The increasing politicization of education curriculum

Founder and former CEO Steven Wilson of Ascend Learning, a charter school network in Brooklyn, New York, discusses the emergence of anti-intellectualism in k-12 education on Choice Media’s The Learning Curve podcast co-hosted by Bob Bowdon. It is a thought-provoking segment, which you can listen to here (it begins around the 23:30 mark). Wilson sees the politicization and radicalization of curriculum as a threat to our ability to pursue objective truth and as a way to suppress ideas.

(For a little background, Steven Wilson was recently fired from the charter school network for questioning educational rigor and academic excellence in a blog post titled, “The promise of intellectual joy” that appeared on Ascend’s website. His arguments were labeled “white supremacist rhetoric,” and Wilson lost his job. An article in the National Review provides a great breakdown of Wilson’s essay and how this attack on him is evidence of a “progressive-driven culture war.”)

Below are excerpts from the podcast.

Bob Bowdon: You, Steven Wilson, wrote a blog post titled, “The promise of intellectual joy” about the virtues of a rich, classically liberal education, and you walked readers through historical flare-ups of anti-intellectualism… and you basically pushed back against anti-intellectualism…. The trouble started on page 6 of the 7-page article where you wrote:

One document widely used in diversity workshops, including in the training of all New York City administrators and principals, identifies 13 “damaging characteristics of white supremacy culture.” One is “objectivity,” which is manifested as “the belief that there is such a thing as being objective” and “requiring people to think in a linear way.” Anti-intellectualism often takes the position that there are only subjective perspectives. Another is the “worship of the written word,” whereby “those with strong documentation and writing skills are more highly valued.” … But how tragic it would be if any child was taught that a reverence for the written word was a white characteristic. What would they make of Frederic Douglass’s Fourth of July speech, Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, or James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew, “My Dungeon Shook” in The Fire Next Time?”

How do you summarize what happened with this blog post that you wrote and this crazy reaction?

Steven Wilson: What I was trying to write about, and I think I wrote fairly clearly about it, is that this country has a long history of anti-intellectualism. I think it’s unfortunate that, particularly in the education sector, in k-12, this is a very pronounced tendency. I go through the recent history (recent being the last 100 years) of efforts to dumb down the curriculum and to prevent most students from receiving, as you said, a liberal education—an education about ideas. And I think that is profoundly unjust and unfair and also counterproductive. My point is that if we really want to put the wind in the sails of students’ learning, let’s ignite their curiosity and their love for learning and for subject matter. … That has been under attack partly because of our attitude about academic learning. So, you would think this is a fairly innocuous, anodyne statement… but it proved to be anything but. … The characteristics of “white supremacist culture” are pretty alarming declarations. The idea that written word doesn’t belong to all humanity, and all humanity isn’t as capable of the written word is a terrifying idea. So, I did call that out.

Bowdon: By saying objectivity exists, [critics state] it’s as if you are saying subjectivity doesn’t exist, and therefore there can’t be racism.

Wilson: I think it’s really important that we don’t fall into the same behavior that we are concerned about. It’s important to think deeply and empathetically about these kinds of reactions. It has been fashionable in academic circles to insist on subjectivity and the idea that objectivity doesn’t exist or is certainly allusive, and I think it’s really important to push back on that and say that the pursuit of truth is an essential endeavor. I think also what is happening here is the tremendous premium on what I would call…storytelling, or one’s own story. While I can understand the impulse, I think that for us to work on a common cause, we have to challenge ourselves to arrive at shared understandings, to look for objective realities or we can’t possibly have the framework for having any real discussion at all. I don’t like the idea of imposing on students that all understanding is objective. That seems to be a very defeatist and dangerous idea.

It says that everything is opinion, and that is simply not the case. … Another area where this is affecting school reform is the politicization and particularly the racialization of the curriculum. The proposals in Seattle to reform the math curriculum with the idea that math is itself an oppressive tool. Science and math is an inheritance and an asset owned in equal measure by every human being and one of the great accomplishments of human kind is to build mathematical and scientific understanding in collaboration across nations, across races, all over the world. It’s a supreme achievement that scientific discovery functions that way.

The idea that morality is reduced to a dualism of good and bad, and that there are certain “correct” ideas that are indisputably correct, is an orthodoxy and everyone is expected to adhere to them or they are shunned and shamed or worse if they express any questions about those ideas. This is a step toward totalitarianism.