So to Speak podcast transcript: Are education schools secretly driving campus censorship?

May 12, 2021

Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.

Nico Perrino: Welcome back to So To Speak, the Free Speech Podcast where every other week we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I am, as always, your host, Nico Perino, and we have two guests on today’s show. The first is gonna be familiar name to regular listeners of the show. Greg Lukianoff is the President and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and author of the New York Times best selling book The Coddling of the American Mind. Greg, thanks for the wave. Welcome back.

Greg Lukianoff: Yeah, thanks for having me. I’d like to point out to critics that I actually enjoy Kombucha. There are people that actually believe that nobody actually buys this on their own because [inaudible – crosstalk]. Love the taste, dammit.

Nico: Are they paying you to say that?

Greg: They should be.

Nico: And our guest, who we’ll see what he’s drinking. Our guest of honor is Lyell Asher. Lyell is an Associate Professor of English at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. His work focuses on Shakespeare, the Renaissance, the Art of the Novel, and more. I’m actually very interested to hear your perspectives on the Renaissance, I should say because I was a history major in college and my focus was on the Ancients and Renaissance histories. So, how much I remember, I don’t know. I remember Poojas Bartolini and Nicola Nicolae because I read their correspondences about finding old books and it’s kinda cool.

But anyway, we’re not talking about the Renaissance today, so we might have to save that conversation for later today. We’re talking about your 2018 Chronicle of Higher Education article, How Ed Schools Became a Menace. Lyell, welcome to So To Speak.

Lyell Asher: Thanks so much for having me. Pleasure to be here.

Nico: So, I’ll take the moderator’s privilege here and ask the first question. I know Greg’s got a lot of thoughts as well. Lyell, your article doesn’t mince words. You write that Ed Schools have long been notorious for two mutually reinforcing characteristics: ideological orthodoxy and low academic standards. You write that even among Ed School faculty members and deans, the study found a broad and despairing recognition that Ed School training was frequently subjective, obscure, faddish, inbred and politically correct. Overall, and you use some very flashy rhetorical language here that I enjoy.

You describe Ed Schools as inquisition not inquiry, catechism not curriculum, liturgy not literacy and places where ideas all around are piously assumed rather than rigorously examined. And then to get to the free speech crux here, you say that when Ed School trained students enter the ranks of college administration they often find themselves in mini fiefdoms of like-minded administrators and student assistants who’s shared political vision is regarded less as a point of view than as a point of fact. So, we at FIRE here have often seen administrators as kind of the drivers in a lot of the censorship we’ve seen on campus, especially early on in FIRE’s history. Greg can speak a lot to this.

But your suggestion here seems to be that it’s not administrators per se, it’s Ed Schools that are producing the administrators that are then producing the censorship. Would you say that’s right?

Lyell: It is, yes. One of the questions that occurred to me starting back in 2010 when I began noticing a pattern in these blow ups on college campuses, we had our first big one in 2010. It was the first time I’d ever even had anything to do with conduct hearings or anything like that. And so, I won’t go into the details. I can but it’s the incident I began the article with the student who put some antiracist posters up around campus. And his antiracist posters were in response to another set of flyers inviting people to a luau and on the invitation the person who had put them up had mistakenly put a face of a Maori warrior and so because this was really just sort of geographical literacy, it wasn’t racism.

But anyway, the kid thought it was and so he put up these antiracist posters which then inflamed a lot of people when they saw them. Well, so the kid was put through a conduct hearing and remarkably found guilty even though he was a left-leaning Hispanic student and was no racist; vehemently antiracist in fact.

Well, this went on for several months and it was a terrible thing for the college and terrible thing for the student and everybody involved. I thought it was a one-off. I just thought well, we’ve made a couple of bad hires and that would be it and it turned out not to be the case three years later with new administrators also at school and something even worse happened and then they began looking around. I was thinking what is going on here? The Ed School connection hadn’t really occurred to me but between office hours I would go online and notice all the things. Thanks to FIRE I was combing your pages seeing what was happening and I noticed that no matter where these blow ups happened you began hearing similar sorts of phrases.

You know, I think I’d mentioned in the Clubhouse discussion the one that first caught my eye was one that you’re all familiar with that it’s not the intent it’s the impact that matters or various versions of this remark. I’ve been around higher education for quite a long time, and I’m used to crazy stuff coming out of the academy and it should. We have to have a place where unconventional ideas can be bandied about, considered and either ratified or deposed. But this was entirely new and profoundly stupid and destructive to put it mildly.

So, the more I looked into it I realized these were all coming from administrators. And I said, “Where are these people getting their educations?” And that’s what began opening the door. And then I realized, and it was unbelievable when I started looking at it. I think I may have mentioned somewhere, maybe in an email, that I played a grim little game I called ESTA Golf which was Ed School Trained Administrative Golf, and I would basically just look up any campus problem and by problem I mean conduct hearings gone wrong or some kind of infringement on free speech, and I’d see how long it would take me to get back to an administrator that was trained in an education school.

And it was usually one or two strokes, and I was there. So, and that really started me off. I began looking into the history of Ed Schools and I was helped by Arthur Levine. One of the remarks you attributed to me I think, Nico, was in fact, Arthur Levine’s remark and he was the President of Teachers College at Columbia for many years. And to his enormous credit he undertook a study. I think it was started in 2001 and went right up through 2005. It’s whole team of people, and they weren’t all from Ed Schools by the way. They weren’t all academics. He got people who were from the media, I can’t remember but it’s a whole list of people and this was not an in-house job.

Well, that report is devastating, and I had heard of it, but I read it and you can find it online very easily, and all three volumes. It’s worth reading. So, that’s really what convinced me that I was on to something.

Nico: Let’s analyze, put some meat to that thesis. You give us the example at your college, the Lewis & Clark involving the satirical flyer and you posit that Ed School trained administrators are advancing sort of an alternative curriculum especially surrounding alleged hatred and bigotry and the curriculum has two prongs. Anything that could be construed as bigotry and hatred should be construed as bigotry and hatred. It reminds me of the old Christopher Hitchens saying that it’s common on the right and the left to assume that anyone’s lowest possible motive is their only possible motive. And two, that any such instance of bigotry and hatred should be considered part of an epidemic.

And in your piece you cite three different controversies beyond your Lewis & Clark example that kind of lend credence to this thesis. Of course, there’s the 2007 Delaware residents life program, the Yale Halloween costume controversy, and then you take a look and analyze deeply the article by Derald Wing Sue and his six coauthors Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life.

FIRE was involved in the Delaware program, the Yale Halloween costume controversy. Greg was intimately involved in the Yale Halloween costume controversy. So, where does the nexus go there? Let’s start there?

Lyell: To the Yale Halloween costume controversy?

Nico: Yeah.

Lyell: Well, you know, all of these have it’s an alloy. It’s not only Ed School trained administrators but the Yale controversy began with Birdwell Howard and I don’t know anything about him personally, but I do know he was trained in an Ed School. And he simply arrived on campus and one thing that’s lost in that story is that a lot of people come away from the story. They heard something on the news, and they assume that people were objecting to terrible Halloween costumes that had been worn. You know, this was before Halloween. And if you actually comb the web and talk to people at Yale, they say, “Well, we really haven’t had any bad Halloween costumes.”

The earliest one I could find was ten years earlier and that was just a report of one. There was no picture there was no nothing. So, Howard had been formerly employed at Northwestern, so I went back and found out that, in fact, he had sent the identical letter to Northwestern. Now, I don’t know the history of Northwestern and whether did they have a Halloween controversy, but he arrived on campus, sends out this email and the most remarkable thing about that email was the links that he attached. And the links when you clicked on them, I think I mentioned this in the article, they led students into the –

Nico: Yeah, you said they had –

Lyell: — an archive of just the most vile racist images you’ve ever seen. As if in case you’re wondering what racist images are, here they are. I can’t imagine being a student of color or, in fact, a White student and clicking on those images and not being appalled. I’m not saying he should have sent them, but it’s rather ironic isn’t it that he was suggesting that intentions don’t matter, and these images are bad regardless of the context and he sends people to links to the very images. This is mind blowing to me.

Nico: Yeah, and for our listeners who don’t recall the incident, this was Birdwell Howard sent an email ahead of Halloween, as you referenced, urging people or warning students not to wear insensitive Halloween costumes which research reveals hadn’t really been done at Yale or hadn’t been worn at Yale in ten years. At least there was no public reports of any insensitive Halloween costumers.

Lyell: That’s right.

Nico: [Inaudible – crosstalk] of course, arrived on campus and saw Nicholas Christakis, the professor. Well, he wasn’t even the one who pushed back on Birdwell Howard; it was his wife Erica pushed back and was stepping in and seeking to address some of the student concerns.

Lyell: Yeah, and you know and Erica’s – oh, sorry. Go ahead Greg.

Greg: I think most listeners are gonna know, but I was actually the one in Selman Courtyard who recorded the video of the students berating Nicholas because I’ve been around for a long time and I had someone, a critic, laugh at me when I said this, but I sincerely believe Nicholas Christakis would have been fired if it hadn’t been documented that he showed incredible patience in the face of being balled out by these students who were just – and he was really trying to address them, he was really trying to be kind and openminded about it. But even the original email, like I’ve actually had to read Erica Christakis’ email aloud because the way it was misrepresented.

Yale, sending people out, and I don’t know how intentional this was, but I was at a conference at Bard where someone said well then, I had someone on my campus tell students that they should wear Klan robes. And I’m like that’s just a lie, that is not what she wrote. I’m pretty sure you know that’s not what she wrote, but there was no misinformation around it. And what people forget is that this part of a consciousness raising movement all across the country. There were about 100 different campuses that these kind of incidents took place on all at the same time all for one semester. And we also talked about them going after Mary Spellman for example at Claremont McKenna.

And it was one of these things where it seemed like they just didn’t really care about who the target was, they just needed to see that they could get things done. And they got Mary Spellman fired, for example, they wanted a newspaper at University of Massachusetts Amherst to be banned. And Erica Christakis quit her job; she doesn’t lecture at Yale any more. Nicholas quit when students said they refused to receive their diploma from him. Wait, you refuse to receive your diploma from someone who showed ungodly patience in the face of being berated by students? It was a case that I found just incredibly depressing and being there for it was one of the saddest things I’ve seen in my career.

Nico: Yeah, and I hadn’t even thought to think about who the administrators were behind – well, obviously we thought about who the administrators were behind the controversy but not where they came from or sitting so far as where they were trained. You know, Birdwell Howard, as you write, is an Ed School trained Associate Vice President for Student Engagement. I’ve always just thought of Student Engagement professionals or administrators on campuses as always kind of being of the censorious type. Not all of them, of course, but.

Lyell: Well, this is the thing. Very often it’s the Ed School trained administrators who start it, and other people will join. The letter was signed by a lot of people. That is to say the original letter warning people about Halloween costumes and some of them were professors who had been on this committee. But it’s very often initiated by folks from Ed Schools. And by the way, I didn’t know Nicholas, but I wrote something the following year in the American Scholar called Low Definition in Higher Education, and I mentioned specifically that crisis as one of my examples and I sent it —again, I’d never met Nicholas or Erica, and I sent it to them, and we began trading stories and writing letters to one another just trying to think through this.

And, of course, it was very helpful. And I realized just what wonderful people both he and Erica are. And Greg, you’re exactly right. That letter that Erica wrote is a model of critical thinking, care and genuine concern for all students. And I will say this, for minority students in particular, that’s the other thing that’s often lost and to see it misrepresented like that is really quite maddening.

Greg: What’s funny, and a lot of things that we see, it’s sort of in that sense sort of old fashioned 1960s style you’re not our parents argument. Essentially like should we allow students the ability to be transgressive and to get through this stuff themselves. And Erica Christakis’ background is child development. She wrote an absolutely genius book called The Importance of Being Little. She was basically advocating for a responsible way to help people grow and define themselves and be empowered in their lives. But the way it was misrepresented in so many places it just blows me away. And they are two of the kindest most caring people I’ve ever met.

Lyell: Absolutely, yes.

Greg: Them being the targets made it pretty shocking.

Lyell: And just another thing too. This goes back to the Delaware case. I didn’t quite realize just how important the Delaware case was until I began looking on websites and discovering that as we talked about at the Clubhouse discussion Greg, and of course, you know this. Instead of Kerr and Tweedy sinking into obscurity because of all the shame they brought on the University of Delaware, among the administrative professionals of which there are around more than 20,000 they were sort of heroes. Why because they had as she and Tweedy put it in that 2017 retrospective again and again we are now educators.

That is, she developed this “curricular model” for college administrators which allowed them to, at least according to her, begin delivering their own curriculum on the administrative side. So, for example, many schools began having, and Lewis & Clark as well, orientation sessions that would last a full semester. That is, you’d have a weekly or bi-weekly or once a month, twice a month and this was fairly regular. I don’t know if they’ve dropped off now, but it’s fairly common. And I wouldn’t put it this way were it not for the fact that Tweedy and Kerr in that essay put it this way themselves.

They don’t talk in that essay about how much this is helping students. What they insist on is how great it is to be educators. So, what this allowed for, it was a foot in the door, and it allowed for administrators to then be taking on or imagining themselves as people who had as much right to be educating students as anybody else on campus. And to this day, I think still have them.

Nico: And that’s Kathleen Kerr and James Tweedy and I think it’s important that we give our listeners because we’re talking about a Delaware program that is at this point what 14 years old. This a program you call the curricular model in which her and Tweedy tried to introduce education I guess as part of their role as administrators. Whatever you want to call it. Let me run through some of what they did, and you can describe the program to me.

As part of this program students were questioned by their RAs about their political views on controversial topics. They were asked about their sexual identities and whether they would date people from different ethnic groups. One program required students to stuff marshmallows in their mouths rendering them speechless in proportion to their lack of privilege. The more privilege the fewer marshmallows and therefore the easier it was to speak. Groups of students were asked to list on posters the stereotypical characteristics associated with Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Jews, thus exciting animosities while extensively ameliorating them.

Administrators unselfconsciously referred to lesson plans as treatments and interventions and they dictated “learning outcomes.” Each student will learn about the forms of oppression. This is from the program. Each student will learn about the forms of oppression linked with each identity group. Each student will learn that systemic oppression exists in our society. Each student will learn the benefits of dismantling systems of oppression. So, let’s provide a little bit more context to provide this program.

Greg: Yeah, I need to talk about this because I was very candid about this. This was the program that really hit me very personally because it was so nuts and it was covered so poorly, in my opinion, in the media but it basically like when I started FIRE in 2001, I would hear a lot from conservatives about brainwashing programs on campus and I saw ones that were heavy handed but nothing that I thought was really over the top. Then we find out about this case at the University of Delaware because parents are saying, “My son attended a session where they took all the materials back at the end of the session.” And I was like what’s that about?

So, we really started looking into it and we got 400 pages of information and it just got worse and worse and it was incredibly heavy handed brainwashing program to essentially make people I guess less racist to be more interested in sustainability to get them to take on every specific political points of view, unlike anything I’d ever seen. There was a speech code involved. And these one-on-one sessions that RAs were forced to have with their students they were one-on-one. Like one student talking to a student in the room and one of the most amazing things that happened, there was a female student being questioned by her male RA, when did you discover your sexual identity?

Her response was, “None of your damn business.” And the student got in trouble for it, and it was just so mind blowing, and it was so upsetting to watch people actually in some cases look at this and be like, well this is just like conservatives complaining about – I’m like, no first of all I’m a conservative. Second of all, this is nuts. This is such an [inaudible] [00:23:43]. They had like a little ceremony commemorating the death of the University of Delaware program. I talk about it in Unlearning Liberty. And these were people who frankly should have been fired after that. But they’ve moved up in the ranks and they even came out with a book in 2020 based on their whole curricular model.

What they mean, to be clear, what the curricular model means is that without academic oversight they believe that they are the real teachers, these education school administrators. They are the real teachers, and they do the real curriculum and the real teaching. And the head of the AUP was a friend of mine, Kerry Nelson, and he heard this defended at a FIRE event at one point as being this is an expression of the RAs freedom of speech. And it’s like no, this was imposed on the RAs. A lot of them didn’t like this program, they came to us because of that.

But he went off on the idea like you did this. You’re trying to usurp the power of the professors. Like you did this with no academic oversight. This is just you trying to impose your views. There’s nothing academic about this. But amazingly, thanks to Lyell, I’d never really made the connection to education schools.

Lyell: Well, here’s the remarkable thing too. You know, we have to thank Jan Blits for this because he was a professor there and went over to Katherine Kerr’s office and said and asked her about this. I’ve heard these terrible things from my students. Now, here’s the telling detail. She handed the entire program over to him to look at proudly. And the reason I say that’s important is because this tells you what happens when you are surrounded by people who agree with you. You never hear anything else in the echo chamber.

This interesting because then when you start going back through the history of Ed Schools, I knew E.D. Hirsch just indirectly at UVA when I was a graduate student there, and E.D. Hirsch mentions in one of his books, I think 2009 and I can’t quite remember the title of the book, but he details something, tells a story that’s very interesting. He taught at UVA for 30 or 40 years and in 1996 he decides to teach a course at the Ed School because he had two books under his belt. The latest one was The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them which had been a notable New York Times book of the year. And before that, of course, Cultural Literacy.

So, he goes to the Ed School to teach a course and here’s what amazing. What was the subject of the course? The subject of the course was the so-called achievement gap and how to fix it. I can talk a little bit about that in a moment if need be, if we have time. But the key point is that he was easily the most celebrated professor in the Curry School of Education when he went over there and his class should have been quite large, and they only had just a few students. The next year the same thing. The third year the enrollment was still maybe nine or ten students, and he was just shocked that this was happening.

And one student confided him. He said, “Look, you should be proud of the students who are here. We’re quite brave because we were strongly advised against taking your course by the Ed School faculty.” So, and the more you look back into the history of Ed Schools, it is a closed system and it’s responsible for its dysfunction.

You know, one of the things I mention in that piece is that when I was at UVA in graduate school in English, it was fireworks constantly. In fact, E.D. Hirsch mentions that he says, “This would never have happened over at the College of Arts and Sciences. Even if you had a celebration of the Declaration of Independence,” as they had just had. I wasn’t there at the time but in 1976 right. And he said, “So, obviously Thomas Jefferson looms large there,” but the History Department invited people who take the other side against Jefferson. That was part of what the university was supposed to do.

In fact, now this is a shock, he doesn’t mention this but one of the people who was invited and came and attended was Jacques Derrida and he did a “deconstructive” reading of the Declaration of Independence. And let me tell you something, it’s a brilliant piece of writing. And when I say deconstruction, he’s not dismissing it at all, he’s just saying that it doesn’t seem to be or isn’t actually what it suggests it is. It’s again, not at all against such a declaration, it’s just trying to get underneath it. It’s a brilliant piece.

Well, at the point that E.D. Hirsch is telling this story in 2009, he was looking back and saying, “This would never have happened at the College of Arts and Sciences.” Well, now fast forward ten years and it’s happening. You may have seen just about two months ago where a medical student at UVA who had questioned I guess back in 2018, the microaggressions article in I think it was a symposium of some kind, was eventually kicked out of the school. So, now it’s moved over, not even to the College of Arts and Sciences, but to the Medical School.

Greg: One thing – oh, sorry.

Lyell: No, go ahead.

Greg: I just wanted to explain for our listeners part of the connection here. Since writing Coddling the American Mind, I’ve been doing a series called “Catching Up With Coddling,” and I’m trying to finish it. I originally thought it could be one article because I’m an idiot. It is now like 18 blog posts including some that are very, very long. But we covered a lot of ground in Coddling, so we had a lot of work to do. And we’re trying to figure out one thing that we realized we’d left out was how were the students coming to college already sort of trained in some of this social justice language and some of this very hot ideology.

And I started to realize that it became very clear, I didn’t start to realize, it became very clear since we wrote the book that some of this is coming from K-12 that sort of like the level of political, to be frank, indoctrination that you’re seeing in some K-12 is pretty severe and ultimately where would that be coming from, that’d be coming from Ed Schools. And we also pointed out that in 2006, FIRE successfully defeated a social justice requirement among an Ed School accrediting board but failed against the fact that teachers college, probably the most influential teachers college in the country at Columbia, had actually a policy that said you will be evaluated on your commitment to social justice.

And we’re like that’s a political litmus test and we fought this in The Critical Higher Education and the New York Post. And then I re-read Lyell’s article and it just pointed out to me. It’s like, oh my god, are you saying this stuff that we’re fighting I’m realizing is much worse than I thought in K-12 also consistently the administrators that we think are most against free speech to be frank, are coming out of the same institution because I hadn’t really made the connection that a lot of campus administrators had Ed degrees. And so, that’s how we ended up here just to give some lay context.

Lyell: And, of course, here’s the greater irony and if this doesn’t make your blood boil nothing will. And I wrote an essay in Colette, I think it was 2020, August 19, called Look Who’s Talking About Educational Equity. And here’s the remarkable thing. The achievement gap that E.D. Hirsch was getting at, he’s been writing essentially on the achievement gap his whole career or since he began writing about education. He’s interested in K-8 education and he’s particularly interested in the question of reading.

So, when I began going down that street and seeing how students are taught to read – see most people have no idea and I had no idea either, that education schools have for 30-40 years been turning a blind eye to what we know about reading instruction for young children. For 20 years we had cognitive science. There’s no question about how one should teach children how to read and there’re two parts to it just decoding. And then, there’s a second part to it later on about vocabulary building.

But the first part, and this is the other thing I mentioned on Clubhouse, is the fact that what we used to in the United States and elsewhere in the world, was teach phonics, phonemes, so that students and it’s what most people in my generation grew up with, and was what your parents did. They sound it out. Everybody knows that. But Ed Schools have not been teaching that. There’s a whole series of movements and the one that’s really took hold was the so-called Three Cueing Movement, starting in around the late ‘60s. And I would recommend that any of your listeners go to Emily Hanford’s remarkable pieces on APM called – there are two of them.

One called Hard Words, Why Aren’t Our Kids Taught to Read and the second one is At a Loss for Words. And if you do any research in this area at all you realize that a good portion of what we think of as the achievement gap is based or comes out of the absolute failure of education schools to teach teachers how to teach students to read. So, when we look at the fact that 60 percent of fourth graders are not reading at grade level and when we’re talking about low income and minority students, that number can go up as high as 70 percent and in some districts 80 percent.

So, you see, then when they get to college and we talk about the achievement gap and we blame it all on racism, no one’s denying that racism is a serious issue in this country. But if you can’t look at the thing that you can actually change, that is, Ed Schools can actually change how students are or how their students are taught to teach reading, it’s really missing the crucial piece in all of this.

Nico: Well, in your article you talk about how it’s hard to pierce any of these orthodoxies, whether it’s the orthodoxy about pedagogy should be or what’s politically correct or anything else. And you have in your article kind of an argument that Greg has made before that he calls the perfect rhetorical fortress, which is essentially that they build this fortress of rhetoric around them that insulates any of their orthodoxies from argumentation, and I’m just gonna –

Greg: — or ad hominem basically. It’s a series of fortifications that allow you to never actually get to the point of what someone’s arguing. You can base it on identity, you can base it on personal failings, you can base it on – there’s all sorts of quick dodges and we have layer after layer after layer of them and it makes it so that if you look at the way people argue on Twitter it’s like are you actually arguing about the substance of your argument? Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s just not the case.

One thing that definitely got me more concerned about this is Bonnie Snyder at FIRE is coming out with a book called Undoctronate. It’s her own book. The forward is gonna be by John McWhorter and she does a great job of talking about some of this really heavy handed ideology but also compared to learning outcomes declining and basically making you realize it’s like so we’re spending a tremendous amount of time on these teachers’ political opinions without teaching them arithmetic, reading, all of these basic things. [Inaudible – crosstalk].

Lyell: There are schools in which you can take students from disadvantaged backgrounds; the South Bronx for example in the Colette piece. I just focused on the Icahn Schools run by Superintendent Jeffrey Litt who is just a remarkable human being. He’s been teaching sequenced knowledge-based curriculum since around 1990. He was made supervisor of the Icahn Schools when they started around 2000. Again, those schools are 95 percent Black and Hispanic, low income in the South Bronx. And, of course, parents are dying to get in. I don’t know what the number is now maybe one or two in 100 applications and they’re charter schools and they do it. And they show you that the so-called achievement gap can be erased and they’re doing it all the time.

Now you would think that given the success of those schools that Ed Schools would say hey, let’s go and see what they’re doing. They don’t. Oh, go ahead sorry.

Nico: Yeah, I was gonna say; it’s kind of a threshold question here. Where did education schools come from? I’m not an education major. My girlfriend all throughout college was and I always kind of wondered why was she in education school if she wanted to be an English teacher. Why wasn’t she studying English and taking some perhaps pedagogy classes. Why was there this whole separate school where if you want to learn English you were studying it from education school English. It just never made much sense to me as someone who – you know, I was a History major – a passion for history.

I always felt like the people who taught best were the people who developed a deep understanding and learning and passion for the subject, not this overall superficial understanding of everything that it seemed to me you got from education schools. Again, there’s probably a good reason for it but I just never quite understood, and I had some of the same instincts you have, Lyell. I was a double major: journalism and history and I wrote for the student newspaper at Indiana University. And at Indiana they published the grade distributions every semester. And I thought oh, it’d be interesting to see which schools within the university give out the most As.

Lyell: Yeah, I know the answer to that.

Nico: Well, it’s not the education school. The most As come from the Jacobs School of Music, which in 2011, 80 percent of all grades given in that school were As, but the School of Education was close behind with 77.96 percent of all grades given out in the school were As. And then you have to go all the way down to the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at 62 percent to get anywhere close to those two other schools. And I don’t know.

Greg: Well, Lyell, I’m gonna make one more pitch. Finally, people have been asking me so much about what’s going on in K-12 to write something or say something and I gave it a lot of thought, so I came up with I think part 18 of Catching Up With Coddling is I call it the Empowering of the American Mind. It’s ten ideas for K-12 reform. And what’s funny about it is they’re basically old small L liberal ideas. They’re about no compelled speech respecting freedom of conscience, you know, fostering independence and all this kind of stuff that I think would have been uncontroversial not so long ago, but I’m waiting to get my head chopped of by critics and we’ll see.

Lyell: Well, one reason for being “brave” on this subject and one has to be, and I want to say this to everyone, including professors out there who are on the fence. This is hurting most underprivileged students; that’s who it’s hurting. If you look in the record of what Ed Schools have done, and teachers by the way, they’re in the trenches here so this is no disrespect meant to teachers in the K-12 system. Most of them are political moderates and the trouble with most of them is they haven’t been given the tools that they need to be great teachers. They can be and some Ed Schools are doing that.

Now this is amazing: the good news is that we’re now up to 50 percent of undergraduate education programs who are teaching the science of reading instruction; that’s the undergraduate level. At the graduate level we’re up to 35 percent. Thirty-five percent who are again, teaching the science of reading instruction to their teachers who will then take them out in the schools.

So, it’s almost criminal what we’re doing to these underprivileged students and the minority students who go to schools and are not taught, and it’s really the most important thing because what we know is if you’re behind in reading at the fourth grade because of the so-called Matthew Effect, that is the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. That prevents you from excelling in every other subject that you’ll be faced with right through high school. So, I look at this and I just can’t quite believe what I’m seeing.

Greg: And some of the things that are really horrifying people – so, I should say a little bit about my background. I live in Southeast DC, which was typically sort of the poorest quarter of DC, and in the 1990s it was definitely high murder rate, and I worked with students in inner city high schools in the ‘90s. And I was lucky enough to work with some of the best and brightest kids, the ones who were the most self-motivated. And you know when they showed up sad some days it was because someone got shot at school and it really brought things home to me.

But I see some efforts coming out of some education activists to like for example, get rid of honors classes because they think they’re not diverse enough. And I think about all these kids, none of whom are White, who that was the only place they felt normal and safe and some of this thinking it doesn’t – it’s kinda funny because I think sometimes when people see the title Coddling the American Mind they’re thinking that we’re not concerned about these students. But I keep on saying actually I think we’re more concerned about actually helping these students. It doesn’t have to fit your ideology.

Lyell: Again, when Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy came out that book was lumped in together with Closing of the American Mind and they couldn’t be more different. Hirsch is sort of an old school liberal. He’s interested in bridging the achievement gap. These books and the curriculum that he offers for free through the Core Knowledge Program, this is for disadvantaged children primarily because what we know is good schools – now this is a crucial point – good schools close the achievement gap. Everybody gets better but you know who gets better faster are the students who come from homes that don’t have books.

Their parents maybe don’t take them to the museums or the libraries. They don’t listen to words over dinner that the kids from advantaged homes hear. So, Hirsch’s whole program is to make sure that public schools close that gap and basically give disadvantaged students, minority students in particular, what the other students have just by being in a more privileged home. So, I think one has to be again, I have no fear on this because I know that what this is about is the underprivileged children most of all.

Nico: Actually, before we get off to that because it’s kinda on this topic, I have a teacher friend in the K-12 environment who’s increasingly concerned about this idea of grading equity. Have you heard about that?

Lyell: Yeah.

Nico: The idea that essentially wipe our Fs or failing grades or something. What are your thoughts on that?

Lyell: Well, one never wants to discourage students, that’s absolutely clear. But it’s really just breaking the thermometer. It would be like saying you’ve got a global warming problem; let’s just break all the thermometers. It’s not the students fault that they have all of these failing grades. So, equity is to my mind, I mean the way it’s understood now, the old fashioned sense of equity is the one I’m for. Doing it that way is at the wrong end of the two. We need to go way back. If we want to talk about equity what you have to do is make sure that you start at the very beginning and you say, “We’re gonna make sure that when first graders arrive at school they all are going to be given what some of our students have from home.”

And that might mean, by the way, and this is where money really should be spent, that may mean that you need to spend two more hours with those students. That may mean that you need to pay teachers, in let’s say inner city schools, more money. Of course, there’s a problem there because very often teachers who are in these inner city schools will want to get out and go to maybe an easier –

Nico: They get burned out. And I’ve known a lot of great teachers over the years.

Lyell: That’s right. And you know, there’s all sorts of union rules about increasing their pay. You know, I’d be for doubling their pay. I mean this is not in some ways about money because those schools need great teachers and I think most parents want their kids to go to good schools and I don’t think most parents, frankly, are on board with this equity nonsense. By that I mean doing away with grades because the grades are really in some ways, of course, a referendum on colleges and universities and schools and the United States itself. So, we need to have a gauge where we can understand exactly what it is we’re doing and what we’re doing wrong.

Nico: Well, it looks like the education school in Indiana, at least in 2011, essentially did away with grades when they gave everyone As, but what are you gonna do?

Greg: My tenth thing on my recommendations was if it’s broke fix it. And that’s the one where I’m getting the most blow back because I’m saying you gotta rethink this if it’s not working, it’s not really helping out the disadvantaged kids, we gotta rethink everything and try to be dynamic about it and try experiments. And immediately people were like that’s charter schools. And I’m like I never said charter schools. I’m looking at every possible thing.

And in a lot of cases, I’m both talking about disadvantaged Schools, but when it comes to the hot ideology I’m seeing these more in the elite schools that have a wildly disproportionate effect on our entire democracy which I – when I got to Stanford the lower economic quartile, I’d never heard of places like Andover and Exeter. It just felt like I’ve been introduced to the conspiracy. Apparently, all these people went to Andover; it’s horrifying.

But hearing a lot of the hot ideology coming from the private schools and for some of this I think one of the things would be helpful would have alternative – start a new Andover, start a new Exeter because I think right now that if somebody decided to start a company that had a really rigorous education on basically with a small L liberal kind of focus in Manhattan for example, that parents would be lining out the door to get into something like that.

Lyell: Absolutely, yes. Well, let me just mention one last thing on this subject. To go back a second, the microaggressions essay, and I think we all probably agree with this, the microaggressions essay is getting something that’s important that is we all want to be culturally sensitive to people and there are lots of mistakes we can make. But the difference between that essay and a book that I want to just mention here; Lisa Delpit’s book from the early 1990s. I don’t know if you know that book, but it’s called Other People’s Children.

What a remarkable book because it does everything, all the sorts of things that the microaggression essay does except it’s humane, it’s understanding, it doesn’t use the word perpetrator which is like in every paragraph of that ridiculous essay by Derald Wing Sue. I say ridiculous because –

Nico: Lyell, can I actually interrupt you here?

Lyell: Sure.

Nico: Because I want to give some meat to what you’re saying and quote from you directly. You argued that the essay, which is Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life stacks the deck rhetorically. Accused microaggressors only seem to have cogent explanations for what they said or did. They don’t explain, they explain away. They don’t defend themselves; they get defensive and so on. And even the most tentative passages you write that the drive for indictment overwhelms any hint of ambivalence or ambiguity.

Lyell: Absolutely. And the remarkable thing about that essay, and again, you know I just hear about these essays and I fail to do what I always tell my students to do. Go to the source, read the essay. Don’t listen to anybody else and when I read the essay, it was much worse that I had ever imagined.

One of the things it does it actually commits, what I would say, macroaggressions itself throughout the essay. For example, all the examples he uses, or I should say the authors use, of potential microaggressions are themselves rather racially stereotypical. For example, he always suggests that it’s Black people who are going to be called down for speaking loudly. He calls that a cultural style. And this is him suggesting this; this is the cultural style of a Black person to be very loud and animated. And the Asian students on the other hand are asked to speak up because that’s their cultural style to be quiet.

Greg: The baked in assumptions. I had this feeling early in my career when I was going to some of these conferences that were all administrators. And to be clear, I think of these are very nice people even though we butt heads with them a lot. But I was hearing older white people from Ohio talk about oh, we all grew up this way. You know how it is, it’s just old White people. I did not grow up that way. Most of the people who are younger than you did not actually grow up in communities that were entirely White or not immigrant unless they – and the amount of stereotyping that actually came out was like wow, I don’t think that. So, you think you need more stereotyping help?

And one thing I want to say very clearly. Microaggressions in the sense of like little slights absolutely real, worth studying, very interesting academically, but as soon as you turn them into rule they become problematic from a free speech perspective. But they also become intolerant of diversity because one of the things that we’ve seen is that people who are not neurotypical for example, people who are artistic, but even people from other countries. They show up and so there are 16 different very subtle rules about the way I’m supposed to talk here or I’m in trouble.

Lyell: Yes, right. Well, and this is the genius of Lisa Delpit’s book because it’s not about indictment at all. She’s just going through because she’s taught in some many different places. She, herself, is African American, but she taught in Alaska. And she just goes through the mistakes one is likely to make because you don’t realize that what a particular student says or the way she says it means one thing in the school environment, but it means a totally different thing at home. And it’s a lovely book and is the kind of book that really every educator should be reading because there’s zero indictment.

There’s simply an attempt to understand it. It’s like a sort of fine grained ethnography and that’s what we need instead of a rule book that’s really based on a melodramatic understanding of good and evil. So, the great stuff is out there but it doesn’t supply people with a sledgehammer. That’s the problem.

Nico: And you have a hard time even when you have the sledgehammer breaking through. Because as you point out in your essay, when the individuals proffering these theories come armed in the rhetoric of caring and community, it can seem impossible, especially if purported beneficiaries are students to break through.

Lyell: Yes, it’s a real difficulty. I think Foucault mentioned this at some point believe it or not. He was talking about how it’s one thing when you get a prohibition you can not do it. This goes back to Tofoil as well. When somebody says, “Thou shalt not,” you can not do it and you think what you want but the trouble with this when the prohibitions are disguised and they come in the voice of reason and concern and love, well that gets into you soul, so it’s not just a prohibition but it divides you into a person who is either good morally or bad. And that’s the problem.

I think a lot of people even when they know that this is destructive, it’s very hard to go against it because of the rhetoric of care and concern that it comes cloaked in.

Nico: Yeah. You write in your essay “Being an ally of oppressed groups we are told requires validating and supporting people who are socially or institutionally positioned below yourself regardless of whether you understand or agree with where they’re coming from and a sure symptom of having internalized one’s on sense of dominance feeling authorized to debate or explain away the experienced target groups.”

Lyell: You know who that is by the way? I didn’t mention the author at the time because no one knew who she was, and I’d never heard of her. That was Robin D’Angelo.

Nico: Oh, wow.

Lyell: Yeah. Somebody sent me an email that he’d gotten from some applicant and the applicant had used the phrase, oh, I can’t remember it. It was something literacy. So, I looked up the term and it took me to this essay that I mentioned in the article and it was a co-authored essay, and it was Robin D’Angelo, and she was writing it. Here’s the other thing.

I think John McWhorter made the point that White fragility is a racist book and I found that essay to be, I don’t mean intentionally racist, but I mean implicitly so because as I said in the essay, it treats Black people and minorities as the way your would treat children that is you must – and by the way this would be a bad way to treat children too – that is you must support them. And I always want to say too, which Black people? Do you imagine that Black people agree on these issues? I know plenty of Black people and typically they don’t agree on almost anything. Just like other White people and Brown people, so it’s a very strange view that we have and maybe Greg, this goes back maybe to something you said.

You know, I grew up in a naturally integrated high school. I was in the rural south or Kentucky at least, I’m not sure if that counts any more, but it’s only really when I came up to the Pacific Northwest that I start thinking there are very strange relationships between Whites and Black people and White people would very often – you know, I hate to use these categories – but talk in this very distant way about African Americans, and it was quite strange to me. I keep seeing this. I think it points to a very segregated society, especially among the members of the overclass, you know people who may or may not have gone to private schools you know.

Greg: I think we’re doing a lot of prevent genuine friendships across lines of differences and that’s so powerful. And that’s one of the things I talk a little bit about in the ten things about let students, I don’t know, get to know each other. But I have to actually kinda wrap it up Nico.

Nico: Yeah, I think I got through. We addressed most of my questions. Any other questions that you might have I would direct our listeners to the article itself, How Ed Schools Became a Menace published in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2018.

Greg, thanks for coming back to the show. Lyell, thanks for coming.

Lyell: Thanks for having me.

Greg: And thanks Lyell, for your article. I learned a lot from it. It definitely helped my thinking. All of the research we did for the book I’ve learned so much. It’s changed how I raise my own children and your article has made me all that much more scared for my kids starting K-12, but I think I’m gonna be that dad on the board.

Lyell: That article would not have been possible without FIRE Greg, so a big hats off to you.

Greg: Thank you. We really appreciate that.

Nico: Thank you.

Greg: Good seeing everybody.

Nico: That was FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff and Lewis & Clark Associate Professor of English, Lyell Asher. We were discussing Lyell’s 2018 Chronical of Higher Education article, How Ed Schools Became a Menace.

This podcast is hosted, produced and recorded by me, Nico Perino, and edited by Erin Reese. To learn more about So To Speak, you can follow us on Twitter @Twitter.com/freespeechtalk or like us on Facebook @Facebook.com/sotospeakpodcast. We take email feedback at sotospeak@thefire.org and we also take reviews at Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or wherever else you listen to your podcasts. They do help us track listeners to the show, so please leave one if you can.

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