Schools Are Never Neutral - John Samuel Tieman

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Axar.az presents an article "Schools Are Never Neutral" by John Samuel Tieman.

I keep hearing about how schools should be politically neutral. I was a teacher for four decades. Here are a few works that I taught. “The Declaration Of Independence”. “The Narrative Of The Life Of Fredrick Douglass”. “Ain't I A Woman” by Sojourner Truth. “To Kill A Mockingbird“ by Harper Lee. No one ever objected. Why? Because such works are congruent with the aims of our democratic republic. When I taught middle school, I also started the day with the “Pledge Of Allegiance”. No one objected to that either.

Schools have never been politically neutral. Nor should they be. Schools teach us how to participate in a democracy. In doing so, they also teach us to despise dictatorship and to dismiss that which insults the republic. An educated electorate is an absolute necessity.

Let us consider, for a moment, the educational foundations of our nation. From the very beginning of our nation, civic education has been considered one vehicle by which we maintain our nation. After the revolution, our first educational reform was the common school movement. What was common was that everyone got an identical education. The schooling was literate, indeed literary, with a small bit of math and a lot of republicanism.

Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration Of Independence, believed that children should "be instructed in all the means of promoting national prosperity and independence." Dr. Rush wanted free schools in every town that had one hundred or more families. The nation would become "one great and enlightened family." Put simply, these schools would ingrain a republicanism that would create a national character and a united country. And they did.

But the results were positive and negative, successful and brutal. One explicit goal was the assimilation of immigrants, freed Blacks, and Native Americans. Toward any culture that was not white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, the attitude was that there was little worth saving. As just one example, languages other than English were suppressed. For all its brutality, there was the promise that assimilation would bring the benefits of citizenship. The common schools didn't solve racism. In some ways, they made it worse. However, the schools thoroughly inculcated democratic republicanism. By 1876, a century after the Revolution, monarchy seemed more quaint than threatening.

Put simply, schools have never been politically neutral. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when education shifted toward schooling that aided industrialization, public schools openly supported industrial capitalism. Think about shop classes, bookkeeping, lots of math and science, and team sports as a model for industrial work.

Schools are political. Consider prayer in school. Before 1962, when the Supreme Court prohibited school-sponsored prayer, homerooms commonly began the day with the “Our Father”. That's not neutral. Nor is religious toleration neutral. Indeed, the state providing free education, that very idea is political.

The questions before us now are not whether public schools are political or apolitical. Some of the current questions are these. Will public education continue to support the free flow of ideas? Will public education continue to support our democracy and the republic? Will we continue to support the immigrant and the person of color? In many school districts, the questions are that fundamental. According to PEN America, book banning in public school districts increased by 33% nationally during the last academic year. In my home state, Missouri, there were 333 books banned.

Let's be clear. Some things are an affront to democracy. Among them – sexism, racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, fascism, dictatorship, hate speech, Christian nationalism, white supremacy, book banning and book burning. One purpose of republican education is to instill a loathing for such things. Another purpose is to school folks to become informed citizens who fully participate in the life of the nation. None of that is neutral.

2024.06.03 / 09:52
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