Politicians Should Leave Teachers Alone And Let Them Teach


One of the worst things about education is when politicians put their big feet in their mouths and start telling teachers what should be taught. Almost as bad is when people in “the ed biz” get involved in politics rather than focusing on things others may think unimportant, like teaching children to read, write and do math. After all, who cares who a teacher wants to have sex with as long as it’s not with one of his/her/their students?

A great example of this is the manufactured kerfuffle over a single line in the Florida history curriculum that states that some slaves learned skills which made their lives better. Start with a simple fact: that statement is true. If a slave learned how to be a really good carpenter, he (or she, although it was almost always a male) would be treated better than someone who worked in the fields all day. After all, the master could make money off the work.

That is not a feature of slavery. A skilled slave was still a slave with the same lack of rights as others. But, as a high school social studies teacher in New York City for a couple of decades, I taught lessons about slavery. And, as teachers should, I focused on what are called “higher thinking skills.” Simple facts are useful, but a key part of lessons is learning how to analyze information, move facts together logically, and evaluate events, people and activities.

It seems simple enough when you ask kids to evaluate whether or not being taken over in the Roman Empire was a good or bad thing. But what do you do when you know there is no way someone can find something good about an institution. Do you ask for the good points of slavery? Of the Holocaust?

What we ask for then is to look at the ideas behind the actions. A typical lesson might examine Southern arguments in favor of slavery before the Civil War. And, yes, students will point out the racism and corruption there. We want them to be able to evaluate things like that. But some writers, like George Fitzhugh, argued that slaves were better off than many northern factory workers. He argued that the slaves were treated better, were taken care of when they got too old to work or got sick. Factory workers were treated terribly, and Fitzhugh was not entirely wrong.

But slavery was still slavery! A slave could not just walk away and try something else. It was a brutal system, and there were hundreds of restrictions, even as some slaves were treated better than others.

To understand slavery, you have to realize that institutions, even those most horrible, are complicated. What good teachers try to do is have students come to what most of us would consider the correct evaluation of the “peculiar institution” by themselves. And that means really learning.

The attack on one line in a complicated curriculum is ridiculous. First of all, it was not designed by politicians, but by educators. William Allen, a longtime teacher, was the leader, and he is Black. But we have a Republican governor who is running for president. So Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, leads the wave of condemnation. As a former member of the teachers’ union, I regret to inform her that teachers in New York City taught a more complex version than she wants, one that is essentially the same as the one Florida now has.

Those people who are pushing the notion that somehow learning the complexities of life when slavery was prevalent is wrong are either fools or corrupt politicians.

This current mess would not have existed if the governor were not a Republican with a campaign trying for the White House. There are legitimate reasons to dislike his actions, but not this one. Let teachers teach and hope they teach facts with enough complexity that it can be used to teach kids to really think. Kids with critical thinking skills are what we need for our future.