So to Speak podcast transcript: Politics and thought reform in K-12 education

September 7, 2021

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

Nico Perrino: Okay. 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’m your host, Nico Perrino, coming to you a week late because I’ve just returned from the first part of my paternity leave after my wife and I welcomed our son into the world in early August. Everyone is happy, healthy, and I’m excited to be back with you all. It’s also back-to-school time.

So, we have a temporally appropriate episode for you all today. I’m sure you are familiar with the political controversies swirling around schools. I’m not talking about the mask mandates. I’m gonna leave that to some other people to discuss on their podcast. But I’m talking about the debates over curriculum infused with Critical Race Theory, school organized or sanctioned walkouts surrounding gun violence and climate change, standardized testing and much, much more.

Our guest today is my colleague Bonnie Kerrigan Snyder. She leads FIRE’s high school outreach efforts after a 20-plus year career working in education. And now she’s coming out with a new book called Undoctrinate. How politicized classrooms harm kids and ruin our schools – and what we can do about it. In Undoctrinate, Bonnie argues that “Our nation has a problem. Recently in both urban and rural communities young children are being indoctrinated, bullied, and harassed by their fellow teachers and students for not following into line on various topics.”

She writes that students are forced into premature ideological conformity with some teachers and administrators who seem intent on pushing their own particular worldview in K-12 classroom. This is a problem, she argues, because public schools as, of course, actors of the government, should not be directing our children on political issues at all. They are supposed to practice viewpoint neutrality so that young people eager to fit in and please those who formally evaluate them won’t feel the need to conform and yield to the clear dictates of government officials. Bonnie, welcome onto the show.

Bonnie Kerrigan Snyder: Thanks for having me, Nico. It’s great to be here.

Nico: So, this is – as I mentioned – a very relevant topic for this month, this time of year, and this era that we live in. It feels like high school curricula have sped back into the headlines. I remember when I was growing up it seemed to – the discussion about high school curricula seemed to be around abstinence only education. I don’t know if that was the case nationwide but I know in Illinois that was the mandate from the government. And as a result there were a lot of debates happening around that. What led you to write this book at this particular moment?

Bonnie: Well, I think that I’ve been concerned about this topic for a number of years. I think that I was probably among the last to go all the way through school when it was completely sane if that makes sense. And by the time I went back to graduate school a lot of these ideologies that are causing problems now had arrived on campus at least at the graduate level.

But more recently I did have to – this is 10 years ago now – but I did have to remove a child from a school where these sorts of ideologies were playing out. And so, for me it’s personal. I was very quick to recognize what was going on. And it wasn’t even just the politicization that was happening but more importantly – and this is happening to a lot of people – there was deception around the politicization that was happening. And I did catch people lying to me. And so, it was more than just a question of being a bad teacher – which I think that this person was – but also just a bad person. You know, this lack of transparency between school and home is really a big part of this problem.

Nico: And the problem has gotten more headlines, I guess, in part because of COVID and parents seeing more of the teaching that’s happening in their student’s schools or their kid’s schools as a result of online-only education. But I wanna put some more meat on the bones before we dive into that a little bit. You talk in your book about that incident you referenced or that time period you referenced with – I believe it was your daughter. Can you talk about some of the things that you were seeing at that time and how they’ve changed or not changed or gotten worse since then? What is the politicization that we’re seeing? What is the ideology that is being pushed in K-12 in particular that’s concerning to you?

Bonnie: Well, there were several incidents at my daughter’s school. The one I write about in the most – some of them are so wacky that they almost defy telling. Because I think people would believe me now. Back then I don’t think people would have, how ridiculous things got. But what really got to me – well, one thing that really got to me was that my daughter was asked to read The Communist Manifesto, which I have absolutely no problem with. But then having read that book she was supposed to debate in class the merits of communism versus capitalism. And they were given no readings on capitalism.

And her entire class – except my daughter – concluded that communism was a better system than capitalism. And the teacher did nothing to challenge or to even enlarge on that notion. And my daughter came home afterwards and said – well – and then the kids also went around and basically personalized it by saying, well, you know, she’s wrong because capitalism is evil. And that was the level of analysis that was going on in this classroom.

And it really did – but she was very upset because she said, you know, I would’ve liked to be able to defend it but she didn’t equip me – my teacher – with anything. I had nothing to work with. So, of course, I’m concerned that the Marxist elements are not being balanced with teachings about the entire economic system that our country and the school itself operates under. Because it was a private school.

Nico: Yeah. Yeah. Now the situation we’re facing today, I guess, with the politicization of the classroom deals more with identity and what people are calling Critical Race Theory, than rather arguments around the economic system. Although you are seeing debate surrounding the founding of the country, right, the inclusion of the 1619 Project in high school curricula, for example. What are the debates that we’re seeing unfold within schools right now?

Bonnie: Sure. I mean obviously so called Critical Race Theory is a big part of it. And it is sort of a fusion of identity politics with, you know, there are elements of Marxism there. A lot of this philosophical – all the background – is sort of obscured and it’s sort of old wine in new skins, I guess you could say. I keep this running list of what I call, “K-12 Whoppers.”

And just to give an example from the last week or two, the two examples that popped – everyday there’s another one at this point. Back when I pulled my daughter out of that particular school it was very difficult to find examples of these incidents because people are often afraid to talk about them for a number of reasons. They’re afraid of retaliation on their child which is really a terrible indictment of the school because there’s no reason for adults to be taking retribution on a child. But I think they recognize that some of these people would be willing to do that.

But the two examples that pop out just this week is that yesterday there’s a case in California where a teacher took down the American flag and replaced it with a gay pride flag and told the class to salute that flag instead. A very strange choice. And that’s being investigated apparently. And then there was a teacher in – that was in California.

In Utah, the first day of school – she didn’t make it past day one – she informed the class that they should get vaccinated. If they didn’t agree with that they should keep their mouths shut because she would only make fun of them if they spoke up. And then she told them that they’re smarter than their parents because their parents are all dumb. Go ahead and tell the administration. They won’t do anything anyway. But at least the administration called her bluff and she was fired for that.

Nico: The case that perhaps caught the most headlines, I guess, his name is Paul Rossi over at Grace Church. Which is kind of in a Grace Church School, I believe it’s called. Just kind of in an elite school in New York City. He seemed to be very concerned about how identity was playing out within the school’s curriculum, right?

Bonnie: Yeah. I think he had to undergo a good bit of White privilege training at that school. And this is happening in a lot of school districts as well which is causing some legal cases to be filed on, I think, Title 6 grounds. I’m not an attorney. FIRE has many. But I’m not one of them. So, he objected to it and then according to the New York Times article that came out this week, he was accused – or I think he had a letter put in his file saying he had created a neurological imbalance in the students by questioning what was going on. Which I find kind of awesome, the idea that they would say such a nonsensical thing.

Nico: Yeah. We dealt with a case in 2007 in the higher education context at the University of Delaware, within the Student Life programs. They were segregating students based on race, based on sexual orientation, and more or less dividing you into a oppressor and oppressed. And more or less saying that these are immutable parts of your identity and there’s nothing you can do to fix them. And it seems to be that it’s that sort of ideology that’s becoming ever more prevalent in the K-12 context.

The idea that the curricula are infused with this almost biological determinism. If you are a man therefore you are this. If you are a woman therefore you are this. If you are Black you are this. And if you are White you are this. If you are, you know, White you’re oppressor. If you’re Black you’re oppressed. And then when people object to this you get the terms “racist,” “sexist,” thrown around. And that’s kind of the case at The Dalton School, which is another school that you talk about, I believe, in your book in which parents – wealthy, progressive parents – were objecting to this sort of curriculum in their school with some sort of success. Although also some blowback. Right?

Bonnie: Yeah. We’re seeing this problem playing out in a number of districts. But I would say not every place is infected with these problems. But the elite private seem to be pretty far advanced. And Dalton, I think, might possibly take the cake. And they’ve had a couple of high-publicity incidents such as what you described. And we’re also hearing that there’s fear from parents because if you do speak up then your child won’t be renewed for the following year.

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Bonnie: People are being told you’re probably not a good fit here, which basically means get lost. And now you’re dealing with your kid’s peer group and potentially with their college applications. So, in some ways, your kid is sort of being held hostage or being used as leverage to require you to keep your mouth shut which really doesn’t seem like a solid, robust education for future generations of America in what’s supposed to be a free country.

Nico: There is one example, I believe it’s in your book. We had all these walkouts, right, surrounding the Parkland shooting. We’ve had some walkouts surrounding climate change activism. Concerns surrounding global warming. And there was one student at one school, I believe in an example you discuss in your book, who objected to this and didn’t wanna participate.

And it was almost organized or sanctioned by the school. And the school’s solution – or at least the first solution they offered – was that he stand in the middle of the football field or the track as the other students who were walking out of class walked the track around him. Where was that? Am I relaying that story correctly?

Bonnie: Yep. It was a student in New Jersey who reached out to FIRE. If I remember correctly his older brother had been a FIRE intern or something, so he was pretty well-versed in rights. Student rights. And he was calling on behalf of his younger brother who just didn’t believe in the cause. I think the cause was the March for your Lives with Parkland. It was after the Parkland shooting. There have been two walkouts, sort of school-sanctioned walkouts, which is really, really interesting just in terms of the whole idea of seat hours. You know, I was a guidance counselor, and walking out of a school really doesn’t meet the diploma requirements as expected –

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Bonnie: – within state regulations. So, this particular student, his brother reached out. And the school kept asserting and insisting that this was not a political statement that they were making even though the signs all over the school clearly indicated that it was political. And ultimately I told him to go to your guidance counselor and – well, yeah. And he said, “Can’t I just sit in the school while they walk out?” And they said, “Well, no, because we’re walking out too.” The teachers had to walk out and everyone had to walk out for this one cause that some people don’t believe in.

Some people are more Second Amendment advocates. And so, they said, “No, you have to walk out.” And he said, “Well, I just don’t agree.” And so, yeah, their solution was to have everyone march in a circle. But it wasn’t even a real march. I think to keep the kids safe they were keeping them on the track. So, it was a real exercise in – so it was intended as a strange exercise to begin with. But the guidance counselor wisely went to the administration. I said, “Tell her in no way do you feel comfortable having everyone march in a circle around you.” And they realized that this was ill conceived.

Nico: Yeah. The conversation surrounding those walkouts is interesting. And I think the ACLU put out some good information of what is legal and what isn’t legal. I mean the idea being that walking out of school is an act of civil disobedience for which you can be punished, right? Civil disobedience is something that lots of students and adults have engaged in throughout time to protest whatever the perceived injustice of the day is. It’s taking a stand almost – and getting punished for it – is almost to become a martyr.

But you have this weird wrinkle now where the administrations of these schools are supporting these walkouts, which gets them into an interesting First Amendment predicament, right, because if you’re allowing some students because of the viewpoint of their walkout to get out scot-free but not letting other students walk out and get out scot-free you have a viewpoint discrimination situation happening there. So, the March for our Lives is okay but the “March for the Second Amendment” – I don’t know if that’s a real thing – but if they punished a student for walking out of class for that they got a real viewpoint discrimination case there.

You know, I think what it ultimately comes down to is what the Supreme Court said in West Virginia State Board of Education versus Barnette which is, “If there is any thick star in our constitutional constellation, it is that there is no official higher petty who can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

And I think a lot of what your book gets to is the increasing prescription by government officials – that is public school teachers – that students must ascribe to a certain political or controversial ideology. Whether it’s saluting the gay right’s flag or walking out to protest gun violence. The alternative being standing in the middle of a track as your peers parade around you. I think one of the challenge we have and where the line gets blurry is that K-12 is different in some sense. There’s a curriculum, right, and it needs to be determined by someone what is taught and what is not taught, right?

Bonnie: K-12 is very different from higher ed. I mean in higher ed you’re pushing outward the boundaries of knowledge, so you’re asking maybe unorthodox questions and you have greater freedom and latitude in what you explore whereas K-12 education is constituted differently and it’s run differently. And it’s democratically governed if it’s a public school. And there are standards that teachers are supposed to be teaching towards that are adopted by the state. You know, you can find these.

And I encourage people who are concerned about that to go to their state board of education site and see what the learning standards are for your child’s grade in different subjects and then look at what your teacher’s actually teaching and ask yourself, is this covering what the state mandates? Because if it’s not then there’s really no reason for public tax dollars to be used to cover it. Typically, K-12 education transmits existing knowledge sort of along the lines of community consensus whereas higher education is pushing forth the boundaries of knowledge. And what we’re seeing partly is K-12 teachers who are acting as though they have the academic freedom of college professors, which they don’t.

Nico: So, theoretically, can an administration in the most progressive part of the country decide that Critical Race Theory is the curriculum? We’re not gonna teach any other theory that might run counter to that. The correct position on the gun debate is that all guns in America should be banned. If the curriculum is determined by the majority in any community could a school district like that exist in your opinion?

Bonnie: I believe that we have two states that are requiring the teaching of Critical Race Theory. And I think that the crucial question is – I wouldn’t say that you cannot teach Critical Race Theory myself. The problem is that there’s a difference between teaching about it as a theory to consider and teaching it as a system of belief that you must affirm. Where you start to get into the compelled speech that is proscribed by West Virginia versus Barnette.

You know, the sort of thought reform that we saw at the University of Delaware. That being said, as an educator, is this really developmentally and age appropriate material? I happen to think that Critical Race Theory is a rather esoteric academic theory that is of the graduate level variety, sort of, for late-night hash sessions and not introductory content for kids who probably couldn’t tell you with much accuracy if World War I happened before or after the Civil War. I think that kids who are exposed to it, it’s really skipping ahead and I think it’s confusing to them. I think they are picking up on the wrong aspects of it. And I don’t consider it an ideal learning exercise for preadolescents and adolescents myself.

Nico: A friend of the organization – of FIRE’s that is – Noam Dworman who runs the Comedy Cellar, he also hosts a podcast – Comedy Cellar Podcast – which is a great podcast. I’ve been on it a number of times. Talks about how one of his sons in school – I think he was a first-grader maybe – came home from school one day and asked – he’s a mixed race. He’s Hispanic and White.

And his dad, Noam, the owner of the Comedy Cellar, is the White parent. And the student came home one day and asked him, “Dad, are you mean to people?” And he’s like, “What are you talking about? Am I mean to people?” Well, it turns out that he was taught in school that White people are mean essentially. And because his dad is White he thought – he came home from that lesson thinking that his dad was mean. And I think that speaks to the idea that there are certain things that are just developmentally appropriate for students and certain things that aren’t.

And maybe those sort of, you know, Critical Race Theory, for example – which for a long time has been living in the ivory tower and higher education – is probably not age appropriate for your kindergartener or first-grader.

Bonnie: I think a lot of times it is what interests the teacher instead of what is best for the student. And actually if you – and I have heard another case along the same lines. And I forget what state it is in. I could look it up quickly. But in any case, it was a Black dad who went to his school board and begged them, please stop teaching my daughter to hate her White mom.

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Bonnie: Yeah. And I’m White and Hispanic as well. And am I oppressing myself right now? Maybe I am. I don’t know. But yeah these incidents are sometimes really heartbreaking. And that’s one of them. And then there’s another case along the same lines in Nevada where a Black mom is suing and that’s because her biracial son was asked to confess his White privilege, basically, in class and he refused to do it. And he was flunked. And I think his grade had to be held up so he could graduate in the midst of this lawsuit.

And you can look it up online if you’re interested. It’s Gabrielle Clark versus Democracy Prep, I believe. So, yeah, and these are the sorts of situations where you really have to ask, “I’m sorry, what was the lesson plan for today and where does this fit into the state’s standards?” Oh, yeah, in the state of Pennsylvania, there is – if you look up the code of ethics for teachers – you’re supposed to ask yourself a question before you do anything, is, “Whose needs are being met by my action? Mine or the students?” And the only acceptable answer is supposed to be, “The students’ needs.” That’s why you’re paid money. You’re not here –

Nico: Yeah.

Bonnie: – to enact your worldview. Kids are not a means to your desired ends. They’re ends in themselves.

Nico: That lawsuit that you referenced before, I think it’s worth reading a little bit about it. You have a couple of paragraphs in your book that I’ll read here. “According to the family’s lawsuit, William – it’s the student in this case – 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. 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 a certain politicized statements he could not in good conscience affirm. And that was enough for him to earn threats of a failing grade.” Is the extent of that case unusual?

Bonnie: I hope so. I hope so, Nico. I think that for every case we hear about there are – you know, I think those are just the tip of the iceberg because there is such fear of coming forward. Fear of retribution. When my kids were in school they were subjected to a lot of anti-bullying training which is a whole other interesting area of discussion because there is sort of these unlicensed people in groups who are sort of coming in the side door of schools and delivering semi-therapeutic interventions that are not often well received.

I know that both of my daughters really despised their anti-bullying training. And it’s not because they were inclined to be bullies. I think it was just low-quality and pretty insipid and heavy-handed. And I think that Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt went into some of this in Coddling – which is the hypersensitization of students – to any discomfort in school now is gonna be perceived as bullying or some kind of harm.

But now we have teachers who seem to be acting like bullies and labeling kids and using power to intimidate them or coerce them to do things that they require them to do. So, it’s such a fascinating phenomenon that’s played out in the last 15 years in K-12.

Nico: Did it really get supercharged with the George Floyd protests last summer?

Bonnie: Oh, absolutely. I think that this has been simmering low-grade for decades. And everyone knew it but the thinking is often, well, let me just get my kid through. And then I don’t have to be the one who stands up even though it’s – again, ironically anti-bullying training is all about being an upstander not a bystander. And we had so many bystanders who are just letting this low-grade fever percolate. But with the combination of the unrest that took place after George Floyd and the COVID-induced ability to view what’s going on in the classroom I think it was a double whammy of we’ve gone suddenly from low-grade chronic to an acute situation. And now people are standing up and speaking up.

Nico: Well, I think the protests and the groundswell of activism that came from around it gave teachers – who were already inclined to activism in the classroom – an opening to do so. And maybe cowed some administrators who would usually fight back against that sort of thing into silence because they didn’t wanna get labeled racist or whatever you label people who buck the orthodox.

You talk a lot about meritocracy and the anti-test movement and some of how that sort of intertwines with some of these themes. But you have one example that really brings out to me how some of this in-classroom activism can really hurt students. You talk about a school district in Milwaukee where out of 350 students at one of the high schools – Marshall High School – only 1 student is proficient in math and none are proficient in English. But despite that zero percent proficiency rate Marshall spent the first week of February – the entirety of the first week of February – getting students onboard with the Black Lives Matter agenda.

So, it seems like the priorities have shifted in a way and in ways that maybe aren’t in the best interest of students. Although you would probably have some teachers say that the Black Lives Matter movement is more important than good math scores, I guess.

Bonnie: Yeah. And of course it makes perfect sense that teachers who are not covering the state required curriculum would not want testing either. So, the anti-meritocracy, anti-test efforts go right in line with pushing ideology in the classroom because, I mean, I guess the only way to test on it would be to measure attitudinal belief systems or at least the profession of such belief systems. But, you know, things in the realm of attitudes and values typically – historically – have always been in the realm of the family.

And you definitely have some family values that are being undermined by teachers in the classroom. And when I was a kid and my parents hand them – you’re gonna have a kid going to school, Nico, in five years. And when you let go of their hand and you turn them over to a teacher there has to be the trust that they will function in loco parentis in your absence. And you would not expect that a secular school – since we have separation of church and state in this country – would maybe undermine any religious beliefs or other value systems that you’re trying to instill at home. Which is where the secrecy comes in.

Nico: Yeah. So, I guess that’s the biggest debate that most of our listeners will be familiar with is the creationism, intelligent design, evolution debate. You know. The evolution portion of that debate seems to have won out in education. Intelligent design isn’t often taught. I don’t recall that it was taught in my public school. I mean at a certain point with all knowledge – and maybe it’s not applicable in that case. Maybe it is.

But teachers need to make a determination as to what is included in the curriculum and what is not. What knowledge at least is disputed enough to present multiple sides and which is not. So, how do teachers make that determination with the understanding that there are some parents who will object to almost anything because parents – like humans – have a lot of whacky beliefs – outlier beliefs – that can’t always be reflected in the classroom?

Bonnie: Yeah. Despite rumors, parents actually are human. But I would say that first of all, teachers really aren’t making this determination. Teachers are hired speech. That is what their speech is considered. And in a public school it’s government speech. They’re not deciding what they’re gonna be covering. Their department head coupled by the head of school if it’s a private school or by the district has to meet diploma requirements for children to receive credit for sitting in the class.

So, the fact that some teachers are acting autonomously like this is exactly part of the problem. I get asked – this is a new angle that you brought up that I’m hearing lately, which is about the – it’s reminding people of the evolution argument. How do we know what is true? I taught developmental phycology for a number of years and there is this idea of consensus reality. How do you know when somebody’s having a delusion versus when someone is sane? And to a certain amount it is democratically decided.

I would give the example if I went to my doctor 25 years ago and I said, “I think the government is listening into all of my phone calls. I think that they’re monitoring everything that I do.” I probably would’ve been diagnosed with some sort of paranoid delusion. But if I went today and said, “I think the government’s keeping track of me.” The psychiatrist would probably say, “Oh, yeah. They are.” Everyone knows that now. Along the same lines with – evolution is an interesting topic. But I explain it this way. I actually had to teach some Natural Selection/Darwin because I taught in the phycology department –developmental phycology – in a college of education.

And I know in Lancaster County where I lived that I probably – I know that some of the people are very fundamentalist and that some of them believe in creationism. And I would preface it by saying, “Well, we’re gonna cover Darwin right now and Natural Selection. And you don’t have to believe it. But we’re gonna go over it and it’s gonna be on the test so you you’re gonna have to know it.” And I think that that is really the difference. That being said, another important caveat is, you know, Darwin – when I was taught – and I was taught evolutionary biology by E.O. Wilson at Harvard who’s a very famous person in the field. You know.

Back then Darwin was considered to be unimpeachable and 100% correct about everything. And the competing theory was Lamarck. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. And it was acquired adaptation, which basically means if you work out really hard and you become really, really muscular then your children will have bigger muscles than they would if you hadn’t changed your behavior. And that was considered laughable back in the 1980’s.

Well, no more, I mean since the field of epigenetics has evolved – has evolved, has developed – we’ve learned that maybe Darwin wasn’t as right about everything as we once assumed. And Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was more right than we thought. And so, there’s always the hazard of assuming that knowledge is fixed and that we actually do understand what is absolutely true and what isn’t.

So, that being said, yeah, we don’t teach creationism in school. But I would never tell someone that their worldview is wrong. That’s really not my business as an educator. But I’m gonna cover what’s in the curriculum. And in my curriculum I had to cover how traits were past on hereditarily. And that includes some understanding of natural selection. So, that’s how curricula is decided. It’s what’s in the syllabus.

Nico: You also talk in your book a little bit about the unbalance between the political parties representation in the classroom. Can you talk a little bit about that? It seems like a greater percentage of classroom instruction is overseen by teachers who voted for democratic candidates.
Bonnie: Well, I mostly worry that we have teachers coming out of the ed schools now who have not been exposed to the competing view and therefore can’t even interrogate their own positions. You know. A teacher is supposed to function as an honest broker, which means if I’m going to buy car insurance I don’t wanna go buy car insurance and get – I’m not gonna get objective opinions from the Nationwide salesman. He’s gonna try and sell me Nationwide.

And teachers – so, they’re going to ed schools where the numbers are overwhelmingly tilted to one side to the point where it’s really impacting the education in the classroom. And as Boomers are retiring, the younger teachers coming in, I do feel, have not had sufficient exposure to competing views to be able to function flexibly mentally enough to adequately cover the opposing sides. And so, then you’re really functioning at what is the lowest level of so-called education.

If you’ve ever seen Bloom’s taxonomy, the very lowest level is memorization. And that means just recite what I tell you and spit it back at me. And if we’re only presenting one side and expecting students to repeat it that is – I used to get penalized as a teacher when I would be evaluated. They’d be like, “You need higher-order activities in this classroom to promote intellectual rigor and robustness.” And memorization is the very bottom tier. And that’s all this is. It’s kind of like prechewed meat. You don’t want your food prechewed. You wanna chew it over yourself.

Nico: Yeah. I mean you wanna –

Bonnie: And they do. They –

Nico: Oh, you memorized something and then you’re gonna forget it. But you’re not gonna internalize it in the same way as you would with someone who actually has to chew on it for a while. You know. Who has to learn the basis for it.

Bonnie: Yeah. Just basic John Stuart Mill. “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” So, I think that a lot of these teachers know little of that.

Nico: We had Lyell Asher on the podcast awhile back to kind of investigate the education school phenomenon. But it sounds like you went back to school. You went back for a master’s in education at some point? Did I read that from your –
Bonnie: I was actually certified alternate route, which I highly recommend. A lot of teachers go through an education school where half of your classes are ed/pedagogy training and the other half are in the field. Like, say, English literature or science. Well, I have a degree in English literature as an undergrad. And then I did alternate route certification which is where the school hired me and I was supervised very closely and paid to earn my certificate. I did go back to get a doctorate in English literature.

I thought I would become an English professor. But I quickly dropped out because of these pedagogies that had found their way into academia from the time I graduated as an undergrad and – at that time it was called “Critical Theory.” Which when I was in school mostly was “Feminist Critical Theory.” And it basically amounted to looking at a book and just dismissing it because it was written by a man. And I thought, well, this is easy to do and requires nothing.

And it reached the absurd proportions in its extremity where they would argue that reading a restaurant menu was equivalent to reading a masterpiece like “War and Peace.” And I just thought, “I’m not doing this.” I was even being paid to go to school at the time. And I dropped out. And I’m very glad I did. But I am conversant enough with these theories, Deconstructionism, Postmodernism, you know, the French, I guess, Post-structuralists to know that I know it when I see it and the problems that they bring. And I can’t believe any. And I’m not surprised that it is now infecting K-12. Right down to K and Pre-K.

Nico: Yeah. Well, it’s kind of an easy ideology, right? It tells you essentially what is good and what is bad. And the only challenge you have is identifying if that person fits that characteristic or not. And that’s all you need to do in order to dismiss them. And then it bucks no criticism as well. And you have a good paragraph describing Critical Theory or Critical Race Theory that I’d like to read here.

“Here’s the thing. While it is a theory, it’s not the theory. And it’s definitely not the only theory. Whether or not it is included in the existing curriculum is a reasonable discussion but it is unreasonable to assert that it’s replaced and exclude all other theories. It mustn’t consume all the oxygen in the classroom. It shouldn’t preempt, conclude, or disallow all other discussions. It definitely shouldn’t prevent and preclude the possibility of any disagreement nor it is exempt from analysis, discussion, and criticism like every other academic attempt at explaining the world. When it attempts to do so, it interferes with the pedagogical function of the classroom which includes allowing the exchange of ideas.”

And there’s another paragraph where you says that this theory more or less in particular bucks criticism and shuts down debate and is more allowing of censorship – or demanding of censorship in certain cases – than other theories. And that’s where it presents kind of the free speech, free expression indoctrination problem.

Bonnie: Yeah. I mean the way in which it operates is totalitarian. And it derives a lot of its energy from Herbert Marcuse’s Repressive Tolerance which basically says we can tolerate anything except viewpoints from the right, essentially, is what he argues. And so, it’s a bit suicidal to allow a theory to come in that disallows you to disagree with the theory. It’s unfalsifiable in that there is no circumstance in which it will allow itself to be disproven. It calls names basically which, you know, brings me back to the whole bullying argument which is –

Nico: Well, it also argues that logic and reason are a construct of privilege and oppression as well, so if you try to dismantle it or argue against it or falsify it based on logic or reason then you are accused of being an oppressor. And Critical Race Theory has that theory for that as well.

Bonnie: Well, and yet I notice ironically that they use their free speech rights to make these. And they do make arguments. So, they are using arguments to dismantle the idea of arguments which I find hilarious.

Nico: Yeah. Well, in the higher education context, to be clear for our listeners, this is a prevalent theory. One that should be debated and discussed. It shouldn’t be used to shut down dissent. People who disagree with it. But I think what you were arguing in your book – and where we’re getting to this – is it’s being used as a tool for thought reform. It’s being used as a tool for indoctrination where activist teachers are inserting it into the curriculum and there is no space for student dissent or disagreement or investigation.

You hate to think that there was ever a golden age of instruction. But one of the ways that our cofounder Alan Charles Kors got into this space – and I’ve told this story on the podcast before – is he had a professor at Princeton – Marxist professor at Princeton – who assigned an essay. I forget what the essay was about. It had something to do with socialism or Marxism or whatnot. And all the students wrote a response that they thought he wanted to hear as a Marxist. And so, he gets the essays back from all the students. They all parrot what they thought he wanted to hear.

And he says, “No, no, no, no, no. This isn’t how we do education here. You’re just telling me what you think I wanna hear. So, what I’m gonna do is assign to you the book that I think I disagree with most in the past however many decades on this topic. And I want you to parrot back its arguments.” And that book ended up being Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. And Alan Charles Kors talked about how the assignment of that book and the requirement that he parrot back its argument changed the course of his intellectual life.

And I think a lot of us who are interested in the world of ideas, that’s the exact type of teacher, instructor that would inspire us. That is the reason we got into the world of ideas. But it sounds like – hopefully it’s a minority – of teachers are less interested in that and more interested in forced conformity amongst their students. So, by way of closing here, what are some of the ways in which teachers – excuse me, although I guess it could be teachers – parents are fighting back? What do you recommend – as a former educator working within the system – they do if they’re concerned about the environment that their students are inhabiting within the classroom?

Bonnie: Sure. Before I go over a couple solutions I wanna just address what you just said. I mean so interesting that it was Alan, right, Kors, he remembers that teacher so fondly all these years later. And I take comfort in the fact that the medium is the message in that I don’t think a lot of students are learning what many of these activist teachers think that they are teaching. I think that you learn from how people treat you.

And these kids and their parents don’t like how they’re being treated in the classroom when the thought is restricted and when you are being coerced into saying things you don’t really believe. That’s what you remember. I’m reminded of what Maya Angelou said which is, “You don’t remember what someone says. You remember how they made you feel.” And I don’t think that most kids and parents feel very good about what’s going on in schools right now with certain teachers.

Nico: Well, some of it – it seems to me – just an effort to resegregate. You’re having students separate in the classroom based on their race. That is the definition of segregation. Now a theory of course has an argument around that saying, you know, it’s race plus privilege or whatever. But some of these schools might inadvertently walk into some legal trouble as far as race discrimination goes as well.

Bonnie: Yeah. Some of them have. There’s a school in Atlanta where the principal thought she was doing a good thing by assigning all of the Black children to the same classrooms and was –

Nico: Oh, geez.

Bonnie: – outed by one of the Black parents. And I can even understand that reasoning. I think she thought that they would be able to get some sort of special attention or something that way. But no you can’t do that. Yeah. So, in terms of solutions, there’s several things that I would recommend. And of course I have a lot more ideas in the book. And I’m so heartened by the number of parents who are coming forward and showing up at school board meetings.

So, obviously, that’s a big thing. I think there has been this complacency that – and maybe misplaced trust – that has allowed this situation to reach the point that it has. So, stay involved. Insist on total transparency from your school. I think that you will need to inoculate – since we’re talking a lot about vaccines these days – you need to inoculate your kids against this. Which is very difficult the younger they are.

But you’re gonna have to be very watchful and you’re gonna have to debrief them afterwards. “What did you talk about in school today? What did the teacher say?” And when you start to hear concerning ideologies rearing their heads that’s a great learning opportunity. I mean if you’re smart – the problem is that these theories are so esoteric that busy parents maybe don’t have the vocabulary or the deep knowledge in it to be able to understand exactly what’s going on with all of the jargon that is being used. And that’s what they count on.

So, unfortunately, you will have to educate yourself on this if you have a kid in school nowadays. Know your learning standards. Go to your school. Go to your state department of education website. What is the learning standards for your child’s grade in different classes? What do the codes of ethics say? And if your teachers aren’t living up to those codes of ethics then what is the administration doing about it? Of course I recommend our curriculum that we’ve put together at FIRE which is standards aligned and which covers the reasons why we allow competing views in the classroom, the philosophical reasons, the historical reasons, and the legal reasons.

Why free speech, how it’s under attack and why we need to defend it. And I would also say find an ally because it’s a very scary thing to do. But there are more people who agree with you than you realize. And that will help to develop your courage which you’re going to need in this fight.

Nico: Yeah. It’s very helpful to know that you’re not isolated and you’re not alone. You have – in certain circumstances – the emperor has no clothes or is wearing no clothes problem, right? It’s like everyone sees the problem but no one wants to identify the problem. As the result you get this sort of weird spiral of silence. And all it takes is that one court jester, right. Don’t wanna call the dissenter the court jester. But the person who can say the truth about the emperor in order –

Bonnie: But you do feel like a court jester because you’re sitting there going, “Am I crazy or is this really happening?” Sometimes the stories are so ridiculous you can’t even believe it. And I would say, too, that don’t assume that the teacher is a problem. Some teachers are doing this under duress. You may have allies among the teachers.

And I do think that there are some who just don’t know any better but can learn how to become a more balanced classically trained educator. And then there are the true believers. I don’t wanna speculate on what number the true believers are. I do think it’s increasing as the ed schools have shifted to the left. But I believe they are still a minority.

Nico: So, FIRE’s high school outreach program, as Bonnie mentioned, has a lot of resources. If you’re interested in those resources get in touch with us. You can email me at the show and I can connect you with the appropriate person at FIRE So to Speak. At the fire.org. Check out Bonnie’s book. Maybe give it to other parents in your school district or in your neighborhood as well.

You know, the goal here is to foster enlightened values, I guess, within the education process. To avoid indoctrination and thought reform and to feel, to inculcate an environment where students and parents feel free to speak out. Feel free to challenge. That’s one of the best ways you learn is to debate and discuss. But increasing lower an environment which is the environment that John Stuart Mill warned about of orthodoxy and conformity which is not the American way. And is not the way toward a vibrant and effective education either. So, Bonnie, I appreciate you coming onto the show. How can people best get in touch with you and the program?

Bonnie: Well, all of our materials are available free to educators or parents to use at home if they want at the fire.org/k-12. And you can email me at highschooloutreachathefire.org.

Nico: Bonnie, I appreciate it. Thanks for coming on the show.

Bonnie: Thanks.

Nico: That was Bonnie Kerrigan Snyder. And her book is out September 14th – that’s a Tuesday – is Undoctrinate. How politicized classrooms harm kids and ruin our schools – and what we can do about it. This podcast is hosted, produced, and recorded by me, Nico Perrino, and edited by Aaron Reis. You can learn more about So to Speak by visiting us on Twitter at twitter.com/freespeechtalk or by liking us on Facebook at facebook.com/sotospeakpodcast. We take email feedback at sotospeak@thefire.org. And if you enjoyed this episode please leave a review on Apple Podcast or Google Play. They help us attract new listeners to the show. And until next time I thank you all again for listening.