Commentary: Education without agendas

The conflict about what to teach in our public schools pits parents on one side and “education professionals” (the euphemism for teachers’ unions) on the other, with local school boards often caught in the middle, pushed about on a daily basis by the latter but beholden come election time to the former.

The parents tend to be on the conservative side of things, as parenthood tends to cause, while the teachers’ unions, as perhaps the most powerful lobby group in the Democratic Party (and certainly within the Biden administration), tend to be firmly planted on the left, increasingly the radical “woke” variant thereof.

It is a battle in which the unions and their allies in state and federal education bureaucracies have all of the institutional advantages (including congenial media coverage), but the parents have the numbers and, ultimately, more skin in the game because it is the welfare of their children that is at stake.

If it has accomplished nothing else, two-plus years of pandemic should have disabused even the most naïve among us of the belief the education of students is the primary interest of teachers’ unions. To the contrary, as with all other forms of unionization, and quite properly in that regard, it is almost entirely self-interest. (Along these lines, one is always reminded of former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm’s response when told by a condescending educator that she cared just as much about his children as he did: “OK. What are their names?”)

Parents win this battle, if sufficiently mobilized, because it is parents who disproportionately vote in school board elections (and others) and because it would seem a peculiar conception of democracy to envision anything with the term “public” preceding it (as in “public schools”) proceeding without input from the actual public.

That politicians are increasingly responding to angry parents when it comes to a public good as important as education isn’t a threat to democracy but precisely how things should work in one.

Even if conceding, however, state legislatures, governors and local school boards (and thus voters) should have final say over public schools and their curricula, the urge to “ban” or “prohibit” the teaching of certain controversial material in those schools should probably be resisted because it is too easily caricatured and likely to backfire.

As many have noted, bans usually make that which is banned more appealing and thus coveted, and ham-handed blanket prohibitions on teaching this or that can have the same “chilling effect” as other forms of censorship. Perhaps the last thing we want, in that regard, is for teachers to be afraid to touch an ever-expanding array of subjects for fear of losing their jobs or even running afoul of the law.

Education is seldom enhanced by suppressing information and narrowing the number of subjects that can be covered and the range of views that can be expressed. Our society already has far too many things we can’t openly and honestly talk about.

No, the solution isn’t to ban or prohibit but to encourage the kind of open debate which allows us to pursue the enemy of censorship and the ultimate goal of all real education, which is truth.

Instead of banning certain material or texts or ideas, there is an alternative, and that alternative is to make sure alternatives are presented.

So by all means allow some of the less toxic critical race theory- related material into the appropriate courses at the appropriate grades (high schools, presumably). Go ahead and teach Ibram X. Kendi, Te-Nehisi Coates and Robin DiAngelo.

But also teach John McWhorter and Thomas Sowell and Glenn Loury and other critics of CRT and “anti-racism” ideology as well.

And if you assign the New York Times’ 1619 Project, make sure you assign the critiques from prominent historians like Gordon S. Wood and Sean Wilentz and alternative interpretations like Robert Woodson’s 1776 Unites (which would have the additional salutary effect of illustrating the distinction between real historical scholarship and cherry-picked narratives driven purely by ideology).

In other words, make sure all sides are presented so that students can decide for themselves in a process of education rather than indoctrination.

The most effective means of countering the woke ideologues who have taken control of so much of public education is not to limit what teachers can teach, which wouldn’t work anyway, but find means of ensuring that they teach all relevant sides and perspectives (granted, easier said than done).

No one familiar with the columns I have written over the years would mistake me for a radical leftist, but when I teach my course on “Modern Russia” I make every effort to present Marxist theory as fairly as possible, to the point of giving the old grouch the benefit of the doubt whenever I can.

Some years back, in an effort to assess whether I was accomplishing that task (presenting competing theories and arguments in an objective manner), at the end of the course I asked the students to describe my political views.

Much to my surprise, by a three to one margin, they said “communist.”

So maybe I was trying a bit too hard on the “fairness” thing?

Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, Arkansas, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

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