If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter
My friend, Brian Mittge, recently penned a commentary for The Chronicle addressing his concerns with a state senate bill that would require schools to be more inclusionary in their curriculum materials. So before I get into the details, I'd like to state that I've known Brian (and his siblings) for a long time and I find him to be a thoughtful, caring, and measured man. Turning my attention toward his commentary however, I find myself disappointed in his rhetoric and I have a few things I would like to address.
First, to note where I share ground: I too am concerned with our one-party state. I believe compromise is a needed component of governing people well and if one party has complete say-so there will be an imbalance and lack of representation for many.
Second, regarding new mandates on top of existing curriculum requirements, I agree it could potentially be a burden. There are only so many hours in the day and curriculum requirements can be something of an unfunded mandate time-wise.
Now, to get to the point(s) of contention, it starts with Brian lamenting our current reality of students insufficiently meeting the most basic standards for grade levels in the "three R's".
I'm going to trust that Brian has correctly reported these statistics but I was surprised to find when reading the engrossed bill that it contained the following:
The legislature recognizes that inclusive curricula have been shown to often improve the mental health, academic performance, attendance rates, and graduation rates of marginalized communities. For example, a 2017 study showed a 38 percent to 306 percent increase in the fluency rates of African American second grade children when they read culturally relevant stories. Children felt more motivated and interested when reading stories that reflected them. Additionally, students in schools with inclusive curricula have also reported hearing fewer homophobic remarks and, in schools with inclusive curricula, less than half of students felt unsafe at school due to their sexual orientation compared to the two-thirds of students who attended schools without inclusive curricula.
This seems to run counter to Brian's perspective that the state is simply doing this as some Orwellian ploy under the mantle of inclusivity and it is in fact directly related to the attempt to address academic deficiencies in learning curricula.
He goes on to say:
This is the latest effort by the Legislature to force their will on what used to be a public school system based on local control.
While I too, share concerns over loss of "local control", I also can't help but feel that "local control" has also been used to enforce and sustain particular deficiencies under the guise of political/social "orthodoxy".
The lack of historical awareness in Oklahoma regarding the Tulsa Massacre and Black Wall St comes to mind. Local control can be just as dangerous and reckless as one party control is at state levels. To vie that one is blessed and the other a curse is to sidestep the actual issue: lack of representation, especially among the marginalized in a community.
Regarding school closures and an increase in private schooling and homeschool options, I'm not sure Brian has solidly connected cause and effect with "socially intrusive incursions". I also find it telling that both of these alternatives are more likely to be available to families of means. If we've learned anything from Covid, it should be at least that many cannot manage to stay afloat while educating their child at home or afford alternatives like specialized or private schooling.
That Brian has seemingly bracketed out the impacts of Covid in his consideration of academic difficulties is also telling.
To be fair, I think our public schooling does need reform. Always. Much like any of our institutions. I guess you can put me under the "always reforming" camp rather than the "take my ball and go home" camp.
Furthermore, there is something of a slight of hand at play here with Brian and I think it's revealed when he writes things like this:
As the Washington Legislature mandates ideological indoctrination, parents and students are voting with their feet
Parents are certainly within their right to vote with their feet. I'm in total agreement here. But it appears to me that Brian would like the reader to understand the state as mandating "ideological indoctrination" while his views are simply "the basics". As though his own views do not fall under ideology but are somehow foundational and a given. The truth is, both are ideologies. If we utilized a simple definition of "ideology":
An ideology is a set of opinions or beliefs of a group or an individual.
It would appear that Brian seems to think his conception of how public school should adopt curricula is somehow naturally defensible but if an entity, like the state, disagrees, they are being ideologues. The truth his, both views need to be substantiated. There are no "givens" in the market place of ideas.
He goes on about the bill:
Our kids are more than their sexuality. This isn’t a topic that our schools should be touching, and we shouldn’t focus on that as being the focus of a person’s character when considering the contributions of historical figures.
In one sense, I absolutely agree with Brian here. Our children are more than the sum of their attributes. We absolutely should judge others by the content of their character. To stop here however is where the "sins of the father" continues to manifest and why it's so important to recognize the biases and mistreatments of those who have historically lived in the margins. History and populations as a whole have NOT considered the content of a persons character beyond their other traits, i.e. sexuality and race. In fact, a shit ton of historical maneuvering has been dedicated to diminishing, denying, and eradicating marginalized people on the whole.
He goes on:
We respect the separation of church and state, but requiring this type of learning infringes on the religious rights of parents to teach their children differently.
No. It does not. No parent is infringed regarding teaching their child differently. The entire world presents arguments and ways of being that are counter to a Christian ethic. It happens all of the time, everywhere. And it always has. What Brian is objecting to here is the presentation of information and views outside of his prescribed and endorsed ideology. In short, it seems he'd like his view accepted as "the basics" favored while denying the right of other views to be expressed.
Referring back to the bill in question, we read this:
The legislature intends to expand these requirements by requiring school districts to adopt policies and procedures that incorporate adopting inclusive curricula and selecting inclusive instructional materials that include the histories, contributions, and perspectives of historically marginalized and underrepresented groups.
What is being discussed here certainly seems to fall under the realm of educational material: "History, contributions, and perspectives...". Being opposed to discussing history, you know, shit that actually happened, seems an ominous sign at best. Being opposed to discussing contributions and perspectives, strikes me as a good way to bury your head in the sand with regards to voices outside of your in-group.
When parents see their beliefs disrespected or contradicted in schools, many feel they have no opportunity but to leave the public school system.
First thing first: they can. And have. And are. This has been established by the author. Having said that, I have to absolutely disagree with the idea that "including the histories, contributions, and perspectives" of historically marginalized groups is somehow akin to "disrespecting or contradicting" value systems. It might be worth considering that if the representations of histories, contributions, and perspectives outside of your deeply held beliefs is disrespecting or contradictory, then you may need to consider if those same deeply held beliefs are also authoritarian and totalitarian in their scope.
I'm also sort of left scratching my head with regards to how much of this will "stick" with the intended audience (students). Given how poorly our state is doing with regards to teaching "the basics", you would assume the author has little to be concerned about with students somehow completely taking up the mantle of the marginalized voices and gayly running through the streets shouting the praises of Harvey Milk and educating people on the Stonewall riots.
If I'm being honest, I have no strong feelings for or against this particular bill. Having said that, when I consider the person of someone like Alan Turing, a man notable in his many contributions to computing, mathematics, cryptology, and arguably decisive in our win against the Nazis, I can't help but feel that somehow denying his homosexuality and overlooking his chemical castration at the hand of the government he undoubtedly saved, we fail to learn likely the most important lesson: how we can do better as a society by recognizing our failures and missteps. Not whitewashing them. When considering the content of character in making judgements, we too need to consider the character of our society. Not just that of the so called "historical" subjects.
With that, I'll say this: Brian Mittge is a good guy. I just feel he's at his best when he responds out of curiosity rather than fear.