Avoiding Divisive Concepts in Our Schools

This is so easy to snicker at and dismiss. It is ridiculous on its face. And that is why it is so dangerous. Let’s think about it. And so we will have something concrete to think about, let’s consider Florida’s Senate Bill 148. In Oregon, a bill will ordinarily have a section that says “This bill may be referred to as the _ Act.” Senate Bill 148 doesn’t give us that, which, I have to say, is tempting.

Here is Paul Krugman’s characterization of it.

I use that last word advisedly: There’s a bill advancing in the Florida Senate declaring that an individual “should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.” That is, the criterion for what can be taught isn’t “Is it true? Is it supported by the scholarly consensus?” but rather “Does it make certain constituencies uncomfortable?”

Paul Krugman, New York Times, January 24, 2022

But the bill does some interesting things that I think are worth examining. One is that it de-professionalizes educators. If the question at issue is not “is this supported by the scholarly consensus?” as Krugman puts it, but “is anyone offended?” then everything is changed. The students know whether they are offended. The parents know whether the student is offended. Professional accuracy is no longer a defense. Legions of “offended parents” go straight to the school board demanding the head of the offending teacher on a pike because he or she has taught a “divisive concept.”

That’s one change. What was once an inquiry by the institution about whether the teachers had maintained professional standards, is now a witch hunt conducted from the outside against a professional. If you think of the educator as part of the knowledge economy—the brain part of the work force—then all the advantages in this conflict go to the aroused parents who may very well not be part of the knowledge economy and may have a grievance against those who are. This is just another skirmish between the managerial part of the work force and the blue collar part of the workforce. It’s a familiar conflict in electoral politics, but this extends it to schools.

Is this really possible? Let’s look at two paragraphs of Senate Bill 148. I have put in bold font the heart of this wordy paragraph.

The bill specifies that subjecting any individual, as a condition of employment, membership, certification, licensing, credentialing, or passing an examination, to training, instruction, or any other required activity that espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels such individual to believe certain specified divisive concepts constitutes unlawful discrimination.

Is the age of certain rocks a divisive concept such that requiring an individual to “believe” it is unlawful discrimination? As the teacher, do I compel you to believe it when I ask you on a test what the scholarly consensus is about those rocks? When the question of “belief” is taken out of this sentence, it says that any answer is as good as any other. Find one answer to be acceptable and another not is “unlawful discrimination.”

Here is the second paragraph I had in mind from Senate Bill 148

The bill defines individual freedoms based on the fundamental truth that all individuals are equal before the law and have inalienable rights. Accordingly, the bill requires that instruction, instructional materials, and professional development in public schools be consistent with principles of individual freedom.

The previous paragraph appeared to be about curriculum. This one appears to encompass instruction as well. Instruction will be consistent with principles of individual freedom. Individual freedom to what? Am I free, let’s say, to hold that transitive verbs really don’t have to have an object? Against what notions might I appeal on the basis of my individual freedom?

So as I say, within the context of education, it sounds like silliness. But what it really does is to substitute ideological politics for professional consensus when the two conflict. At the best, it turns the schools into a war zone. At the worst, into a slaughterhouse.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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