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?