Podcast podcast
Jun 24 2020

Max Eden joins Brian Anderson to discuss how America’s latest culture war appears headed for public schools—the topic of Eden’s latest story, “‘There Is No Apolitical Classroom.’

Across the country, schools are preparing to reopen in September with rigorous hygiene protocols to protect against Covid-19. Now, in the aftermath of nationwide protests in response to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, activists are making a renewed push to incorporate “antiracism” content into classrooms. According to Eden, “antiracist schools will teach very different material from the schools of yesteryear.”

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Hello again, everyone. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Max Eden. He's a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute where his work focuses primarily on early education, school choice and federal education policy. You can follow him on Twitter @maxeden99.

Max Eden has written over a dozen articles for City Journal over the last few years and we're happy he can join us on the podcast today. His latest piece, which we released last week and has been generating a lot of attention is entitled "'There Is No Apolitical Classroom'" and it explains why a culture war that is raging in the country today is going to be heading to the public schools this fall, whether parents like it or not. So Max, thanks very much for joining us.

Max Eden: Yeah, thanks for having me, Brian.

Brian Anderson: Public schools across the country, as everyone knows, have been closed for the last few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But when they do eventually reopen, whenever that is either in the fall or next year, it's likely that those schools could have a different feeling from before in terms of the kind of pedagogy and content that's being taught in the classroom. It's a quite striking thing that you described in your piece. Anti-racism has become an incredibly popular rallying cry for progressive activists, especially after the recent unrest that broke out in the wake of George Floyd's horrible death in Minneapolis last month. There was a book called How To Be An Anti-Racist that is generating a lot of sales these days and educators are looking to that for inspiration, in part.

So to just start off, let me quote from a recent announcement which you quote in your piece from the American Association of School Administrators. "Equity is more than making things more accessible and our work on equity must go further and become actively anti-racist". Now, as you note in your piece, this might sound to many parents as unobjectionable and indeed kind of perfectly acceptable appeal to treat everyone the same way, but it's not quite that simple, as you explained. Could you talk a bit what this push for anti-racism actually is and what it's going to look like in schools?

Max Eden: Yeah, absolutely. So I think the thing to understand about anti-racism is that it is not not being racist and it is not being on guard against, or trying to fight back against, the kind of manifestations of racism that you and I would identify and abhor. It kind of reflects a ideology that there is no such thing as not racist. There's only racist and anti-racist. And if you are not being an anti-racist by kind of following the broader cues that are set for you by the diversity equity inclusion and anti-racist training folks and the people whose opinions get broadcast to teachers and organs of teacher's opinion every day these days, then you are a racist.

There is one quote that captures it, which kind of got left on the cutting board in the City Journal piece, but I think I'd like to just read it for the audience here to get a flavor for what the kind of rhetoric the teachers are hearing about anti-racism really is. This is from Education Week's, Classroom Q & A blog. "If you, as a teacher, have not committed to doing the work of understanding your internal racism, implicit bias and prejudice, you are complicit in the deaths of black people and of people of color broadly across the nation. If you are not committed to the work of being actively anti-racist, you are complicit in validating the physical and spiritual murders of black men, women and children daily." So this is a far cry from you're a teacher, it's your sacred charge to create a classroom of respect and accommodation and into essentially telling teachers that they are implicitly murdering students unless they regurgitate kind of the woke party line.

Brian Anderson: You give a number of examples of educational institutions that are embracing basically that same kind of argument. Could you run through a few of them?

Max Eden: Yeah. I mean, so I don't even bother with the teacher's unions, right? Because the teacher's unions have been kind of in this ideological territory for several years now. A couple of years ago, the National Education Association, America's biggest teacher's union, decried the institutional racism of American public education seeming to forget that they are the biggest institution within that institution. But there are organizations like the National Council on the Teaching of English. One of the women who chairs their committee on anti-racism tweeted out at the height of the riots, "Educators, what are you burning? Your white centered curriculum, the Amy Cooper next door, your anti-black behavior policies, the school's racist policies, you're racist ass principal? What are you burning?" It's also the kind of National Committee for Social Studies, their broader organization and their Early Childhood Elementary Community leg, it's New York state has adopted what's called a culturally responsive and sustaining education and framework, which is essentially a framework to apply various aspects of identity politics, ideology, and pedagogy into the classroom.

So there's been this kind of long known phenomenon that teachers' unions are hard left political organizations that both do some things to support teachers, but also really try to politicize the environment. That's been true for a while, but it's getting to the point where just your typical education support organization, like you said at the beginning, the American Association of School Administrators, which is broadly not a political group by any stretch beyond defending their own kind of institutional interests. Almost every major educational group seems to have jumped on board the anti-racism train at this point.

Brian Anderson: How much of this do you expect will actually make it into the classroom once schools reopen? I can imagine that well meaning teachers certainly want to make their classrooms racism free and discuss these issues in a sensible way. But this kind of more radical version of anti-racism, I would imagine some teachers would resist this.

Max Eden: Yeah. I mean, so I've been kind of trying to raise a little warning flag against the ideological excesses that you can see in academia and you can see kind of starting to course into the classroom. And what I'm told by my less kind of alarmed friends is, "Max you're overestimating how big of a threat this is to what goes on in the classroom." Teachers are going to hear this stuff, but at the end of the day, they are going to be concerned that if they say something kind of out of line a little bit too much, the kid's going to tell his mom or dad. Mom or Dad's going to call the principal. It's going to be a headache for the teacher. So at the end of the day, no matter how hard this stuff kind of gets in the air around the education space, within the classroom teachers are going to be operating mostly with a fear of controversy and a fear of their principal.

I worry that this is not going to be the case next year. I mean, we saw, I didn't mention to the piece but there was a principal in Vermont who posted online that all lives matter and kind of made a nuanced critique of black lives matter and she lost her job. The New York times had a piece on kind of the rise of student shaming for racism and in paragraph three was the name of a teacher who said all lives matter, I think on social media, possibly in person. So the old counter-argument against alarm which is that, sure the stuff's out there, but teachers will feel more pain if they bring it to the classroom than not. I really fear that that is going to be the opposite of the case, that teachers will risk feeling pain if they don't bring it into the classroom, given the way that we've seen kind of online mobs go and given that the rise in public adoption of these ideas from school administrators.

My school I went to growing up sent out a memo on their new found commitment to anti-racism and to all the policies that I've been kind of trying to guard against. And once you adopt that context it becomes very, very difficult to make any argument against it, right? Because if this is what anti-racism is and you oppose it, then you risk becoming a racist. And if, to the degree that school administrators, which are largely progressive about have internalized the notion that silence is violence and opposition to anti-racism is racism. I worry that even though the ideas being expressed here aren't entirely novel, that their application will be very different in kind this year than years past.

Brian Anderson: It's true that these aren't completely novel ideas, although the recent unrest has given new life to them or intensified them as you suggest. But we go back a little bit over the last year or so, a lot has been written and discussed about the so called 1619 Project, which won a Pulitzer. This is the New York Times series. It's been developed into a curriculum now for schools with all sorts of suggested reading material, activities, videos, et cetera. And I think, at least the last time I checked, there were thousands of schools already starting to use this curriculum to teach a very different conception of the American founding and America's history than what most parents would expect their teachers to be conveying in history class to their grade school students. Could you say a bit about what you've written about the 1619 Project and its vision of America?

Max Eden: Yeah. So what most students learned in history class, what I learned, probably what you learned, there's the idea that slavery was America's original sin. And with that concept comes kind of a certain freight, right? It was evil. It was part of how we started off as a country, but repentance is possible and progress is possible. And the story of America has been a story of overcoming. And the story of our society is a story of trying to be on guard against and create a more perfect union.

The 1619 Project does not hold that slavery is America's original sin, it holds explicitly that slavery is America's very origin. It holds to a concept of America as being uniquely evil and inherently oppressive. And frankly, even talking on those terms seems to do it perhaps too much credit when the architect of it, Nikole Hannah Jones, has said very explicitly that the point of her project, the point of the 1619 Project, was to make a political case for reparations on the grounds that, and this is closer to a direct quote, it's easier to accomplish than can we stop white people from being white? This is a fairly terrifying and racist project, but one that gets a complete pass in many corners of the media, because it purports to be fighting racism. And if it's anti-racist, then it must be racist to condemn it.

But I think that what anybody who has a kid in a public school needs to be aware of for next year is that the statues that are being toppled have 1619 written on them for a reason and it's actually not only a broadly kind of cosmic reflection of the content, but it's actually part of the explicit pedagogy, right? There is part of the 1619 curriculum that encourages students to engage in a racier poetry, which is to say that they want you to take documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 14th Amendment and to erase parts of them in order to make them say something that makes America look as though it's a more oppressive place. So it really is kind of taking history and intentionally obscuring it for the purpose allegedly of advancing an idea of social justice, but I fear will be profoundly coercive to the future of our country.

Brian Anderson: Well, and it's a politicized classroom for sure and from my perspective, it's a way of introducing hostility and ideology at a very young age when students should be learning how to read and write basically. [crosstalk 00:13:56]

Max Eden: And deeply so. I mean, some of the stuff within it, the opening essay got a lot of attention and criticism for historians, including most especially for its central lie that slavery was a motivating factor of the American Revolution, but just other parts of it too, right? There's a section that draws a direct connection between John C. Calhoun and Eric Cantor, which is the kind of thing you wouldn't even expect to find in a college seminar in American political history, much less than elementary school classroom. And once you tell second, third, fourth graders that your average Republican figure is a direct intellectual heir of John C. Calhoun, that's the key for a lot of acrimony in the classroom and at home if parents happen to believe differently.

Brian Anderson: Well, yeah. I think it's another argument for a greater expansion of school choice, to be honest with you. Just to give people options to escape this kind of ideologically oriented education.

Max Eden: Oh, I agree. I mean it's kind of, parents have long kind of grown use to the idea that you send your kid off to college and there's a chance he comes back kind of believing that you're bad and believe that the things that you believe are bad and that's kind of something the parents in America have conceded, but that dynamic risks becoming true, even at the high school, middle school and elementary school level. And once it reaches that point, any parent who wants the education of their children to be about the formation of their soul than the transmission of knowledge and tradition has very little choice if the school district doesn't back down about this stuff, which I fear many won't, to take their kids somewhere else.

Brian Anderson: Thanks, Max. Don't forget to check out Max Eden's work on the City Journal website. That's www.city-journal.org. His latest piece which we've been talking about is called "There Is No Apolitical Classroom". We'll link to his author page in the description and you can follow him on Twitter @maxeden99.

You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal, and on Instagram at @cityjournal_mi. And always, if you've enjoyed what you've heard on the show, give us a rating on iTunes. Thanks for listening. And thanks, Max, for joining us.

Max Eden: Thanks. 

Photo by izusek/iStock

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