by Jim Lang
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” ~Aristotle
When I return to my classroom next week for my twenty-first year of teaching, Aristotle’s quotation will be hanging in my classroom. It is a simple yet eloquent reminder for my students and for me that the true value of education is examining and evaluating everything, even ideas that may disturb or offend us.
Perhaps Aristotle’s quotation should also hang in the office of Purdue University president Mitch Daniels.
Recent revelations that as Indiana governor, Daniels sought to ban a book written by historian and anti-war activist Howard Zinn from classrooms prove that Daniels needs a reminder about the value of a quality education.
Daniels’s intentions, revealed in a set of 2010 emails obtained and released by the Associated Press, focused on Zinn’s controversial A People’s History of the United States, which was being used as a resource in Indiana teacher preparation courses.
Daniels’s critics charge his desire to ban Zinn’s book amounted to an assault on academic freedom. Even some of Purdue’s own professors released an open letter expressing concerns.
Supporters claim Daniels was right, referencing Zinn’s anti-war stance and liberal viewpoints, some even calling Zinn and his book “anti-American.”
Daniels himself later stated he was simply trying to keep Zinn’s book away from K-12 students. Perhaps this is why he called Zinn’s work “propaganda” and “execrable and anti-factual” in his emails.
Meanwhile, the debate over academic freedom continues, and Indiana teachers sadly nod our heads in unison.
Because, honestly, we told you so.
Daniels’s actions come as no surprise to so many Indiana educators, who have labored for years trying to provide a quality education to Hoosier students in spite of Daniels’s education “reform” policies that make our jobs more difficult with each passing year.
Because Daniels’s education “reform” agenda as governor, broad and sweeping in scope, sends the same basic message about education and teachers as his emails about Howard Zinn and his recent defense of his actions as governor — we teachers cannot be trusted.
What other conclusion could a reasonable person draw from Daniels’s defense at a Purdue trustees’ meeting: “The question is, would this lead to this material being taught to innocent school children? I promise that if the parents of Indiana understood what was in the book in question, 99 if not 100 out of 100 would want some other book used”?
The implied message is that Daniels, as governor, needed to protect our children from the threat of teachers who would use Zinn’s ideas and textbook to indoctrinate young people. He seems to suggest that somehow, teachers would present Zinn’s ideas and use his textbook as gospel truth.
This defense reveals a willful ignorance about the true nature of education and questions the integrity of all teachers.
You see, as a teacher, my primary job is to expose your children to all kinds of ideas, to help them critique and analyze those ideas, and to present and nurture the necessary skills for them to evaluate and think critically for themselves.
My job, as your children’s teacher, is to teach them how to value their own learning. And to achieve this, we must learn in a classroom where we examine even those ideas that challenge and disturb us the most. And, for this to work, you and your children must trust me. You must trust that my training, qualifications, passion for teaching, and respect for you and your children shape each and every decision I make in my classroom.
This is not easy, or comfortable, or clean. Real learning never is. It’s messy. It’s bothersome. It’s uncomfortable.
And it’s essential.
Because our children must learn to question, listen, defend, debate, and challenge. They must learn to value and respect the opposing viewpoints of others, even when they disagree. They must consider, too, why they believe what they believe. These critical thinking skills only happen in classrooms where ideas are shared, discussed, and evaluated, and where students trust the teacher and their peers.
And this is why Mitch Daniels is so very wrong — because he does not trust us. Because censoring academic materials — and make no mistake about it, this is censorship — assumes that a quality education should be sanitized and scrubbed free from ideas that disturb or challenge us. It assumes that our children are victims each time they step into a classroom with a teacher armed with a textbook, a syllabus, and a passion to teach.
And, it is the same kind of pessimism that defines virtually every piece of education “reform” that Daniels and Hoosier legislators so proudly take credit for. I have written before about Indiana’s expansive voucher program and the corporate education “reform” agenda that includes more testing, hefty financial perks for testing and educational publishing companies, absurd changes in teacher evaluations and training, and moronic ideas like “merit pay” in public education.
At the heart of all of these changes is a lack of trust for our teachers and a disrespect for the education profession in general. Somehow, we now believe that we must constantly test to ensure our children are learning, that we must evaluate each and every nuance of a teacher’s performance to the point of absurdity, and that it is a teacher’s primary responsibility to fill each child with knowledge like we fill our cars with gasoline.
Virtually every piece of Hoosier education reform in the last eight years is predicated on the notion that teachers cannot be effective unless we are measured, manipulated, or prodded. In short, we cannot be trusted.
And, yes, there are certainly some irresponsible teachers and ineffective schools. However, Daniels and reform-minded legislators enacted policies that judge all educators and schools the same — harshly. Indiana’s entire education “reform” agenda is based on the false assumption that the system is fundamentally broken and that no educator can be trusted to intrinsically do what is right.
Would anyone support a teacher who adopted a similar philosophy toward the children in his or her classroom? Why, then, do we continue to tolerate such shameful policies from our elected officials?
More ironic, however, is that this lack of trust in teachers and academic freedom was revealed in Daniels’s own emails. After all, it was Daniels himself who blamed last year’s election loss of then-superintendent of public instruction Tony Bennett to Glenda Ritz on unethical campaign tactics of teachers allegedly using school e-mail accounts. Somehow, it was easier to assume Ritz’s win was more the result of unethical behavior of teachers than of the political will of informed citizens.
But then again, Hoosier teachers were all-too-familiar with this kind of cynicism, which is why we joined so many voters in electing Ritz. After all, we cannot be trusted.
So, Aristotle’s quotation will serve as a call to action for my students and for me when we return to school next week. I want my students to embrace the opportunity to question, debate, evaluate, and learn.
I want them to value their education and trust themselves and their teachers more than Mitch Daniels and Indiana lawmakers do.