OPINION: Every curriculum is ideological

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

UGA professor emeritus: No matter if history classes skew conservative or progressive, they can’t and shouldn’t claim political neutrality

In a guest column, Peter Smagorinsky takes on the complaints that American schools indoctrinate students to liberal agendas and fail to focus on what makes America exceptional.

Smagorinsky is a University of Georgia Distinguished Research Professor of English Education, Emeritus, Department of Language and Literacy Education (English Education). He taught high school for 14 years and then spent more than 30 years in university teacher education programs.

By Peter Smagorinsky

These ideological times have produced a revived interest in how school is taught. Among the most contentious issues is the teaching of history.

On Day 1 of his administration, President Joe Biden removed all traces of a curriculum sponsored by President Donald J. Trump, the 1776 Curriculum. Its website describes it as the work of “a nonpartisan and intellectually diverse alliance of writers, thinkers, and activists focused on solutions to our country’s greatest challenges in education, culture, and upward mobility. . . . We are building a positive movement in response to the overwhelming narratives of oppression, grievance and ignorance to America’s history — and its promise for the future.”

To President Trump, this curriculum promotes patriotism by emphasizing the positive and ignoring the negative. It explicitly positions itself against the 1619 Project, The New York Times curriculum centered on the role of slavery in shaping U.S. history. The 1776 Curriculum describes the 1619 Project as “introducing revisionist history about race in America into classrooms across the nation.” African American contributor Dr. Carol Swain explicitly questions the notion of white privilege, arguing that Critical Race Theory has had a “toxic, destructive impact on America” in its emphasis on race-based societal inequity.

The role of race has surfaced in other disputes about teaching U.S. History, either through the curriculum or through various forms of symbolism. For instance, a recent AJC Get Schooled essay was disdainful of the recent decision of San Francisco to remove the names of Lincoln, Washington, and others with problematic histories with race from school buildings. Retired University of North Georgia political science professor Douglas Young characterized the revisions as Orwellian efforts to rewrite history. He makes, in an essay of 723 words, dismissive references to some variation of the term “left” 10 times to make points like the following:

“In the new ‘woke’ America of 2021, great people’s accomplishments are utterly irrelevant, and they are reviled as villains if contemporary leftists find they ever did or said anything the leftists don’t like. Indeed, in the tradition of the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, and the Chinese communists’ Cultural Revolution, today’s politically correct standard is nothing less than 200-proof progressive perfection. How proud Chairman Mao would be of America’s Red Guards. . . . Throughout our vast, corrupted educational-industrial complex, such leftists seek to delegitimize America itself (especially our Western Judeo-Christian capitalist foundations).”

His remarks make his own ideology clear, grounding his interpretation of U.S. history in his own socialization as a conservative Christian capitalist. Yet to Professor Young, only his “leftist” opponents have a political motivation.

In Utah, parents in the predominantly white community of North Ogden recently objected to having their children exposed to any instruction linked to Black History Month. The Maria Montessori Academy, a public charter school enrolling three Black students, was besieged by parents who insisted that their children be allowed to “opt out” of learning Black History that month. The administration initially agreed to their petition, then backed down when public outrage produced pressure and the school restored Black history to Black History Month.

North Carolina echoed the dispute between the 1619 and 1776 curricula. When the state school board approved new standards requiring attention to racism in the social studies curriculum, the initiative was characterized by conservatives as anti-American, anti-democratic, and anti-capitalist. The terms “systemic racism” and “gender identity” were scrubbed from the curriculum. Opposition to the standards was founded, to school board member James Ford, on the premise that a patriotic curriculum should promote “unquestioning adoration” for the United States.

This emphasis on national pride would undo what Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson called the “leftist indoctrination” of the proposed curriculum, adding that he would “lead the fight to ensure that our students are educated, not indoctrinated.”

Robinson reiterated a conservative belief that justice-oriented curricula serve as ideological, left-wing indoctrination. This perspective asserts that the promotion of patriotism is the duty of a curriculum, and that it is only available through an uplifting political narrative that minimizes attention to the legacies of slavery, ethnic cleansing of native people, subordination of women’s rights, and other problems, and promotes blind adoration of the nation.

Meanwhile, in Illinois, another social justice curriculum is under attack for its woke, progressive, left-wing indoctrination of students. George Will outlines his indignation over a ruling that all public-school teachers should “embrace and encourage progressive viewpoints and perspectives.” To Will, “If the board’s policy is ratified, Illinois will become a place congenial only for parents who are comfortable consigning their children to ‘education’ that is political indoctrination, audaciously announced and comprehensively enforced. Imposing uniformity of thought is the board of education’s agenda for ‘Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading’ (CRTL). This builds upon Illinois’ 2015 law requiring teachers to implement ‘action civics,’ which means leading their pupils in activism on behalf of various causes. CRTL would make explicit that only woke causes are worthy causes.”

Will disdainfully details what he finds unacceptable in these doctrinaire curricula: “Black history, women’s history, the ‘history, roles, and contributions of the LGBT community,’ anti-bias and anti-bullying, ‘disability history and awareness,’ ‘social and emotional learning,’ ‘violence prevention and conflict resolution,’ and ‘contributions of a number of defined ethnic groups made to Illinois and the U.S.’ Literature, science, writing, arithmetic? Presumably, if there is any spare time.”

Consistently across these critiques, “progressive” curricula involve political indoctrination; history education that ignores injustice is politically neutral and lacking in orthodoxy or ideology. Teaching Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism are not forms of indoctrination. They are patriotic and academic.

This trend toward “woke” schooling has had ironic international consequences. As reported in The New York Times, “French politicians, high-profile intellectuals and journalists are warning that progressive American ideas — specifically on race, gender, post-colonialism — are undermining their society” in ways similar to the corrosion described by U.S. conservatives. I find it ironic because many of the philosophers summoned to promote an anti-bias curriculum are French: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and others who delved into power inequities and argued for distributed authority.

My point with all this is simple: Every curriculum is ideological. And simply through its selection of materials, subjects, and perspectives, every curriculum is doctrinaire. If conservative thought is designed to promote stability, then it also supports the perpetuation of existing inequities. That sounds political and ideological to me.

My own leanings are leftward, even as I find myself hard to recognize in the caricatures of liberals written by these conservative commentators. When I read these critiques of social justice initiatives, I am reminded of one of the phrases that emerged in various civil rights causes in the summer of 2020: Silence is complicity. I would modify that to say: Curricular silence is complicity. If an uplifting narrative of U.S. Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism determines the teaching of school subjects, then the curriculum is silent on its many forms of inequity, because our special place in human history doesn’t allow for negativity. That silence will in turn help to maintain the injustices that the much disparaged “woke” curricula are built to challenge.

These contentious disputes aren’t going away. I do hope that my colleagues in schools, whether they support conservative or progressive agendas, at least realize that all of their work is ideological and not hide behind claims to political neutrality in undertaking inherently political work. If so, then students will be aware of the ideological nature of living in society and learn how to understand the political underpinnings of whatever histories they study across the school curriculum.