The Ethic of Transparency in Public Education—and the Problem of Indoctrination

According to PEN America, over the course of 2021, and continuing into the new year, legislatures across the United States introduced dozens of separate bills that portend the restriction of teaching of children and adults, as well as the training of administrators and teachers, in K-12 schools and higher education. Included in these bills are are restrictions on training in public institutions and state agencies. “The majority of these bills target discussions of race, racism, gender, and American history,” PEN warns, “banning a series of ‘prohibited’ or ‘divisive’ concepts for teachers and trainers operating in K-12 schools, public universities, and workplace settings. These bills appear designed to chill academic and educational discussions and impose government dictates on teaching and learning. In short: They are educational gag orders.”

There are signs of indoctrination in this picture. It’s not the US flag.

It is true that some of the bills go to far. However, we have to keep in mind that efforts to impose “content- and viewpoint-based censorship,” have as counterparts efforts to impose content- and viewpoint-based ideologies on children, college students, and workers. There is indeed a potential problem in signaling “that specific ideas, arguments, theories, and opinions may not be tolerated by the government.” But this depends on what those ideas are and who is targeted to receive them. PEN contends that, while the legislation includes “language that purports to uphold free speech and academic inquiry. This language, intended to help safeguard these bills from legal and constitutional scrutiny, does little or nothing to change the essential nature of these bills as instruments of censorship.” This is a claim of which we must be skeptical. The problem lies in the deployment of the term “censorship.” It is not censorship to prevent an institution of public instruction to indoctrinate those under its charge in particular ideologies.

There are things that administrators and teachers wish to expose children to that should be age-restricted. If you don’t understand this then you don’t understand basic developmental psychology. Preventing teachers from discussing with five-years-olds the possibility that may not be the sex indicated by the chromosome and gonads should be uncontroversial. Little kids don’t get abstractions, They have vivid imaginations and are often unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality. They are highly impressionable and suggestible. If you know about the satanic ritual hysteria of the 1980s and, more broadly, the problem of social contagion, then you understand why we have to be careful about what we introduce to a captive audience of children. We also have to understand that the desire to expose young children to gender ideology is a political project. Those pushing the ideology don’t deny this.

As for the things administrators and teachers wish to expose to older children, in high school and middle school, there is a difference between debating and discussing ideas about race and gender and compelling children or creating an environment in which children feel compelled to receive as true and to adopt as personal commitment particular political-ideological lines. In its totality, the First Amendment of the US Bill of Rights protects freedom of conscience, speech, and association. A necessary part of that fundamental freedom is freedom from compelled thought. Indeed, one difference—perhaps the biggest difference—between a free society and an authoritarian one is the right to freely choose what one believes and says.

It is one thing to teach high school students in a social studies class about world religions. It is quite another thing to have them to repeat slogans associated with a particular religious doctrine. You can no more obligate a student to list the pillars of faith in Islam than to chant that the only path to salvation and ever-lasting life is through Jesus Christ. The same is true with partisan political ideologies. There can be no attempt to recruit students to any political party. The same is true with gender and race doctrines. Gender and race doctrines are ideological in the same way that religion is ideological. Compelling children or making children feel compelled to adopt a gender or race doctrine violates the very essence of the First Amendment. It is moreover a violation of their fundamental human rights under international law. A public school’s task is not the climb into a child’s head and either install or uninstall ideologies. Public schools are not to be reeducation camps or a series of programming/deprogramming sessions.

This problem has nothing to do with requiring students to produce the correct answer on a math or science text, use correct grammar and spelling in their essays, or even state accurately the facts of history as reached through consensus (open to revision) by professional historians. However, if you indoctrinate students in the belief that that math, science, and language rules are ideological systems, say the expression of “white supremacy,” or that historical understandings hailing from the standpoint of marginalized groups must be given epistemic privilege, then you run afoul of the First Amendment (and the norms of objectivity). If you teach children as fact that some of them live on stolen land, that some of them bear historical responsibility for the actions of their ancestors, or that some of them enjoy racial privilege at the expense of other children with a different skin color, then you run afoul of the First Amendment, not to mention the truth. You are not teaching in these instances. You are engaged in indoctrination.

As a matter of democratic principle, almost everything public educators do should be transparent to parents and taxpayers. This does not mean that teachers should not enjoy academic freedom or freedom of conscience, or that in the case of abusive relations at home children should not enjoy some expectation of confidence with a counselor (admittedly a tricky area, there are extraordinary cases). Rather, it means curricula and pedagogical techniques should be available for review by parents and concerned and interested citizens.

In a democracy, the people have a right to know what the institutions that serve them and their communities (and I mean here actual communities, not abstract or rhetorical ones) are doing and to criticize those policies and practices—and to reform them if they do not meet constitutional standards. Public education should not be a black box. Public education should not consist of programs to indoctrinate children in the ideologies consuming the professional-managerial class that has captured the institutions of our republic.

I am writing this today because the flood of bills coming out of the states concerning race and gender ideology are uniformly met by progressives as violative of academic freedom—a sentiment reflected in the PEN document I have shared with you. To be sure, some of the bills go too far by essentially banning discussion of ideas that may, in an age-appropriate manner, and in an even-handed and objective manner, be entertained in a classroom. But the blanket condemnation of these bills is knee-jerk. It does not reflect what is actually in many of them. Moreover, a lot of what will follow passage of these bills will work itself out in practice. There will be court challenges. There will be an emerging consensus. But something must be done to stifle the woke turn corrupting public education. Public education has become clearly ideological and in a particular direction. It shouldn’t be ideological at all. It may not be possible to get ideology out of everything, but this should be the goal.

People talk before the start of a rally against “critical race theory” (CRT) being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021.

I have heard the righteous indignation from teachers about these bills (remember, I am a college teacher). Administrators and teachers as functionaries of a public institutions really don’t have a right be get defensive over calls for transparency. When it comes to the rights of individuals before state power, then the notion that, if one has nothing to hide, then one should not remain silent, has purchase. But this principle is not true for the government and its institutions and its functionaries. Government actors who attempt to conceal the operation of public institutions deserve suspicion and are subject to review. The burden switches in these respective situations. If they’re doing nothing wrong, then there is no reason to hide curricula and pedagogy from parents and the public generally—and administrators and teachers shouldn’t be the ones deciding what’s right and wrong in a democracy. That’s for the people to decide where not limited by the inherent rights of the individual. When it comes to children, parents have a special right to know what is going on and to object if they believe it is harming their children.

What you can do as a defender of democratic and liberal freedoms is tell your legislators where these bills go too far and how they can be improved, and then help your neighbor understand the importance of transparency and public and parental oversight in curricular and pedagogical matters.

(For more about the training piece of this problem see Can I Get an “Amen” to That? No, But Here’s Some Fairy Dust; The Woke Church and the Threat to Free Speech and Religious Liberty. For more on critical race theory, see Critical Race Theory: A New Racism. I have written quite a lot on this topic, but that should give some idea of the spirit of my writing.)

Published by

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.