Why It Harms the Liberty of Neither Teachers Nor Students to Restrict Ideology in the Classroom

Indeed, removing ideology from classrooms is vital for the liberty of both

I recently attended a dinner party. The attendees were devoted woke progressive types. As the evening grew long, the conversation moved to the subject of Florida and the restrictions the legislature and governor placed on the ability of teachers to touch upon sensitive subjects in their classrooms, such as gender and race. The confidence of the criticism expressed at the table indicated to me that ideology was preventing the party from recognizing that, if the ideas that were restricted were ideas with which they strongly disagreed, such as racist and sexist ideas, then they would have supported the legislation, but because the restrictions instead targeted ideas with which they agreed, the law in question was judged regressive, even reactionary.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis displays the signed Parental Rights in Education, aka the Don’t Say Gay bill, flanked by elementary school students during a news conference on Monday, March 28, 2022, at Classical Preparatory school in Shady Hills. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

I wanted to make this assumption explicit, so I argued that whether one agrees with critical race theory, gender theory, or queer theory, the question of whether these or curriculum based upon associated ideas should be “taught” in public schools (k-12) on principle is the relevant question to ask, not whether the theories are correct. The objection went up that these were not being taught in public schools so the controversy was manufactured. Of course, they are, I countered. I have been teaching critical theory in my sociology classes for more than a quarter century. I know what critical theory is, that it is being taught in public schools in one fashion or another, and then expressed the opinion that it is inappropriate on principle to teach it or anything based upon it in a public school classroom.

When asked my understanding of critical race theory (the tone suggesting that anybody who disagrees with the teaching of or from this standpoint doesn’t actually know what it is), I allowed myself to be (strategically) momentarily taken off message by explaining that, in direct opposition to the legal framework of the American system of law, as well as the ethical foundation of liberalism and the Enlightenment, CRT treats concrete individuals as if they are personifications of abstract racial categories worthy of being held responsible for the alleged actions of other persons dead or living. Blaming a white person for the actions of all white persons past and present is an irrational assignment of guilt contrary to Western jurisprudence and this is precisely what CRT advocates. Critical race theory, I furthered argued, operates on, if not explicitly religious sensibilities, then quasi-religious ones. The same is true for notions conveyed by gender and queer theory—notions such as “authentic selves.” Such notions are with the angels in heavens (or with the devils in hell). As such, these are not things to teach a seven year old, not only because they are abstract and ideological, but because they will confuse children, cause them anxiety, and take them away from the purpose of public education. This, I said, was the motivation behind the Florida law.

There was an attempt to drag the conversation further away from the question of public education’s purpose by seeking, couched in the progressive rhetoric of equity, the weeds of racial inequality. To get the discussion back on the matter of principle, I asked if I could give an example of a curriculum that I thought they would agree should not be taught in public school. I promised them it would be interesting as it was personal (and we know how progressives love “lived experience” stories). They allowed me to give my example and I expressed appreciation of their their charity (I am getting better at these discussions).

Here was my story: Several years ago, my second grader came home from school with a letter from his teacher informing his parents that his class would be participating in Junior Achievement, a program organized by the Chambers of Commerce to draw the attention of children to the righteousness of capitalism. Junior Achievement is pro-corporate propaganda, I explained to the party, in case it wasn’t obvious, the purpose of which is get children thinking in particular ways at a young age. Developmental psychology indicates that that seven years old is a good age to begin deep programming in corporate and other ideology (this is the age when children start doubting myth). Those who want to get our children find their way into their heads by infusing the curriculum with propaganda couched in an age-appropriate way.

I told them that I wrote a letter to the principal of the school explaining why I removed my child from class that day (a difficult decision), and why I did not believe Junior Achievement should be “taught” in school, at least not without equal time for a critique of the standpoint from which the “lesson” hailed: “Junior Achievement is dogma, not enlightenment. It takes capitalism and elevates it to a virtue and then systematically masks the history and reality of the system in order to brainwash children into accepting a system that exploits them. As such, it is out of place in a public educational setting and, really, not befitting a democratic society.” (This is from the actual letter, not verbatim what I summarized for them.)

However, I told the dinner party, Junior Achievement is really out of place in a public educational setting independent of whether capitalism is a righteous or exploitative system, since, as I noted in the first sentence: “Junior Achievement is dogma, not enlightenment.” The deconstruction of Junior Achievement is unnecessary in light of the principle that education is about enlightenment not indoctrination. It is just as unnecessary as having to explain the problems with gender theory and queer theory in an argument for removing these theories from the classroom. I stressed that the fact that we agreed that it is wrong to indoctrinate children with pro-capitalist propaganda should not depend on our opinion about capitalism, but instead on the purpose of public education. Education is not for the purpose of indoctrination whatever the dogma.

I had their attention, so I reinforced the point with another example. I asked those sitting at the table if it would be appropriate to teach children about Christianity? Not a lesson in which Christianity were noted as one of many religions in world history or similar content, I clarified. All that is fine, of course, because it educational. I mean the teaching of Christianity to affirm its message, to compel a captive audience of second graders to recite its scriptures and participate in its rituals. Would this be okay? My group agreed that this would be wrong. Of course. One person even noted the difference between taking a child to church over against enrolling the child in Sunday school. Excellent example, I said (thanks for making my point for me). The first instance is a cultural experience. In the latter, you’re giving up your child to indoctrination. And this is precisely what happens when you give up your child to public schools with curricula that includes affirming dogmas of various sorts. It’s like sending your kid to Vacation Bible School.

Here’s what we did not talk about. The reason that critical theory, accompanied by the language of diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as rainbow and light blue, pink, and white flags, and all the rest of is, find their way into a second grade class room is the same reason Junior Achievement is there—a powerful lobby that knows this is the age where laying a foundation for this or that worldview enjoys a crucial development window, one that makes children resistant to receiving criticisms of lobby’s standpoint or reluctant to speak up about that standpoint, targeting the moment when they are close to, if they are not already, doubting the existence of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, colonizes the curriculum and captures teachers, administers, and school boards members and directs them on a cushion of virtue to indoctrinate children in whatever the desired mythology is.

The lesson of this story is that it is important to be aware of the prejudices of an audience. For this reason, I did not interfere with the power of principle by explain that both Junior Achievement and CRT hail from the same standpoint: programming the corporate state seeks to install on the wetware of children in order to prepare them for incorporation in the bureaucratic and technocratic structure of late capitalism. These were progressives. That these are the ideas that are taught in corporate bureaucracies and in administrative training sessions do not impress the professional-managerial functionaries of the technocracy order. One has to know their loathings and appeal to those while avoiding their commitment to self-denial about the reality of corporate governance. This was the reason I used Christianity instead of Islam in my second example. There is a risk with progressives, having fully accepted the multicultural dogma, which holds that the other is exotic and the exotic is something to be fetishized and embraced, that they will likely find no problem with children chanting the Islamic slogans and rehearsing the rituals of this regressive ideology.

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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.

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