[Excerpt from Bonnie Snyder’s new book, Undoctrinate: How Politicized Classrooms Harm Kids and Ruin Our Schools―and What We Can Do About It]
Gabrielle Clark was worried about her children. Something was off, but she couldn’t put her finger on the problem. Gabrielle was temporarily disabled and unemployed, so her son William worked as a fast food shift manager to help make ends meet while taking his high school senior classes remotely. As a single mom—William’s father died before he was old enough to know him—she had to figure this out alone.
One day, she decided to sit down and watch her son’s distance-learning classes from his magnet school. She tuned into a required course, “The Sociology of Change,” and what she saw on screen shocked her. Her son, unbeknownst to her, had been taught lessons that were completely antithetical to her family’s values...and common sense.
William’s deceased father was white, which means William is biracial. However, his light skin, light hair, and green eyes mean that some people assume he is white. He’s sometimes described as “the only apparent white boy in his class.”
Being “apparently white” was enough for his teacher to target him.
For years, schools have had “anti-bullying campaigns” to stop kids from picking on each other. But what if the bullying is coming from the teacher and school administrators? According to the family’s recently filed lawsuit, William was singled out and subjected to derogatory name-calling and hurtful labeling, based on his physical appearance. His teacher delivered regular “privilege checks” for William, which his mother described as “deliberate and protracted harassment” and “emotional abuse.” The classroom materials even implied that William’s white father probably physically abused his black mother, because—according to his lessons—that’s what white men do.
This is a far cry from Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a nation where people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Gabrielle claims her son, as well as the other students, were forced to profess their identities which were then subjected to open, official scrutiny that assigned negative character attributes and worldviews based on unchangeable personal characteristics, such as race and gender.
When students, including William, attempted to object, discussions were terminated and their speech effectively chilled. However, William refused to complete certain “identity confession” assignments or to avow certain politicized statements he could not in good conscience affirm.
That was enough to earn him threats of a failing grade.
As a senior, that was bad news. He had planned to spend the year applying to colleges and dreaming about his freshman year in which he’d study music. But this bad grade would put all of that in jeopardy.
Gabrielle had her attorney write a letter to the school, which prompted a meeting. But Gabrielle didn’t feel the school was taking her concerns seriously. “That’s when I withdrew my daughter and got the lawyers for my son,” she wrote. “I’m not playing with these people.” She filed a lawsuit against the school, claiming they violated the mother’s constitutional due process right to “family integrity and autonomy” by interfering with her “right and covenant to guide and direct the upbringing” of her children.
This case may have some of you scratching your heads. Others of you—having experienced similar interactions at school—might be nodding at how sadly familiar that story feels.
Our nation has a problem. Recently, in both urban and rural communities, young children are being indoctrinated, bullied, and harassed by their fellow students and teachers for not falling into line on various topics.
In Arizona, Roberto Sandoval, the son of a Mexican immigrant who worked hard to achieve the American dream, was alarmed when his teen showed him her high school homework. “I have an assignment that’s asking me how I am privileged,” she told him. The homework included statements such as “My skin color gives me privileges I didn’t earn … Your skin color gives you struggles you didn’t deserve,” and “No one is asking you to apologize for being privileged; people want you to stop using your privilege in ways that require an apology.”
In Seattle, meanwhile, teachers explain that “Western” mathematics has been used “to disenfranchise people and communities of color.” Then, they attempt to “rehumanize” math by incorporating curricular content such as explaining “how math dictates economic oppression” and asking, “How can we change mathematics from individualistic to collectivist thinking?”
Third-grade students in Cupertino, California, were told to deconstruct their racial and sexual identities, ranking themselves on the intersectional hierarchy from “oppressor” to “oppressed.” One scandalized parent objected, saying, “They were basically teaching racism to my eight-year-old.” When questioned, the principal acknowledged that the lesson was not part of the “formal curricula.”
The specific topics of parents’ complaints in the examples above change from year to year, or even from week to week. Over the past few years, the following issues have waxed and waned in intensity: global warming, Occupy Wall Street, weapons of mass destruction, voter suppression, immigration reform, the border wall, DACA, Black Lives Matter, gun control, same-sex marriage, reproductive rights, abortion, patriotism, election integrity, and the MeToo movement.
In all of these examples, well-intentioned people of good faith can agree on underlying problems, while disagreeing on what to actually do about them. Increasingly, however, children who are too young to have developed solid or informed opinions are being forced into premature ideological conformity with some teachers and administrators who seem intent on pushing their own particular worldviews in K–12 classrooms.
These kinds of transgressions are not limited to the political Left.
A Georgia teacher was yanked from class after telling the students that President Barack Obama was a closeted Muslim.
In Wisconsin, a high school social studies teacher was placed on leave after instructing students to watch a one-sided video questioning the integrity of election results. In a shared screenshot of the assignment, he also apparently made sure to inform students that he would be protesting what he saw as unfair election results because it was “too important” not to do so, in a pretty clear attempt to influence them on this issue.
In Alabama, a geometry teacher actually taught a math lesson by asking students to evaluate the best angles to assassinate Obama.
No matter the specifics of the heavy-handed ideological teaching, we should all be against it. “Citizens of both parties should adopt a legal corollary to the Golden Rule—fight for the rights of others that you would like to exercise yourself,” writes former president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and Persuasion advisor David French. “And one of the most important and vital of those rights is the right to speak and act in accordance with your deepest beliefs.”
In fact, I’ve noticed that liberal parents are—in some ways—even more alarmed over the rapid transformation of their children’s schools and surprised to find themselves opposed to it. If it ever was a partisan issue, the problem of school indoctrination has steadily worsened to the point that people across the political spectrum have found themselves allied against it.
Many of you don’t want to think about this, and I understand. You’d rather send your kids to school and trust implicitly in the system, as your own parents probably did. After all, it worked out okay for you. However, this fight will come to you, whether or not you want it. It doesn’t matter if you live in a city or the rural South.
As frustrating as it can be to hear from people who disagree with us, this is part of the temperament that productive citizens need to develop in order to take their places in our society. In order to achieve this goal, our schools must be populated with educators who model and practice appropriate intellectual forbearance worthy of emulation by the younger generation. Remember, it’s an imperfect world and we are all imperfect people: practice forgiveness and give others the benefit of the doubt whenever possible.
All Americans, regardless of political persuasion or direct personal experience, should be alarmed at the path on which our nation is careening. We’re at a crossroads. It’s a good time—a necessary time—to see what is going on and to fight for the ideals our founders envisioned for us.
Bonnie Snyder is director of high school outreach at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the author of Undoctrinate: How Politicized Classrooms Harm Kids and Ruin Our Schools—And What We Can Do About It.
I live in a school district that began doing a version of this two decades ago. We brought in Glenn Singleton of the Pacific Educational Group to do equity training in our schools. All teachers, administrators, and parent leaders were required to do it. It became the foundation of how we approached education. Many students had to do the Privilege Walk (https://www.eiu.edu/eiu1111/Privilege%20Walk%20Exercise-%20Transfer%20Leadership%20Institute-%20Week%204.pdf). This is in a school district that had marked disparities between the test scores between our Black and Hispanic students compared to our White and Asian/South Asian.
It didn't budge the scores. In 2020, our district had the second largest achievement gap in the county.
This approach to eradicating racism in our schools and our nation simply doesn't work and it energizes conservatives. Until the US takes education reform as a whole seriously and make this nation a vastly easier place for poor and middle class families to raise healthy, safe children, efforts like this will undercut the very goals they have.
Yes, there is white privilege. There is gender privilege. There is economic privilege. There is neurotypical privilege. There is nationality privilege. There is the privilege of being born into a loving family. There is the privilege of being born without mental illness or into a family without mental illness. There is the privilege of being free of drug/ alcohol addiction or being born into a family free of drug/ alcohol addiction. In my community, just this week, several young children were removed from a home due to severe abuse and neglect. I'm not sure if it's fitting to lecture these kids on their white privilege, even though they do have it. I'm not sure if it's helpful to lecture a closeted LGBTQ youth (who portrays themselves as cis or straight) on their sex/ gender privilege when they are struggling with identity issues on a very private and personal level.
Privilege is NOT linear. Identities are complex. It makes sense to teach our children the real American History, which includes Indian boarding schools, Black Wall Street, Harvey Milk, etc. It does not make sense to put the focus on our kids, coming up with a numerical score for how much privilege they have or how much they oppress.