Tag Archives: education

Don’t (Want To) Know Much About History…

I always liked that old Sam Cooke song, “Don’t know much about history…” it seems especially relevant on this Election Day.

A sizable portion of the American public has evidently taken that title as both a motto and a goal, as my friend Pierre Atlas recently wrote in a column for the Indianapolis Business Journal. As he explained in his opening paragraph,

Numerous candidates at all levels of government, from school boards to federal office, want to regulate school curriculum to constrict what kids can learn about the past. Meanwhile, a Zionsville school board candidate has upended the past by sympathetically minimizing the intent of Nazis during World War II. In this hyper-partisan era, even education has become politicized. History is on the ballot in 2022.

Pierre is currently a Senior Lecturer at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University–having decamped from a full professorship at Marian University, a small Catholic institution in our city. He was originally from “out west,” and his observations about the teaching of history are grounded in his own early education and  later correctives.

This particular column was prompted by a recent trip to a Santa Fe museum, and its exhibit on the subject of “manifest destiny.”

As Pierre relates, when he was a child growing up in Texas and California, “Manifest Destiny was taught as a positive attribute of American nation-building. But that wasn’t even half the story.”

The Santa Fe museum’s interpretive panel first provides the historical source of the term, quoting John L. O’Sullivan, who said in an 1845 newspaper article that the United States had received from providence a “manifest destiny” to spread across the whole continent.

The panel then offers the museum’s interpretive explanation: “Manifest destiny was an idea that the people of the United States would inevitably settle the continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. This concept encompassed the belief that white Anglo-Saxons were a special race and rightfully the superiors of other peoples. Their expansion would also spread the ‘blessings’ of Protestant faiths and democracy. Fulfilling this destiny was all-important—and it could be accomplished by force, if necessary.”

As a political scientist who has studied and written about American history, including the government’s Indian policies in the American West, I can confirm that the museum’s interpretation is an important and factually accurate corrective to earlier, celebratory pronouncements about Manifest Destiny.

I’m a good deal older than Pierre, but I too was taught that “manifest destiny” was a good thing– a glorious example of America’s inevitable domination of…well, everything.

Today–Election Day–Manifest Destiny is on our ballots, along with multiple other distortions of American history. As Pierre noted in his column, the duty of a mature democracy is to teach accurate history.

The exhibit in the museum Pierre visited was on the Mexican-American War. That war isn’t taught much, if at all, in high school history classes, because it was a “war launched by the United States for the purpose of territorial expansion, leading to the capture from Mexico of what is today New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. It was a war of aggression.”

Historian Jon Meacham, discussing his new book about Abraham Lincoln and slavery, recently remarked that, “History is not a fairy tale. It does not begin with ‘Once upon a time,’ and it doesn’t end with ‘Happily ever after.’”

The United States was founded as a republic, with slavery. Its expansion across the continent came at the expense of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous lands. White supremacy was embedded in colonial America and written into the Constitution, and it influenced local and national policy and even foreign policy for much of this country’s history.

While America offers much to be proud of, the purpose of teaching history is not to make people feel good, nor to mythologize the past. History should be taught honestly with all its nuances—not to make people feel guilty, but to own up to and explain what really happened. Our present is not fully comprehensible without an accurate accounting of the past. Of course, like any other subject, history should be taught in an age-appropriate manner.

Make no mistake: when “angry parents”–high on propaganda from Fox News and other White Supremicist sources–descend on school board meetings to demand that “CRT” not be taught (not that they could define Critical Race Theory–which is taught exclusively in graduate legal education if at all– if their lives depended upon it), what they are really demanding is an a-historical fantasy in which White Americans were always the good guys.

One of the multiple things you are voting for today is whether to teach history– or fairy tales.

Oh Indiana…

When friends and family members bemoan Indiana’s retrograde legislature, I like to remind them that the domination of that assemblage by pious frauds and occasional fascists (paging Jim Lucas) is a longstanding one. In the late 1800s,  the Indiana General Assembly decided to legislatively change the definition of pi.

Shades of Marjorie Taylor Greene…

When Indiana makes national news, it is almost never because our lawmakers have done something positive, so it wasn’t a surprise when, earlier this month, the state made headlines in the Washington Post.

That linked headline was a follow-up to an earlier article reporting on Indiana’s successful rush to pass one of the nation’s strictest anti-abortion bills. It featured comments received in response to that report–comments that put the legislation into proper historical context.

Indiana becoming the first state to pass an antiabortion law post-Dobbs is reminiscent of Indiana becoming the first state to pass forced sterilization, in 1907. To understand the state’s history of white-supremacist and misogynist legislation — catering to the Ku Klux Klan, the John Birch Society and other extremist groups — one needs to review the state’s conservative religious and political cultures. Not that this will liberate its citizens, but it gives context showing the state’s long history of oppressing individual liberty.

Another letter amplified the point by noting that, In the 1920s, Indiana was the only state in the union where every single county had its own chapter of the KKK.  (Still another letter-writer proved the continuing influence of Klan defensiveness, by insisting that both the John Birch Society and the KKK had Black members and integrated chapters…)

Friends who listened to the arguments over passage of SB 1, the anti-abortion bill, recounted the numerous references to Jesus–clearly, there are no First Amendment scholars in Indiana’s GOP super-majority! They also noted the divisions within the party over whether to allow any exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother. (“Pro-life” sentiments obviously don’t extend to the life of the women those lawmakers  dismiss as mere incubators…)

Disregard for the lives and autonomy of women is hardly the only evidence of what late NUVO editor Harrison Ullmann dubbed “The World’s Worst Legislature.” Our “pro life” lawmakers’ love affair with guns has led to increasing permissiveness–this year, despite the GOP’s purported support for police, the General Assembly ignored the testimony of law enforcement officials and eliminated the requirement of a permit to legally carry, conceal or transport a handgun within the state.

Ours is a state where the culture war dominates. It wasn’t that long ago–under the guidance of Mr. Piety–aka Mike Pence–that Indiana passed RFRA, another legislative effort that earned Indiana national headlines. As an article in the Chicago Tribune advised our lawmakers in the wake of that travesty,  “If you have to emphatically reassure citizens that your law won’t result in discrimination, it might be a bad law.”

This morning, the governor of Indiana signed a very bad law. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is defended by its supporters as a means of protecting the religious liberty of each and every Hoosier of every faith.

That is what we in the “that’s a bunch of baloney” business call, not surprisingly, a bunch of baloney. This law, and others like it that are bubbling up in state legislatures across the country, is a transparent reaction to the swift expansion of same-sex marriage rights. The law effectively allows any business to refuse service to gay or lesbian people on religious grounds.

I’ve posted previously about the success of the legislature’s “Christian warriors” campaign to divert education funds to private, largely fundamentalist Christian schools via the nation’s largest voucher program.

That program isn’t the only attack by Indiana legislators on public school classrooms that has made national headlines. Vanity Fair was one of the many outlets reporting on Republican senator Scott Baldwin’s assertion that teachers must be “impartial” during lessons about Nazism and related “isms.” (Baldwin subsequently tried to walk back his statement, but it was too little, too late.) I suppose Hoosiers should be grateful for all the adverse publicity Baldwin generated; it was probably the reason the bill to ban teaching of (an invented) Critical Race Theory in the state’s public schools failed.

I absolutely agree with  one letter-writer to the Vigo County Tribune-Star. During the pandemic, as our intrepid legislators were protecting our freedom to infect our neighbors, he wrote:

It is better to be thought fools, than to pass legislation and remove all doubt.

In January 2022, Indiana Representatives plan to vote on House Bill 1001. The bill requires private businesses to accept any made-up excuse from employees refusing vaccination. Obvious bullpoo cannot be challenged…

 As an educator, I applaud any attempt to cure stupid. But, quarantining the worse cases in the House is not the answer.

 

About That War On Education

Evidently, Indiana’s censorious legislature has company–ours aren’t the only lawmakers issuing “gag orders” to educators.

According to a January report from Pen America,

It has been an extraordinary month for educational gag orders. Over the last three weeks, 71 bills have been introduced or prefiled in state legislatures across the country, a rate of roughly three bills per day. For over a year now, PEN America has been tracking these and similar bills…

According to the Pen report, 122 educational gag orders have been filed in 33 states since January 2021. Of those, 12 have become law in 10 states, and another 88 are currently live.

Of those currently live:

84 target K-12 schools
38 target higher education
48 include a mandatory punishment for those found in violation

When Pen looked at the measures that have been introduced so far in 2022, it found “a significant escalation in both scale and severity.”

Forty-six percent of this year’s bills explicitly target speech in higher education (versus 26 percent in 2021) and 55 percent include some kind of mandatory punishment for violators (versus 37 percent in 2021). Fifteen also include a private right of action. This provision, which we analyzed in an earlier post, gives students, parents, or even ordinary citizens the right to sue schools and recover damages in court.

One final feature that is increasingly common to 2022’s bills is how sloppily many are written. Legislators, in their haste to get these bills out the door and into the headlines, are making basic factual errors, introducing contradictory language, and leaving important terms undefined. Given the stakes, the result will be more than mere confusion. It will be fear.

The Pen report then zeroed in on legislation from a single state, in order to help readers “appreciate” the chilling nature of the threat.

That state? Indiana. (I am so not proud.)

With eight bills currently under consideration, only Missouri (at 19) has made a greater contribution. Of the eight in Indiana, all target public K-12 schools, two target private K-12 as well, six would regulate speech in public colleges and universities, four affect various state agencies, and two threaten public libraries. All are sweeping, all are draconian, and few make any kind of sense.

House Bill 1362, sponsored by Bob Behning ( because of course it was), prohibits teachers and professors from including in their instruction any “anti-American ideologies.” What this means is never defined (because of course it wasn’t), but violators may be sued in court.

Pen tells us that House Bill 1040 is even more confusing. That bill requires teachers to adopt a “posture of impartiality” –but also contains the following language:

Socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism, or similar political systems are incompatible with and in conflict with the principles of freedom upon which the United States was founded. In addition, students must be instructed that if any of these political systems were to replace the current form of government, the government of the United States would be overthrown and existing freedoms under the Constitution of the United States would no longer exist. As such, socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism, or similar political systems are detrimental to the people of the United States.

As the report notes, this would be farcical if the consequences of failure to comply weren’t so dire. A teacher or school  that failed to navigate the whiplash mandated by this effort to ensure that teachers indoctrinate, rather than educate, would–under this bill– face civil suits, loss of state funding and accreditation, and/or professional discipline up to and including termination.

The linked article describes several other, similar efforts, and I encourage anyone who wants to wallow in despair over Indiana governance to click through.

The none-too-savvy legislators pushing these bills are evidently unaware that kids today can easily access multiple sources of information. (There’s this newfangled thing called the Internet.)

Ironically, these legislative efforts that display our lawmakers’ anti-intellectualism and bigotry also motivate young people to access the information they are trying to suppress. After a Tennessee school board censored a graphic novel about the Holocaust, it soared to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list. Young people (and a number of older ones) have rushed to form banned book clubs.

A few days ago, when I threatened to start an online class in “banned history,” the response was so heavy and positive I’m now seriously considering doing so. (Once I’ve done some research and figured out the logistics, I’ll let you all know.)

What we should be teaching students is how to evaluate the credibility of the sources they consult. Efforts to “shield” them from the uglier realities of the past are  likely to spark interest in exploring that past, and it would be helpful to give them the tools to separate sound scholarship from the propaganda produced by both Left and Right.

Several lawmakers could use those lessons too.

 

 

“Protecting” Indiana’s Children

When Hoosier legislators talk about “protecting children,” they are rarely taking aim at tangible harms. Quite the contrary: in many cases, they are  the harm. (Just this session, Dennis Kruse has authored S.B. 34; it would deny appropriate medical and psychological services to gay youngsters.)

Indiana’s legislature is filled with culture warriors eager to appeal to the GOP’s increasingly  racist base, so I suppose we shouldn’t be shocked when legislators with absolutely no background or expertise in education take it upon themselves to prescribe what shall be taught– and how.

GOP pooh-bas are constantly complaining that reasonable efforts to protect public health are government “overreach”–yet the measure introduced by Representative Scott Baldwin is an absolute monument to overreach–much of it too vague to enforce properly, all of it likely to empower a subset of angry and uninformed parents, and–if passed– likely to drive teachers out of Indiana.

The bill was obviously motivated by the GOP’s trumped-up hysteria over Critical Race Theory (which none of its opponents can define, and which has never been taught in public schools). What opponents of CRT are really against is teaching anything suggesting that racism is bad. Obviously, when proponents of these “anti-CRT” bills accidentally admit that, it causes a bit of an uproar. So Baldwin has had to “walk back” a previous statement.

An Indiana state senator who is facing criticism for saying teachers must be impartial when discussing Nazism is walking back his remarks.

Indiana state Sen. Scott Baldwin said he wasn’t clear when he said a bill he filed at the Indiana Statehouse would require teachers to be impartial in their teaching of all subjects, including during lessons about Nazism, Marxism and fascism.

Baldwin evidently believes that discussions of Nazism, Marxism and fascism should be “fair and balanced.” Like Fox “News.”

During a committee hearing Wednesday about Senate Bill 167, a wide-ranging bill inspired by the national discourse over critical race theory, history teacher Matt Bockenfeld raised concerns about what the bill would require of teachers. He gave what he thought was an extreme example.

“For example, it’s the second semester of U.S. history, so we’re learning about the rise of fascism and the rise of Nazism right now,” Bockenfeld said. “And I’m just not neutral on the political ideology of fascism. We condemn it, and we condemn it in full, and I tell my students the purpose, in a democracy, of understanding the traits of fascism is so that we can recognize it and we can combat it.”

Baldwin’s response was instructive (pun intended):

“I have no problem with the education system providing instruction on the existence of those isms,” he said. “I believe that we’ve gone too far when we take a position on those isms …  We need to be impartial.”

Baldwin said that even though he is with Bockenfeld “on those particular isms,” teachers should “just provide the facts.”

“I’m not sure it’s right for us to determine how that child should think and that’s where I’m trying to provide the guardrails,” Baldwin said.

There is much more that is dangerous–not to mention stupid and offensive–in Baldwin’s bill. (It is discussed in more detail at this link ). The bill is being described as an effort at “transparency,” which is wildly misleading. It would require teachers to post their syllabi and materials so that parents can access (nitpick) them; not only would such a rule be an extra burden on teachers who already have plenty to do, not only would it impose rigidity on what might otherwise be organic discussions (as teachers at the hearing pointed out), it is totally unnecessary.

Transparency already exists.

Parents who supervise their children’s homework, who visit their children’s schools, who show up for parent-teacher conferences, already have access to this information. Those parents, however, aren’t found among the angry anti-CRT, anti-mask activists who’ve descended on some school board meetings. (In several cases, it’s turned out that people in  those groups didn’t even have children in that school system.)

In my experience both as a long-ago high-school teacher and as a parent, teachers are absolutely delighted to share information with parents who are genuinely involved with their children’s education.

I know that today’s Republicans hate “elitists”–defined as people who actually know what they’re doing. The GOP is at war with climate science, dismissive of epidemiologists and medical experts, and convinced that anyone capable of reproducing knows more than classroom teachers who have earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in education.

It’s Indiana’s great misfortune to have a legislature populated with so many walking, talking examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

 

 

Rokita Again

I really try to ignore Indiana’s Attorney General, Todd Rokita, and his pathetically obvious ploys for attention–part of his persistent effort to position himself for a gubernatorial run. But it’s hard.

I have previously posted about his (mis)behavior as a Congressperson, about his improper private employment while holding elective office, and about episodes in his constant pandering to the GOP’s right wing. I’ve ignored his anti-vaccine rants, since I really thought  my previous posts would be enough to give readers an accurate picture of this sorry little man.

But he continues to bait me….

Rokita has evidently watched the recent governor’s race in Virginia, and is trying to adopt a strategy that worked for Glenn Youngkin, the Republican who won that contest. Youngkin, as you may recall, made Critical Race Theory and “inappropriate books” (i.e., written by Black people) a centerpiece of his successful campaign. Rokita–who never met a dog-whistle he didn’t like–immediately latched on.

As an article in the Northwest Indiana Times reported:

Attorney General Todd Rokita is taking his unprovoked battle with Indiana’s local school boards and the state education establishment to the next level.

The Republican, originally from Munster, recently issued a second, expanded edition of his “Parents’ Bill of Rights” that in 54 pages goes well beyond his initial 16-page screed over Critical Race Theory (CRT) and other “Marxist ideologies” that he originally claimed are “consistently being backdoored into Indiana classrooms.”

Rokita’s new handbook practically is a call to arms for Hoosier parents to swarm school board meetings, school administrator offices, teacher classrooms and the Indiana Statehouse demanding answers about everything their child may potentially encounter in a school building on any given day.

You may wonder–as I do–why the Attorney General is sticking his nose in an arena that is very clearly under the jurisdiction of Indiana’s Department of Education, especially since Indiana citizens no longer choose the head of that department. (When a prior, elected Secretary of Education proved unwilling to follow the party line down various rabbit-holes, the post was made appointive; presumably, occupants of the position are now more obedient.) But then, as my previous posts have demonstrated, Rokita consistently shows little or no interest in the enumerated duties of the Attorney General’s office unless those duties offer him a PR opportunity.

In this latest screed, he writes

“Having your child’s school and its employees work against you as you raise your family according to your Hoosier values shouldn’t be allowed.”

And what are those “Hoosier values”? Whatever they are, they are evidently under attack. Rokita enumerates a series of GOP wedge issues that parents should be particularly be concerned about because–or so he tells them– they have a “polarizing effect on education instruction.”

Those “polarizing” topics include: Critical Race Theory, Critical Theory, Critical Gender Theory, “Teaching for Tolerance,” “Learning for Justice” and gender fluidity.

Rokita also observes that, unlike other states, Hoosier lawmakers have not taken steps to prohibit instruction on these topics in Indiana classrooms, and he reminds parents they have a right to petition the Republican-controlled General Assembly to take such action….

Rokita’s guide also delves into the rights of parents to make health care decisions on behalf of their minor children, advises parents how to complain about school face mask requirements amid the COVID-19 pandemic and discusses the abstinence-only foundation of Indiana’s human sexuality instruction.

“It should be noted that schools are prohibited from asking students about their gender identity or sexual behaviors or attitudes in sex education classes, or any other classes,” Rokita said.

The entire “Parents Bill of Rights” is a “look at me–I’m with you” message to the angry and misinformed parents who have descended on school board meetings to demand a curriculum with which they can feel comfortable. I will refrain from characterizing their desired curriculum, except to note that historical accuracy and civics education–especially study of the First and Fourteenth Amendments (Separation of Church and State and the Equal Protection clause)– are not what they are demanding.

If we’re looking for the causes of “polarization,” we need look no farther than Rokita, the lawmakers who agree with him, and the parents that they and the other Republican culture warriors are gleefully manipulating.

I would love to believe that the transparency of Rokita’s pandering, along with his other off-putting behaviors, will repel Indiana voters and dash his gubernatorial ambitions. He is, after all, held in considerable disdain among Hoosier politicos– very much including Republican ones.

But this is Indiana.