Today in Cognitive Dissonance: Classroom Culture Wars

So, over the weekend, this came to my attention. Maine’s Tea Party heavy Republican State Convention met at a Portland middle school to rewrite their party platform and committed petty acts of politically charged vandalism while they were there:

When he went home for the weekend on Friday, one of [eighth grade social studies teacher Paul Clifford's] most prized teaching tools – a collage-type poster depicting the history of the U.S. labor movement – was affixed to his classroom door. Clifford uses it each year to teach his students how to incorporate collages into their annual project on Norman Rockwell’s historic “Four Freedoms” illustrations.[...]When Clifford returned to school Monday morning, his cherished labor poster was gone. In its place, taped to the same door, was a red-white-and-blue bumper sticker that read, “Working People Vote Republican.”

Monday morning (May 10), members of the caucus began calling the school to complain about other super-offensive things they had seen in the classroom, including a box of copies of The Constitution that happened to be donated by the ACLU and student projects, at least one of which was critical of George W. Bush. It should be noted that the executive director of the Maine Republican Party has apologized, and it is to the credit of the principal and the students that Clifford was supported in his effort to get the missing classroom decorations back.

Then this morning, I learn that the Texas State Board of Education–notably far right wing board member Don McLeroy, who recently lost a primary challenge to a moderate–is up to more shenanigans. Now, in addition to recommending that Thomas Jefferson be dropped from the history curriculum in favor of Rush Limbaugh and the Moral Majority, McLeroy would now like to require discussion of the problems with social security and U.N. threats to U.S. national sovereignty.

At first, I wanted to just post this with the snarky comment: “of course, it’s only dangerous indoctrination if you don’t agree with it. LULZ.” But here’s the thing, I’m sort of having cognitive dissonance about this myself. See, I initially felt bemusement toward the conservatives who walked into Paul Clifford’s classroom and said “SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAS HAPPENED HERE.” I imagined they heard unsettling horror movie music  as they walked inside and gradually the full scale of the atrocities happening there were unveiled before their eyes in the form of posters, collages, and stickers. But then again, if I had an eighth grader and happened to see a poster charting the rise of the modern conservative movement in her classroom (I bet Don McLeroy has one already made up), I might break out into a little bit of a cold sweat, and if I were surrounded by some lefty friends who were able to convince me that this was only the tip of a very insidious iceberg, I’m not sure what I might do. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t commit petty theft or vandalism, but who knows.

In other words, I am not excited about the curricular changes that the Texas State Board of Education is considering and sort of want to jump up and say YOU JUST CAN’T DO THAT, but I’m not sure how that makes me any different from a conservative parent who walks into a classroom and sees evidence of goings on that aren’t in line with my politics or religion.  I think both of us would probably say that we live in a free society, that we celebrate a the free expression of ideas, but we might also say that we think the other person’s ideas are beyond the pale and don’t belong in the classroom.   Basically, if I think too long about this, my brain sort of does contortions:  while I don’t think teachers should necessarily be pushing an agenda in the classroom, “objective fact” and “radical agenda” frequently get confused depending on who you’re talking to, and some of the things McLeroy wants taught are “factual,”so it’s largely just a question of emphasis, and I juuuussst dooooon’t knoooooowww. It hurts.

I wish our schools weren’t culture war battlefields, but they are, and people who care passionately about what happens in them–on all ends of the political spectrum–are going to pick up megaphones and speak. They are going to run for school board and they are going to go get teacher’s licenses, and they are going to join the PTA. The best you can do is just make your voice heard too.

I went to a small evangelical school growing up, and during my junior year, I took Bible with a man that I like to think of as the conservative version of the “tenured radical” that haunts the dreams of David Horowitz. This teacher often used class time to air some crazy-ass conspiracy theories about the government and posit wild revisionist theses, such as “the Emancipation Proclamation was responsible for Southern racial tension.” I wanted this teacher to get fired more than just about anything in the world. I remember ranting about him at the dinner table, trying to get my parents ginned up, talking to my friends about him (none of them seemed quite as concerned as I was), telling some of my other teachers the things he was saying, and drafting letters to the administration.

It took me a few months to realize that this was never, ever going to happen. For one thing, this teacher had been around since approximately the Punic Wars and was a beloved football coach. He also taught photography in the art department and led the annual 8th grade wilderness trip and High School mission trip. He was an integral part of the community. Furthermore, the other Bible teacher pretty much just showed movies all the time, so it’s not like that department had high pedagogical standards in the first place. Until a few years ago, when the school began hiring fresh seminary grads who could do all of the scholarly stuff, the Bible department was basically staffed by camp counselors who were there to sort of teach “spiritual living” until it was time to do their real job, coaching Varsity to another district title.

If I take a step back and think about all of this, I realize three things:

1. People like this former teacher of mine exist, and some of them may wind up teaching your children. Your perspective on their qualifications and effectiveness as teachers is going to largely depend on the degree to which you share their view of the world. You have the right in a democracy to voice your opinion, to write letters, to call administrators, to show up on Parent-Teacher night, to run for the school board. Maybe not so much with the stealing of classroom materials, but you get my drift.

2. Your children do not exist in a vacuum. If you are worried about the messages they are getting in one class, remember that they take other classes too. Unless your kids targeted for discrimination or abuse in class, it probably isn’t absolutely vital that you get that teacher fired right this minute. Throughout their lives, they will have many teachers coming from many pedagogical and ideological perspectives. That same year in school, I had an English teacher who was sort of an Anne Lamott style boho-artistic liberal Christian feminist who caught alot of crap herself in our highly conservative community. To me, she was an inspiration, but the word “Feminazi” floated around a lot in conversation among other students and parents. She occasionally let slip some statements that would have been considered radical or crazy in that context. But she got to keep her job too and wasn’t asked to tone it down or anything, and I’m glad for that. I’m not sure that the answer to classroom culture wars is to ask teachers to be dispassionate, fact-dispensing, Thomas Gradgrind-esque drones, which means that many engaged teachers are going to occasionally espouse a viewpoint you don’t particularly care for.

3. Your children really aren’t that fragile. One result of that terrible Bible class was that I became more principled in my own views. I read books on theology so that I could argue with this teacher. I learned a bit about how to take a stand, how to argue. I learned a lot more than I did in the class with the less ideological teacher who showed movies all the time. I still can’t remember what the hell that was all about. Furthermore, being surrounded by authority figures who speak from a particular ideological perspective with one voice is no guarantee that your kids will enter adulthood believing what you want them to believe. I have classmates from that evangelical school who went to very secular colleges and became even more dogmatic (or principled if you prefer) about their faith and their politics. I have classmates that went to religious colleges and were atheists or agnostics by graduation. The point is, sometimes adversity is ok (barring egregious cases of discrimination or abuse). Sometimes it’s even good. Sometimes having the minority opinion makes you stronger, and getting to rest complacently in the majority makes you weaker.

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3 thoughts on “Today in Cognitive Dissonance: Classroom Culture Wars

  1. This post makes me think of one of my favorites from Melissa McEwan: http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/2008/12/spirit-of-fuck-you.html

    I’d agree that pedagogy is never objective, and arguing for objectivity just obscures the power systems that are being supported. However, I don’t think you can talk about conservative politics and liberal politics like they’re just different, equivalent points of view. I don’t think it’s fair to equate, for example, feeling uncomfortable at anti-choice posters versus pro-choice ones. As Melissa says, “The progressive position allows for individual choice; the conservative position does not.”

    1. Alix, I agree with you to the extent that I can say this: I do not believe that all positions are morally equivalent, but that wasn’t what I was trying to posit here. I believe that some political stances are more egalitarian than others, reflect a better application of personal choice than others, etc. However, to borrow your example, I also know that people who hold pro-choice and anti-choice positions believe with equal fervor that their position is rooted in universal moral constants, that what they believe is objectively good or bad. Anti-choice or “pro-life” people (I am related to a lot of these) really do believe they are protecting babies. The desire to control women’s bodies and the social justice issues that permeate the abortion debate are under the radar for them. If it’s a part of their thinking, they don’t know it. Consciously,they just think they are protecting babies, which for them is a universal good. I know this because I actually used to think this way but don’t anymore.

      This post and any future “Today in Cognitive Dissonance” posts is reflective of the discomfort I feel in trying to inhabit a world in which that is true, in which I just walking up to a person who disagrees with me and saying “what you believe is wrong, bigoted, hateful, and immoral” or going to the principal of the school and saying “this teacher is teaching something wrong and immoral” doesn’t solve anything. I can stand up in the public square and explain why I have particular convictions, but there is no guarantee that anyone will accept what I have to say. I guess the point is that both the Tea Partiers in Maine and my sixteen year old self tried to approach this problem by screaming “THIS IS WRONG DON’T YOU SEE THIS IS WRONG WE HAVE TO STOP THIS THINK OF THE CHILDREN GRAB A PITCHFORK!!11!!1″

      I don’t know if any of that made sense, but as I said, I’m still trying to figure it out for myself.

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