Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

The ideological minefield

A couple of days ago, I received an email through my author website that started out, "Are you by any chance the Gordon Bonnet who taught science at Finn Hill Junior High in 1987?"

It turned out that it was indeed from a former student of mine, from the very first year of my teaching career, who (alarmingly!) just turned fifty years old.  When I confirmed that I was the guy, he sent me a heartwarming response about how he had made a career working for the National Parks Service as a wilderness educator, and that his love of nature had in no small part been due to my being his teacher when he was in ninth grade.

This sort of thing is why teachers do what they do.  I can say from my own experience that three teachers -- my high school biology and creative writing teachers, and my college calculus professor -- changed my life in hugely positive ways.  But the glow of receiving that email from my former student was dimmed somewhat by the knowledge that if I were in college right now, I would never -- not in a million years -- choose teaching as a profession, and that's after a 32-year career that, all in all, was pleasant and successful.  Not only would I not recommend the profession to anyone, I would counsel current teachers to keep their options open about finding other ways to use their talents to make a living.

[Image is in the Public Domain, courtesy of Michael Anderson (Photographer), Children in a classroom]

The reason is that public education has been turned into an ideological minefield by self-serving demagogues, through the cold, calculated characterization of schools as supposed "hotbeds of indoctrination."  The far right has taken steps -- thus far, scarily successful ones -- to muzzle teachers, stifle their creativity, and prevent them from doing the job they were hired to do with any degree of autonomy.  

This is not a new trend.  I still remember when the New York State Department of Education launched the infamous "Common Core," twelve years ago or so, with the aim of trying to create a curriculum that guaranteed all students receive a certain standard set of information and skills.  While few would argue with that aim as an ideal, the implementation was not only chaotic, it attempted to solve the "standard curriculum" issue by forcing teachers into lockstep -- handing them scripts, each with a certain number of minutes they were to devote to particular topics.  It never went any further than English and math; fortunately for me, by the time they got to science, a lot of the momentum had fizzled, and what they gave us was nothing more than a weakly-revamped version of what we already had.

It's a good thing.  When I saw what was happening in English and math, I said -- in the middle of a faculty meeting -- "the day New York State hands me a script and expects me not to deviate from it will be my last day on the job."

You go through years of training, then undergo a rigorous vetting process wherein you have to demonstrate how creative and competent and knowledgeable you are, and then the b-b stackers in the Department of Education hand you a script to read.  It's maddening... and deeply insulting.

Since that time, it's only gotten worse.  The obvious example is the state of Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis has forced teachers to dismantle or make inaccessible their classroom libraries until each book can be approved by a media specialist.  The ostensible reason is to make sure they're classroom-appropriate -- not only at the correct reading level, but that they don't have material unsuitable for the age of the student.  Just as with the Common Core, the stated goal sounds laudable enough.  Nobody's arguing for students having age-inappropriate material.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist, however, to figure out that this isn't actually about reading level.  From DeSantis's previous commitment to "anti-wokeness" there's little doubt that the whole thing is a smokescreen for what is largely an ideological move.  What likelihood do you think there is of the state-hired "media specialists" approving a book that displays LGBTQ characters in a positive light?  Or presents a realistic picture of what life was and is like for minorities, especially after his recent (successful) demand that Florida schools drop an AP African American Studies course?

The situation in Florida is that a teacher having copies of Knots on a Counting Rope (about growing up Native American) or The List of Things That Will Not Change (about a child being raised by two dads) available for students would be risking prosecution.  (Yes, both of those have already been banned in Florida schools -- along with 174 others, including the biographies of Rosa Parks, Sonia Sotomayor, Jim Thorpe, Roberto Clemente, Harvey Milk, and Jackie Robinson.  Don't even try to tell me this isn't about ideology.)

Then, a disingenuous CNN story yesterday feigned shock over the fact that in many places in the United States, there's been such a massive exodus of teachers that some schools are finding it hard to keep their doors open.  Gee whiz, I wonder why that could be?  In fact, in Florida they've recently created a "new pathway" for teaching positions to be filled by individuals who don't even have a bachelor's degree in the subject they're teaching.  The Florida Department of Education (speaking of disingenuous) not only claims this has nothing to do with the governor's anti-teacher campaign, but denies there's a teacher shortage at all.   "The purpose of this new pathway," a spokesperson said, "was to value the unique experience military service provides while simply offering additional time for these veterans to obtain a bachelor’s degree and other requirements to receive a full professional educator certification."

I'm calling bullshit on this.  Many candidates with excellent credentials are avoiding going into education, and who can blame them?  What highly-qualified individuals in their right mind would want to step into a position where they're devalued and harassed, robbed of autonomy, paid like crap, subjected to arbitrary decisions by policymakers who have never spent ten seconds in front of a group of students, and then threatened with prosecution for addressing the diversity in their own classrooms and presenting history that isn't blatantly whitewashed?  For me -- and again, I say this as a retired career educator who, by and large, had a great run -- it's a case of, "Turn and run.  Fast."

It's blatantly obvious where this is going; if you hobble educators to the point that teachers resign and public schools close, the only options for parents will be private, for-pay schools (including religious ones) where administrators have free rein to promote whatever kind of worldview they choose.  This, of course, has been the goal of the far right for as long as I can recall.  The idea of an egalitarian, even-handed public school system, where there is a set of brakes on ideologically-biased curricula, has been under fierce attack for decades.  (And it bears mention that far from being the alleged hotbeds of indoctrination the far right claims, in my thirty-plus of teaching, I only met two teachers -- one right-wing, the other left -- who honestly spent time trying to shift their students' political leanings.  Neither one, I might add, was particularly successful.  The rest of us teachers were too busy trying to get our students to reach a level of competence in our subjects to spend our time preaching politics.)

It breaks my heart to write this, but it has to be said, and said loudly.  What Ron DeSantis and others are engaging in is the classic technique of accusing the opposition of what they themselves are doing.  In this case, creating classrooms that promote a specific ideology, that turn what used to be a creative, rewarding profession into something intended to produce lockstep automata -- both the teachers and the students.

And unless things change, fast, my advice to any prospective teachers is to find some other way to help improve the world.  Because right now, the system is set up to destroy the very reasons most of us were drawn to education in the first place.


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