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The Onus of Learning, Part 3: Politics

(All of the opinions expressed below are mine and I am fully aware that all of these ideas will likely offend someone. In today’s environment, you cannot start a dialogue about politics without someone taking an idea the wrong way. If I wrote this as intended, my hope is to shake your perspective on one of the many topics discussed. I do not intend to offend, but tiptoeing around the elephants (and donkeys) in the room does nothing more than skirt passed the root causes of many of the issues plaguing education today.)

I dislike politics, but its impact on educational policies at the macro and micro levels is simply too big to ignore. To not include it would be to dismiss the biggest external factor in the success of students.

Politics in education has often been compared to a pendulum swinging to the right or left, but this metaphor is too simplistic. I prefer to compare politics’ influence to the wind. Ideally, the wind is a gentle cooling breeze, creating a barely perceptible flow of movement. A stifling lack of movement is akin to a stifling lack of resources. Gale force winds, especially when winds push all directions from one moment to the next are often the result of political infighting at the highest levels of leadership, trickling down confusion and misdirection. When I refer to the highest levels of leadership, I am referring to leaders at the district level of a school district and the political leaders at local, state, and federal governments whose decisions trickle down to the students themselves.

(To be clear, I am not advocating for one party over another. Both parties, Republicans and Democrats, are guilty of championing well-meaning but dysfunctional policies that have contributed to confusion permeating districts nationwide.)

My biggest problem with politics, in general, is political discourse compartmentalizes people into groups which easily unravels into an “us versus them” dysfunction. Instead of focusing on an issue or a problem, the problem becomes the person raising the issue and, by extension, the idiosyncrasies of whatever group (or party) they may represent. Ideas are not considered by their own merits. Its value is determined by the credibility of its presenter.

Personally, I have a deep aversion to individuals who think that bullying, attacks, and hostile behaviors are effective ways to take charge. In my humble opinion, this bravado is a ruse; it distracts from the underlying issues and is meant to silence and submit. A culture of blind obedience, malicious compliance, and fear of retribution for speaking up in schools is a consequence of dysfunctional policies and, too often, the bravado of too many cooks in a kitchen steering the ship in opposing directions. Although every district has its own personal examples, the back and forth over masks and hybrid learning is still fresh enough in recent memory, even from those who may not follow school politics regularly.

In the name of leadership, decisions are often made without consideration of how those decisions impact the people who are required to comply, further contributing to the idea that the highest levels of leadership are out-of-touch with the day-to-day needs of the school communities. Although well-meaning (I hope), a disconnect from the practical realities can set everyone up for failure.

For example, when I was a teacher, years before COVID and during a time when laptops and other classroom technology were in scarce supply, my district announced an initiative that would require all ELAR (English/Language Arts/Reading) classes to devote X amount of time per day or week using a specific educational app. My memory is hazy on the specifics of the mandate, but what I do remember was the mandate required all students to use this app during class time for a set amount of time, and using it outside of school was simply not an option for reasons I do not remember. The program would only focus on informational texts, which was only a fraction of the content the students needed to prepare for their accountability tests. There were four or five ELAR teachers for each grade (6th, 7th, and 8th), enough library computers for two classes, and two school COWs (computers on wheels equipped with a classroom set of laptops) that could be borrowed from the school library. Assuming all technology was working well, assuming no students were absent, we arranged a rotation of reservations so all classes could access the necessary computers to give students time on the app, which was far below the mandates of the district but the best we could do given the availability of technology on our campus. This also meant that no other subject would have opportunities to use school technology. The district-level decision to incorporate the use of this app in ELAR classes failed to take into account the actual resources necessary to make teachers successful, and whether this tool actually helped students (it didn’t. It failed to address the bulk of the material kids needed by only including informational texts skills).

But decisions like this are commonplace in districts across the nation. Some district leader hears a sales pitch for the next great product and approves an exorbitant amount of district funds on the product without finding out first whether campuses have the resources and the training to successfully roll it out. When it fails, some group (teachers, students, parents, someone) is blamed when the fault lies in not taking into consideration the factors necessary to implement it successfully. Decisions like these, which fail to take into account the realities on campus, set teachers and students up for failure.

On the other hand, when government officials make curriculum decisions for political reasons, students become ill-equipped for the background knowledge required for college and careers. For example, Florida recently approved a social studies curriculum that suggests that slavery posed benefits for slaves. This very recent example creates a dangerous precedent: rather than recognizing the truth of history, it paves the way for a revisionist falsehood that creates conditions for history to repeat itself.

These are a sampling of mirrored quotes that express the danger of government overreach relevant in today’s curriculum history wars:

  • “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” (Winston Churchill)

  • “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)

  • “History never repeats itself, but it often rhymes.” (Mark Twain)

To be explicitly clear, I will not mince words and condone any version of history that suggests that the enslavement of African people and their descendants is anything other than a painfully shameful era of American history, just as I cannot in good faith suggest that the belief of “manifest destiny” justified the genocide of Indigenous people. The atrocities that both of these groups experienced, the callous disregard for their basic human rights and personal dignity, should be recognized in schools. It is part of documented American history. Slavery was not indentured servitude nor was it some sort of career-training apprenticeship. This is not a “woke” argument; this is stating historical facts and historical facts should be taught even if it makes people uncomfortable because as Americans, we should recognize our history for what it is.

This leads me to our modern-day Tower of Babel. In the political sphere, there are words that have recently changed in meaning, charged with connotations and denotations that go far beyond their original meanings. I often see them thrown around indiscriminately, too often by those who fail to adequately define them. A far from exhaustive list includes woke, indoctrination, dog whistle, liberty, freedom, spin, banned, cancel, equality, equity, diversity, fairness, and gaslighting, just to list a few. A societal refusal to use a common definition for these words easily lead to confusion and misunderstandings. A deliberate use of a politically charged word with the sole intention of sowing anger and negativity, especially in the context of education, just creates more problems. Consider the word “woke” since this word was the catalyst for Florida’s curriculum changes. Woke was originally described as a person who is awake to the realities of history, especially pertaining to racial justice; however, its meaning has been bogarted as a political boogeyman. To accuse someone of being woke seems akin to Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s accusing political opponents of communism. The mere suggestion of sympathy for communism during this time was enough to ostracize people from their careers and social graces. As an educator, being accused of being woke in school settings, depending on the political leanings of the community, has a similar effect.

Another serious political consequence in education is the rise of the banned book movement. In my personal opinion as a parent and educator, I believe that all materials should be available to anyone who cares to read them and that parents should only have the right to exercise restrictions for their children, but that’s my soapbox opinion. I’m an unabashed book nerd and my love for books is what motivated me to be an educator in the first place. Yet there are books of great educational significance that have been banned for political reasons that create a serious deficit in a student’s education. Specifically, I’m referring to The Holy Bible.

The arguments between the separation of church and state have been a driving force of controversy since the days of our founding fathers and the argument against the reading of Bibles in schools is rooted in opposition to state-sponsored religion. Freedom of religion also includes freedom from religion. Anyone can choose to practice (or not practice) any religion, including those inspired by the Bible, yet it does not dismiss the real background knowledge necessary to reach across the disciplines to understand why people did what they did during various points of history.

I was not raised with faith and the first time I read the Bible was on my own in college. I started my collegiate career with a significant deficit because I lacked a rudimentary understanding of the Bible and you simply cannot understand the full depth and scope of great literature without recognizing the influence of the Bible. Likewise, you cannot understand the full scope of Western civilization without the inclusion of the Bible. The influence of the Bible has spanned throughout the entire world, but especially in Western cultures: The Crusades, Reformation, wars between Protestants and Catholics in Europe and elsewhere, the Spanish Inquisition, Galileo, and even the pursuit of scientific research over the centuries was shaped by the Biblical influence of the day. Even during the drafting of the constitution, the founding fathers argued between factions of Protestants and the enlightened agnostics who were influenced by the philosophers of the day (when I say enlightened, I refer to the influence of the Enlightenment period, not that they were illuminated). Even most of the hot-button issues of today can find some root in biblical texts impacting the societal perspective. Without even a rudimentary grasp of the Bible, a student’s understanding of literature, history, art, and even science would be lacking without this component.

Yet, despite its obvious significance in education, political tides sway between a complete ban on Biblical teaching and a push for Bible-based, faith-based education in public and private schools. Both approaches take on a political bias and both, though well-meaning, fail. If schools had taught me the Bible during my K-12 years from a lens of evangelizing and conversion, that approach would never have worked on me. That would be the literal definition of indoctrinate (defined in dictionaries as “teach (a person or a group) a set of beliefs uncritically”) and although I am a Christian today, I would’ve interpreted this approach as a student as a force-feeding of faith. A spiritual awakening is extremely personal and I would never interfere (nor condone inference) with anyone’s personal relationship (or lack thereof) with God. But that does not negate the educational impact and the deficit that lacking this background knowledge can create for students once they enter college.

Perhaps the greatest consequence of politics in education is how the words and actions of adults directly impact the students themselves. Kids, no matter the age, are always watching and whether adults intend to model behaviors with kids in mind is irrelevant; kids watch, then copy. When children watch their parents berate and accost their teachers and campus leaders at school board meetings or at the dinner table behind closed doors, the message children receive is that the people responsible for teaching them are not worthy of their respect, time, and attention. When adults, especially those in the public domain, model toxic behaviors, kids receive the message that they too should model this behavior. Recent examples that especially irk me include the refusal to apologize for a wrong (It does not make you strong. It makes you a jerk); losing with(out) grace (If you lose a game (or an election), concede and congratulate the victor); whether fairness and justice are evident when rules and laws are equally applied to all, not just in theory but in practice. Children look up to the leaders of society and those leaders in the public sphere carry a heavy responsibility as influencers to both adults and children.

I recently read a quote from James Clear’s 3-2-1 newsletter (James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits) that I found very relevant in the politics of education: “One sign you haven’t done enough reading is if you find yourself agreeing with whatever book you read last. At first, it’s easy to be swayed by any reasonable argument. Once you’ve read a lot, you can see that even the best arguments have limitations.” Although the onus of education is ultimately on the students themselves, the cacophonous voices in politics do impact educational outcomes, often in ways that are far beyond their original intentions. My hope is that those in leadership and politics that do impact education become more cognizant and responsible with their words and actions and that the students develop the wisdom to sift through the noise to draw their own conclusions based on the evidence presented.


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