Activist Teaching vs. Actual Teaching
Why — and how — to be ready to defend teaching both content and citizenship
The Joint Committee on Education of my state’s legislature recently published a report about the purpose of General Education. Its chief author is Kevin Gwaltney, PhD, and its stated secondary concern was “activist teaching.”
The report’s discussion of “activist teaching” says far more about the insecurities and power plays of certain politicians than it does about teachers. The real problem isn’t widespread “activist teaching;” it’s the potential for using alarms about it to squelch academic freedom and diminish education.
We must be ready to respond to accusations of activist teaching by explaining that, actually, we’re just teaching.
Below, I discuss the report’s claims about activist teachers and describe how educators can respond to such claims.
What is activist teaching?
According to the report, activist teaching tries to destroy society.
Activist teaching insists on the adoption of ideas, dispositions, and philosophies that are intended to challenge, undermine, replace and/or outright destroy long-standing institutions, traditions, and values. … to discredit or devalue the moral, religious, or political beliefs of students and their families and supplant those beliefs with the ideologies of an individual educator who holds power over the student.
While the report acknowledges that no one knows how prevalent “activist teaching” might be in my state (or elsewhere), the report nonetheless recommends taking steps to tamp down on activist teaching:
Institutions are encouraged to create and implement policies that discourage activist teaching, particularly in required general education (GE) classes, and provide students with the opportunity for immediate and meaningful relief without fear of reprisal . It is further recommended that … education institutions keep detailed records of all complaints of professor/teacher abuses of power as they may manifest themselves in activist teaching practices ….
It’s worth asking, why did a report on General Education address something like “activist teaching”? Was there a rash of high-profile incidents? Who thought it was a problem warranting a response, and why?
The politician concerned about activist teaching
Look no further than the chair of the Joint Committee on Education, Rep. Dean Dohrman. He previously sponsored H.B. 576, a campus free speech bill that also contained a provision to muzzle professors.
According to H.B. 56, “faculty should be careful not to introduce matters that have no relationship to the subject taught, especially matters in which they have no special competence or training.”
Although, faculty wouldn’t face “adverse employment action for classroom speech unless it is not reasonably germane to the subject matter of the class” and comprises a “substantial portion of classroom instruction.”
Dohrman also proposed requiring public schools to place the motto, “In God We Trust,” somewhere highly visible to students. He explained, “We’ve got to keep our national identity or fall into chaos.”
Evidently, Dohrman worries about indoctrinating students unless it’s the right kind of indoctrination.
Activist teaching lies in the eye of the beholder
To be fair, the report attempts to distinguish what most would describe as effective teaching from the specter of “activist teaching.”
The report states:
Activist teaching goes beyond the desirable and appropriate circumstance where students are exposed to numerous perspectives to provide them with the opportunity to enhance and develop critical thinking skills by weighing various positions (including those they disagree with).
How does one know when “the line is crossed” between teaching critical thinking through exposure to numerous perspectives, including disagreeable ones, and forcing students to adopt the instructor’s ideology?
The report doesn’t provide much help with discerning exactly when lines may have been crossed:
… educators/administrators should — to paraphrase United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart — know activist teaching when they see it.
Of course, this means “activist teaching” lies in the eye of the beholder. One student’s, professor’s, or administrator’s teaching of diverse perspectives and critical thinking easily becomes another’s ideological indoctrination when we’re supposed to know activist teaching when we see it.
Many educators laud the “1619 Project,” for example, and incorporate it into their classrooms. President Trump thinks it’s anti-American propaganda and instead we need “patriotic education.” I would argue, as many have, that so-called “patriotic education” is itself propaganda and indoctrination.
And I would add, as others have, that learning about America’s flaws and failures enables progress and therefore is patriotic.
This semester, I’ve focused an entire unit of instruction on social justice. I taught my students about systemic racism and gender bias in the context of learning about discourse communities in preparation for writing an ethnography of a given discourse community, a key concept in my discipline.
Does that make me an “activist teacher”? Or just a teacher?
Activist teaching vs. Actual teaching
I agree with one thing the report says: professors should not seek to “discredit or devalue the moral, religious, or political beliefs of students and their families and supplant those beliefs” with their own ideologies.
Given the power differential between students and professors, we should worry about potentially harming students when incorporating moral, religious, or political issues into our teaching. It’s easy to make students feel like they must parrot the professor’s ideas when writing a paper or exam graded by that professor.
But I disagree that “educators/administrators … should know [activist teaching] when they see it.” The report couldn’t list every possibility, of course, but it could have provided clarifying examples.
Such examples could have included:
- a student complaining that the professor shuts down students for espousing contrary viewpoints during class discussion;
- written feedback that squelches students’ perspectives, effectively telling them, “You’re wrong,” without explanation; and
- grading practices that emphasize praising specific moral, religious, or political beliefs (or lack thereof) over others.
More importantly, we as educators must be able to articulate such examples and their differences from sound pedagogy that Dohrman, Trump, and others might view as the wrong kind of indoctrination.
Accusations of “liberal indoctrination” on college campuses are nothing new, and they’re not going away. Judging from the Joint Commission report, these attacks will even enjoy institutional power behind them well beyond 2020.
So we must be ready to explain that we weren’t attacking the student’s beliefs, we were teaching the student to think about his or her beliefs.
Most professors, I wager, would not consider the following examples to be “activist teaching” but rather actual teaching:
- preventing students from expressing racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, hateful, or dehumanizing ideas during discussion;
- written feedback that highlights the flaws in a student’s evidence, reasoning, or perspective on moral, religious, or political issues; and
- grading practices that emphasize critical thinking and/or using a disciplinary paradigm, even when it comes to personal beliefs.
We shouldn’t cross the line and impose our views onto students, of course, but I’m much more concerned that we know how to help students, parents, and politicians see where the line really is.
Teach content and citizenship
Ironically, the Joint Commission report strongly emphasizes that General Education can, and should, “fit the population together as citizens who share a common heritage and culture.” In other words, Gen Ed should make students better citizens as well as better educated.
The issue, then, isn’t so much whether “activist teachers” indoctrinate students but whether the alleged indoctrination matches the political views of those who are concerned about “activist teaching.”
(Ironically, many of these same people complain about political correctness.)
Professors don’t have to choose between teaching content and citizenship. We can do both, and we don’t even have to become activists to do it.
When a past student laughingly said, “Boys will be boys,” I replied, “We should teach instead, boys will be good humans.” Where some might see activist teaching, I see teaching respect.
When students write that gun control doesn’t work, I contrast America’s gun laws and violence with every other industrialized country in the world and then ask how they would respond to this naysayer. Where some might see suppression, I see teaching the use of strong evidence and rigorous analysis.
When I taught about racial justice and gender equality earlier this semester, I framed these topics as important social issues and excellent examples of discourse communities. Where some might see an agenda, I see teaching citizenship in a way that connects to my subject.
Education should prepare students to become good, active citizens. We shouldn’t let politicians scare us into providing a partial education, but we must also be ready to defend our teaching, our careers, and our institutions.
Eric Sentell holds a PhD in Composition & Rhetoric. He teaches writing and coordinates General Education at a public university. He writes entertaining articles that help people think, write, and feel better.