The Liberal Teacher?

Perusing, like I do, the archives of the local paper, I came across an editorial written by local talk show host and columnist Mike Rosen.

Typically outspoken toward liberals in general, Mr. Rosen takes special pleasure in focusing his venom toward the teacher’s unions.

He’s not the only one.

There are many talking heads on both the television and radio who lambasted America’s educational system as a breeding ground for liberal thought. Here’s what Mr. Rosen said of a teacher in the Denver area:

Jay Bennish, a geography teacher at Aurora’s Overland High School and a self-described agent of change for social justice, was caught red-handed abusing his trust and inflicting his political bias on students in his classroom.

Read more:Rosen: Critically rethinking activism – The Denver Posthttp://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_21694100/critically-rethinking-activism#ixzz2GwjnSlKa

Here’s a link to a transcript of the lecture.

As a history teacher, myself, and not a member of the union, simply because I need the money that I would be paying to the union for my own bills, I often wonder who true these statements are.

Is education just a place for the indoctrination of students to a specific cause? I want my students to be “critical thinkers”. I want my students to see both sides of the political spectrum. Am I just unique? I can name a few current and former colleagues who definitely used their classroom as a bully pulpit. One teacher I once worked with even had a Republican student transferred from her classroom because there “was no way they would pass.” Her words.

So, let us assume then that it does happen. And let us assume that it happens from both sides of the political aisle, provided you can find a staunch Republican in education. Then what solution?

Let’s put aside the teachers for a moment. A teacher is only as good as the material they utilize in the classroom. Innovative teachers will rely on a wide variety of materials, but all too often, teachers, especially high school, fall back on textbooks.

I’ve had the opportunity to purchase materials for schools, and in doing so have had the privilege–if you can call it that–of reading through dozens of history textbooks. Here’s what I found: There is a clear slant in the writing; treatment of specific material is often unbalanced.

Authors

The textbooks are a reflection of the authors themselves… so here they are:

Alan Brinkley: Alan Nevins Professor of history at Columbia University. Son of the late David Brinkley. His two textbooks: American History (one of the most popular Advanced Placement U.S. history books) and Unfinished Nation. Political Affiliation: Progressive, leans liberal.

Howard Zinn: d. 2010. Former professor at Boston University. Textbook: A People’s History of the United States (not on the “official” book lists for school put together by the American Textbook Council, but many teachers include this book in reading material). Political Affiliation: As described by Zinn himself, “…something of an anarchist, something of a socialist, maybe a Democratic Socialist.”

David M. Kennedy: Donald J. McLachlan Professor Emeritus at Stanford University. Textbook: The American Pageant. (as a note, I used both this book and Brinkley’s American History in my AP U.S. history classes). Political Affiliation: As near as I can tell–there’s nothing on the web–Mr. Kennedy leans socially liberal, but often fights his way to the moderate. For example, this review from the New York Times.

George B. Tindall: d. 2006. Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Textbook: America: A Narrative History. Political Affiliation: Left, but did well in his narratives to try to keep this under control.

While there are dozens of other textbooks, a pattern does tend to appear.

The Books

A People’s History, copyright 2003. America, Brief 5th ed. Pageant, 14th ed. American History, 11th ed.

Under review–my small sample, but rest assured, I own almost fourteen various textbooks, including Paul Johnston’s A History of the American People. I am just keeping the reading down, however, I am happy to follow-up with other books at a later time. So many other critiques of textbooks, especially from a vocal right-wing conspiratory group, cite page numbers dedicated to various people–chiefly comparing page counts of FDR and Kennedy to Reagan. Page counts like this are hard to deal with, if only because history has had its chance to judge FDR and JFK while Reagan’s administration is still a recent event that is unfolding as we speak. I would rather look at the words these authors have chosen in representing key points in U.S. history; though, admittedly, my first example isn’t that key.

One thing that I noticed as a teacher was the various treatments of the 1960s. I’d like to start there. Let’s take the Weathermen and other groups formed in the 1960s as an example. One considers this group a “terrorist” organization, while another abandons them to the margins of history.

  • “Launched in youthful idealism, many of the cultural “revolutions” of the 1960s sputtered out in violence and cynicism. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), once at the forefront of the antipoverty and antiwar campaigns, had by decade’s end spawned an underground terrorist group called the Weathermen” (p. 998). Kennedy, Pageant
  • “Most campus radicals were rarely if ever violent (except at times in their rhetoric). But the image of student radicalism in mainstream culture was one of chaos and disorder, based in part on the disruptive actions of relatively small groups of militants. As time went on, moreover, the student fringe groups became increasingly violent. Small numbers of especially dogmatic radicals–among them the ‘Weathermen,’ a violent offshoot of SDS–were responsible for a few cases of arson and bombing that destroyed campus buildings and claimed several lives” (p. 862). Brinkley, American History.
  • “By 1968 the SDS was breaking up into rival factions, the most extreme of which was the Weathermen, a term derived from folksinger Bob Dylan’s lyrics…. These hardened young activists launched a campaign of violence and disruption, firebombing university and government buildings and killing innocent people–as well as several of themselves” (pp. 1196-97). Tindall.

The Weathermen are surprisingly absent from Zinn’s work, however there are three pages dedicated to Attica prison. Though all three textbooks tend to the liberal side, the Tindall and Kennedy books stray from the Left-Standard line that Brinkley touts–small, innocuous groups that cause a “few” arson fires and deaths.

Events

Lincoln and Fort Sumter.

  • “So, when Lincoln was elected, seven southern states seceded from the Union. Lincoln initiated hostilities by trying to repossess the federal base at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and four more states seceded. The Confederacy was formed; the Civil War was on” (p. 189). Zinn.
  • “The day after the inauguration, word arrived from Charleston that time was running out for the federal garrison at Fort Sumter…. Lincoln decided to resupply Anderson’s garrison. Hoping to avoid confrontation, he informed the governor of South Carolina that he was sending provisions but no guns or ammunition or soldiers” (p. 546). Tindall.
  • “Lincoln believed that if he surrendered Sumter, his commitment to maintaining the Union would no longer be credible. So he sent a relief expedition to the fort, carefully informing the South Carolina authorities that there would be no attempt to send troops or munitions unless the supply ship met with resistance” (pp. 373-74). Brinkley.
  • “After agonizing indecision, Lincoln adopted a middle-of-the-road solution. He notified the South Carolinians that an expedition would be sent to provision the garrison, though not to reinforce it. He promised ‘no effort to throw in men, arms, and ammunition” (p. 463). Kennedy.

Eisenhower and Little Rock

  • Not discussed in A People’s History, however, Zinn is the only book that discusses Eisenhower’s “invasion” of Lebanon for oil.
  • “….When the student [Little Rock Nine] tried to enter the school, an hysterical white mob forced their removal for their own safety. At that point Eisenhower, who had said two months before that he could not ‘imagine any set of circumstances that would ever induce me to send federal troops,’ ordered a thousand paratroopers to Little Rock to protect the students….” (p. 1151). Tindall.
  • “The Eisenhower administration was not eager to commit itself to that [Civil Rights] battle. The president himself had greeted the Brown decision with skepticism…. But in September 1957, he faced a case of direct state defiance of federal authority and felt compelled to act” (p. 821). Brinkley.
  • “President Eisenhower remained reluctant to promote integration…. ‘I do not believe,’ he explained, ‘that prejudices, even palpably unjustifiable prejudices, will succumb to compulsion.’ But in September 1957, Ike was forced to act…. Confronted with a direct challenge to federal authority, Eisenhower sent troops to escort the children to their classes” (p. 953). Kennedy.

Summary of the Reagan Years

  • “Reagan’s victory, followed eight year later by the election of George Bush, meant that another part of the Establishment, lacking even the faint liberalism of the Carter presidency, would be in charge. The policies would be more crass–cutting benefits to poor people, lowering taxes for the wealthy, increasing the military budget, filling the federal court system with conservative judges, actively working to destroy revolutionary movements in the Caribbean” (p. 573). Zinn.
  • “Although Reagan had declared in 1981 his intention to ‘curb the size and influence of the federal establishment,’ the welfare state remained intact when Reagan left office…. Moreover, he did not try to push through Congress the incendiary social issues championed by the religious right such as school prayer and a ban on abortions. Yet Ronald Reagan nonetheless succeeded in redefining the national political agenda and accelerated the conservative insurgency that had been developing for over twenty years” (pp. 1252-53). Tindall.
  • “Reagan’s first term was a dramatic contrast to the troubled presidencies that had preceded it. He won substantial victories in Congress (cutting taxes, reducing spending on domestic programs, building up the military). Perhaps equally important, he made his own engaging personality on of the central political forces in national life” (p. 915). Brinkley.
  • No summary section. Kennedy.

Conclusions

American history textbooks tend to the liberal side of the story.

Looking at the Howard Zinn exerpts you find the most liberal of the group–Lincoln initiates the Civil War, Republicans had nothing to do with the Civil Rights movement, and Reagan is a plain old bastard. However, none of the textbooks cited are devoid of liberal leanings.

What options do the whiny people like Mike Rosen and Rush Limbaugh have? I say write your own textbook, get it on the Texas approved list then the California list, and watch it go nationwide.

Until then, I say we accept that the majority of America’s teachers are of the liberal ilk. We can do what I do to my students to the teachers: I find out if they tend to the liberal or conservative and I give them a textbook that leans opposite their opinions. Liberal teacher? Give them a more moderate text–since a conservative book doesn’t exist at this time.

Can the Jay Bennish’s be tamed? Doubtful. Do they make teachers look bad and fuel the fires of the extreme right? Oh, yeah. One possible solution to taming these shrews is to give the students an alternate perspective than that which spews from our mouths.

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One thought on “The Liberal Teacher?

  1. FINALLY, a TEACHER who CAN truly think critically, stay factual and does NOT impose, his or her own LEFT or RIGHT oriented ideas about historical events on students or others in general, and in doing so DOES NOT create a biased opinion of historical facts NOR a myopic view of history. Kudo’s!!!! Stay the course.

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