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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Parsing the Difference Between Education and Indoctrination

By Jonathan Zimmerman — June 05, 2017 | Corrected: June 19, 2017 4 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this Commentary incorrectly represented the target of the parent and student rallies led by Principal Jill Bloomberg. The essay has been updated to reflect this correction.

Politics have become a minefield in American schools. Just ask a principal in New York City, who is under investigation for communist-linked organizing in her school.

Yes, you read that right. Back in March, officials at the city’s department of education informed Jill Bloomberg, the principal at the secondary school Park Slope Collegiate in Brooklyn, that she was under investigation for political organizing during school hours on behalf of the Progressive Labor Party.

Bloomberg, who denies the claims, has been an open critic of the city’s public schools since 2010. She has organized protests on behalf of her students—a majority of whom are black and Latino—over what she considers to be unequal actions by the city’s department of education that promote racial segregation and inequality. She also supported her students in resisting the addition of metal detectors and helped organize school assemblies about police brutality.

Parsing the Difference Between Education and Indoctrination Educators must be careful not to turn students into tools for their political advocacy, writes Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania

Now, Bloomberg has countered the district’s investigation with a lawsuit, alleging that district officials violated her right to freely criticize school district policies.

Across the country, in the time of Donald Trump, educators have been declaring their opinions about our voluble president and his policies on immigration, schools, and much else. As citizens, educators must be free to hold whatever viewpoints they wish. If school officials singled out Jill Bloomberg because of her beliefs, as she claims (and they deny), they should suspend their probe and apologize profusely to her and the school.

Nor should investigators be snooping around the school to inquire whether Bloomberg or anyone else was engaging in communist activities. That kind of fishing expedition carries eerie echoes of the 1950s McCarthy era, when hundreds of New York City teachers lost their jobs because of actual or alleged communist affiliations. Educators have the right to speak their minds about Trump and everything else, but they should do so in a way that leaves space for students to make up their own minds.

But we also need to ask whether Bloomberg was trying to impose her views on her students. When Bloomberg lent her support to students who were fighting the installation of metal detectors in her school, did she also listen to students and parents who endorsed the detectors to enhance security? When she held school assemblies about police brutality, did she include the perspectives of community law-enforcement personnel? When she led parent and student rallies against the opening of a selective public school in her building, did all parties understand that students’ grades and good standing did not hinge on their participation in the protest?

When a teacher— or a principal— wears her politics on her sleeve or her T-shirt, it makes it difficult for students to dissent from her point of view."

It won’t do to suggest that Bloomberg’s activities were somehow above politics, as some of her advocates have argued. Some teachers and parents defended Bloomberg’s actions in a “Support Our Principal” letter to the city’s schools chancellor, saying Bloomberg is an “outspoken advocate against racial discrimination.”

Regardless of her intentions, Bloomberg’s anti-racist activities have a sharp political edge. Not everyone thinks metal detectors are racist. According to Bloomberg’s lawyer, some teachers at her school are now afraid to wear Black Lives Matter movement shirts or teach civil rights issues out of fear that they’ll be targeted by district officials. That’s very bad news, if fallout makes Park Slope Collegiate teachers reluctant to say what they believe.

But educators should be wary about imposing their beliefs on unwary teenagers. When a teacher—or a principal—wears her politics on her sleeve or her T-shirt, it makes it difficult for students to dissent from her point of view.

A K-12 educator must exercise the right to say what she thinks with care and discretion. Whenever she expresses an opinion, she needs to emphasize that it is an opinion and not the gospel truth. And if she comes on too strong, students might simply go along in deference to her authority.

After all, the educator is the adult in the room. The students look up to her, and they also know she is responsible for assessing them. It’s easy to see why they would echo what she thinks without really thinking for themselves.

That’s not education; it’s indoctrination. “Our teachers must be advocates, but they may never be salesmen or propagandists,” the civil libertarian and education reformer Alexander Meiklejohn wrote in Harper’s Magazine in 1938. “The very existence of democratic schools depends on that distinction.”

Did Bloomberg breach the line between education and propaganda? The balance of political action is a tough one to strike, but one that all of us as educators should be wrestling with. Educators should be free to advocate for communism, capitalism, or anything else. But they shouldn’t turn students into tools for their advocacy. The very existence of democratic schools depends on that.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2017 edition of Education Week as Avoiding Education’s Political Pitfall

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