“Hey, Pals, This is Reading Kind of Ripe”

The Wall Street Journal ran a letter to the editor on Tuesday (August 13) from the president of the California State Board of Education about how an op-ed two weeks earlier, “California Wants to Teach Your Kids that Capitalism Is Racist,” was unfair since the curriculum in question was only a draft, not official policy.  A fair point, but only to a point, as the simple fact that the curricular draft was somehow deemed fit for dissemination and comment is telling.  Here are just two excerpts from the critical July 29th op-ed by Williamson M. Evers.

“The document is filled with fashionable academic jargon like ‘positionalities,’ ‘hybridities,’ ‘nepantlas,’ and ‘misogynoir.’  It includes faddish social-science lingo like ‘cis-heteropatriarchy’ that may make sense to radical university professors and activists but doesn’t mean much to the regular folks who send their children to California public schools.  It is difficult to comprehend the depth and breadth of the ideological bias and misrepresentations without reading the whole curriculum – something few will want to do.”

“Begin with economics,” Evers continued.  “Capitalism is described as a ‘form of power and oppression,’ alongside ‘patriarchy,’ ‘racism,’ ‘white supremacy’ and ‘ableism.’  Capitalism and capitalists appear as villains several times in the document.”

Interestingly, both Evers, who is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and Linda Darling-Hammond, the president of the California State Board of Education, are respected education researchers, albeit not necessarily esteemed in the same circles.

This episode is eerily reminiscent of one ten years ago at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development.  (Please note I’m somewhat guilt-ridden in raising this again as I’m an alumnus of the college.)

Back in 2009, a CEHD task force released a draft report on “Race, Culture, Class, and Gender,” as part of a broader effort called the “Teacher Education Redesign Initiative.”  Along with others, I was told at the time that the report wasn’t actual policy, but rather only a “set of working ideas brought forward for discussion.”  And that despite the draft’s assurance, no eventual “college policy or curriculum development plan will include language that requires students to subscribe to a particular ideology.”  Likewise, neither will a “prospective student’s expression of ideology” be used as a “factor in the admissions decisions.”

Mildly reassuring to hear.  But the core reason why the dispute came to be a coast-to-coast affair, with my American Experiment colleague Kathy Kersten doing some of the best writing about it, was that the report itself didn’t begin to read so evenhandedly.  Quite the opposite, as witness excerpts like these:

“Our future teachers will be able to discuss their own histories and current thinking drawing on notions of white privilege, hegemonic masculinity, heteronormativity, and internalized oppression.”

“Future teachers will understand that they are privileged and marginalized depending on context.”

And, “Every faculty member at our university that trains our teachers must comprehend and commit to the centrality of race, class, culture, and gender issues in teaching and learning, and consequently frame their teaching and course foci accordingly.”  (Emphases supplied, not that they’re necessary.)

It was quite amazing that no task force member, evidently, ever felt compelled to say, “Hey, pals, this is reading kind of ripe, chocked as it is with far more politically correct jargon and left-wing assumptions than most average people could ever take seriously or bear with a straight face.”

One must assume drafters truly believed what they wrote, pursuing the exercise as they did with tiny grasp of how most readers would respond, and in turn provoking unavoidable questions about just how insular CEHD was.  Some detachment in higher education from everyday events and sensibilities is wise and helpful, but not nearly this much.  The tone deafness was profound.

Granted, the California and Minnesota documents were drafts and it’s reasonable to believe each was too nutty ever to be released as final products.  But that still leaves open the question of how more senior players in both places could allow such documents to reach the public stages they did?  Where were the grounded educators and others who presumably had a more realistic sense of how the drafts would be received by wider audiences?  Or (here’s a truly frightening thought), might a fair number viewed the ideas and language each time as not all that bad?

Mitch Pearlstein’s newest book is Education Roads Less Traveled: Solving America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees, now out in paperback.  He earned his Ph.D. in educational administration from the U of M in 1980.