Returning to Woke Progressive Education—A Threat Greater than COVID-19?

I want public schools to reopen. There are real emotional and psychological costs to children stuck at home and in front of screens. Opportunities to acquire crucial knowledge and skill sets are being cut off—knowledge and skills that cannot be transmitted virtually. Social interactions necessary for normal cognitive and personal development are constrained, indeed deformed, by remote learning. We are told that a novel virus presents a challenge to reopening. Otherwise, it would be business-as-usual.

The Rise of Woke Classrooms | City Journal

But business-as-usual is a problem in itself. Indeed, more concerning than the effects of COVID-19 is the degree of wokeness in progressive social programming and the expectation that children and young adults, as well as staff and teachers, will embrace social justice doctrines surrounding race and gender. Children and young adults are conditioned to be hyper-judgmental and hyper-sensitive. Others are ostracized for being born a certain way and on that account taught to self-loathe, to feel ashamed for things they could not possibly have done, to apologize for the wrongdoings of others, even including corpses.

Indoctrinating youth with the language of theoretical antagonisms developed by cloistered academics, limited by disciplinary matrices, moving in abstract conceptual worlds, and justified in their motivation by artificial entitlement and esteem, antagonisms pushed by an odious grievance industry grasping for unearned things, a sophisticated language painting some children and young adults as racist and sexist on the basis of color of their skin and their anatomy, while teaching others that they are the victims of oppression and trauma and deserving of special rights on account of these, all the while nourishing the worst personality disorders of narcissism and sociopathy, the fruits of which we are seeing playing out on the city streets of America and Europe today—the consequences of all this will in the long run prove far worse than any wrought by SARS-CoV-2.

I am sympathetic to those parents who are reluctant or who refuse to send their children into a totalizing environment that commands their attention for the better part of their waking hours five days a week and sometimes more. I oppose in principle vouchers for religious schools, but at the same time I can see that it is unfair to allow some parents with means to shield their children from progressive indoctrination while effectively compelling those with little ability to exercise choice to send their children back into this environment. I am sympathetic with taxpayers who wonder why their resources are being marshaled to fund programming that runs down the very culture that has allowed so many of them to have a good life.

For those of us who do continue to allow these institutions access to our children, we need to do a better job of arming students emotionally and intellectually to resist indoctrination and to challenge teachers on the things they say—and to not permit the exercise of disagreeable speech to be suppressed under the guise of discipline. Parents should periodically debrief their children to learn what it is that they’re “learning” and to address teachers and administrators directly with their concerns.

How did this happen? That is a long story beyond the scope of this essay. But the bottom line is that schools should not be teaching quasi-religious notions. It is not the place of administrators, staff, and teachers to disseminate social justice doctrine. As a parent, I would never tell the children of other parents how their children are supposed to think of themselves or think of others beyond treating persons as individuals and on the basis of behavior and character. To be sure, I have a problem with parents who fill their children’s heads with such hateful and divisive nonsense. Teaching children to judge people on the basis of race and gender under cover of such progressive rhetoric as “antiracism” is insidious. I would never presume to humiliate or shame a child or a young adult because of her or his phenotypic characteristics. But to have partisan interests reflected in public education in order to reinforce the obnoxious teachings of a segment of the population only doubles down on the problem.

I see the effects of the programming in the acquiescence of my colleagues in higher education to ideological struggle sessions cloaked in such Orwellian language as “diversity and equity training,” their equanimity prepared by their socialization in the institution of public education. As part of this structure, I feel a special burden to speak up about the direction it has taken. I am moreover, as a sociologist, acutely aware of the subtle forces that coerce education professionals to participate in reproducing that structure.

Public education is shot through with subversive political projects of this sort. Public schools should not, for example, insist that children and young adults tolerate exclusive and oppressive religious doctrines, such as those teachings imposing modesty dress on girls or condemning homosexuality, as merely “other cultural practices.” It is not the purpose of public education to validate any given ideology or deform a person’s ability to distinguish right from wrong by invalidating ordinary moral judgment as “ethnocentric.” In cultural terms, public schools have only to uphold the liberal values of autonomy, creativity, equality, free thought and expression, humanism, individualism, and secularism to do the right thing. For these are the values that allow persons the chance to manifest more fully the human right to self-actualization.

I expect some will find this essay insulting. Offense-taking does not negate facts and experiences. I remind the audience that I am the son of teachers and a teacher myself. I have children in public schools. My wife is a education professional. I study pedagogy and have reviewed the curricular materials of public schools and, more than once, spoken up about them. I confess, I should speak up more frequently and more vociferously than I have. So here we are. (Moreover, it is a shame that the best criticisms of the problem come not from the left but from the right. See There Is No Apolitical Classroom, The Silence of the School Reformers, and Woke History Is Making Big Inroads in America’s High Schools.)

I recognize that many teachers disseminate propaganda handed down to them from on high. But here staff and teachers have an important role to play by challenging their administration over content or in practice avoiding transmitting the worst aspects of woke programming. Teachers should not wait for parents to probe their children for information in order to intervene. Teachers know better than anyone how reluctant parents can be to challenge authority. Teachers have a responsibility to not harm children with programming that can cause distress, engender guilt, or stigmatize.

The problem of indoctrination in education runs deep. The unraveling of the Enlightenment that woke ideology advances (postmodernism, poststructuralism, and all the rest of it) is part of a project reflecting decades of managed decline of Western civilization by corporate power and its functionaries in the culture industry and the administrative apparatus. These insidious notions are the result of a long march through our institutions by those who mean to undermine the values of personal and popular sovereignty that mark Western civilization as the pinnacle of world-historical development.

The goal of the project is obvious in its effects. And that’s why we have to confront the problem. And why we have to confront it now. We risk losing everything that has made our societies just and successful. Those who desire to fundamentally change Western society know how important it is to get at our children. It is our civic duty to protect them from it.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

3 thoughts on “Returning to Woke Progressive Education—A Threat Greater than COVID-19?”

  1. School does not do that good a job of socializing children. It throws them into a highly artificial (and often traumatic) environment that has nothing to do with adult life. In fact to become a functional adult one has to unlearn much of what he picked up in school.
    If it does not effectively socialize then there is no point to a 6 hour school day before the age of 13 or 14 except as glorified daycare with some indoctrination thrown in.

    1. Thanks you for comment! Physical education still has something to do with adult life. Many people work in environments approximating the school environments. Environments can and should be changed where they are not conducive to maximizing health social interactions. Not all children do well in these environments. I hated it. But being at home, often alone, without access to a range of people with different backgrounds and ways of interactions, is not good for children. We used to have communities. These have been destroyed by mass society. Now they are being virtualized. Human nervous systems depend on physical interactions. Physical schools provides an experience of community. Again, not all will thrive. Some will suffer. But many will suffer without the experience. We are seeing it in drastic increases in anxiety, depression, suicide, and acting out. Those are real and measurable effects.

    2. Yeah, no community. Contemporary schooling might be a mess but there is nothing to replace it with, not on a large scale anyway.

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