It turns out that laws against leftist indoctrination in schools are working. When parents and politicians hold teachers accountable, those teachers become more thoughtful with what they do in the classroom.
At least, this is the case for most teachers. Some teachers will complain they just can’t teach under such conditions. According to a recent essay by Hannah Natanson in The Washington Post, conservatives are keeping teachers from teaching their students “basic truths.”
Of course, there’s much more to the story. With one exception, all the teachers complaining prioritized indoctrinating their students over educating them. Fortunately, parents and administrators stopped these teachers, but there are many more educators pushing a similar agenda. For this reason, it’s worthwhile for all Americans (especially those connected to K-12 schooling) to examine Natanson’s examples to learn exactly how teachers are indoctrinating students.
The first supposed “thing” teachers won’t teach is that slavery is wrong. This conclusion was reached based on the experience of Greg Wickenkamp, who wanted to use materials from an anti-colonialist Marxist (Howard Zinn) and a prominent anti-racist pseudo-academic (Ibram X. Kendi). Although his school offered little direction in what materials were allowed — as though it isn’t obvious that these texts are incredibly one-sided — certain members of the community complained about Wickenkamp pushing leftism on his students and “teaching Critical Race Theory.”
Wickenkamp somehow equated these criticisms of his materials with teaching that slavery was wrong. He asked his superintendent directly at a Zoom meeting whether teachers could teach that slavery was wrong. The superintendent rightly interpreted this stupid question as a trap. If she said yes, she would be contradicting the rule against pushing a political stance in the classroom. If she said no, then she would look like an ignorant bigot. Instead of answering directly, she chose to deflect the question and simply told him not to pontificate and moralize: “We’re not supposed to say to [students], ‘How does that make you feel?’, ‘We can’t’ — or, ‘Does that make you feel bad?’ We’re not to do that part of it.”
Sure, the superintendent could’ve communicated this better, but it should’ve been easy enough to understand. Wickenkamp’s job is to teach history, not morality. His students should come to their own conclusions about the evils of slavery. However, this was too much for Wickenkamp, who left the teaching profession soon after this conversation.
2. Revisionist History
The next “thing” teachers won’t teach is Howard Zinn’s revisionist history — although this is translated by Natanson as teaching “Christopher Columbus’s Journal.” In this instance, an anonymous teacher in North Carolina reported getting pushback from parents for assigning Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of United States,” which quotes lines from Columbus’ journal that portray him as a racist oppressor.
When a parent complained that the teacher made her son feel guilty with this material, the teacher condescendingly replied, “Why would your child feel guilty about what Columbus did to the Arawak?” This caused the parent to complain to the district’s human resources department, which told the teacher not to teach Zinn. This led to her transferring to another school where she could teach her beloved Zinn once more.
There are a few things horribly wrong with this. First, Zinn was an activist pushing a Marxist narrative, not a historian giving proper context. Second, part of history is reading primary sources, not postmodern spins on primary sources. And third, her students should be learning to appreciate the complexity of Columbus’ situation, not obsessing over his politically incorrect views of indigenous people. Instead of ushering ways forward for her students to learn real history and think historically, this teacher is shutting them down and presenting a skewed interpretation of history as fact.
3. Police Use of Force
The third “thing” teachers can’t teach is oddly specific: “A data set on the use of police force.” In all my years of teaching, I’ve somehow managed to avoid this issue, but some teachers apparently struggle. Such was the case for a math teacher at Loudoun County Public Schools, who “taught a lesson built around a data set exploring the outcomes of the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk program.”
Even though this lesson didn’t elicit formal complaints, the teacher thought to ask her superiors if this was OK to teach. Predictably, her superiors said no, “because ‘it might make children uncomfortable’ due to their race or if their parents are police officers.” Fortunately, this teacher was wise enough to stop using this example and stuck with noncontroversial word problems in her statistics class. Nevertheless, Natanson still mentions this example since, in her view, pushing leftist narratives about law enforcement is true education.
4. Dull Texts
In contrast, the fourth “thing” teachers won’t teach is something I have encountered. Natanson brings up an instance of an English teacher who was thwarted in her attempts to teach her seniors, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” by Mary Wollstonecraft. This came up after teaching Tara Westover’s memoir “Educated,” which alludes to the 19th-century feminist classic. The teacher thought this extra reading might help since she was “struggling to interest her students” in the memoir. In other words, the teacher assigned a boring text that her kids hated and tried to make up for this by assigning an even duller text on top of this.
Seeing this extra reading listed on the teacher’s syllabus, an assistant principal asked her a few simple questions: “What is the purpose of using it?” “How is it connected to what you are doing?” “Is it connected by skills?” “Is it connected by theme?” Apparently missing the hint that there were far better texts to use with her students, the teacher defended the assignment before giving it up.
Even though this whole thing is presented as a grave loss to her students, it isn’t. Wollstonecraft’s essay is one of many great texts that don’t work well for students in high school — it’s a hard sell, even for an AP literature class. This is not an instance of the patriarchy asserting its will, but simply a fact of teaching teenagers who struggle with reading complex texts.
5. The Classics
Rather underhandedly, Natanson includes a fifth “thing,” where she writes about how most teachers are not allowed to teach the classics “Huckleberry Finn” and “Of Mice and Men.” This is because they are written by white men, Mark Twain and John Steinbeck, who use the N-word in their novels.
Not only is this old news (both books are routinely prohibited by districts), but it’s also a separate issue from the examples of leftist indoctrination. Objections to these novels don’t come from conservatives, but from leftists who think that exposing students to racial slurs will traumatize black students and turn white students into rabid racists. Even though this reasoning never really held much water, it has effectively removed two great books — both of which humanize and defend traditionally marginalized groups — for teenage readers.
6. Straight-Up Propaganda
Finally, there’s the sixth “thing” that teachers won’t teach, which is outright leftist propaganda. Natanson tells the story of Rebecca Fensholt, a teacher who dispensed with all normal curriculum and decided to recreate the kinds of lessons she had in college. For example, in her unit “identity power and subversion,” her students would learn that “racial, ethnic, sexual and gender identities can be wielded to uphold or undermine those in power.” For reference, she included videos of “cakewalks” in which black dancers would mock white formal dances along with the documentary “Paris is Burning” “in which the Black feminist and social critic [bell hooks] dissects drag ball culture in 1980s-era New York.”
It’s telling that Natanson never reveals what grade level or subject this was for, since nothing about Fensholt’s lesson contains any possible relevance for high schoolers. Understandably, parents complained about this lesson, eventually discouraging Fensholt to drop it altogether.
Natanson portrays this example as well as all the others as some kind of tragedy, but the only tragedy for all these teachers is how so many of them refuse to do their job. Instead of teaching their students how to think, they want to tell their students what to think. Not only is this not what parents want, but it’s also bad practice. In most cases, students find it irritating and unhelpful.
Even if a parent may agree with these sentiments, they have every right to disagree with the indoctrination. It deprives students of real learning, corrupts the role of a teacher as some kind of moral authority, and ultimately divides the households and communities these schools are supposed to serve. Although Natanson tries to redeem these teachers, she ironically provides a guide of what to look for and eliminate so schools can rediscover their original purpose.