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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Families & the Community Opinion

A New Group Battling for Freedom of Thought in Education

By Rick Hess — September 23, 2021 7 min read
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Amid the furious debates over critical race theory’s role in the classroom, a slew of new organizations have sprung up. One of these is the Educational Liberty Alliance, which launched this spring with the aim of building a national network of teachers and parents who support freedom of thought and expression in education. Recently, I spoke with Graham Gerst, a lawyer with school-age children who founded the alliance and chairs its board of directors, about what that means, what it entails, and how it fits into our polarized landscape.

—Rick

Rick: Tell me about the Educational Liberty Alliance.

Graham: We are a network of parents and teachers concerned with the anti-educational environment in many of our K-12 schools, which increasingly presents a single dominant orthodoxy to students and declares any contrary viewpoints as illegitimate and immoral. We help people combat this trend by establishing networks with others of like mind so that they can work together to amplify their voices. And we present our members with informed debate on education-related topics. Consistent with one of our core beliefs, we always present both sides, because understanding both sides better prepares you to advocate change. While we only launched in May, we’re happy with our growth so far: We had people from thirty-five states and six countries sign up for our most recent event.

Rick: What do you mean by a “single dominant orthodoxy”?

Graham: The dominant orthodoxy I referred to is the aggressive strain of progressivism we see in many of our schools. Politics in the classroom is concerning enough. But this ideology treats dissent as illegitimate and even harmful, which is even more worrisome. As a result, students are scared to say or write anything contrary to this orthodoxy for fear of low grades and ostracism. Parents and teachers stay silent because they are terrified of losing their jobs. This widespread fear is why I say the orthodoxy is dominant. Our goal is a K-12 system without this unhealthy and anti-educational fear. Students need to be free to think for themselves on contentious issues, and parents and teachers must be able to oppose problematic curricula and pedagogies.

Rick: While your organization presents itself as nonpartisan, there are some in education who might consider this an attempt to promote a right-wing agenda. What’s your response to such concerns?

Graham: One of the first posts we got on our Facebook page was that we must be right wing because the word “liberty” is in our name. That reaction says something about the state of discourse in this country. Our response explained that “liberty” was a reference to John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty.” In his critique of intellectual intolerance, Mill makes a compelling case that silencing dissent harms both the silencer and the dissenter. I formed the Educational Liberty Alliance based on the principles Mill articulated to address some of the problems I’ve read about and seen in our K-12 system. This means the Educational Liberty Alliance always presents both sides on equal footing and with respect. We don’t worry about those who consider us right wing for giving voice to views with which they disagree. Intolerant people are unlikely to be convinced of anything.

Rick: What are a couple examples of the alliance in action?

Graham: We have an array of offerings. First are our events, where people from different perspectives discuss controversial issues in education, allowing our members to hear both sides, decide for themselves, and then be better prepared to advocate change. Second is a feature on our website that identifies the states with laws that guarantee parents the right to review curricular materials being used in the classroom, which is a great resource for parents who want to learn more about what’s going on in their children’s classes. Third, we have essays by prominent public intellectuals on issues like the value of freedom of thought and expression. Fourth is a new initiative I’m particularly excited about. We ask a couple of authorities on a particular issue to answer the same set of questions on an educational issue and then post their responses side by side. It’s sort of like our events, but it distills each side’s position so that the reader can quickly glean the strengths and weaknesses on each side. Our first will be on the 1619 Project and should be up shortly. I encourage anyone interested in that topic to read it.

Rick: What’s an example of something you do or work on that might resonate with left-wing readers?

Graham: I think that our events appeal to people interested in intellectual dialogue between differing viewpoints, whether those people are liberal or conservative. Hearing that kind of back-and-forth broadens and deepens your understanding and might even change your mind. We don’t appeal to people who refuse to listen to the other side and don’t want to give it a hearing.

Rick: What has prompted parents or educators to join the alliance?

Graham: We’ve gotten more traction with parents than with teachers, in part because there are obviously more of them. These parents tend to be more conservative because what’s being taught to their children comes from the other side of the political spectrum. But liberal parents are also concerned with the dogmatic and anti-educational pedagogy they see harming their children’s intellectual development. The teachers who’ve joined come from all disciplines but don’t generally advertise their involvement. They’re scared about been seen as dissenting from the dominant orthodoxy and losing their jobs. That fact should be a sign to everyone that our K-12 educational environment is unhealthy and disturbing.

Rick: It seems like there’s been a groundswell of efforts like yours in the past year. What do you think has catalyzed this?

Graham: Over the last few years, a couple of things happened. The first was that remote learning showed parents what schools are teaching their children. But more significant is that the educational environment became more extreme and intolerant of dissent in the wake of the justifiable outrage at George Floyd’s death and ensuing civil unrest. Schools unfortunately reflected what has been happening in our society more generally. A number of new organizations have launched in reaction, like Parents United, Parents Defending Education, and FAIR. We’re all addressing the same set of problems in the schools, just with different approaches. And we’re all trying to work together. One of our initiatives is establishing a platform where members from all these groups can meet to collaborate and coordinate efforts. If everyone stays siloed within his or her own group, they won’t be successful.

Rick: Amid all those groups, what makes the alliance’s approach and philosophy distinctive?

Graham: One thing that distinguishes the alliance is that we support both parents and teachers. Teachers are at the front lines and are the most at risk, other than the students. They need our help, and we need their help to make lasting change. Another is that we are focused on all aspects of the K-12 environment, rather than a single issue, like critical race theory. The problems in the schools go well beyond that one issue. Finally, we are nonpartisan and do not take official positions on issues beyond advocating freedom of thought and expression. We want to attract a range of people and open minds that would not be receptive to a confrontational approach.

Rick: Are you seeking to focus mostly on the local, state, or national level?

Graham: We want to have a national impact, but education, thankfully, is still largely controlled at the state and local levels. People have to push for changes in their own schools and school districts. We want to be fertile ground for their grassroots movements.

Rick: What would success look like for your organization?

Graham: There will be no quick fix to the problems facing our education system, which are deeply embedded at every level of the educational establishment. We need to reestablish proper norms for schools and the teaching profession, which will be a long, incremental process. We view success in the same incremental way, counting it as each parent and teacher who stands up against the establishment, as each classroom that flips to a more appropriate pedagogy, and as each school district and state that institutes laws and policies to protect our students’ ability to think for themselves.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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