions.  Not surprisingly, conservative intellectuals rejoiced.  For almost a century, conservative school reformers have insisted that teachers’ unions represent a double-headed threat.  But here’s my question: why do today’s conservatives only focus on one half of their traditional gripe against teachers’ unions?

In Judge Treu’s decision, he argued that ineffective teachers have a negative impact on students.  And since the poorest students suffer most, the judge concluded that the situation was open to judicial remedy.

In the pages of the conservative National Review, writers celebrated the decision.  One “liberal” pundit shared her horror stories of terrible teachers and school principals, protected and made more arrogantly despicable due to their union-backed sinecures.  Andrew Biggs suggested taking the California decision national.  Biggs offered a simple four-word phrase to rejuvenate the nation’s public schools: Fire the Worst Teachers.

Not every conservative intellectual liked the decision.  Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute warned that the judge’s power-grab could spell out a future of terrible decisions by similarly activist judges.

But even Hess did not support the unions’ traditional role as the unpopular defender of teacher-tenure rules.  After all, conservative school reformers have for generations identified unions as the source of all that was rotten in America’s public-education system.

Perhaps most memorably, the late free-market economist Milton Friedman argued that the dead hand of teachers’ unions had strangled public schooling.  As I wrote a few years back in the pages of Teachers College Record, Friedman’s narrative of educational history pivoted on the development of teachers’ unions.  Most teachers, Friedman wrote, were “dull and mediocre and uninspiring.”  Nevertheless, beginning in the 1840s, Friedman believed, those teachers had captured control of America’s educational system.  Instead of working to improve education for all, teachers’ unions only worked for their own “narrow self-interest.”  The driving force of expanded public-education systems in the 1840s, Friedman argued in Free to Choose, was teachers’ selfish desire to

enjoy greater certainty of employment, greater assurance that their salaries would be paid, and a greater degree of control if government rather than parents were the immediate paymaster.

Today’s conservative complaints about the power of teachers’ unions owe a lot to Friedman-esque free-market critiques.  Schools suffer, free-market conservatives argue, when the market for good teaching talent is blocked by sclerotic union rules.  Instead of bringing in the best teachers, unions dictate a self-interested last-in-first-out rule that preserves seniority, no matter how incompetent.

But there is another reason why conservative intellectuals have long battled against the power of teachers’ unions.  Those unions, after all, have resolutely supported left-leaning or even frankly leftist social programs.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this leftist tendency was the tumultuous history of New York’s Teachers Union.  From the 1930s through the 1950s, as Clarence Taylor has described in his great book Reds at the Blackboard, New York’s Teachers Union wrestled with questions of communism, reform, and subversion.  Again and again, the union suffered internal factional disputes, most famously the expulsion of the communist Local 5 faction.  And again and again, the union came under attack for harboring subversive teachers, most famously the purge of hundreds of affiliated teachers in the 1950s.  Throughout its history, though, the famous union supported left-leaning causes.  Internal factional disputes were not left versus right, but rather left versus left.

Even today, teachers’ unions often endure factional disputes on the left.  The militant Badass Teachers Association wants to push the more moderate American Federation of Teachers and the staid National Education Association to take more recognizably leftist positions.

Given all this history, why do conservative these days focus on the free-market angle?  That is, why don’t conservative pundits attack unions as islands of antiquated leftist ideology, instead of just attacking unions as inefficient and self-serving?

One possibility is that conservative school reformers these days take the tried-and-true school reform tactic of taking the politics out of education.  As historian David Tyack argued most memorably in his 1974 book The One Best System, school reformers always insist that their ideas are not about politics, but only about better schooling for all.  As Tyack showed, calls to “take the schools out of politics” never really want to take the politics out of schooling.  But reformers from every political background score more success when they appear to be impartial educators, interested in pedagogy, not ideology.

Is that what’s going on here?  Do today’s conservative intellectuals hope to eliminate the power of leftist teachers’ unions without making it look like a politically motivated hack job?  Do conservative pundits focus on the educational problems of teachers’ unions, instead of focusing on their left-leaning political positions, in order to make it look as if conservatives only want better schools for all?