Widely Debated and Currently Controversial

In the state of Texas, a new law took effect on September 1, limiting what public social studies teachers can teach. The bill passed in the state legislature on an almost perfect party-line vote.

Among other things, the law, House Bill 3979, mandates that in required courses,

a teacher who chooses to discuss [a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs] shall, to the best of the teacher’s ability, strive to explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.

Today, NBC News has reported on the effect this law is having in the Dallas/Forth Worth suburb of Southlake, where the school district is already embroiled in a political battle over racism. The district’s curriculum director was recently recorded (surreptitiously) during a training session with teachers, acknowledging their fears about the law. She told them,

We are in the middle of a political mess. And you are in the middle of a political mess. And so we just have to do the best that we can. … You are professionals. … So if you think the book is O.K., then let’s go with it. And whatever happens, we will fight it together.

But she added, giving an example of a potential conflict,

As you go through, just try to remember the concepts of [H.B.] 3979, and make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has an opposing—that has other perspectives.

Teachers heard on the recording reacted with shocked disbelief, speculating that this directive would apply to a book like Number the Stars, a widely taught historical novel about a Jewish family in Nazi-occupied Denmark.

She said, “Believe me, that’s come up.”


EDIT: On social media, many people have been attacking the administrator for supposedly suggesting it could be legitimate to present students with “opposing” sides on the Holocaust. I think they probably have misinterpreted what happened here.

Southlake has been at the center of a very public controversy over racism at its high school. That is presumably why NBC News was provided with this audio recording in the first place; NBC has been covering this situation in depth. In this context, Southlake school district is likely to have been targeted by far-right extremists; that’s how the world often works today.

In the audio released by NBC, the curriculum director is heard clearly indicating that she finds H.B. 3979 outrageous, committing herself to support teachers when they choose to teach controversial books. But she also provides teachers with strategic advice for protecting themselves against the law.

Because the text of H.B. 3979 does not discriminate against far-right extremist ideas.

In my reading, it is significant that the curriculum director corrected herself when she started to talk about supplementing the curriculum with “a book that has … an opposing” perspective on the Holocaust, switching to “a book … that has other perspectives” on the Holocaust.

Remember the actual language of H.B. 3979: When a teacher discusses a controversial social studies topic, they must “explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.” Given that language, teachers targeted by extremists would be providing themselves with legal cover for teaching the Holocaust truthfully if they could find “diverse and contending perspectives”—which could mean a lot of things other than Holocaust denial or approval—to include in the discussion.

And given Southlake’s recent history in the public eye, I’m inclined to believe the curriculum director, at least in a general way, when she says this issue has “come up” already.

I certainly hope that any court would rule that the Holocaust does not qualify as a “widely debated” topic. (“Currently controversial,” unfortunately, would include, by definition, virtually anything that resulted in a teacher being targeted.) But teachers and school districts do not have infinite resources for going through the process of finding out how courts will rule when they interpret bad laws.


A second EDIT to add: It is also worth understanding the internal dynamics of Southlake’s school district, to the extent they are publicly known.

The Dallas Morning News and the Forth Worth Star-Telegram report that a fourth-grade teacher there—a Carroll ISD 2020 “teacher of the year,” in fact—was recently the target of political harassment for having in her classroom a book called This Book Is Anti-Racist. The politicians on the school board—including two who had received donations from the parents’ PAC who complained—voted to reprimand the teacher for doing her job. In making this decision, the politicians were overruling the school administration, who had investigated the complaints and had cleared the teacher of wrongdoing.

In an environment like this, for anyone to attack a school administrator for trying to protect teachers against political harassment, as the curriculum director in the most recent controversy did, is to compound the chilling effects of Texas law, making it more dangerous to be a history teacher in Texas, not less.

“Why Wasn’t I Thinking?”

In America, a Jesuit magazine, a recent college graduate reflects on how his years at a religious university changed him.

By his own account, Elisha Valladares-Cormier arrived at college as a conservative Catholic culture warrior. And his school, Franciscan University of Steubenville, has a reputation among American Catholics as a very conservative institution. He entered college during the 2016 election, a divisive moment for U.S. Catholics.

Looking back, he writes:

The skeletons in my closet pop up when I least expect them to. I am reminded of them when Facebook tells me that five years ago, I shared a meme from a conservative page essentially using the Boston Marathon bombers’ refugee status as a rationale for stopping all refugees from entering the country. Other links I shared include headlines beginning with ‘Liberals Lose Their MINDS When…’ followed by examples of what today would be referred to as ‘Karen’-type behavior.

I am only 22, but I cannot pin exactly what led me to share these posts, full of exaggeration, hyperbole and more. I was at that know-it-all age most teenagers land in, where the best argument is a ‘gotcha’ one. But looking back, what frustrates me the most is the intellectual dishonesty of some of these posts.

What was I thinking? Perhaps I should be asking, why wasn’t I thinking? These were complex issues, but the world around me had taught me to view these issues through binary, partisan lenses. …

I did not come out of Franciscan University less conservative or more liberal, or vice versa. Instead, I was pushed to consider new perspectives, to question positions I previously held, to take a Christocentric view of the world even though I might not feel at home with any major party.

—Elisha Valladares-Cormier, “I started school at Steubenville as a conservative culture warrior—and came out the other side more Catholic”

Experience tells me that we shouldn’t assume any new college graduate’s current views will remain static. As a thoughtful person with a university education, Valladares-Cormier is likely to continue evolving in unpredictable ways. This may well lead him to new forms of partisanship, to a fundamental change in political or religious views, or perhaps to complete disillusionment with the position he now holds. (Then again, he may turn out to have changed very little thirty years from now.)

What I think is useful about this essay is that it presents us with a snapshot of a young student who recently has experienced a higher education as transformative—and intellectually liberating and generous—in unexpected ways.

Versions of this story (mutatis mutandis) are very common among university students and graduates who came to college anticipating, or trying to engineer, a specific intellectual outcome. You’ll hear stories like this from students at all kinds of universities and colleges, including schools with reputations for producing belligerent partisans and culture warriors.

This is what gets lost in much of the storm and stress of American political debates about higher education. In all the nonsense about students’ supposed brainwashing and indoctrination* at the hands of professors, we rarely hear about the downright ubiquitous experiences of students—of all kinds—for whom college, sometimes in unexpected ways, lives up to its mission of intellectual liberation.

_______________

* Ironically, of course, in this case, indoctrination would be a quite literally correct description of what Valladeres-Cormier says he sought and received from his Catholic professors. It just turned out not to mean what he expected.

Image: Steubenville, Ohio, 2007. Photograph by Mike Sharp via Wikimedia Commons. Used under CC BY-SA 4.0.

‘Demics, Two Weeks Later

Since I last wrote, a lot has changed, and a lot has become more clear.

First, virtually all of my friends working in schools and colleges are teaching remotely for the rest of the spring. It seems clear now that American higher education, as a whole, acted with admirable foresight in closing our campuses before public authorities recommended it, and indeed, in acting far more aggressively to protect our communities than officials advised at the time.

In fact, here in the United States, the federal response to this crisis has been disgraceful. Key politicians, including the president of the United States, have persisted in spreading blatant disinformation and delaying critical action for the sake of their own political benefit, endangering millions of extra lives and tens of millions of livelihoods. Theoretically apolitical federal agencies, notably the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have also failed dramatically. The CDC was caught unprepared for the pandemic despite weeks or even months of specific advance warnings. Its recommendations for educational institutions, until recently, appear to have been entirely wrongheaded, being based on a presumption of widespread testing of affected individuals and communities—testing that we all already knew wasn’t happening anywhere in the United States.

A largely preventable disaster is unfolding. It appears that many American leaders are determined to let the very worst happen. On the other hand, many state and local officials are rising to the occasion, and so are countless millions of ordinary people.

My students and I are scheduled to reconvene next week after an extra-long spring break and spend the rest of the semester working online. So far, my students appear to be rising to the occasion. I am moved by the sacrifices they have already made, and I’m determined not to waste their time or money as we complete our tasks.

I don’t know what the future holds. I do assume that some people I know will die in the next year. I also strongly suspect that the pandemic, which is likely to cause a global economic depression, will end my teaching career in higher education, which was always tenuous. But those are problems to address when they arise.

 

Humanities Education’s Limits

One-room schoolhouse with flagpole, Seward County, Nebraska, 1938

I’ve seen this thought expressed a lot in the United States recently:

I shouldn’t speak for the author of that tweet, but typically (and in view of last night’s news) “this” would refer to some combination of political chaos, success by demagogues, bigotry and racism, and maybe voter apathy. (I’m guessing the author does not identify with the current president, in any case.)

In other words: Humanities education keeps democracy healthy. Conversely, poor funding and inadequate emphasis on humanities education contributed to the current lamentable state of political affairs in America.

As much as I share the goal of increasing public funding and support for humanities education―and I really, really do―and as much as I believe that humanities education does have a critical role to play in the health of a democracy, I’m skeptical of this causal claim. It may not be entirely wrong, but it’s far too simple.

It reminds me too much of other declension narratives about the American education system, from globalization-inspired stories about American children “falling behind” other children in the 1990s to the notion that Supreme Court decisions about school prayer and Bible-reading led to rising crime in the 1960s. Our schools absorb a lot of anxiety about the future of American society, and perhaps that is inevitable. But we should remember that the education system is only part of the institutional environment we live in.

(Also, on average, I suspect that the voters who strike Rebecca Makkai as the most easily manipulated didn’t get their formal education in the last twenty years.)

What larger institutional environment should we consider in this case?

First, more important than formal humanities education, or at least more pervasive in eligible voters’ thinking, are the cultural master narratives that different subcultures embrace. In our time, various groups of voters and nonvoters tend to envision American history—and calculate its urgency—very differently from each other. They also imagine that critical thinking and reading will lead to very different sets of conclusions about the aims of human life.

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