Thursday, June 15, 2023

Can All Culture War Combatants Agree On This?

Earlier this week, I posted this thread on Twitter, and it drew an interesting assortment of reactions.

The issue of teachers' beliefs in the classroom looks a lot different in a small town/community setting. A thread. 1/
There's a popular notion that teachers shouldn't bring their beliefs into the classroom. In my neck of the woods, that's virtually impossible. For example: 2/
For roughly half of my career, I was also a columnist for the local newspaper. My personal beliefs are not exactly a well-kept secret. 3/
For all of my career, I taught the children and grandchildren of people I grew up with. I taught my own children, and my children's friends. It is unlikely that my personal beliefs and values could be a well-kept secret. 4/
For many years, a history teacher in my school was also the mayor of the town. In a neighboring district, a teacher is the head of the county Democratic party. 5/
The small town thing about few secrets is real. Single teachers can't hide who they date, or where, or when. Everybody knows where you go to church (or if you don't). 6/
The multiple connections are endless. You spend time with students' parents in the church choir, the grocery store, the community organizations. I cannot set foot in a local business without encountering students or their families. 7/
In short, the notion that a teacher could keep their personal life and the beliefs that go with it somehow walled off from their classroom, that they could present in school as a blank, belief-free "professional" is a non-starter. 8/
All that said, I absolutely agree with those who say that a teacher is not hired by the public to preach a particular set of beliefs to students. 9/
It's not only wrong, but in high school at least, highly counterproductive (just ask my 10th grade social studies teacher, who tried to convince us that the war in Vietnam was immoral). 10/
So what do you do? First, own who you are while remembering always that your classroom is not about you. It's about the students. 11/
It's not great to model pretending that you don't believe what you believe. It's bad practice to do any version of "But enough about prepositions. Let's talk about me." 12/
My practice (not that I'm the God of Teaching) was 2 insist on a classroom rule of respect, an atmosphere in which it was safe to think whatever you thought. In that context, it was okay 2 challenge what other people said (including me), but not simply attack it or the person 13/
My ideal was a classroom in which students could learn how to have productive and useful conversations with people with whom they disagreed. 14/
And as an ELA and writing teacher, it was absolutely critical to foster an atmosphere of free exchange and expression. You can't do that if only some students are allowed to say some things. 15/
As a teacher, you have to know and be aware of your own stuff, to know where your personal triggers are so that you're prepared to step back and take a breath--because your personal stuff can come in the classroom, but it can't overrule professional judgment. 16/
(And yes, I'm aware of the irony here--that my pluralistic respect-required classroom reflected my own set of values, and I'm okay with that) 17/
The goal is a classroom in which all students are safe to be who they are and express who they think. There are many paths to that classroom. 18/

This thread was, for me, a pretty popular one. And what struck me was the range of people chiming in in agreement, from many camps in the culture debates. 

Could this be an area in which we all have a broad agreement, I thought. Well, okay-- I thought that for about three seconds. 

We have some broad agreement on the principles (well, those of us participating in these discussions in good faith, which is unfortunately not all of us), but we have some pretty serious disagreements about what the principle looks like in practice.

For instance, I do not think that Jenna Barbee, the teacher who showed some fifth graders a movie with gay characters in it, crossed the line I described above. In fact, I'd argue that banning the movie is the greater offense. How do all students feel safe in a classroom if their own (or their family's) identity is rendered invisible or declared? And yet, for some on the anti-inclusion side, any acknowledgement that LGTQ persons exist is "ramming it down our throats." 

I don't think the AP teacher in South Carolina who has been slammed for teaching a unit around Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me crossed the line either the reporting may be incomplete, but in what I've read, there is room for discussion of the works and ideas. The key question is not "did the teacher bring up a topic I don't like or which makes me uncomfortable." The key question is, "Is it safe to disagree with the idea in this work?"

The lady who wanted Amanda Gorman's poem banned? She's on the wrong side of this. A Christian teacher who wants to convert her students is on the wrong side, as is the atheist teacher who wants to disabuse their students of faith of their ideas. I don't know what we do with people who insist that a pride flag is a "symbol of aggression against straight people." 

So while we can agree that the classroom should be a safe space for students, we have little agreement on what safe means. I'd say there's a big difference between "place where you can question what other folks say" and "place where nobody can question what you say." There's a big difference between "free to speak out" and "free from having to hear anyone else speak out." There's a big difference between "I can challenge other peoples' beliefs" and "Nobody can challenge my beliefs."

"I'm right, so my way should get to control the conversation," is not a useful approach. The notion that there should be different rules for people who are right and people who are wrong is not a useful--or a principled approach. 

There is a huge gulf between "this value should not be required" and "this value should not be presented at all." And yet some folks are unable (or unwilling) to make that distinction. 

Ultimately, I think the issue comes down to conflicting views of reality, twice over. First, there is the conflict between differing views of what is true (e.g. flat earth vs. globe). Second, there is the conflict between differing views of how to handle differing views (e.g. discussion and exploration allowing persons to make up their own minds vs. shout down, repress, silence, obliterate any expression of the "wrong" view). It is no surprise that we are having this conflict in schools, because schools exist downhill from the culture, and that's where we are as a society. 

All of this, it should be exacerbated by opportunistic bad actors that see benefits in pouring gasoline on all of these fires.

Nor is the discussion made easier by people who are not consistent within their own belief system. Some folks argue both that adult concerns should not take priority over student needs and also that parental rights must be prioritized. You can't do both. Nor is there any question at this point that the parental rights movement is concerned only with certain select parents. It's hard to have any kind of meaningful discussion with people whose words don't really mean what they say.

So I know what I think the words above mean-- that we allow students to safely discuss and encounter any and all ideas in an atmosphere based on respectful treatment of all. But I suspect some of the people who liked it were thinking, "Yeah, get those guys over there to knock it off so students can be taught The Truth," which is counter to what I wrote. 

In the end, I believe that the whole "Only teach students the One Truth so that they grow up to view the world the way I want them to" is not just immoral and unethical, but it just plain doesn't work. One way or another, reality wins; even when someone seems to be beating it away, the cost of denial is steep. 

And this ought to be good news, because if what you've latched on is true, then sooner or later, allowed the chance to discuss and explore and puzzle, people will converge on that truth. Conversely, if your truth has to be protected from every single piece of dissent, every piece of contrary evidence, every contact with a larger world, then what kind of weak, fragile truth is it? Reality is made of sterner stuff.

Well, I'm wandering. The bottom line is that if you are trying to promote a singular view in a classroom, either by barring Certain Ideas from entering or forcing Certain Ideas as requirements, you're messing up. If you are privileging the promotion or prevention of Certain Ideas over the growth and nurture of young minds, then those young minds are not really your primary concern, no matter what you say. 


  1. Fragile truth is a great term.
    I will share some reality.
    The big fights about whether it is ethical to allow children to undergo hormonal and surgical treatments to change their gender are dominating public spheres and are very much a part of the topics you allude to with this post. Not too many people can personally speak to all of these treatments and conditions.

    As a person who has undergone all of those procedures for other medical reasons, I can tell you the "real" effects....of Lupron (hormone blockers), mastectomy, premature menopause.
    Lupron: 1) chronic urinary infection...stopped when the drug was stopped. Should any child risk that? Want to go on antibiotics for six months? Is that a good plan?
    2) extreme dizziness...made driving impossible for hours at a time. We are talking a completely spinning room kind of dizziness.
    3) Despite painful shots which left me limping for a day, they didn't even fully suppress my hormones as intended. My stepfather also took Lupron to treat prostate cancer. Sound like a drug for kids?

    Atrophy of neck and back muscles causing pain. That's a long term effect. Some people never gain full range of motion in their shoulders after a mastectomy. I needed very painful physical therapy. Sound like something for a kid?

    Premature menopause:
    Early osteopenia, very high risk osteoporosis, significantly high risk of developing heart disease. Is it ethical to set up a kid for those conditions later in life?

    Losing ovaries:
    Research shows that women who have even a piece of an ovary do better than those with no ovaries at all and at all stages of life.

    Ovaries are not only involved in producing eggs. Our bodies are complex systems and hormones and other systems are in a delicate balance.

    I truly understand if this post seems unrelated to the topic and a bad case of over sharing, but I have decided that I will not bite my tongue about this.

    Maybe no one wants to hear this. It is the truth, however.

    1. I appreciate your willingness to share your truth.

      That said, discussing hormonal and surgical treatment for trans children is like discussing how best to handle semi trucks driving through school playgrounds. The number of actual instances might not be zero, but it's awfully close to it. If that discussion dominates public spheres, it's mainly because some folks are trying to create a moral panic as a tool to accomplish other goals.

  2. Thank you. I understand you perfectly.