I’m winning friends and influencing people

One of the interesting things about online communication is the ease with which you can unwittingly offend people.

I ran across this post over at Civil War Memory in which Kevin Levin cited an item from fellow blogger Chris Wehner about radicalism in America’s classrooms.  Kevin argued that when we run across this type of information, it’s important not to assume that this or that organization or incident is characteristic of what goes on in the classroom.  I agreed, and said so in a comment:

Good points, Kevin. One of the things I’ve noticed about blogs that consistently critique the educational system is a tendency to over-generalize from anecdotal evidence. They point to news stories about teachers who engage in questionable behavior or cite statements without any effort to determine whether that sort of thing is representative. They need to realize that in many cases teachers themselves aren’t in a position to dictate educational policy; they do the best they can within the framework they’re given.

In other words, just because you run across some incident about a liberal teacher or a conference organized by some radical group marketed to teachers, it doesn’t mean that it’s representative of the majority of American educators.  Don’t take an anecdote or incident and generalize it to apply to teachers in general.

Apparently Chris took this comment to mean that by “over-generalizing” I was referring to his characterization of the group, rather than with a tendency in the blogosphere to generalize about teachers.  So for the record, let me state here and now that I’m not in favor of a radicalized classroom, and that I’m not challenging his description of the group’s aims.

Then I stopped by Old Virginia Blog and found that Richard Williams is also upset with my use of the terms “anecdotal” and “over-generalization,” and seems to be under the impression that my comment referred specifically to him.  He argues that radicalized education is, in fact, a pervasive problem.  He also provides a few additional examples to prove his point, although I think generalizing from four anecdotes isn’t much more persuasive than generalizing from one.

Since what I assumed to be a rather casual remark has upset some folks, let me take an opportunity to explain what I meant.  “Anecdotal evidence” can have different meanings.  It can mean evidence that is of dubious veracity, such as hearsay.  Or it can mean evidence in the form of a related incident that, while true, is not of sufficient weight to prove a larger conclusion.  I used the term “anecdotal” in this second sense, which as far as I know is the most common one.

I never said that I don’t have a problem with politicization of the classroom.  I do have a problem with it.  Furthermore, I never said, to quote Richard, that “there is no real evidence this is occurring in our schools.”  One can certainly find instances in which the classroom has become politicized. 

What I said is that we shouldn’t assume that these incidents accurately convey the beliefs or teaching approaches of most American teachers.  It would be like finding some accounts of Revolutionary War soldiers who broke into houses while foraging and murdered the occupants and then arguing that the Continental Army was plagued with murderers in the ranks.  The evidence is too narrow to support such a broad conclusion.

You can no more extrapolate an accurate picture of American teaching from this sort of thing than you can understand American Christianity by looking at the nuts from Westboro Baptist or a bunch of abortion clinic bombers.  Most teachers just aren’t leftist kooks, and they don’t necessarily share the opinions of every organization that claims to speak for them, even when it’s the nation’s largest teachers’ union.  I’ve explained why I believe all this to be the case in an earlier post, to which I humbly re-direct everyone’s attention.

So I don’t deny that attempts to politicize the classroom exist, or that Chris has accurately described one.  I just don’t think it’s representative of what most teachers are doing.  What I’m suggesting is that we don’t decry the state of the American classroom every time we run across some story about a left-wing organization acting up.  That’s not so bad, is it?

25 Comments

Filed under Teaching History

25 responses to “I’m winning friends and influencing people

  1. “So I don’t deny that attempts to politicize the classroom exist, or that Chris has accurately described one. I just don’t think it’s representative of what most teachers are doing. What I’m suggesting is that we don’t decry the state of the American classroom every time we run across some story about a left-wing organization acting up.”

    Fair enough, well said.

    Chris

  2. Richard Williams

    Michael:

    “I just don’t think it’s representative of what most teachers are doing.”

    I don’t either. But be patient. I believe the evidence over the last 40 years clearly points to that trend. Beyond the “anecdotal evidence”, we have, for one example, the video I posted of the AFL-CIO stating plainly that is their goal and then we have the NEA stating “NEA is committed to working collaboratively on quality public education” (w/the AFL-CIO).

    Are we not to believe their own stated objectives? I simply took them at their word. And at what point do mountains of “anecdotal evidence” become an obvious trend and point to a broader problem? I think you’re asking for Chris and me to prove what should be obvious by now.

    Best,
    RW

  3. One more point Michael. The time to “raise awareness” of this growing trend is not *after* it becomes representative and totally entrenched. Too late then. By making more folks aware of the “social justice” movement and its influence in the classroom, I think Chris did a great service to his readers.

  4. Michael Lynch

    Hi Richard,

    Yes, I would certainly agree with you that this sort of thing is much more common these days than it was in the last few decades, and that politicization of the classroom is not something to be desired.

    –ML

  5. If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you a question which involves the teaching profession and one’s faith. This whole discussion about teaching history, polarization, perspective, etc, etc begs the question: Can history be taught in a vacuum?

    As you have indicated that your consider yourself an evangelical Christian, I would have to assume you believe in the Providence of God and its implications regarding history. You are also aware of Scripture’s admonition to “do all to the Glory of God.” So, as a historian, teacher, and Christian, how do you believe you should approach the teaching of history, particularly American history?

    This is not a “gotcha” or “trick” question or some sort of trap. I’m sincerely interested and curious of your thoughts and approach. If you’d prefer to answer privately, you may email me and any response would be kept confidential.

    Thanks.

  6. Matt McKeon

    I have to giggle a little. I’ve been teaching twenty years, attended all sorts of professional development and got a master’s. There are never been any attempt at political indoctrination. No one cares about me. Recently there was a fooraw about the Texas textbooks and the clumsy attempts to fill them with propaganda. Like the kids read the textbooks! Students’ political beliefs come from their communities, social class, and families.

    Keep looking under the bed, fellas. The vast leftwing conspiracy is there somewhere.

  7. Matt:

    “Recently there was a fooraw about the Texas textbooks and the clumsy attempts to fill them with propaganda.”

    Hmmm . . . so, in your view, when we look under the bed, we should actually be looking for the vast rightwing conspiracy?

  8. Matt McKeon

    In my opinion, you should stop looking under the bed.

    Schools are run by municipal school boards. The curriculum is written by the state so the students can pass state mandated exams. The textbooks are written by rightwing ideologues in Texas.

    The possibility that our precious bodily fluids will be tainted by some leftist workshops is remote.

  9. And the largest teacher’s union in the Nation, the NEA, has as one of its stated goals, the teaching of “social justice.”

    I suppose they were just kiddin’ around and are just full of bodily solids.

  10. Matt McKeon

    Good for the NEA. Where the rubber hits the road, not so much.

    But so people need a sense of threat to feel…something. Important? Alive? Engaged?

    Off topic, Happy Father’s Day

  11. Michael Lynch

    Hi Richard,

    I don’t mind answering your question at all, and in fact I thought writing an answer might make for a good post, so here it is: https://pastinthepresent.wordpress.com/2010/06/20/i-love-it-when-a-plan-comes-together/

    –ML

  12. Since when does the NEA determine history curriculum? As far as I can tell from the website the NEA doesn’t have a history curriculum. There are a few links with ideas for the classroom, but that is it. This is the problem when individuals who have no classroom experience or experience developing curriculum decide to have an opinion.

  13. Matt – that’s fine, as long as we’re open and honest. You support the NEA type of politicization, but not the Texas type.

    Kevin – the NEA’s influence goes well beyond curriculum. They act as an advocacy group, the lobby legislators, they certainly have an impact on what’s being taught. I think you know that.

    Are you seriously suggesting that taxpayers, parents, and concerned citizens offering their opinions regarding the education system in the U.S are a “problem?” Interesting.

  14. Michael – thanks for the post and replying to my question. I’ll take a look and offer some commentary. It is a subject and question which truly fascinates me and one which I have not completely sorted out in my own mind.

  15. Richard,

    That’s the thing about making an argument. You have to provide evidence for a conclusion. Once again, you haven’t done that. If they have influence on curriculum, you need to demonstrate that. Please show me a curriculum that is influenced by the NEA. The problem is that I work with public school history teachers and we’ve never discussed the position of the NEA on a specific item.

    I apologize for the questions, but that’s what happens when you make claims without supporting documentation.

  16. Matt McKeon

    Richard,
    The point I was making is that rhetoric from the NEA has zero influence on the curriculum taught in the classroom.

    (you should read “good for them” in the snide tone I had in my head)

    What has influence? State mandated exams, state written curriculum.

  17. Kevin:

    “You have to provide evidence for a conclusion.” I’m not writing a research paper here. But the evidence for the trend being discussed is overwhelming. I cannot help you interpret facts differently than I do. I know a number of public school teachers and administrators and they tell me quite a different story than the one you and Matt are telling.

    What, in your mind, has been one of the primary forces contributing to the explosion in homeschooling – “anecdotal evidence”, “right wing boogie men”? The “social justice” movement cannot be examined in a vacuum. It’s part of an overall trend. Again, I think you know that. If you are not aware that the NEA and various other advocacy groups work behind the scenes to influence education policy and what is being taught (which they tell us is their goal), you are beyond my ability to inform.

    Matt:

    So you’re suggesting that the NEA, along with other advocacy groups, have no impact on curriculum?

  18. Kevin:

    Speaking of making claims and answering questions, you didn’t answer mine:

    “Are you seriously suggesting that taxpayers, parents, and concerned citizens offering their opinions regarding the education system in the U.S are a “problem?”

  19. Richard,

    But I don’t consider you to be informed since you do not work in the private or public school system and you do not work with teachers on the development of curriculum. All I can tell is that you have access to a computer and can do some searches for teaching and social justice. Anyone can do that. What I am telling you is that neither you nor Chris has demonstrated that this curriculum or whatever you want to call it is pervasive in our school system. You are not convincing because you are not in a position to understand how curriculum are developed. Please do not interpret that as an insult, it’s simply a fact.

    I do not consider it a problem that taxpayers inquire into the development of curriculum in our school systems; however, it is a problem when they are not aware of the process itself. I hope that clarifies things for you.

    Let me also say that I am not suggesting that some of these organizations are not pushing a radical leftist agenda. I do see that. As a department chair I spend a great deal of time going through the history/social studies curricula of other private schools and public as well. In all of my reading I have never come across a curriculum that is based around the concept of teaching social justice. These types of organizations have been around for a long time and there may have been more of them in years past.

    You and Chris have certainly gathered a great deal of information, but you have not done a very good job of interpreting that information. I am not asking for a research project, but it would be helpful if you took one step in that direction. Simply repeating that it’s a problem is not an argument.

  20. Kevin:

    “All I can tell is that you have access to a computer and can do some searches for teaching and social justice. Anyone can do that. ”

    Yes, “anyone” can. So? I don’t see that as a negative. I continue to be a little perplexed at why you and others often criticize the use of the internet and search engines in doing initial research and fact finding. Whole libraries are now digitized and much of the Library of Congress is well on the way to being available online. Certainly you use “a computer and searches” quite extensively on your blog and in your teaching. You post things from news feeds all the time. Is it ok for academics and not for “laymen”? Certainly, internet information is not without its pitfalls and, as you’ve pointed out, one has to be careful as it is such an open forum. However, one of the great benefits of the internet is, that it does, in fact, open up resources that were previously the sole domain of academics and those living close to a university library. The internet is the ideal of liberty, freedom and the ability to acquire facts and knowledge efficiently and quickly. It is our generation’s version of the printing press (which is why the government is seeking more control, but that’s another topic.) It is very “democratic” and is having a “leveling effect” and it’s legitimate use in research and fact-finding is something that should be lauded, not criticized. Frankly, I often find the criticisms rather condescending, as if one needs an advanced degree to use the internet intelligently and discern facts from fiction.

    “neither you nor Chris has demonstrated that this curriculum or whatever you want to call it is pervasive in our school system.”

    I believe we have both demonstrated that this is a growing trend. I also believe it has made much more inroads than some want to admit.

    Thanks for responding. Have a great Summer.

  21. Richard,

    Of course, I am not criticizing you simply for using a search engine. My point is that there isn’t much more than that. I’ve taken the time to look through most of the links provided by you and Chris. The websites fall along a wide spectrum; some of them I find interesting for any number of reasons and a few were truly disturbing. It seems to me that the teaching of social justice can mean any number of things. That’s part of the problem with simply listing sites w/o any attempt at analyzing their content. Chris did not do that and you make little attempt as well.

    You recently posted about the NEA inclusion of Saul Alinsky’s book on their website as evidence that it is being used to shape curriculum when in fact it has nothing to do with the classroom. They were encouraging NEA members to use it to organize local chapters. As I said before the NEA has nothing to do with the formation of curriculum. I’ve worked in New Jersey to help public school teachers develop history curriculum and they have the strongest union around. Not once did a single participant mention the NEA.

    I guess what I am saying is that your ability to simply list a bunch of websites without much of anything else reflects your limited understanding of this subject. Again, that’s not meant as an insult, but as a fact based on what you’ve written thus far. Thanks for the response and stay cool this week.

  22. Kevin:

    I guess I view the use of the blogosphere differently than you do. I see blog posts (most of them) as “guerrilla warfare”, to use a military term. Quick “hit and run” posts, links, comments to spark discussion and debate and offer some direction for further research and exploration and then move on. I see much of that same style in what you do with posts about various Southern/Confederate heritage topics/events.

    A blog post is meant to be a snack, not a meal. That being said, I believe the leftist trend being promoted by the various “social justice” events and groups is an undeniable direction in public education. I may post something more lengthy on my blog some time in the near future.

  23. Richard,

    I have absolutely no problem with readers pointing out to me when I’ve not provided enough information to justify a point I am trying to make in a given post. I am doing nothing more and nothing less here and in my original post. As far as I can tell, the host of this blog is making the very same point.

  24. Amy Looney

    Gentlemen,

    Social justice, as it is taught to education students, encourages teachers to be advocates for all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, etc. As I learned about social justice (and I am a history teacher), my professors taught me to be an advocate for my students. If I have a child whom I suspect is being abused, I report it. If I realize one of my students is not getting enough to eat at home, I have extra snacks on hand. Social justice merely implies encouraging teachers to care and advocate for their students. There is no underlying conspiracy of liberalism.

    I agree with Matt, wholeheartedly, the NEA has little influence on state-mandated curriculum. I wish the National Council for the Social Studies had more influence. I’m a history teacher with a M.A., and I wish that with my experience as an adjunct professor, that I could rewrite and reorganize the Virginia Standards of Learning myself!

    I don’t want to be inflammatory, but if you’re not in a classroom, you have no right to judge the meaning of social justice. Taxpayers and parents can criticize all they want, but what I see as a teacher, is that education has become a policy of “the customer is always right.” I am a professional historian as well as an educator, but I get told what stories I can and can’t tell in the classroom, what documentaries I can and cannot show.

    Step into my classroom where I have students who are already parents as freshmen and sophomores, students who don’t bathe regularly, and students fighting cancer. I will do whatever it takes to help them. That’s social justice.

  25. Amy,

    Thanks for adding your voice to this thread and for everything that you do in the classroom.

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