Following George Floyd’s murder last year, my principal emailed parents with suggested readings to help students understand the protests sweeping the nation. Teachers were given the green light — if we felt comfortable — to discuss the events in class. Parents in our purple suburb seemed to appreciate this modest effort, but someone who didn’t alerted a right-wing media personality, who made the innocuous email his outrage de nuit.
America’s K-12 schools, like the high school I teach in, are no hubs of radical indoctrination, though right-leaning newsertainment might convince you otherwise.
America’s K-12 schools, like the high school I teach in, are no hubs of radical indoctrination, though right-leaning newsertainment might convince you otherwise. Fox News headlines suggest schoolchildren are busy learning how to concoct rhetorical Molotov cocktails from a cadre of Marxists: “Teachers, unions and education officials push ‘woke,’ leftist policies in schools,” “Ingraham: Schools want ‘complete and total control’ with American taxpayer-funded ‘fiefdoms of radicalism.’”
Now a rash of legislation in mostly red states seeks to restrict instruction and curriculum around “divisive concepts” through laws largely meant to curtail teaching about systemic racism. If that doesn’t read as chilling, it should. Put another way, politicians are dictating how the public learns about history —and the history those politicians are making. Some of the bills, like the one Gov. Greg Abbott just signed in Texas, place restrictions on current events instruction that teachers recognize as potentially paralyzing.
This legislative movement received a big push from the demonization of the New York Times’ 1619 Project and from Trump’s short-lived 1776 Commission. But it has its roots in decades of conservative accusations of liberal bias in the teaching ranks. Yes, teachers are more liberal than the nation at large, but not dramatically. A 2017 Education Week survey found 41 percent self-identified as Democrats, higher than the 33 percent of registered voters polled by Pew around the same time. Just as many teachers as voters overall were Republicans.
And that doesn’t take into account how hard many teachers work to keep their politics out of the classroom. For many, this is a pride point; they want to produce independent thinkers, not clones. For others, it’s fear; they want to avoid complaints from parents, reprisals from administrators, or swarming by trolls.
That’s not to say teachers always succeed in remaining apolitical — or that it’s even possible.
Teachers I interviewed for my book “Schooled” see their mission as developing skills and delivering content but also helping shape future adults; some envision their grown students as empowered citizens or global innovators, others as family-focused traditionalists. Because education is value-driven, the profession is inescapably political. Some teachers definitely embrace this by updating curriculum to reflect the concerns of their students and the nation. Today, as ever, these often involve issues of race and gender.
But the profession is hardly a leftist cabal.
Strangers on social media occasionally accuse me of indoctrinating my students, and I sadly laugh. I’m a terrible indoctrinator. People who presume I wield my liberal politics in the classroom like a medieval weapon might be surprised by how barely they could detect its influence there. I rant on Twitter with like-minded adults, but put me in front of teenagers, and I will both-sides an issue to its end. In trying not to be controversial when addressing controversies, I am more rule than exception.
Evidence abounds that educators tend to avoid rather than dive into politically hot topics. Such hesitancy has consequences. For example, this reticence, coupled with the politicized micromanaging of curriculum at state and local levels, has had a clear and negative impact on the sciences. The National Center for Science Education found a third “of high school biology teachers fail to unequivocally acknowledge the scientific consensus on evolution” and while 70 percent of secondary science teachers agree climate change is human-made, only 30 percent highlight this scientific consensus to students. Indeed, teachers have lagged rather than led public opinion on progressive issues. An NPR/Ipsos survey, for example, showed parents are more eager for their children to learn about climate change than teachers are to teach it.
Today’s “divisive concepts” legislation focuses on history, though it will affect other subjects, especially literature and language. Here, accusations of liberal indoctrination rely on anecdotes. The legislator responsible for Ohio’s bill, when pressed, could not even come up with one. Instead, he essentially admitted the bill was responding not to the reality in schools but to “concerns,” that is, the unsubstantiated fears the bill both gives credence to and stokes.
Other recent scholarship also suggests teachers are not using current events to initiate militant leftists. A 2020 study that examined how social studies teachers evaluate news concluded that left-leaning ones “may describe, frame, and present a much wider set of sources as credible in their classrooms than their conservative peers.”
Healthy debate and essential education will be stunted by “divisive concepts” legislation. While political pressure has long silenced teachers, these laws and the likely further silencing they will produce is especially dangerous in a time when the very fact of a violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol is disputed and deemed political. Today, shutting down speech on “divisive concepts” means shutting down discussion of our democracy — and the grave threats to it among the young people we will rely on to preserve it.