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“There Is No Apolitical Classroom”

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eye on the news

“There Is No Apolitical Classroom”

The culture war could be headed for public schools—whether parents like it or not. June 19, 2020
Education
The Social Order
Politics and law

School will be a very different place next year. Classes will be less full. Desks will be rigorously sterilized. And, if the education establishment has its way, teachers will be aggressively “woke.”

“We are living at a time of obscene inequities and merely trying to compensate is not enough,” the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) recently announced. “Equity is more than making things more accessible and AASA’s work on equity must go further and become actively anti-racist. . . . Leading a system-wide effort requires that we ensure that cultural responsiveness permeates all levels of the district.”

For many parents, this might sound like an unobjectionable appeal to moral progress in the wake of a tragic injustice. But they could be surprised when they realize what antiracist, culturally responsive classrooms will look like. Antiracism sounds simple: treat everyone the same, like a version of the Golden Rule. But the Chicago Public School district headlined its recently released “toolkit to help foster productive conversations about race and civil disobedience” with an epigraph by Angela Davis, the former Communist and criminal fugitive who supplied the guns used in the Marin Courthouse massacre in 1970. “In a racist society, it is not enough to not be non-racist,” said Davis. “We must be anti-racist.” The toolkit provides links to materials written by the Southern Poverty Law Center and directs teachers toward Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist.

Education Week’s “Classroom Q&A” blog tells teachers that “As Dr. Ibram X. Kendi would say, there is no ‘not racist.’ There is only racist and anti-racist. Your silence favors the status quo and the violently oppressive harm it does to black and brown folk everywhere.” Antiracism, in the current formulation, does not mean equal treatment of others; it is an all-encompassing ideology that demands constant questioning of one’s own actions and motives and the actions and motives of others, with total vigilance about one’s own purportedly implicit racial biases.

English teachers may look for guidance to an “antiracist” expert like Lorena German, who chairs the Committee on Anti-Racism for the National Council on the Teaching of English (NCTE). At the height of the recent urban unrest, while police cars and buildings were set ablaze by anarchists and looters, German tweeted: “Educators: what are you burning? Your White-centered curriculum? The Amy Cooper next door? Your anti-Black behavior policies? The school’s racist policies? Your racist ass principal? The funding for the police in schools vs counselors? WHAT ARE YOU BURNING???!!?!?!?!?”

German’s call to commit arson may have been metaphorical. But antiracist schools will teach very different material from the schools of yesteryear. “Transforming Our Public Schools: A Guide to Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education,” created by the NYC Culturally Responsive Education Working Group, explains to teachers that “the whole Western canon is rife with horrible stories and atrocities of who we are as people of color.”

For their part, the National Committee on Social Studies’ Early Childhood/Elementary Community has promised to overhaul content, explaining that “to stop the systemic, and we are talking about system-wide policies and practices, the systemic pattern of dehumanization . . . we need to start early. WE, as educators, and family members, need to flood our children with counter messages. . . . Messages that show #BlackLivesMatter and that it is essential to elevate that message until there is no racial inequality in economic opportunity, no racial inequality in education, no racial inequality in incarceration rates, and no brutality from police and others.”

This sounds like a call for an open-ended propaganda campaign. Indeed, in a public letter, the National Association of Secondary School Principals called on school leaders to create “culturally responsive schools” in order to build a nation “worthy of our highest ideals and intolerant of the idea that one man has the right to end the life of another because of his skin color.” If one truly believes that America today is a nation tolerant of that idea, then “flood[ing] our children with counter messages” might be the only moral course of action.

Those messages would come not only through new books but also through guided discussion of current news. New York State’s “Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education” framework encourages teachers to “incorporate current events, even if they are controversial, into instruction” and to “utilize tools . . . that encourage students to engage with difficult topics (power, privilege, access, inequity) constructively.” How might “culturally responsive” teachers address recent events “constructively”? Comments by New York University professor David Kirkland, the architect of New York’s framework and author of Culturally Responsive Education: A Primer for Policy and Practice,” provide some clues. Kirkland expressed outrage that the media were using “the racist construction of criminality” to “comment upon who gets to fight for their freedom and who does not.” Referring to law enforcement, he declared: “What does it mean when your job is to enforce the law when the law is explicitly racist? It means enforcing racism.”

As cultural and political polarization reaches more and more areas of American life, one still holds out hope that schools can remain a relatively apolitical oasis where children can learn to read, write, and develop skills of socialization. The NCTE insists, however, that “there is no apolitical classroom.” With so many in the education establishment now taking this stance, the culture war appears headed for many classrooms—whether parents like it or not.

Photo: martinedoucet/iStock

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