Social-Emotional Learning vs. Classroom Culture 

 


 
A student accidentally drops her books in the hall.  


 
Another student stops and helps her pick them up.  


 
Then a teacher homes in on the two and gives the helper a little yellow card which can be redeemed for candy.  


 
This is what social-emotional learning (SEL) looks like in my school. 


 
Teachers instruct on proper behaviors and then reward students they see going above and beyond to achieve them.  


 
Here’s another example. 


 
A student at his lunch table is yelling and throwing food. Nearby another student is sitting quietly and reading a book.  


 
Then a teacher walks over and gives the quiet child a yellow card which can be used to enter a raffle for a special prize. He might win an Oculus VR game system or tickets to a baseball game.  


 
That’s social-emotion learning, too.  


 
Instead of just cracking down on the negative behaviors, we try to reward the positive ones.  


 
To be fair, it works to a degree.  


 
But most of the time, it doesn’t. 


 
The same kids end up with huge stacks of yellow cards and the rest get just one or two. Few students actually change their behavior. They just become virtue signalers whenever an adult is present.  


 
Moreover, there’s an incredible amount of pressure on teachers to not just instruct but to closely observe every student’s behavior and constantly give positive reinforcement to those doing what should be the norm.  


 
And that’s not even mentioning the frequent disruptions necessary to reward those children who can best navigate the system. 


 
But that’s only one way of addressing the problem of bad behavior.  


 
Especially now (most student’s first full year of in-person classes after the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic), students don’t seem to know how to interact.  


 
Snubs, insults and instigation seem to be their defaults ways of relating to each other. Some definitely need explicit boundaries and reinforcement.  


 
But it only goes so far in the halls, the cafeteria and during unstructured times.  


 
Inside the classroom is another beast altogether – as it always has been. 


 
Ever since I first started teaching more than two decades ago, it’s been necessary to work to achieve a classroom culture. 


 
The teacher has to expend significant time and energy with the students as a whole and each student individually to set up a mini-society where each member gets respect by giving respect. 


 
We try to set up the environment so everyone feels safe and involved, everyone is accepted for who they are, comfortable to be themselves and feels empowered to take the chances necessary to learn. 


 
It’s not easy, but it’s more about relationships than behaviorism. The reward isn’t something extrinsic – it’s participation in the classroom culture, itself.  


 
Both approaches attempt to do the same thing – create an environment in which learning is possible.

 
 
It reminds me of the famous quote by conductor Leopold Stokowski


 
“A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence.” 


 
In the same way, you might say that learning in a group requires a canvass of positive behaviors or beneficial social interaction.  


 
This has always been the case, though today the concept has become elevated to buzzword status – SEL. 


 
It’s not so much a single program but a loose conglomeration of ideas that have been around forever. 


 
However, like so much about school these days, the work of teachers and students has become both monetized and demonized. 


 
For those on the far right, SEL is code for teaching kids how to think and feel.  


 
They fear leftwing teachers will instill the values of accepting LGBTQ people, different races and cultures.  Why that’s something to be avoided, I don’t know. Perhaps if you want your child to share your own bigotries, public school isn’t for you, no matter what you call the offending programs.  


 
However, for me the worst part is monetization.  


 
An army of corporate education consultants are looking for ways to give shallow professional development to teachers (at a cost to the district) and then run complicated programs from afar.  


 
This means: (1) testing students’ abilities in SEL, (2) holding teachers accountable for student behaviors, and (3) pretending educators are developmental psychologists.  


 
The problem with testing is multifaceted. First, it almost always comes down to more standardized assessments. Nothing is easier to measure but less accurate than multiple choice assessment created by psychometricians far removed from the reality of the classroom. Kids hate it, this wastes class time and makes the entire educational experience sterile and bland. 


 
Holding teachers responsible for the way 20 or more kids act at one time is ridiculous. Even parents with one or two children can’t control how they act – nor should that be the ultimate goal. School isn’t the military. It shouldn’t be about obedience. It should be about critical thinking and cognitive growth.

 
 
Finally, there is something incredibly unfair about expecting teachers who are already overloaded with jobs and responsibilities to suddenly become psychologists, too. Sure, we have some training in childhood psychology as part of our coursework to get our degrees, but we aren’t experts. We’re practitioners. We’re like auto-mechanics at your local garage. We can fix your car if something’s busted, but we can’t rewire the whole thing for greater efficiency. 


 
So when it comes to SEL, educators role should be focused and limited.  


 
We should be fully engaged in the creation of classroom culture.  


 
That is where we can have the greatest impact in the construction of our own interpersonal relationships with classes and students.  


 
When it comes to the way students interact outside of the class, teachers should be part of the planning process but the main responsibility of conducting it should be with administrators.  


 
And, finally, we mustn’t ignore the responsibility of parents and guardians.  


 
Roughly 60% of academic achievement can be explained by family background – things like income and poverty level. School factors only account for 20% – and of that, teachers account for 15%.  


 
We must free parents from overwork and professional pressures so they can do more to teach their children how to interact with others.  


 
It takes a village to raise a child – a village that knows how to communicate with each other and respect each member’s role. 

 


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Silencing School Whistleblowers Through Social Media 

 
I used to write a thriving blog. 


 
A month and a half ago.  


 
But as soon as the New Year dawned, my readership dropped to the tiniest fraction of what it had been in 2021. 


 
I went from about 1,000 readers per article to a few hundred.

 
 
Overnight.  


 
How does that happen?  


 
I suppose it could be that people are sick of me.  


 
Maybe my writing just isn’t what it was and readers are tired of hearing about the same old topics over and over again.  


 
Education and civil rights. That stuff is just so 60 days ago! 


 
Yet look at the reality. School boards are banning Holocaust narratives like Art Spiegleman’s “Maus.” State governments are passing laws to restrict what teachers can say in the classroom or make their jobs more untenable so even more leave the profession.  


 
I just can’t believe that in light of such a flame dancing ever more quickly down an ever-shorter fuse that people aren’t interested in reading about how to stomp it out. 


 
From conservative scholars supporting standardized testing to local athletic leagues saying racism is a matter of both sides. From the effect on education of constantly depriving teachers of planning time to the continuing trauma of Coronavirus raging through our schools as decision makers refuse to take necessary precautions to protect students and staff.  


 
The readership is there.  


 
It’s the method of distribution that’s the problem.  


 
And that method is social media.  


 
It’s been this way since I began the blog back in July of 2014.  


 
I write an article then I post it to Facebook and Twitter.  


 
The later platform has never been a huge draw for me. But until recently Facebook was my bread and butter.  


 
My work was posted on message boards and in online forums and organizations’ pages focused on the issues I write about.  


 
After the first year, the result was hundreds of thousands of readers annually.  


 
But then as Facebook began trying to monetize the distribution of posts beyond a person’s local friend circle, those numbers started to drop.  


 
I went from 446,000 hits in 2015 to 222,000 last year.  


 
It’s demoralizing but not because of any need for fame. 
 


I don’t need to have thousands of people hang on my every word. This isn’t about ego.


It’s about change.  


 
I write this blog to get the word out about what’s really happening in our public schools. And to try to push back against the rising tide trying to destroy my profession.  


 
Mass media is not particularly kind to educators like me.  


 
Even when journalists are writing about schools and learning, they rarely ask classroom teachers their opinions. Instead, the media often turns to self-appointed experts, think tank flunkies, billionaire philanthropists or politicians.  


 
It’s like they can’t even conceive of the fact that someone with a masters degree or higher in education who devotes her whole life to the practice of the discipline has anything worthwhile to say.

 
 
So many of us have taken to the blogosphere to circumvent the regular media channels.  


 
We write out our frustrations. We tell our truths. We give a peek of what it’s like in our public schools, an educated opinion about the ills therein, and how to fix them.  


 
But as time has worn on, more and more of us are leaving the field. We’re abandoning the classroom and the Web.  


 
We’re giving up.  


 
And even those like me who are still desperately sounding the alarm every week are being silenced.  


 
Frankly, I don’t know what to do about it. 


 
I know Facebook is trying to pressure me into paying the company to more widely distribute my articles.

 
 
If I give them $50-$100 a week, they promise to deliver my work as widely as they used to do when I didn’t have to pay for the privilege.  


 
Actually, it wasn’t Facebook that delivered it. It was people on Facebook.  


 
People who really cared about what I had to say would see it and share it with others.  


 
But now there’s a strict algorithm that determines what you get to see on your page. And if it says you’re invisible, then POOF! You’re gone and the people who would most enjoy your writing and want to pass it on don’t get the chance.


 
It’s undemocratic in the extreme but totally legal because Facebook is a for-profit company, not a public service.  


 
It’s not about the free expression of ideas. It’s about making money.  


 
And so people like Joe Rogan make millions on their podcasts spreading science denial, vaccine disinformation and racist dog whistles.  


 
A guy like me just trying to make the world a better place?  


 
I get silenced.  


 
I guess when money is speech, poverty is the real cancel culture.  


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I Triggered Bill Maher By Writing About Standardized Testing and White Supremacy 

 


Bill Maher is mad at me. 


 
And I’ve never even met the man.  


 
I guess you could say we’re from different worlds. 


 
He’s on the West Coast. I’m on the East.  


 
He’s a political comedian. I’m a public school teacher. 


 
He’s a multimillionaire. I can barely make ends meet. 


 
What could I possibly do to provoke the ire of this man so much so that he took aim at me on his HBO TV show? 


 
 As near as I can tell, it started when I wrote a blog.  


 
Then people read that blog.  


 
It got popular and was republished throughout the Internet.  


 
And Maher disagrees with what I wrote.  


 
In fact, the very idea annoyed him as a prime example of namby-pamby liberals taking their agenda too far. 


 
What did I write in the article?  


 
Only that standardized testing is a tool of white supremacy


 
In fact, that was the title of the article, which seems to be about as far as Bill read because he ignored any arguments, facts or historical citations in the piece.  


 
On his show, “Real Time with Bill Maher” this week, he posted the title of the article and the graphic that appeared with it when it was republished on commondreams.org


 
What he didn’t post was my name. I am the author, after all, but I guess that’s not important.  


 
The crucial bit was how triggered Bill was by my assertion.  


 
By connecting such allegedly alien concepts as standardized testing and racism, Maher thinks I devalued the meaning of “white supremacy.” 
 


Maher never actually examined my claim or what I wrote backing it up. Never mind the arguments I made in favor of my point, the sources I cited, the examples of actual bias or the documented history of standardized testing as a creation of the eugenicist movement.  
 


He was content to speak in a smarmy tone and make a pretty lame joke about what a racially biased test question might look like.

 
 
In fact, that’s probably why he (and his staff) picked my piece in the first place. They saw it as an opportunity to make a joke and whiffed at it pretty terribly. 


 
Here’s the relevant bit of his monologue: 


 
 
“In 2010 the New York Times used the term “White Supremacist” on 75 occasions. Last year, over 700 times. Now some of that to be sure is because Trump came along and emboldened the faction of this country that is truly white supremacist. It is of course still a real thing. But it shouldn’t apply to something like – as more than a few have suggested – getting rid of the SAT test. Now if we find the SAT test is slanted in such a way as to stack the deck in favor of Caucasians, if there are questions like Biff and Chip are sailing a yacht traveling at 12 knots to an Ed Sheeran concert on Catalina – if Catalina is 12 miles away, how many White Claws should they bring? Yes, then maybe. But of course the SAT doesn’t have questions like that so it becomes a kind of ludicrous exaggeration that makes lovers of common sense roll their eyes – and then vote for Trump.”  


 


Queue audience laughter and applause.  


 
Funny stuff I guess.  


 
Not the comedy staff’s fake SAT question but Maher’s assurance that “The SAT doesn’t have questions like that.” 


 
Really, Bill? 


 
How about this one? 


 
Runner: Marathon 
(a) envoy: embassy 
(b) martyr: massacre 
(c) oarsman: regatta 
(d) horse: stable 


 
It’s a real SAT question famously discussed in the infamous 1994 book, The Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray – a book that tried to use discrepancies in test scores to prove white people are smarter than black people. 


 
The answer is C, and it relies on a test taker’s knowing the meaning of regatta – something more likely to have come up in the daily lives of affluent white students than in the lives of less affluent minority students. If you don’t live by a body of water and/or don’t have much experience with rowing, you’re probably going to fail this question.  

It’s the same kind of question Maher’s comedy team came up with – find something white people are more likely to know than black people – but the Real Time writers just pilled it on over-and-over.

It doesn’t take five repetitions of something to make it biased. All it takes is one.


 
To be fair, my example is from the SAT analogy section, which was removed from the test in 2005. However, that doesn’t mean they got rid of the bias. 

In fact, the College Board, the organization that develops and administers the SAT, tacitly admits its test is biased.

It now provides an “adversity score” for poor and minority students to adjust raw SAT scores to account for high schools and neighborhoods “level of disadvantage.”

In other words, they know that poor and minority kids get lower scores so they’re trying to fudge the results to give them a boost.

Which would be entirely unnecessary if the SAT assessed them accurately in the first place.

They are literally trying to make up for how biased their test scores are.

Consider this.

Total SAT scores range from 400 to 1600 – or from 200-800 in both Math and Reading respectively.

According to 2018 data, combined SAT scores for Asian and White students average over 1100, while all other groups average below 1000. Meanwhile, students with family income less than $20,000 score lowest on the test, and those with family income above $200,000 scored highest, according to 2015 data. And the difference is significant – a 433 average Reading score for those with the lowest family incomes compared to an average Reading score of 570 for those with the highest family income. That’s a 137 point difference!

And it holds for racial groups, too. The average Reading score on the SAT was 429 for black students – 99 points behind the average for white students.

However, the College Board is trying to justify this by saying the discrepancy is because poor and minority students are more disadvantaged than white, affluent ones. In other words, it’s not the test that is unfair, but American society in providing better resourced schools with lower class sizes and more resources for white kids than children of color.

And while American society IS unfair to the poor and minorities, several studies indicate that the problem is even deeper than that.

The SAT is biased, too.

Several studies ( Roy Freedle of the Educational Testing Service from 2003, Maria Santelices and Mark Wilson from 2010, etc.) find notable differences between the verbal scores of black and white students whose educational background and skill set suggest that they should get similar scores.

Freedle says this is because SAT questions likely reflect the cultural expressions that are used commonly in the dominant (white) society, so white students have an edge based not on education or study skills or aptitude, but because they are most likely growing up around white people.

This makes sense if you examine how test questions are selected for the SAT. In his book How the SAT Creates Built-in-Headwinds, national admissions-test expert, Jay Rosner, explains the process:


 
“Compare two 1998 SAT verbal [section] sentence-completion items with similar themes: The item correctly answered by more blacks than whites was discarded by the Educational Testing Service, whereas the item that has a higher disparate impact against blacks became part of the actual SAT. On one of the items, which was of medium difficulty, 62% of whites and 38% of African-Americans answered correctly, resulting in a large impact of 24%…On this second item, 8% more African-Americans than whites answered correctly…”


 In other words, the criteria for whether a question is chosen for future tests is if it replicates the outcomes of previous exams – specifically tests where students of color score lower than white children. And this is still the criteria test makers use to determine which questions to use on future editions of nearly every assessment in wide use in the US.

But if all this isn’t enough to convince you that standardized tests really are a tool of white supremacy, consider their sordid history.

They are literally the product of the American eugenics movement.

Modern testing comes out of Army IQ tests developed during World War I.


 In 1917, a group of psychologists led by Robert M. Yerkes, president of the American Psychological Association (APA), created the Army Alpha and Beta tests. These were specifically designed to measure the intelligence of recruits and help the military distinguish those of “superior mental ability” from those who were “mentally inferior.” 


These assessments were based on explicitly eugenicist foundations – the idea that certain races were distinctly superior to others. In 1923, one of the men who developed these intelligence tests, Carl Brigham, took these ideas further in his seminal work A Study of American Intelligence. In it, he used data gathered from these IQ tests to argue the following: 


 
“The decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European national groups, owing to the presence here of the negro. These are the plain, if somewhat ugly, facts that our study shows. The deterioration of American intelligence is not inevitable, however, if public action can be aroused to prevent it.”


 
Eventually Brigham took his experience with Army IQ tests to create a new assessment for the College Board – the Scholastic Aptitude Test – now known as the Scholastic Assessment Test or SAT. It was first given to high school students in 1926 as a gatekeeper. Just as the Army intelligence tests were designed to distinguish the superior from the inferior, the SAT was designed to predict which students would do well in college and which would not. It was meant to show which students should be given the chance at a higher education and which should be left behind. 


And unsurprisingly it has always – and continues to – privilege white students over children of color.

Is it an exaggeration to say that assessments specifically designed to favor affluent white people over impoverished minorities still does the same thing?

Is it ridiculous to describe the century long racial and economic discrepancy in test scores as something that supports white supremacy – especially when these results are shown time and again to be a feature of the tests and not just an artifact that recreates economic inequality?

Is it going too far to call out the racism of the SAT and other standardized tests like it when even the College Board admits its own scores are biased?

Does it devalue the term “White Supremacy” to point out real world white supremacy?

But Maher apparently isn’t interested in these questions.

After a few moments he moved on to another example of the left gone wild.


 
But I can’t do that because this isn’t just a bit for me.  


 
As I mentioned, I’m a public school teacher.  


 
I deal with the impact of standardized testing every day.  


 
I watch my students degraded, depressed and dehumanized by it year after year.  

It’s become cliche for privileged white people like Bill Maher to get cranky when someone points out real world prejudice.

But for those of us in the trenches, it is an everyday reality.

And that’s what triggers me.


Here’s the segment from “Real Time with Bill Maher”: (the relevant bit starts at 4:45)


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

What I Don’t Want My School to be Like this Covid Year

I’m going to confess something.

I don’t like wearing a mask.

For a few hours on Halloween it’s fine, but trying to teach middle schoolers through a piece of fabric for 8 hours a day is no one’s idea of professionalism or efficacy.

You know what else?

I hate getting shots.

When they put that vaccination needle to my arm, I had to turn my head away and think about something else. Both times.

But guess what?

I did them.

And I am still WILLING to do them again.

If teaching in 2021-22 requires wearing a mask and even getting a third booster to the Covid vaccine, I’ll do it.

You know why?

Because I am an adult.

Even if we have to go back to teaching students completely on-line (which I don’t want to do), I’ll put on my big boy pants and do it.

It’s not optimal. It causes problems for working parents, but it’s better than the alternative if infections continue to rise.

I’m not saying I like it.

I’m not saying I want to do any of this, but we have to deal with the world as we find it.

I don’t want to have to teach during a pandemic, but that’s the world we’re living in.

That’s the world we’ve MADE.

Time to face it.

After a summer where not enough people chose to get vaccinated, Covid-19 cases are on the rise again. And now we have the new more contagious delta variant that can even infect and be spread by those who got the shot.

We had a chance to turn things around in June and July. Frankly, we blew it.

Restrictions were lifted too early. Safety precautions continued to be politicized. Folks just pretended it was over.

All we had to do was be cautious and get our Fauci ouchies.

Not enough of us did.

So here we are.

I’m going to be honest with you.

I don’t want this school year to be as bad as last year.

The last year and a half has been a nightmare for classroom teachers like me.

We were teaching remote, then in-person, then BOTH at the same time! Social distancing was erratic because there just wasn’t the space, some students were chronically absent, kids and adults got sick every week but the authorities could never seem to admit anyone might have caught the disease at school…

I watched my district and most of those around me fail at almost every level.

And just when we looked to the government for support, we were told to waste whatever class time we were able to scrap together on another meaningless standardized test.

It was a year that left me feeling blamed for things beyond my control and silenced from the decision making process.

I felt unsafe, subordinate, impotent and neglected.

And I don’t want to do that again.

It’s no wonder that one in four teachers might not return to the classroom this year according to a survey given at the beginning of 2020 by the Rand Corporation.

Research from Education Week published this week had similar findings. According to Lora Bartlett, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Santa Cruz, 20 percent of teachers either have already left the profession or are actively seeking employment elsewhere.

Most years teaching has an 8% attraction rate, according to the U.S. Department of Education. 

Educators like me are simply sick of being ignored, scapegoated, deprofessionalized and or actively obstructed from doing our jobs.

But we didn’t make this situation.

We didn’t create Covid-19. We didn’t ignore the warnings that it was coming here, we didn’t dismantle the pandemic task force, didn’t shirk our duties to put adequate safety precautions in place, didn’t make compliance entirely voluntary, didn’t prioritize economics over public health or a multitude of other things that lead us down this deep, dark rabbit hole.

We’re dealing with the situation, and frankly the rest of the country needs to do the same.

We need universal masking in schools.

Not suggestions from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). We need government mandates, and the fact that some states have mandated exactly the opposite just goes to show that some lawmakers aren’t grown up enough to do the job for which they were elected.

Magical thinking may get you re-elected, but it could also get me and my family killed.

Time for serious solutions.

While we’re at it, we need to require vaccinations for all eligible adults and children going to school in-person. Otherwise, we can find a remote option for them.

Because if we don’t, there are only two likely alternatives – a remote option for everyone or a steady increase in Covid cases in school. The former isn’t good and the later is just not acceptable at all.

We need frequent testing to see if anyone in the building has the disease – and NO I’m not talking about contact tracing. Anecdotes from people who unequivocally have the virus about who he or she may have come into close contact with is not good enough. We need blood tests – hard data.

Speaking of which, every district should have to prove they’ve been able to adequately circulate airflow in the buildings with HEPA filters and other equipment. If they can’t, the federal government should write them a check on the spot. Make them accountable for how they spend it, and make them accountable if they DON’T get the job done.

I know, I know.

This is America and no one can tell me what to do.

Wrong.

We live in a society, not the old West.

We already have a plethora of rules people have to abide by – even list of vaccinations you already need to be enrolled in school – mumps, measles, rubella, polio, etc. Just add Covid-19 to the list.

And grow the heck up.

Too many people can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

Too many people have bought the myths and legends about what it means to be an American.

That’s why they’re having conniptions that teachers might actually be including the history of racism in their history.

We’re a country that couldn’t exist if white settlers didn’t first steal the land we’re living on from native peoples. We’re a country founded by mostly slave holders.

You think that’s not an important part of history because you believe our own bull crap propaganda.

And that’s why you don’t have the mental acuity to deal with real problems like a global pandemic.

When this whole Covid thing began, many of us hoped when it was all over we’d have changed things for the better.

We thought they’ll have to change the old way of doing things just to survive this mess, so maybe when we put it all back together, we can put it back together better.

But the reality is, we couldn’t even figure out how to change things enough just to survive this.

In the United States, about 630,000 of us haven’t survived it – more than our soldiers who died in World War II (405,000), the Vietnam War (58,000) and the Korean War (36,000) combined.

I don’t want more people to die.

I don’t want more students and staff to get sick in schools.

I don’t want us to have to go back to remote instruction.

I don’t want this school year to be as bad or worse as the last year and a half.

And I’m willing to make sacrifices to make sure these don’t happen.

I’m willing to wear a mask all day in school and require others to do so, too.

I’m willing to be vaccinated (again if necessary) and make sure everyone eligible is, too.

I’m willing to do all these things I don’t want (and more) in order to make sure worse things don’t happen.

That’s the choice we’re left with today.

And if enough people aren’t grown up enough to make it correctly, we need to make it for them.

Or else we’re all choosing to let the worst come to pass – again.


 

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

 

Muzzling America’s Teachers with a Ban on Critical Race Theory is What Orwell Warned Us About

I first read George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” while in high school almost a decade past its titular date.

At that time, it didn’t seem to be a prediction. It seemed to be a description of life in the Soviet Union.

I never would have guessed that it could be a warning of what the public school system could become in this country if Republican lawmakers have their way.

Far right legislators have proposed bans on so-called Critical Race Theory in at least 20 states that would muzzle classroom teachers from discussing racism and other “controversial” and “divisive” topics or risk being disciplined, fired or facing other legal consequences if they don’t obey.

It is an attempt to legislate history.

These lawmakers are working to control information and let politics – not facts – be the guiding principle of what gets accepted in our chronicle of the past.

Those of us who’ve read “1984” have seen this before.

The text is set in Oceania, a state where the government controls the media, education and even people’s thoughts.

The main character, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth where he rewrites history to match the party line – whatever it is this week.

For example, at a “Hate Week” demonstration near the beginning of the story, people are gathered to cheer their country’s alliance with Eastasia. However, when the speaker abruptly declares that Eastasia is the enemy, people quickly crumple up their banners and acknowledge that Eastasia was always the enemy and they must have been mistaken to think otherwise.

The prospective ban on Critical Race Theory is strikingly similar.

Politicos are trying to erase the United States’ troubled history of systemic racism, gas light any discussion of its current existence and otherwise stifle and control any topic that goes against their party line.

It’s a policy enshrined in page after page of the most famous description of totalitarianism in modern literature.

Let’s take a closer look at some key passages.

TRUTH

‘”There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”‘

Central to the book is a belief in objective truth.

No matter what we think or say, there are facts out there in the world.

For example, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, millions of people were kidnapped from Africa, forced into slavery in the American colonies and exploited in the production of tobacco and cotton. Any denial of that fact, any minimization of the degree of dehumanization in it, is a rejection of reality.

Sanity is our adherence to that reality. Psychological well being is the attempt to bring our thoughts and ideas about what was and what is in line with these facts.

Moreover, doing so is the definition of freedom, itself.

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

If we take away an individual’s right to try and square the reality of the world with their internal ideas about it, we take away all of their freedoms.

One must come to an understanding of the world. It cannot be handed down. It must be the result of observation and understanding.

In short, it is a product of education. We’re taught the facts, but it is up to us to make sense of them.

If the facts are obscured from us or if they are misrepresented, our freedom is impinged.

REWRITING HISTORY

“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present…”

In direct opposition to the idea of objective truth is the mutability of history.

To some extent it is completely natural. Over time we come to new understandings. We discover things that had been accepted as facts were misunderstood.

For example, it was long accepted as true that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Now we realize that not only wasn’t he the first European to come to these shores, the idea that he “discovered” anything is incoherent. You can’t “discover” lands where people are already living. More over, given the details of pillage, rape and violence in his own journals, Columbus’ accomplishment should be viewed in far less positive terms than it has been up to this point.

Ideas change and we must keep up with that changing understanding.

However, the danger is when that change is NOT the result of new information or recontextualizing what we already knew. It’s when we allow history to be dictated by politics.

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'”

This idea is essential to the work Winston does at the Ministry of Truth. By rewriting the events of the past and controlling the narrative of history, the Party maintains its authority.

This is the goal of the proposed bans on Critical Race Theory. One political party is attempting to stop the freedom of history based on facts and replace it with history based on whatever is in the best interests of that party maintaining power.

Whitewashing the history of slavery as less exploitative and more mutually beneficial to both the white owners and black enslaved peoples helps to reduce the impetus to contemporary reform in the systems of racism maintained in this country since our failed Reconstruction. Likewise, representing Columbus as a hero and adventurer instead of a murderer and tyrant helps justify similar actions today.

Or as Orwell puts it:

‘”The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware they are oppressed.”‘

EDUCATION

Much of the book is focused on how fascist regimes control thought. And primarily this is done through education and the media.

“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

That’s a kind of education. Replacing what is known with whatever the Party wants to be known.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

If you don’t have the words to express an idea, it’s incredibly difficult to have that idea. We do, after all, think in language.

For example, the definition of “Racism” has shifted over time to mean more than just prejudice or discrimination against a person or people based on their race or ethnicity.

It is now more commonly understood as prejudice plus power – racial prejudice, AND social power to codify and enforce this prejudice into an entire society.

This is what is meant by Systemic Racism, a concept at the core of this fight. Much of the battle against Critical Race Theory is really an attempt to stop this concept of racism from becoming widespread and codified through our school system.

It is an attempt to keep the original definition of racism, to stop people from seeing systemic racism by refusing to accept its reality through control over speech.

Yet the movement, itself, is based on redefinitions and insinuations.

Critical Race Theory is not a concept taught at public schools. It’s a decades old legal framework. It’s about how laws function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities.

It’s as much a part of K-12 public schools curriculum as torts, contract law or civil forfeiture. Which is to say, not at all.

However, the GOP is using it because they think it sounds scary. It’s a self-created boogeyman to incite the Republican base against a nebulous and ever changing idea of what they take to be liberal indoctrination.

As Orwell wrote:

‘”It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”‘

And that’s what we have here. The destruction of words, the destruction of Critical Race Theory from its actual meaning into a trigger point.

It is about insinuation instead of talking about Republican grievances of what this so-called liberal indoctrination is head on. Because if they were to discuss the issue openly, it could never be proven. However, to imply, to hint, to whisper avoids the ability to disprove.

It is Newspeak, the fictional language of Oceania where simplified grammar and restricted vocabulary limit the individual’s ability to think and even articulate certain facts or concepts.

PURPOSE OF EDUCATION

But what is the difference between what Republicans are doing with these bans and the naturally evolving course of history? If education is the process of forming an individual’s ideas and thoughts, how is any of it ever free?

Consider this. Orwell describes the goal of education in Oceania:

‘”Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”‘

That is not the goal of our current education system.

We do not want students to be handed down information and simply accept it even if it doesn’t make sense.

Teachers strive to get their students to interact with information, to look at it critically.

And that is the important point – CRITICALLY.

At some point even in Oceania, everyone comes across different ideas, concepts that you may not have considered before or may have actively rejected.

What do you do when this happens?

Winston is expected to believe what the Party tells him to believe. And even in the USA we often act as if being confronted with this reality is the worst case scenario for students. It is the end of the world if they are confronted with a different point of view.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is essential that they be confronted with opposing views so that they can think critically.

That is the purpose of education.

Not to tell students what to think, but to give them the tools to think.

It is up to each and every student to come to their own conclusions.

Educators should give them the facts and even expose them to varying concepts about the facts.

But it is up to the individual student what to do with them.

This makes some parents and politicians uneasy because it treats students as human beings with freedom of choice.

Such freedom is not allowed in Oceania, and if Republicans have their way, it will not be allowed here, either.

We must preserve academic freedom for both students and their teachers.

It is absolutely essential.

Otherwise Orwell’s book will be less a warning than a guide.



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