Wednesday, February 14, 2024

I Was A Teenage Indoctrinee

Whenever the topic of naughty lefty teachers indoctrinating impressionable young minds comes up, I think of Lois Anthony.

It was the fall of 1972. Richard Nixon was up against George McGovern, and the election was all about Viet Nam, where things were not going so well. The draft was still in place (though it would be gone shortly), so the war felt pretty personal. There was political unrest in the country, and not the picturesque flowers-in-gun-barrels late-sixties type, but the ugly shooting innocent bystanders at Kent State type. We hadn't heard a whisper of Watergate, but it was still clear that some people hated--really, really hated-- Nixon.

In the fall of '72, I was a high school sophomore, and Lois Anthony was a fresh-out-the-package social studies teacher who somehow drew the short straw and got the 10th grade honors class. 

Every class has its particular challenges. The challenge of teaching sophomores is that they already know everything worth knowing and why are you, you old person, bothering them by trying pretend that you know things they don't?

But Miss Anthony was game. And boy was she a lefty. We studied the election as it unfurled, and she did her best to get us to understand that the war was wrong and we should get out as soon as possible, and Nixon was a bad, bad man and nobody responsible should vote for him. She even brought in speakers, including a local newspaper guy who had some Big Feelings about the war and the necessity of getting out. Of all the teachers I've known, not one tried harder to sell a particular point of view than Miss Anthony. 

I can't imagine just how frustrated she was by her complete and utter failure.

Nost of the students in the class brought their own set of beliefs from home, and while we would rather have died than admit that we were sticking to our parents' worldview, we were. Some tenderhearted folks were already in her camp. And then, well, she had me and a couple of my friends. We were, collectively and singularly, That Guy. 

We argued for the domino theory. We argued for American awesomeness. We were not far enough around the bend to adopt overtly racist stances, but mostly we were vocally supportive of everything Miss Anthony opposed. We argued just to argue. If she had argued against eating baby seals, we would have used our spare time after school to create a Baby Seal Cookbook. It wasn't that we had anything against her--we liked her just fine. But it was fun to adopt a stance and then charge hard at it, to turn ideas over and play with them. 

Miss Anthony tried really hard to infect us with a bunch of lefty ideas. She totally failed. Oddly enough, by allowing us to argue with her and by acting as if it were really, really important to convince us, and by not, as far as I recall, ever cutting our grades because we wouldn't agree with her, she gave us a certain amount of confidence and practice with a version of critical thinking, and all of that paid off down the line. I'm not sure that's what she meant to do, but it was a job well done, anyway.

I suppose we could have been indoctrinated by someone using other techniques or, more likely, by someone who saw us more often than 50 minutes a day, 5 days a week. I wouldn't argue that indoctrination is impossible. 

But when people argue that children are being indoctrinated just by being in a room with someone who has Certain Beliefs, I think of Lois Anthony. Indoctrinating the youths is a hell of a lot harder than culture panic folks imagine it is. I arrived at my own set of beliefs thanks to a long and complicated journey, and I know some cultural panic comes from the idea that I and others must arrive at certain destinations only if some underhanded pied piper is leading us down paths we would never normally travel. But I remain pretty sure that all the Lois Anthonys in the world can't lead students down paths they aren't willing to travel. 

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