Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. During a January 5th hearing, Indiana Republican state senator, Scott Baldwin, made these comments.
Senator Scott Baldwin: I'm not discrediting, as a person, Marxism, Nazism, fascism. I'm not discrediting any of those isms out there, and I have no problem with the education system providing instruction on the existence of those isms. I believe that we've gone too far when we take a position on those isms as it relates to we need to be impartial. Again, I want to use this term, we need to be the purveyors of reason. We just provide the facts. The kids formulate their own viewpoints.
Melissa Harris-Perry: After being roundly criticized for seeming to suggest that public school teachers take a neutral position on Nazism, Baldwin apologized. While he has walked back these comments, the state Senator remains firmly supportive of Senate Bill 167, the education matters legislation he introduced this session. If you just read the text of the bill, it seems, frankly, pretty innocuous. It says things like a governing body of a school corporation shall create curriculum materials advisory committee, or the governing body is directed to have teachers, administrators, representatives of the community, and parents of students who attend the school.
It also tasks this governing body with "reviewing all curriculum materials and educational activities, and making recommendations and presenting them in a public hearing." Also, the bill says that teachers need to post their curriculum materials online and allow parents to remove their children from educational experiences they find objectionable. Without context, the bills seems to just require schools to have a functioning PTA, an informative website, and some measure of parental choice, but it really says more than that. That's precisely why context matters as high school social studies teacher Matt Bockenfeld emphasized during this same January 5th state Senate hearing, as he explained how he approaches difficult topics in his classes.
Matt Bockenfeld: We're not neutral on Nazism. We take a stand in the classroom against it, and it matters that we do.
Melissa Harris-Perry: To understand Senate Bill 167 and its aims, it must be read in the context of a pitched national battle over race and school curriculum. This bill does more than establish basic tools for parental input. Its design will have a chilling effect on how teachers like Matt are able to teach. This week, Matt Bockenfeld spoke with The Takeaway.
Matt Bockenfeld: We have to speak truth. We can't hide around it. In a democracy, truth is oxygen. It's how democracy survive and our classrooms really are the soul of that democracy, and so we have to find a way to use our classroom spaces to tell the truth about who we are as a nation, who we are as individuals, and what we could be.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Matt told us he never shies away from complicated topics as an educator.
Matt Bockenfeld: We need classrooms where we collaborate together and we learn from and listen to one another and grow that way. I really think a culture in a classroom like that lends itself to really difficult conversations. We have to have conversations about injustice because when we don't challenge injustice, students become numb to it. If we adjust ourselves to the injustices around us, those injustices perpetuate. We have to find a way to challenge those things in our classroom.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Matt says that despite the ways legislators have tried to limit what teachers can say to their students, he's only more determined to do his job.
Matt Bockenfeld: There's this quote by James Baldwin. He says, "There is nothing under heaven, no creed and no flag and no cause more important than the single human life." For me, our classrooms, we have the opportunity, in the face of a culture that can be dehumanizing every day, we have a chance to breathe life and humanity into the American promise. For me, teaching is the greatest privilege imaginable. The challenges we're facing today, for me, they only rededicate me to the classroom. I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to keep staying in the trenches and serving our students and having these conversations.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For more, I'm joined now by Pedro Noguera, dean of the school of education, the University of Southern California. Great to have you here, Dean Noguera.
Dean Pedro Noguera: Hi, Melissa. It's great to be with you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I have to say I love a good social studies teacher and that sense of commitment to the classroom. Help us understand what it is that teachers are facing in the face of these so-called education matters bills.
Dean Pedro Noguera: Yes, I'm also encouraged by that teacher, but I think he's right. There is an attempt, and we're seeing it not just in Indiana, we're seeing it in Texas, we're seeing it in Oklahoma and several other states now, to ban certain books to make it difficult to teach the history of racism and slavery in this country. It's really the kind of thing that you associate with authoritarian governments, where you ban books and try to control what people think. What's remarkable is how quickly it swept the country after last fall's elections. My hope is that we'll see not only more teachers but parents and students demanding for the right to an education that is not controlled by a Republican legislature.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's just dig in for a quick second. Just on the technical aspect in one sense, and that is this bill says you got to put up all your curriculum online basically, so the teachers will tell everything that's going to happen and then parents can decide that they want to opt-in or opt-out. Just from a pure practicality, given the realities of public school, what does that even look like? What would that mean for teachers?
Dean Pedro Noguera: Talk about the stress teachers are under, to talk about adding all these materials online so they can be approved or not by parents, this is adding to the burden on teachers as it is. What's more, it's really designed to encourage this kind of political scrutiny. Again, what we want is for kids to learn to think critically about the world they're in, about the past so they're prepared for the future. This is going in the opposite direction.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to read you a quick piece from the bill here. This is language directly from the bill. It says, so you would think that this is what can't happen, that any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation. Dean, [chuckles] I feel like I've just had five years of conversations with folks who were from the ideological right saying that safe spaces are a problem, that we should not be creating safe spaces, particularly in higher ed and in K-12, but this sounds like safe spaces legislated.
Dean Pedro Noguera: I was thinking the same thing, Melissa. I was also thinking about a visit I paid to Muncie, Indiana a few years ago. I visited a church when I was speaking at Ball State University, a Black church that took in the bodies of Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith. You may recall there was an iconic image of a lynching that took place there in Marion, Indiana, and the bodies were brought to Muncie and defended because the mob wanted to tear the bodies apart. Children of Indiana have a right to learn that history. They need to learn that history.
In fact, some of the perpetrators of the crime might even still be alive. We have a bloody history not only in Indiana but in the country. The only way we can ensure that future generations will not perpetuate the crimes of the past is if we understand them. Any attempt to silence the past is an attempt to deny kids a good education. I should add here, Melissa, that these new laws are at odds with the state's standards. The state is in fact opening itself up to lawsuits because there's not a single state in the country that has adopted standards that say you cannot teach America's history.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm always very worried, particularly in the context of doing media, that we're just chasing red herrings. This isn't a real thing. That there's no one teaching in the schools or so very few, vanishingly few teachers who are standing in the schools in Indiana or Missouri or North Carolina and teaching, for example, what's banned in this bill, which is you can't teach that hard work is racist basically. I'm like, "Who's teaching that? If it is a red herring, if this is a distraction, what is it attempting to distract us from?" I'm worried there might be actually something else going on in education we should be paying more attention to.
Dean Pedro Noguera: I think that Steve Bannon and others decided that this was a political strategy that could mobilize the base. It appeared to work to some degree in the Virginia elections last fall. I think they're hoping this will help them in the midterms, but it's a really very cynical strategy to try to use fears about race to mobilize voters. Again, I hope that it'll produce a backlash from others who think kids deserve the right to learn and should not be prevented from reading controversial topics that are important.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As a dean of the school of education, you are in part educating educators, you're educating those who will be leading our school systems into the future and writing curriculum and all of those kinds of things. The one thing I agree with, if this, again, was out of context, is we shouldn't just tell young people what to think. In fact, if you do, they'll probably just think the opposite, but we should be developing critical reasoning skills. Any maybe just curricular or approach suggestions for folks about how to think about when you come to difficult topics, how do we teach them in a way that promotes that critical self-reasoning and reflection?
Dean Pedro Noguera: I think that it is important that when you touch on different controversial topics like slavery, that you write about it or you expose kids to multiple perspectives so they understand point of view. They understand how could someone like Thomas Jefferson write such liberatory language in the Declaration of Independence and be an owner of slaves.
Coming to terms with those contradictions so we can understand how the founding fathers could in fact been slave owners is an important part of understanding America's history. We grapple with difficult subjects and then we try to make sense of them. I think that's what a good education does for a person. Doesn't teach you what to think, but hopefully helps you to think and process information so you're better able to handle the controversies of the moment we're in.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, dean, you're not a lower school teacher, but everybody in the professional field of education, I have been asking this of in the past year as we were going through this particular moment. It's just this, is there a value to teaching the aspirational American story in our early K-5 education before complicating it? In other words, I wonder about those January 6th rioters. I can't help myself, I just really am an unreconstructed patriot in the sense of I get emotional in Washington DC, I'm emotional about the statehouses. Is there something valuable about teaching the not-so-accurate history, but just that ties us to a sense of self, a sense of patriotism and community, and then coming in and challenging that, or should we be teaching the whole truth and nothing but the truth from the beginning?
Dean Pedro Noguera: I think we have to be careful with what children can handle in terms of exposure to violence and violent themes at a young age. I would certainly be careful about exposure, but I don't think the goal of teaching history is to teach patriotism. The goal of teaching history is to help kids to understand the past and how it's led up to the present.
Americans as a rule have trouble with understanding history. I think it's in part because we don't do a very good job of bringing it to life. When I taught history myself in Providence schools, I made it sure that we dealt with topics that have meaning today to young people. I think that's what makes it matter, what makes civics matter. I think even if the goal isn't to encourage loyalty, it should be to encourage an appreciation for how our history has shaped the society that we live in.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I also wonder about this notion that teachers should not share their own perspectives. I got to say, I think there's something valuable about students knowing at all ages that their teachers are whole people, that they have perspectives, and if it can be done with humility, that my perspective doesn't mean it's all right. Isn't that part of the value of the back and forth, the engagement with our students?
Dean Pedro Noguera: I think so, and I do think there's a fine line. Teachers should not use the classroom as a place to espouse their views and impose them on their students. At the same time, they can explain why they think the way they do, but encourage their students to make up their own minds, and to give them plenty of opportunities to write, to think, to debate so that they learn the value of a civil discourse, something that this country desperately needs right now.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Pedro Noguera, dean of the school of education at the University of Southern California. Thank you for your time today.
Dean Pedro Noguera: Thank you, Melissa. It's great being with you.
[00:15:26] [END OF AUDIO]
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