Educational Freedom and the Forever War

I was in high school, preparing for college, when the U.S. government declared a “global war on terror[ism].” President George W. Bush described this as a “war to save civilization itself” from intolerance. Unlike terrorists, he said in November 2001, “we value education” and “the right to speak our minds,” and “we respect people of all faiths and welcome the free practice of religion.”

How has that worked out, from the vantage point of life inside the United States? Has “terror” been eradicated here in the “homeland,” more than twenty years (and $8 trillion) after that war began? Have we saved education, free expression, and the peaceful coexistence of all faiths?

Let’s talk about that from the perspective of American educators and students. Let’s talk about the experience of a generation growing up under the threat of school shootings and similar attacks on other public places, which are the face of terror in their time.

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My Theme for Spring: Simplicity

This photograph is from a year ago.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit America in early 2020, teachers here have spent each academic term trying to catch up to an evolving disaster. That is, we have carefully planned every term based on what happened during the previous term, only to encounter new problems. Sometimes the new problems resulted from our (necessary) attempts to mitigate the old ones, which is especially annoying.

During these years, every topic that pundits and armchair pundits have treated as the issue confronting American education—remote learning! mask mandates! vaccine mandates! ableism! flexibility! testing! kindness! learning loss! self-censorship!—has turned out to be just one more dimension of a much larger problem, and that problem is that pandemics suck.

Peering into the future, I’m certain of only one thing: We’re going to be dealing with the pandemic’s fallout for years, and it’s a problem much bigger than any teacher’s or institution’s choices, however good or bad those choices may be.

Anyway, here’s my current attempt to fight last semester’s battles: I’m trying to help minimize student anxiety by simplifying my courses, especially at the outset.

For classes that meet in person this spring, I’m getting back to basics with the most predictable weekly schedule I can arrange. I’m drawing up each course calendar in the form of a checklist to maximize transparency and encourage students to track their progress. I’m assuming that class time will mostly be spent on really basic concepts. And I’m stripping down my syllabus, grounding every design choice in the need to make it less intimidating.

To some extent, this is taking me back to my earliest days as an instructor, when I was much more anxious in the classroom. But now simplicity is about helping students in crisis find their footing.

I can’t wait to find out how completely this, too, ends up missing the mark.