Several weeks ago, President Trump announced his plans for a patriotic education commission, dubbed the 1776 Commission. He simultaneously criticized teachers for indoctrinating students and urged them to focus on America’s strengths; the president has confused indoctrination and education. Picking and choosing what history to emphasize or highlight based on how it makes the nation look or feel is indoctrination. It feeds a single narrative, an incomplete story. For the president and his supporters, they believe this approach to education will remove politics from the classroom. But, good teaching is political. Society should take note.
Currently, I’m teaching about Reconstruction, that pesky time period following the Civil War. It’s an awesome moment in American history where we tackled big systemic issues. We ended slavery with the 13th amendment; states were forced to respect the rights of their citizens under the 14th amendment; black men won the franchise with the 15th amendment. It was the best of America to admit fault and grow. This account of Reconstruction is indoctrination, and it’s irresponsible to leave Reconstruction there.
While being a truly revolutionary moment, Reconstruction wasn’t perfect. In many ways, it was a colossal failure and letdown. By focusing only on the good things that were accomplished following the Civil War, it erases and excuses the trends that define the next 100 years of history. Because during Reconstruction we also saw former confederates unite to found the Ku Klux Klan and fight to return to the halls of Congress as well as implement sharecropping as a replacement for slavery. Ignoring this part of the story is indoctrination.
What’s the point? Who cares?
Well, when a student perks up following the first presidential debate to say, “Mr. Sutton, he didn’t condemn white supremacists,” if teachers follow President Trump’s directives about patriotic teaching and indoctrination, they are in a pickle. Defending the president’s inability to condemn white supremacy is to be complicit in indoctrination since it promotes a narrative that white supremacy either didn’t exist or wasn’t that bad. Criticizing his waffling highlights the American stain of racist violence and injustice. Either way, teachers are left in violation of President Trump’s directives on teaching.
Politics is about how we organize our society. It’s about the values we as a community share and the decisions we must make to live as one. The thing teachers do really well is politics. Click To Tweet
More than anything, the 1776 Commission seems interested in this notion of apolitical teaching, this notion that the classroom should be devoid of politics. It’s a quaint but false premise. Politics is about how we organize our society. It’s about the values we as a community share and the decisions we must make to live as one. The thing teachers do really well is politics. They build communities with rules and structures. There are goals, and there are failures. Changes have to be made. There are occasional exceptions and flexibility coupled with moments of unbending discipline. Members of the community ebb and flow between happiness and despondence. All of this is managed and guided by the teacher as part of a community. It’s politics in motion.
Society’s problems aren’t about removing politics from the classroom. It’s about society’s inability to embrace the politics of the classroom.
For example, when it comes to condemning white supremacy, society is divided. Good teachers are not. White supremacy is not permitted, excused, coddled, or embraced in their classrooms. It’s a consciously political choice in how their community is managed. They reject a political ideology, a way society is organized. The classroom community cannot function when students are placed in unjust hierarchies. It stunts the growth of the community and the individuals residing in that community. It’s not a controversial stance for governing a classroom, but it is political.
What the president has done by attacking indoctrination and romanticizing learning in the name of being apolitical is to make his politics the politics of classrooms. He is being coy to say otherwise. His answer to complex issues facing our society is built on uniformity and an overly simplistic view of teaching and learning.
Teachers see through this vision of politics. Classrooms, like all communities, consist of a diverse array of ideas and backgrounds. To get the most out of all members in the classroom, teachers know they can’t build a system that denigrates the existence or experience of others. They have to design mechanisms that embrace these divisions so that everyone can coexist together.
The only chance our politics have is to adopt the politics of teaching.
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