Ideology in Public Schools—What Can We Do About It?

Yesterday, FIRE tweeted the following (note the reference about the “book police”):

I responded. “I like you guys a lot, I really do, but keeping pornographic and ideological materials away from children is not a free speech issue. You know as well as anybody the difference between free speech and indoctrination.” I intervenes because I am concerned that FIRE is going the way of the ACLU, which has become an advocacy group for some of the most crackpot ideas ever devised by man, among them critical race theory and gender ideology. When FIRE appeared, it promised to be a neutral arbiter of free speech. Defending the practice in public schools of making accessible to children works of pornography and extreme ideological ideas is not being a neutral arbiter. It also ignores the democratic and traditional role of the community and family in determining or at least shaping the determination of curricular materials and pedagogical approaches.

From the Book Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, available at many public schools

User @DirtyHalt responded to my tweet: “Keeping pornography away from children isn’t, but ideological materials away is. It’s established precedent that it’s against the first ammendment [sic] for public schools to restrict books on ideological grounds.” I rebutted “Are third parties allowed to place bibles in public schools? Can taxpayer dollars be used to buy bibles? Can children tell whether a bible in the classroom is private religious speech or state endorsed speech?”

My rebuttal was not entirely rhetorical. I was looking for a conversation. So far, nothing. But I was in asking these questions also alluding to the imperative of freedom of conscience and thought and the problem of the captive audience. Teachers have kids for a good part of the day and, unlike colleges and universities, where teachers enjoy academic freedom and can explore ideological matters if relevant to the subject matter, k-12 institutions are compulsory and totalistic; the students there are immature and easily influenced by authority figures. A public school classroom can easily cross over into a reeducation camp where children’s consciences are reformed in ways contrary to the desire of their parents. Children cannot consent to receiving pornographic and extreme ideological content.

One objection I had expected from @DirtyHalt or somebody else reading the thread was a note about the First Amendment concerning the religious specifically and not ideology more generally. Read strictly, some might argue, any restrictions on ideology in the article refer to religious ideologies. It’s hard to imagine that an ideology instructing its followers to believe that gendered souls enter wrong bodies, which is one of the tenets of Queer Theory, doesn’t count as a religion. Scientology is a recognized religion and its doctrine is almost identical in form to Queer Theory. Would any public school allow the teaching of Scientology in the classroom? Are public school libraries likely to have a copy of L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics on the shelf? Like Scientology, Queer Theory is a faith-based system.

Indeed, Dianetics has been the subject of controversies with respect to its presence in public libraries. These controversies stem from the association of the book with the Church of Scientology, a religious organization Hubbard founded in 1953. The Church of Scientology has been involved in various legal and public controversies over the years, which have contributed to concerns and debates regarding the presence of materials associated with Scientology in public libraries. Some individuals and organizations have raised questions about the appropriateness of stocking the book in public libraries due to the controversial nature of Scientology as a religious movement, its practices, and allegations of harmful or coercive practices within the organization. Different public libraries and school districts may have varying policies and perspectives on the inclusion of materials associated with Scientology or any other religious or controversial group. Imagine if Scientology were being push in schools the way Queer Theory is. (See my recent blog Dianetics in Our Schools for such an imagining.)

Moreover, determining what is and is not a religion is really the business of social science, not the government. This is true for other areas of social life, as well. The American criminologist Edwin Sutherland advanced the idea of “analogous social injury,” challenging the legalistic definition of crime and arguing instead for a broader understanding of harmful behaviors in society. He observed that legal definitions of crime did not capture the full range of harmful behaviors—behaviors that matched the conceptual definition of crime but were not defined as such by the state. By expanding the definition of crime to include analogous social injuries, Sutherland highlighted the significance of acts such as corporate fraud, white-collar crimes, and other forms of offenses that have profound negative effects on society. We can apply Sutherland’s insight to ideological systems. If an ideology meets the terms of a religion, as conceptualized by social science, then it is a religion. After all, we don’t decide what constitutes the products and processes of natural history based on whether the government endorses these as such.

But I don’t have to reduce the First Amendment to religious liberty to argue for the exclusion of ideological materials in public school libraries and classrooms. I can appeal to freedom of conscience, of which religious liberty is a subset. When the First Amendment was drafted, the framers of the US Constitution had this liberty in mind. The framers, influenced by Enlightenment ideals, sought to establish a government that would protect individual liberties and prevent the government from establishing a national religion or interfering with people’s beliefs and practices. They recognized the importance of allowing individuals to exercise their own conscience in matters of faith, free from government coercion or establishment of a state religion. The freedom of conscience encompasses the right to hold and express one’s religious beliefs or to choose not to adhere to any religious beliefs at all. It extends beyond religious freedom to include personal beliefs and convictions in general. The framers aimed to create a society where individuals could freely exercise their conscience and practice their chosen religion without fear of persecution or government intrusion. A public school teacher peddling the ideas of Queer Theory is clearly an act of government interfering with people’s beliefs and practices.

Returning to my questions in my response to @DirtyHalt, I asked whether the state can buy Christian bibles to place in school libraries. The Supreme Court has ruled that public schools may include religious texts, including the Bible, in their libraries as part of a diverse collection of materials. Crucially, the acquisition of religious texts must serve an educational purpose rather than promote or endorse a particular religion. This is one of the key difference between education and indoctrination: the appearance of alternative materials and contrary and critical views presented in an ideologically-neutral manner in an ideologically-neutral context (see my recent blog Civic Spaces and the Illiberal Desire to Subvert Them). If the Bible is acquired and displayed alongside other religious and secular texts, it is less likely to be seen as an endorsement of Christianity, but teachers also have an obligation to not favor the Bible over the other religious texts—or religions over atheism or irreligious beliefs and opinions. Nor should the plan of the library or classroom and the arrangement of materials therein be such as to steer children towards one over another.

Christianity is central to world history, so it stands to reason that the Bible may appear in the teaching of that history. However, it cannot be used in any way that suggests that teachers or the building endorses Christianity, and for younger children religion is a subject that should probably not be part of public school instruction. Since the selection of materials is a deliberative affair, what materials appear, when and where, should be part of that discussion. Teaching Christianity or Islam may undermine a child’s home instruction in matters of conscience, something that should be left to families; as a matter of principle, state institutions in a religiously-plural mass society should avoid intruding on this realm. It is difficult for a child to differentiate between a historical text being presented as such in an objective way and the presentation of Christianity as state endorsed speech. This is why the Christian Bible must appear, if it appears as all, alongside other religious text, such as the Koran. This is why the substance of religious thought should be avoided altogether. It’s one thing to note as a historical fact when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity. It’s quite another thing to teach or even suggest Christianity as a preferred belief system. The idea of eternal life in heaven is an attractive one, and teaching the Gospels may influence a student to adopt the Christian faith.

Perhaps a book based on the religious (or quasi-religious) doctrines of Queer Theory can appear in the same way as the Bible, but, as with Christianity, it cannot be used in a manner that suggests the building endorses Queer Theory. Moreover, if such books do appear, books critical of gender ideology should also appears alongside them. Of course, while this would improve the situation, we know that resistance to the inclusion of such materials would be fierce, with claims of anti-trans bigotry and transphobia flying. Such books would be labeled as hate speech and, if not excluded outright, disappear in short order by those convinced that it is their mission in life to safeguard queer children from criticisms of gender ideology—a move that in reality uses children to defend an ideology the teachers wish to continue pushing the ideology on children. (If activist teachers actually cared about safeguarding children, they would not expose them to pornographic and extreme ideological content.)

This is why intent is so important to consider in such matters. It would be naïve in the extreme to fail to grasp the reality that books rooted in Queer Theory are presented to students in a way that strongly indicates an endorsement. Indeed, this is why such books appear in the first place: activists teachers and community members want to influence children to take up the ideology and apply it to their lives. Like other proselytizing religions, Queer Theory comes with a praxis of transgression, which involves disrupting the evolved understanding of some thing in order to prepare the ground for an ideological one. The desire to indoctrinate is conveyed by flags and posters advocating the ideology. Classrooms are today explicitly designated safe spaces for queer children in the same way a classroom might be designated a safe space for Christian children but for Supreme Court rulings. Access to safe spaces necessarily comes with deference to the purpose of designating a space as such. Any child entering that space would have to agree with the ideology governing that space. This is a violation of the child’s freedom of conscience. (See Why It Harms the Liberty of Neither Teachers Nor Students to Restrict Ideology in the Classroom.)

Ideology in the classroom

I also asked whether third parties can buy Christian bibles for the school library. Public schools generally have the discretion to accept donated materials, including religious texts. However, the same principle as presented above applies here: the acceptance of religious texts must be part of a broader collection of materials and not used to promote or endorse a specific religion. Because third parties donations may undermine religious diversity, care should be taken to ensure balance in the materials. This is true for ideological diversity more broadly. If trans activists donate books advocating or assuming the validity of Queer Theory, then books offering alternative views on gender, including books critical of gender ideology, must also be included in the collection. If this cannot be accomplished, then the materials with ideological treatments of the subject of gender should be refused or removed.

I might also have asked whether teachers can put Christian messages in the classroom, which is to ask whether they should advocate ideological and political opinions in the capacity as teachers. I have blogged on this matter before (see Faith Belief and Flag Flying; Whose Spaces Are These Anyway? Political Advocacy in Public Schools). The answer is very clear. Public school teachers, as representatives of the state, must adhere to the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Therefore, they should not promote or endorse any specific religion, including Christianity, while acting in their official capacity. However, teachers may discuss religion objectively in an educational context, as long as it serves an academic purpose, such as teaching about different religions as part of a social studies curriculum. The same rules should apply to any ideology or philosophy. In discussing the ideas of Karl Marx and his advocacy of communism, teachers should present Frederich Hayek and his advocacy of capitalism. If the Communist Manifesto appears in the school library, then so should the Road to Serfdom. Teachers must avoid indicating, and the layout of the library and the classroom should not be so arranged as to indicate, a preference for either the ideas of Marx or Hayek.

However, most children do not have the capacity to grasp the arguments of Marx and Hayek, so one should ask whether these materials are really relevant for a public school library or classroom. One might simplify these ideas of course, but for what purpose? Is the debate between communism and capitalism age-appropriate for most school children? To be sure, in the teaching of history, the subjects of communism and capitalism may come up, and a teacher can summarize the ideologies that animate both systems, but to endorse one system over the other would constitute an act of indoctrination not education. There are many areas like this. In teaching environmental matters, are children really in a position to determine whether they are justifiably panicked about global warming based on the science? Do they understand that science? Can they? Will alternative arguments be presented?

The same is true for Queer Theory. In what context would it be relevant to teach children extreme and controversial ideas about gender? If this were to occur, then the arguments against the tenets of Queer Theory should also appear, and the teacher should avoid appearing to endorse one view over another. A teacher should be allowed to teach Queer Theory as if it is uncontroversial. But the question of why such ideas need to be covered in the first place should be at the center of this controversy. Claiming that queer children need the ideas taught for their own benefit presupposes that they would seek these ideas or benefit from them before being taught them—indeed, that all children would desire to know these things or benefit from them. If such are argument were made about Christianity, it would be obvious that the practice ran afoul of the First Amendment. It is no less obvious that teaching Queer Theory to children contradicts freedom of conscience and thought when one operates from principle rather than politics.

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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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