The Eternally Radical Idea

Catching up with ‘Coddling’ part fifteen: Ideological conformity and censorship in education schools

March 29, 2021

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part 15 of a multi-part series updating developments since the publication of “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure” (2018). 

Earlier in this series:
Part One: Introduction
Part Two: Trigger warnings, social media, and mental health
Part Three: Censorship from the right
Part Four: Political polarization
Part Five: Paranoid parenting
‘Coddling’ Caveat #1: Social media
Part Six: U.S. income stratification
Part Seven: Paranoid parenting with Kate Julian
Part Eight: Free play and childhood independence
Part Nine: Bureaucratization, administrative bloat, and tuition
Part Ten: Corporatism and free speech
Part Eleven: Bias response teams
Part Twelve: Apolitical censorship
Part Thirteen: Title IX
Part Fourteen: Ideological litmus tests in ed schools

Future articles can be found here.


In the last “Catching up with ‘Coddling,’” we examined the rise of new social justice ideas and tried to puzzle together how these ideas got adopted by Generation Z (born ‘96 or after) by the time they started hitting college in 2013. We posited three main gateways: increased politicization of leading education schools; the explosion of K-12 anti-bullying programs; and rising social media use. Today we are going to focus on the tenacity of social justice commitments in ed schools and on FIRE cases relating to ed schools. 

The accrediting agency NCATE ultimately dropped its required commitments to social justice after pressure from FIRE and KC Johnson in the summer of 2006. Teachers College, on the other hand, remains committed to the philosophy. On its website, it states that while there are substantial questions about the theory and practice of teaching, “[a]ddressing these questions in contemporary times calls for critical analyses of the ways in which curriculum, teaching, and schooling contribute to social inequalities and a commitment to educating for social justice.”

Commitments to ideological conformity at ed schools

Teachers College is not an outlier. Other graduate education schools seem to require graduates to show a commitment to social justice, as defined by the schools themselves:

  • Stanford’s Teacher Education Program “aims to cultivate teacher leaders who share a set of core values that includes a commitment to social justice, an understanding of the strengths and needs of a diverse student population, and a dedication to equity and excellence for all students.”
  • At Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, “[e]quity is at the core of our work,” and the school’s “commitment to social justice” is listed as being as important an asset as its faculty. 
  • The University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education is “committed to … [p]reparing anti-racist educational teachers, leaders, counselors, and researchers.”
  • Rutgers’ education grad program advertises that it is “advancing social justice education in research and practice.” 
  • Ohio State University’s Teacher Education framework is “[t]o assist pre-service teachers in developing the knowledge, skills and disposition needed to become effective leaders and advocates for social justice in the field of education.”

The expected result would be a much more politicized, homogeneous, and evangelical cohort of graduates from top education schools in K-12.

Many ed schools adopted a commitment to “social justice” and “diversity” as evaluation criteria for aspiring teachers — on par with demonstrated knowledge competence in their respective subject matter fields — as far back as 1998-2000. The expected result would be a much more politicized, homogeneous, and evangelical cohort of graduates from top education schools in K-12. 

This is despite the fact that the National Education Association’s own Code of Ethics for Educators states that teachers “shall not unreasonably deny the student’s access to varying points of view.” Today, we have entire statewide curricula being rewritten to incorporate “an ideology with an activist political agenda,” while some educators go as far as to deliberately conceal their classroom activism from their students’ parents.

Whether the ideological filtering of potential K-12 educators leads to an eventual measurable change in college-age student attitudes years later remains hard to prove. And from FIRE’s perspective, that question is interesting, but not entirely the point. Ideological litmus tests in higher ed are intrinsically bad. They stultify free and open inquiry and stunt the kind of academic exploration that leads to new discoveries and the cross-pollination of ideas. They assume we know an awful lot more about the world than we actually do, and they seek to instill unscholarly certainty in students.

As Lyell Asher, an English professor at Lewis & Clark, observed:

There might be nothing wrong with training students in equity and social justice were it not for the inconvenient fact that a college campus is where these ideals and others like them are to be rigorously examined rather than piously assumed. It’s the difference between a curriculum and a catechism.

We will be discussing Asher’s work more in the next “Catching Up.” 

Censorship: FIRE cases at ed schools

Given all this, it may not surprise you that some of the worst cases FIRE has seen over the years have involved ed schools.

  • In 2005 at Brooklyn College, Professor KC Johnson — whose research we cited in part fourteen of CUWC — was slated to face an “Integrity Committee” for having raised criticism of the college’s school of education. The criticism? That the school rejected competing ideologies. Brooklyn College backed down after FIRE intervened.
  • In 2009 and then again in 2018, UCLA’s Graduate School of Education threatened a former student who claimed he had been systematically pushed out of the school for his dissenting views. The student made a blog, ucla-weeding101.info, where he explained his view that UCLA’s ed school “weeds out” the people with views it doesn’t like. UCLA’s threat alleged intellectual property violations. FIRE wrote letters both times, and the site, though it redirects to a new top-level domain, is still around.
  • In 2012, Syracuse tried to expel a graduate education student without so much as a hearing because he complained on Facebook about facing discrimination for being white. According to the student a community leader visited the school where he was volunteering, looked at him and then commented on how it would be better if the school recruited from historically black colleges. He took this as a barb that communicated his volunteer hours were not wanted. The student’s told the story on Facebook and said: “Just making sure we’re okay with racism. … I suppose I oughta be black or stay in my side of town.” Syracuse reversed course after FIRE intervened. The case is worth looking at, because although it was somewhat of an outlier 2012, it looks an awful lot like incidents we see today both within and outside of higher education.
  • In Fall of 2020, Duquesne University suspended, then fired, Professor Gary Shank for using a racial slur during an academic discussion of why not to use racial slurs. Shank has retained counsel, and in January of this year, a faculty panel called for his reinstatement.

The late-aughts saga of Michele Kerr at Stanford is, in some ways, the paradigmatic example of ways a graduate education program will try to get rid of someone, once the program decides that person will not conform to their chosen ideology. Her trouble began when, at an open house for admitted students, Kerr confessed that her philosophy differed from the school’s progressive dogma. Kerr was called into a meeting with the program director, and you can hear what happened next in her own words:

When I was at Stanford Law school a lot of students reported a sort of “imposter syndrome” and had nightmares that someone was going to say their admission had been a mistake and that they had to go. Watching a case in which an education school actually told an admitted student that they were only “potentially” admitted because of ideological disagreements was like seeing the irrational nightmares of my peers brought to life. 

Stanford backed down after FIRE wrote a letter on Kerr’s behalf, defending her freedom of conscience and calling on Stanford to uphold its promises of freedom of thought. Kerr would go on to write a private, password-protected blog about her experiences as an ideological dissenter in the program. After Stanford administrators heard about the blog, they demanded the password, arguing that whatever she had blogged — as they had no idea, because it was private — violated student privacy. (This is another great candidate for the Ed Murrow quote, “Anyone who isn’t confused really doesn’t understand the situation.”) 

FIRE wrote Kerr another letter on that topic. Kerr would ultimately graduate in July 2009.  

So far we’ve shown that education schools have been surprisingly comfortable with having ideological litmus tests for students, that they continue to have identities tightly entangled with very specific ideological views, and that dissenters, even relatively mild dissenters, have been severely punished. But could we actually be underestimating the influence of education schools on the problems we identified in “The Coddling of the American Mind?” We will examine that in the next installment.