Time for Conservatives to Panic?

Beware! The nation’s schools have become cesspools of [select one] batty progressivism/subversive socialism/right-wing indoctrination/etc. etc. etc. For a hundred years now, activists have seized on stories from unusual schools and pretended that they represent the “new trend in education.” In the latest go-round of this culture-war tradition, conservatives have gleefully assumed that one odd Brooklyn school has proved them right.

gallup local schools

People LIKE the schools they know.

Here’s the latest: You probably saw George Packer’s piece in the Atlantic about the dizzying dance of progressivism gone wild at his kid’s school. Packer is a well-to-do New Yorker describing his adventures in securing the best education for his kids. He frets about the loss of a meritocratic idea in schools—to Packer, rich people like himself seem too safe behind the expensive walls of their educational castles.

Worse than that, Packer concludes, a venomous “new progressivism” has warped America’s public schools. At his kid’s school, for example, rigid left-wing identity politics has perverted the entire purpose of education. State tests were to be skipped. Bathrooms were to be gender-neutral. Students were to learn the glories of every other civilization besides American. Child-centered classroom methods had become totalitarian fear-mongering. In the end, Packer concludes,

At times the new progressivism, for all its up-to-the-minuteness, carries a whiff of the 17th century, with heresy hunts and denunciations of sin and displays of self-mortification. The atmosphere of mental constriction in progressive milieus, the self-censorship and fear of public shaming, the intolerance of dissent—these are qualities of an illiberal politics.

Almost before the ink was dry—and it was a lot of ink—conservative pundits seized on Packer’s piece as proof of the deadly realities of modern public education. Peggy Noonan called it an “important piece.” Niall Ferguson called it a “brilliant essay” that “gets right to the heart of the degeneration of American education.” Rod Dreher told his readers that they “have to read this” description of the “progressive dystopia of NYC schools.”

noonan on packer tweet

I’m sure there are conservative intellectuals out there who didn’t fall for this obvious fallacy, but plenty of them did. What’s the problem? As Chalkbeat noted, Packer’s conclusions based on one school might or might not be fair, but they don’t represent anything beyond one person’s unique experience. As CB put it,

close observers of the city’s schools have struggled to recognize the school system Packer is describing. . . . the school is by no means typical in New York City.

It has ever been thus. Throughout the twentieth century, as I noted in my book about the history of educational conservatism, activists have seized on unusual, possibly fake examples and assumed that they represent a horrifying new reality of American public education. Over and over again, conservative activists took apocryphal stories from alleged schools and used them to warn one another of the terrible trends that had taken over American education.

In the 1930s, for example, Forbes Magazine founder Bertie Forbes heard from local middle-schoolers that their teacher had denied that America was the most awesome nation on earth. Forbes’s response? He launched a national crusade to purge schools of this terrible subversive rot.

In the 1960s, Texas activists Mel and Norma Gabler were shocked by the contents of their son’s textbook. Their conclusion? According to a sympathetic biographer,

The Gablers . . . began to grasp progressive education’s grand scheme to change America.  They understood why the new history, economics, and social study texts trumpeted Big Brother government, welfarism, and a new socialistic global order, while putting down patriotism, traditional morality, and free enterprise.  Simply stated, Mel and Norma realized that the Humanists in education were seeking to bring about the ‘social realism’ which John Dewey and other ideologues had planned for America.

That’s a lot to learn from one student’s homework assignment one night in 1961!

Or, to consider one last example, what about the experience of Alice Moore in Kanawha County, West Virginia? Ms. Moore ran for school board in the 1970s, and her first move was to visit a local progressive middle school. The school had been conceived as a different sort of school, with one big open learning space, student freedom to pursue independent projects, and teachers who consulted with students instead of dictating to them.

SH Gablers

They’re teaching our children what we ask them to teach…

As Ms. Moore told me many years later, the school became a nightmare. Students weren’t learning. Well, they weren’t learning in class. They were learning how to be rude to adults, how to smoke, and how have sex in nearby barns. What was Ms. Moore’s conclusion? That the school was typical of the problems of American education at the time. It was representative of progressive schools all over the country.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Yes, there have long been experiments with progressive pedagogy and progressive politics in American public education. But they have never really represented the “new” force that conservatives in every generation keep warning about.

In fact, once we venture outside the world of clickbait, we see a much different picture of American public education. Public schools—taken as a group—are remarkably diverse institutions. It’s difficult to say much about public education in general, but there is one thing we know to be true. By and large, public schools in America reflect the communities in which they are located.

Unlike what activists have warned about for generations, there is no scheming outside force taking over public schools. Distant experts are only heard distantly. Instead, public schools tend to reflect the values and the desires of their local communities. And that’s why parents tend to be happy with the schools their kids go to, even if they have learned to be nervous about American public education as a whole.

The poll numbers are clear. In 2010, for example, 77% of parents gave their children’s schools an “A” or a “B,” but only 18% of parents said that about the nation’s schools as a whole. Why? Because unlike George Packer, most parents are in general agreement with the goings-on at their kids’ schools. And unlike the chicken-little hysteria of some conservative commentators, most Americans know that real schools are different from the ones that commentators imagine.

Advertisements

Why Are Conservatives Still Paranoid about Teachers?

In South Dakota, they wouldn’t be able to support “the separation of church and state” or “family farmers and ranchers.” In Virginia, they couldn’t endorse “strong, sustained, shared economic growth.” In Arizona, if a bill became law, teachers wouldn’t be allowed to advocate for

individuals’ freedom to speak their mind, assemble without fear, have access to information, worship as they please, and be treated equally among all people; and to have equal access to a representative democracy and the fair and equitable administration of justice.

Batty, right? Of course it is. But unfounded suspicions about teachers and teacher-training colleges run deep.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Those ed school professors…c. 1949.

A batch of new bills in those states hopes to constrain teachers–in the words of the Virginia resolution–from

Advocat[ing] for any issue that is part of a political party platform at the national, state, or local level.

The platforms of the state Democratic parties of South Dakota and Arizona endorse such radical notions as family farms and freedom of assembly, and the national party platform, which the Virginia state party follows, comes out boldly in favor of economic growth. Now, no one really wants to keep teachers from supporting such mainstream notions.

So why these bills?

All of them are part of today’s conservative political theater surrounding public schools. Like Virginia’s resolution, they proceed from the premise that

many teachers in public elementary and secondary school classrooms are abusing taxpayer resources and abusing their ability to speak to captive audiences of students in an attempt to indoctrinate or influence students to adopt specific political and ideological positions on issues of social and political controversy.

In the eyes of the irate Virginians, the teachers themselves are not the only ones to blame. Teachers have been themselves brainwashed by

some teacher training institutions, teacher licensing agencies, state education agencies, and professional teacher organizations [that] have condoned such attempts to indoctrinate or influence students under the guise of “teaching for social justice” and other sectarian doctrines.

Rumors about radical leftist teachers, trained in subversive ivory towers, have a long and lamentable history. As I argued in The Other School Reformers, conservative activists have always been skeptical of teachers and positively paranoid about teacher-training programs.

In my experience, there is and has long been a grain of truth to these conservative suspicions. Schools like my alma mater really do try to teach teachers to embrace social-justice values. Ed professors like George Counts have long advocated for left-wing teacher activism.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sneaky red teachers, c. 1949.

The kicker, though, is that those efforts have never been as successful as people like me have hoped. Most teachers share the values of their local communities, not the values of their left-leaning education professors. In the limited case of teaching creationism, for example, political scientists Eric Plutzer and Michael Berkman found that teachers tend to teach what their communities want them to teach, because most teachers share those same ideas and values.

So why do conservatives  persist in pushing these impractical bills and resolutions? Partly for the same reason the Arizona Democratic Party supports “comprehensive and rigorous public schools”. It’s about goals, dreams, and intentions. These bills and platforms aren’t about political reality. They are about making a political statement.

I just wish the statements would avoid insulting and suspecting teachers.

The Real Promise of Teachers’ Unions

It’s not that they’ll get everyone to “eat the rich.” It’s not that they will manage to unite all teachers in a progressive political wave that will sweep through America’s 2020 elections. They won’t. Teachers are now and have always been a mixed bag, ideologically. But in today’s divided polis, a group like the unions still has enormous potential for good.

 

Pundits who dream that today’s wave of teacher strikes will bring a progressive millennium are fooling themselves. Anyone familiar with real teachers can tell you: We’re not easy to pin down. Sure, some teachers like me have a deep progressive political streak. But just go to any teachers’ lounge and you will hear a dizzying variety of political opinions.

As I argued in my book about twentieth-century educational conservatism, America’s teachers have ALWAYS been ideologically divided. The popular image of united left-wing teachers has never matched reality. Here are a few snapshots of conservative teachers throughout the years:

1939: One leader of a conservative campaign against left-leaning textbooks, Bertie Forbes, liked to tell a story: He was minding his business as a magazine editor when he was approached by teachers from his local New Jersey school district. These teachers, Forbes liked to recount, begged Forbes to get involved in educational politics. The teachers hated the lefty textbooks and wanted political support to teach old-fashioned patriotism in their local public schools.

1950: As Pasadena, California reeled over alleged progressivism in its classrooms, one teacher took to the editorial pages of the local paper. We teachers, she insisted, are not “in full accord with the tenets of progressive education.” She wanted old-fashioned tradition in the classroom, including corporal punishment. The progressive slop on offer, she wrote, led only to “arrogance, hostility, and defiance, even vandalism.” Teachers like her were on the front line against socialist “Pressure and propaganda” and they wanted the support of the conservative public.

1962: Who led the fight to battle communism? It wasn’t only the conservative American Legion. Throughout the cold war, including in this 1962 mash-up, National Education Association members teamed up with the Legion to purge left-wing propaganda from the nation’s public schools.

anti communist teachers

Find the left-wing teacher in THIS photo:

1974: In Kanawha County, West Virginia, a new set of textbooks sparked violent culture-war protests. One teacher took the opportunity to voice his ideas about proper public education. On December 12, 1974, public-school teacher Karl Priest reminded the National Education Association that its policy was always to combat discrimination. The new textbooks, Priest insisted, were “in fact, anti-Christian.” [Emphasis in original.] Teachers like him, Priest argued, were correct in their conservative fight against such discriminatory claptrap.

These days, too, teachers are hardly politically united. Even those who support today’s strikes cannot be assumed to be unified on any other political issue. Teachers, in other words, won’t become the left-wing vanguard that activists have dreamed of for decades.

But that doesn’t mean that today’s teachers’ unions won’t have a huge impact. As politicians are split more and more toward the far edges, any group that can unite disparate people toward specific goals can serve as a beacon of hope.

coming apart

What if politicians could act more like teachers’ unions?

The promise of the teachers’ unions doesn’t come from the fact that teachers are becoming more politically homogenous. The promise, rather, is that teachers’ unions are able to take action toward important goals in spite of the fact that their constituencies disagree on almost everything else.

Creationism and the Conservative Vision Board

It was the creationism part that first got my attention. Why would a smart, dynamic politician introduce such an old-fashioned creationism bill for public schools, a bill obviously doomed to failure? As I read the rest of the bill, the answer became obvious. And for anti-creationist campaigners, the lesson is clear.

 

 

Indiana State Senator Dennis Kruse has a long record of introducing anti-evolution legislation. Twenty years ago, he began pushing bills that would allow for the teaching of creation science in Indiana’s public schools. When those flopped, he began fighting instead for “academic freedom” for Indiana’s teachers, to allow them to teach a “diverse curriculum.”

This month, however, for some reason Senator Kruse went back to an old-school school bill. Kruse is once again campaigning for schools that include “the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science.”

What gives? Why would a creationist go back to a failed strategy? After all, the inclusion of “creation science” in public schools has been definitively rejected by the Supreme Court. Why would Kruse bother to ask for something (again) when he knows he won’t get it?

The rest of the bill makes the answer painfully obvious. Senator Kruse isn’t really crafting legislation here. He is creating a conservative vision board.

 

Kruse is asking for a range of educational policies that might or might not be possible. He wants all Indiana public and charters schools to post big “In God We Trust” signs, along with a US and Indiana flag. He wants religious electives, including Bible studies. He wants students to be able to earn public-school credit for religion classes. Creationism—even the outdated “creation science”—is only one of the public-school visions on this Indiana board.

Why does it matter? As I’m arguing in my new book about American creationism, we will never really understand creationism if we think of it only as a fight about science curriculum. In most cases, creationism is only one aspect of a wide-ranging conservative attitude about education.

Yet too often, science teachers and science advocacy groups are left all alone in their fight against creationism in public schools, when the fight is not really about science. It is a fight over the proper nature of public education. Should schools be aggressively pluralist, ditching their historical Protestant baggage? Or should they be staunchly traditionalist, teaching children to be patriotic and Christian?

Where’s the Outrage?

I’m not seeing it, and I’m looking. Since the big LA teachers’ strike started yesterday, I assumed conservative commentators would jump all over it. After all, as I’ve argued here and here, teachers’ unions have long been the boogeyman of conservative thinking about schools and society. So why aren’t conservatives mad now?

la teachers strike

Why aren’t more conservative madder?

I checked all the usual suspects. National Review offered only a bland review of the strike news. Even more extreme outlets such as The Blaze and WORLD Magazine just sort of regurgitated the facts. I didn’t see anything about the strike in The American Conservative, Flypaper, or any other of the conservative sites that tend to oppose the power of teachers’ unions.

I had to dig all the way down to Breitbart to find the usual anti-union rhetoric. While the other conservative news outlets are giving the story pretty short shrift, Breitbart is breathlessly warning that

the so-called “grassroots” movement fueling the strike is actually a radical organization spreading socialist “propaganda.”

…and THAT’S the sort of thing we’re used to hearing from conservative pundits about teachers’ unions. Why haven’t other conservatives jumped on the usual anti-union bandwagon? After all, as SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, opposing the power of teachers’ unions has always been a hallmark of American educational conservatism.

Free-marketeers have always hated the stranglehold unions have held over market-based innovation. Anti-socialists have always decried teachers’ unions as bastions of left-wing subversion. Religious conservatives have always worried that union power forced kids to learn about evolution and sex.

So where’s all that outrage now? I’ve got a couple of guesses and I invite corrections.

First guess: It’s on its way. That is, conservatives simply haven’t gotten around yet to their usual anti-union complaints.

Second guess: The strikes last year convinced most people that teachers had a point. Walk-outs in Oklahoma and North Carolina and elsewhere weren’t led by formal unions and most people tend to agree that public schools really should have decent textbooks and classrooms.

Third guess: By and large, the strike wave of 2018 remained focused on bread-and-butter issues, in spite of lefties’ best efforts to impose broader ideological goals on the strike. Unless and until the strikes become broader lefty efforts, maybe conservatives will not find the strikes so offensive.

Fourth guess: Last year’s strikes were mostly in pretty red states. The teachers were not particularly left-wing. If this is true, it means that the new LA strike will take things in a new direction. In other words, I can picture conservative commentators blasting LA teachers in ways they wouldn’t have blasted OK ones. By this estimate, the LA strike will roil culture-war politics in ways last year’s strikes didn’t.

After all, as historians and journalists are pointing out, the LA teachers’ strike has a very different complexion than did last year’s strikes. Prof. Diana D’Amico noted that the urban/suburban racial divide lurks beneath every issue in LA. And Alia Wong argued that the racial makeup of LA’s strikers is notably different than that of Oklahoma’s teachers. Will that make a difference? I can’t see how it won’t. A bunch of Latinx teachers fighting for justice for non-white city students will probably ignite culture-war anger in ways that Oklahoma strikers never could.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Hello 2019! We’re starting strong with a full week of culture-war contention. Here are some of the stories that caught our eye this week:

How evangelicals can embrace evolution, at CT.

Jim Carrey I Dont Care GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

You probably heard Jerry Falwell Jr.’s odd Trumpist speech. What does it mean? One analysis at WaPo:

Like many heretics, Falwell and his fellow evangelical Trump apologists are on their way to founding a new religion, one in direct conflict with the old.

It’s not easy to be an anti-racist evangelical these days. A portrait of non-white activists in The New Yorker.

What are educational conservatives saying these days? A new speaker series hopes to restore the conservative glory days of the 1990s.

Do young-earth creationists have any answer to geocentric critics? RA says…still no.

Inclusive campuses for everyone—even Nazis. At IHE.

fuck nazis

Do Nazis deserve manners?

Stalker or romantic? At KCStar.

Will the USA extradite Fethullah Gulen? At RNS.

Update: anti-porn students find allies, at IHE.

Bad news for Trumpists: China’s Great Wall didn’t keep out invaders, at NG.

Michael Petrilli: School discipline needs to make sense, not just culture-war nonsense. At Flypaper.

Crime and Punishment

I don’t often agree with free-marketeer Michael Petrilli, but this time he’s exactly right. When pragmatic issues such as school discipline become culture-war footballs, students are always the losers. What we need instead are policies that put students first. Alas, the history of educational culture wars makes me pessimistic that we can replace polemics with pragmatics.

Petrilli recently lamented the unhelpful back-and-forth over the issue of school discipline. The Obama administration supported the idea that racial disparities in punishments could be cause for federal intervention. Trump’s administration, in chest-thumping contrast, rejected the notion.

 

As Petrilli rightly noted, schools need something different. They need policies that recognize the cruel injustices of racially loaded punishments while still creating safe schools. Petrilli hoped even

In this age of base politics . . . communities nationwide can reject such cynical approaches and craft school discipline policies that can bring us together rather than drive us apart.

That would be nice, but as I found in my research into the history of educational conservatism, school discipline has always been about more than pragmatic problem solving. Planting a flag for harsher school punishments has always been a hallmark of American conservatism.

Consider the flood of pro-discipline conservative outrage that confronted Pasadena’s superintendent in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The new superintendent, Willard Goslin, became the whipping-boy for a host of perceived problems with “progressive” education. As one furious conservative critic wrote in the local paper in 1949,

But pity the poor teacher!  After all, it is his job to pamper the pupils (in progressive schools), and it is worth his job if he tried any old-fashioned discipline.  Problem children are not only tolerated but pushed right along ‘to get rid of them’—out into society, for others to worry about.

Better-known conservative pundits have also always taken pot-shots at non-traditional ideas of school discipline. Max Rafferty, a nationally syndicated columnist and one-time state superintendent of public education in California, had nothing but scorn and contumely for new-fangled ideas about punishment.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

…he didn’t win.

In one 1964 column, Rafferty lambasted new ideas of school discipline in his typically colorful language. As he put it,

a child usually has neither the maturity nor the judgment to understand the need for self-discipline. Too many instructors, fresh from college and still pretty Dewey-eyed about things, compromise themselves and their careers in a hopeless attempt to convince some freckled-faced [sic] urchin with devilment coming out visibly all over him that he must discipline himself when all he really needs is a session after school with the ruler.

In every decade, in every educational situation, school discipline has always been an us-or-them culture-war issue. Progressives have always lamented the racially loaded and ineffective traditions of whipping and my-way-or-the-highway teaching. Conservatives have always been sure that new-fangled ideas about child-rearing tragically misunderstood real human nature. As Rafferty explained in 1964,

The psychologists had been right in one respect.  Junior certainly had no repressions.  He could have used a few.

What Today’s Educational Conservatives Need to Say Instead

I don’t see any good reason why they would listen to me. But if today’s conservative pundits and intellectuals are really serious about identifying the “future direction of American education,” they need to come to terms with the elephant in the conservatives’ room. At the Fordham Institute and Hoover Institution at least, they seem to be doing the opposite.

This isn’t only a conservative problem. Progressives like me need to be more willing to remind ourselves of the unpopular truths of the progressive tradition, too. We need to be willing to acknowledge the fact that excesses of campus left-wing Puritanism do not come out of nowhere. When smart students feel the need to exhibit their devotion and purity to radical egalitarian ideals, they are simply speaking the logical conclusions of the progressive tradition. At least, it’s ONE logical conclusion.

 

 

And when conservative intellectuals opine about American education, they need to do more to acknowledge their own history. As I argued in my book about the history of American educational conservatism, one idea has been awkwardly ignored and muffled by American conservatives. That hasn’t made it go away. Rather, it has only made it more pressing for conservatives to address it more forthrightly and explicitly.

I’m not surprised to see that they aren’t.

In a series they call “Education 20/20,” the Fordham Institute and Hoover Institution have brought a series of conservative speakers, thinkers, and policy-makers to Washington DC to tell one another what they want to hear.

For example, according to Chester Finn, the kick-off lecture by Heather Mac Donald warned that the real solution to school discipline problems had to come from addressing students’ “lack of self-control.” Speakers such as Ian Rowe told the conservative crowd that the main problem was not race, not class, but rather dysfunctional family structures, “particularly the presence or absence of two married parents.” Other speakers hoped schools could do more to teach traditional values, including

character, emotional well-being, and personal behavior, as well as help in making choices and following up on them.

What’s wrong with all that? Honestly, nothing at all. I think we can all agree that students in school should learn to control their own behavior. We all probably agree that healthy families are absolutely required for healthy schools. And all of us—even progressive history teachers like me that conservatives have always loathed—want to teach children to love America, “warts and all, yes, but also replete with heroes, principles, and triumphs.”

So where’s the beef? Why can’t we all agree on these goals and ideals?

There’s one obvious problem with events like this one. And it is a big one; one that conservatives need to address openly and bravely if they ever want to gain real traction in designing school reform that works. Namely, conservatives need to come to terms with the fact that their ideas have always been used as cover for racist policies.

I’m not accusing any of the speakers here of racism. Unlike some of my allies and colleagues, I don’t believe that conservatives are scheming to cover up their own racism. As I think we all should, I give my conservative friends the benefit of the doubt when they say they really want to heal racism’s ugly legacies, not promote it.

 

As the folks at Fordham Institute and Hoover Institution lament, when conservatives were able to get broad support for their policies, they have scored big successes. In their words,

Twenty years ago, conservative ideas were gaining traction in K–12 education. Charter schools were opening all over the place, vouchers were finally being tried, academic standards were rising, results-based accountability had become the watchword in policy circles, and reformers were taking the idea of “character education” seriously.

Why did charters and vouchers score so big in the 1990s? Because conservative activists were able to make common cause with center-left reformers to pitch them as a real solution for low-income, non-white families.

These days, lambasting non-white students for lacking self-control and non-white families for lacking proper structure is not likely to gain any sympathy outside of conservative circles. Talking about focusing on teaching American “ideals” is likely to be ignored by non-conservatives as mere cover for “Making America Great Again.”

If conservatives really want to get another taste of reform influence, they need to take the brave step and acknowledge the legacy of their own campaigns. Instead of saying “We’re not racist, but…” they need to say “These ideas WERE used by racists, but here’s why they are good anyway.”

Who’s Afraid of Teachers?

It’s not only in the pages of dusty history books nobody reads. As Curmudgucrat Peter Greene wrote recently, the effort to stifle teachers’ political opinions is alive and well. But here’s the question every real teacher keeps wondering: Why are people so worried about teachers?

Here’s what we know: Greene describes a recent bill in Arizona to limit teachers’ ability to talk politics in the classroom. The bill would combat teachers’ alleged aggressive political posturing. What would it do?

Teachers may not endorse, support or oppose any candidate or elected or appointed official. Teachers may not bring up any “controversial issues” not related to the course. . . . Teachers may not advocate for one side of a controversial issue; they must always present both sides.

Greene argues that this bill is not just an Arizona quirk but rather part of a vision to restrain teachers from voicing progressive opinions.

And it won’t come as any surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH that the fear of progressive teachers has a long history in the US of A.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, for example, Harold Rugg of Teachers College Columbia earned the ire of many conservative activists with his progressive textbooks. It wasn’t only Rugg that conservatives worried about. As I noted in my book about conservative educational activism, people like Alfred Falk of the Advertising Federation of America and Homer Chaillaux of the American Legion warned one another that the problem was bigger than any single teacher or textbook. Rather, as Falk told Chaillaux privately in 1939, it was all part of a vast left-wing teacher conspiracy,

a deliberate plan worked up by a well-defined group of left-wingers and educators, collaborating for a number of years on this huge project of reconstructing our society.

In the 1960s, too, conservative activists assumed that teachers were part of a progressive plan to use their classroom authority to push left-wing ideas on unsuspecting youth. The Gablers asked their fellow conservatives some pointed questions about the proper role of teachers. As they put it,

Do educators have the right to use our children as guinea pigs in behavior modification experiments?  Should our children be under the direction of ideologues hostile to Judeo-Christian values and American constitutional liberty?

SH Gablers

Look out kids, it’s a…teacher!

For many conservatives, the notion that teachers are “ideologues” cramming Leninist doctrine down the throats of America’s schoolchildren is a hallowed truth. But why? Why do so many conservatives worry so unnecessarily about teachers’ political activism?

After all, ask any teacher, and they’ll tell you: We worry about far more prosaic issues in our classrooms. We worry if students are learning the material, and if there’s a better way we could present it. We worry that students aren’t understanding things, and if there’s something we could be doing to help.

We worry mostly about our students as people, not as partisans.

Moreover, as every study has shown, teachers do not swoop in from outside to cram politics down students’ throats. For example, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found, when it comes to teaching evolution and creationism, most teachers reflect the majority values of their communities, because most teachers are products of that same community.

So why the worry?

School Dictatorship by Facebook

What do conservatives want out of schools? In Brazil as in the USA, it’s a familiar checklist: communist subversion out, LGBTQ+ stuff out, union power out. In Brazil’s case, the new right-wing president has given conservatives new hope. But unlike in the past, Brazil’s conservatives have a new weapon at their disposal: Facebook.

bolsonaro

Hear no evil…

As reported in The Economist, President Jair Bolsonaro has energized right-wing school dreams in Brazil. We shouldn’t be surprised. Bolsonaro won the election in spite of—or because of—his inflammatory anti-gay statements and nostalgia for the old dictatorship.

When a presidential candidate promises to bring back torture, makes rape jokes, and brags that he would rather see his son dead than gay, it’s not a shocker that his policies move schools in right-wing directions.

In Brazil’s case, that means fighting the influence of Brazil’s most famous educational thinker, Paolo Freire. It also means an attempt to ban what Brazilian conservatives call “gender ideology.” Brazilian conservatives consider the left-wing ideas of Freire to be a blight on Brazil. As one right-wing group put it, Freire’s teachings turned

Innocent illiterate people into illiterate communists.

The plan? Bolsonaro has promised to

Take a flame-thrower to the ministry of education and get Paolo Freire out of there.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, those things are similar to what USA conservatives have wanted in schools for a long time. Conservatives here, too, have fretted about communist subversion, tried to get rid of the “homosexual agenda” in public schools, and threatened to eliminate the Department of Education.

What might be new, though, is the Brazilian strategy to enforce their right-wing changes. As The Economist reports, conservative activists have taken to Facebook to enforce their vision of proper public education. As one conservative teacher told students on Facebook,

“Attention students! . . . many doctrinaire teachers will be disconcerted or revolted” by Bolsonaro’s victory. “Film or record all partisan manifestations that . . . offend your freedom of thought or conscience.”

Bolsonaro’s Facebook page apparently includes video clips of left-wing teachers in action, including one in which a teacher shouts at a student,

I fought for democracy and you’re here talking about that piece of crap Bolsonaro.

Or another in which a teacher warned students not to listen to

idiotic police officers or your lowlife pastor.

The plan, clearly, is to shine a right-wing social-media spotlight on teachers. If they endorse rights for LGBTQ people, they can be “outed” for it. If they teach a sympathetic vision of socialism, everyone will know about it. If they teach anti-Bolsonaro ideas–the thinking goes–then right-wingers can target them. In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, at least, conservatives hope that Facebook can offer a new way to pressure teachers and schools to conform to their vision of proper public education.

Will it work? So far, some teachers have reported being threatened and disciplined for their anti-Bolsonaro or pro-LGBTQ classroom comments. Back in the twentieth century, USA conservatives tended to fight against textbooks instead of individual teachers, because they usually couldn’t find out much about what classroom teachers were actually doing on a day-to-day basis.

I wonder if Facebook will allow conservatives to take their fight right to the teachers themselves.