Wednesday, March 22, 2023

3 Tips for Surviving the Culture Wars as a High School English Teacher

A couple of days ago, I came across a parable that apparently had its roots in ancient India. As the story goes, a group of blind men come across an elephant, which they had never before encountered. They touch the animal in different parts and try to explain to the other blind men the definition of an elephant. Not one agrees with the other on the “truth” of the elephant, as they are describing different sections. The moral, of course, is that the subjective experience is never the whole truth, as others’ experiences are equally valid. There are some pretty cute cartoons depicting this old, profound concept. However, I worry that this simple story is being lost in where it needs to be heard most: in an English class. 

I live and teach in New Hampshire, where Governor Chris Sununu recently pushed through a 13.5 billion dollar budget that includes the Divisive Concepts Bill, a list of rules regarding how teachers and those conducting diversity training can speak about race and gender in the classroom. New Hampshire is one of 26 states in the country to introduce the bill. Predictably, there has been backlash by teachers’ unions, liberal media outlets like The New York Times, and even some free speech advocates, including conservative lawyer, David French. Listen here on former New York Times Reporter, Bari Weiss’s podcast, as he debates the merits of the bill with fellow conservative, Christopher Rufo. 

The creation of the bill is in response to fears of critical race theory(CRT) infiltrating schools, a legal theory arguing that America is fundamentally racist and that it is systemic racism that has created historical and current racial disparities. As a generalization, conservatives argue that teaching America as fundamentally racist or sexist is indoctrination; liberals argue that this claim is actually the truth, and not teaching this to students is to strip them of a good education.

And then there are those who believe that CRT is not to be feared because teachers aren’t teaching it anyway; that CRT is an easily named bogeyman Republicans created to spread paranoia and fear; that the language in the bill is deliberately vague, poorly written, and will “chill” the necessary conversations regarding race and gender in education. Defenders of the bill argue that the bill is merely protecting against discrimination, this time including white people. 

I will be frank regarding my perspective, as I don’t wish to hide my biases. I think there does need to be some protection against critical theories (Neo-Marxist theories that wish to divide people as oppressed or oppressors) being taught as absolute truth, or being held as the official positions of public schools and universities. However, I am unsure about the merits of this bill because of its ambiguity, and I worry about how some of the rules will be interpreted by school administrators and parents. 

I want American teachers to be skilled facilitators of dialogue, recognizing that theories are not the definition of history or current reality. The conflation of CRT and American history is a dangerous mistake. 

Here’s my unabashed desire: I want to hear as many viewpoints as possible in an academic setting, including those based on Marxism. Also, I want American teachers to be skilled facilitators of dialogue, recognizing that theories are not the definition of history or current reality. The conflation of CRT and American history is a dangerous mistake. 

I also will refute the deliberate obfuscation of many (including former President Barack Obama) who claim that CRT has not made its way into classrooms as the unrefuted truth of America, as last summer the materials sent to me from various teaching sources like “Learning For Justice,” “Edweek,” and the “English Journal,” among a few prominent names, all have CRT as their base assumption, as they champion trendy antiracist educators, Ibram X Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, Kimberlé Crenshaw, etc., while conveniently eschewing conservative Black intellectuals like Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, or even classic liberals like John McWhorter and Glenn Loury. I do not appreciate being gaslighted by companies wishing to sell me classroom products; the use of capitalism to spread anti-capitalism has not gone unnoticed by this English teacher.

As an English teacher, I want to present diverse stories and perspectives, as well as different styles and genres of writing.

So, what can I do to prepare myself for a drama-filled school year? On the one hand, as an English teacher, I want to present diverse stories and perspectives, as well as different styles and genres of writing. I also recognize that diversity can be defined in at least two ways: diversity of identity (ex: race, gender, creed, etc.) and viewpoint diversity, as contrary to popular belief, two people of a different race or gender can have the same ideas and belief systems. I’ve come up with three strategies that center on that parable from ancient India to help ground my practice. As an English teacher, I want to study as many of these “blind men’s” experiences of the “elephant” as possible. 

  • Reframe questions to focus on “What is” rather than “How is,” or even “Why is?” Like many Americans, I have noticed language being used not to clarify a perspective, but rather to intimidate and impress a potential ideological opponent. I believe all humanities teachers have fallen hostage at one point to a student (or faculty member) who wishes to impress their audience by using buzzwords, as if usage of specific words creates moral virtue or a coherent argument.

    This is not a new game; George Orwell humorously explains attributes of poor writing in his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” In order to combat assumptions in the classroom, I suggest approaching “divisive concepts” with curiosity and model that curiosity for students. The idea of a symposium, or a collection of pieces put side by side to showcase the multiplicity of viewpoints on an idea, term, or narrative could ameliorate fears of indoctrination.

    A fantastic example is the symposium of writers Bari Weiss collected of authors answering this question: “What is Systemic Racism?” It starts with Lara Blazon, arguing that it is the foundation of America itself, as she relays a horrific story of injustice towards a client she represented. It then highlights Kmere Foster, who argues that the term obscures real problems and prevents progress. It moves to Kenny Xu, who argues that Asians are being systematically discriminated against in efforts to include more Blacks in universities. There are six authors with six different perspectives on the question.

    How else might we create opportunities for symposiums in the classroom? 
  • Incorporate research projects that seek to define rather than persuade. As writing teachers and students, we’ve all heard the phrase “all writing is persuasive.” I say it quite a bit myself when teaching literature, as I ask students to consider what arguments are being made in a work of fiction. When assigning a research paper or project, there is often the instruction to students that they must develop a thesis to put as the last line of their introduction and to prove this using evidence found in their research. The process of crafting the paper ends up like this: the student answers either a question the teacher posed in the handout or one they crafted before researching, and then the focus of their research is to prove the argument that is already created.

    We happily call this a “persuasive research paper.” What it really should be called is a lesson in sophistry, and this kind of “research process” where one begins with their own assumptions and then seeks to prove those assumptions is having serious consequences in universities producing hackneyed scholarship. Instead of constantly requiring students to “persuade” an audience of a position, create more opportunities for students to demonstrate their research skills by having them define in some capacity as many perspectives on their topic as possible. 
  • Get comfortable playing devil’s advocate or steel manning the argument. One of the saddest realities in our polarized culture is the often cited “echo chamber,” where people are safely ensconced on their social media platforms preaching to their choirs to resounding applause in the form of likes and retweets. News programs choose to center stories that fit the agenda and narrative of the political majority of the audience.

    The result is that we become radicalized in dogmatic beliefs, purely convinced that any challenge to our side is evil. We do not debate in good faith with our opponents who might possibly change our minds or have insight that gives our perspective more nuance.

    Budding intellectuals and writers must face one who can challenge their claims, not only because they might find out they are mistaken, but more importantly, they will learn to sharpen and clarify their ideas. Debate in some form is essential to see if one’s ideas hold truth.

    I challenge English teachers to, as best they can during class discussion, present the opposite perspective of a student’s claim. Make it clear to the class: ideas are not people. Disagreement does not have to equate to dislike. Disagreement does not have to equate to one having better ethics than the other. We have the freedom to change our minds without losing a piece of our identity. 

I wish each and every teacher the best of luck during this coming school year. I have faith that we can get through this time of heightened tension despite a daunting culture war and potentially muzzling legislation. The truth of the elephant is under each blind man’s fingertips; there are always moments to illuminate the dazzling plurality in our classrooms.

Photo by Monkey Business Images Via Canva.
Laura McDermott
Laura McDermott is currently in her eighth year of teaching English at Bedford High School in Bedford, New Hampshire. She earned a Masters in the Art of Teaching (Secondary English) in 2013 and was a fellow in the New Hampshire chapter of the National Writing Project. She is passionate about creating international connections and helped lead student exchanges in Denmark, Iceland, and Taiwan as part of her school’s International Baccalaureate program. Laura enjoys writing poetry and was published in Feminine Collective. More recently, her poem, “Hot Potato,” was accepted for publication in English Journal. 


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