PEN Works to Destroy Education

Controlling education is the grand prize in today’s culture wars. Why worry about elections if voters arrive at the polls fully ideologically indoctrinated? The Left has recognized this reality for decades and its long march through the institutions to control schools is now finally paying off. How else can one explain why such views as Critical Race Theory now infuse the curriculum from the earliest grades to graduate seminars in elite universities?  

While the Left has been conquering education for decades, conservatives have now finally awakened and are fighting back. The recent election for governor in Virginia and legislation in Florida, for example, illustrated what can happen when parents discover that junior is learning about his/her/them White Privilege. Meanwhile school board elections now can draw national attention.  

The Left is aware of this conservative counterattack and has predictably mobilized to crush all those insisting that education is about acquiring skills such as literacy versus knowing that the Founders were evil rich white slave-owners. The Left’s push back is an all hands-on-deck enterprise, total mobilization in military terms, to sustain its ongoing conquest of American education. Even groups that ostensibly have nothing to do with education have been conscripted to the Left’s crusade.

Such conscription is illustrated by how the venerable organization,  PEN, whose purpose is  to “Defend free expression, support persecuted writers, and promote literary culture” has joined the fray. This is a major mission shift since for over a century PEN had protected controversial authors from censorship, especially imprisonment in dictatorships, and it remains a prestigious free-speech organization worldwide. Now, however, it has focused on K-12 education and joined the woke army’s assault on traditional American values.

In a recent report PEN embraced tactics, notably demonizing opponents, lying, and twisting language that is commonplace among today’s social justice warriors. For the report’s authors, when a state legislature regulates school curriculum in a way antithetical to the Left agendas, it is labeled “imposing a gag order” and “an attack on education.” This “attack” may also mandate “curriculum transparency” (scare quotes in original) that permits parents to discover and then report via hotlines to state authorities what their children are being taught.

Now, if a teacher ignores the state-authorized history book for 4th-grade civics and instead uses the anti-white 1619 Project, but is then told to stick to the stipulated curriculum, he or she is being “gagged.” Moreover, PEN tells us, this unprofessional and irresponsible classroom behavior may be punished, and could result in defunding the school. Predictably, PEN obsesses over teaching about race and, more recently, LGBT+ issues, two topics seldom part of the official curriculum. In a brilliant display of sophistry, PEN argues that teaching grade schoolers about gender fluidity and other leftish notions is just teaching “particular ideas,” as if anything can be explicated in the classroom since everything is “an idea.”

And why should PEN intervene if teachers promote social justice as opposed to the three Rs? According to the report, “As a literary and human rights organization, our chief concern is with state censorship of the free flow of ideas, and with government restrictions on the freedom to read, to learn, and to teach.” In other words, if a woke teacher gets caught proselytizing The Faith, just claim “freedom of expression,” and who can oppose “free expression”? This is an A+ in creative writing.

There is a sky-is-falling panic in the PEN report over this conservative pushback. The “gagging” of teachers is rising sharply, parents are currently filing lawsuits to enforce them, nearly all in Republican-dominated states. Proposed “gag orders” have increased 250% since 2021, thirty-six states have introduced some 137 gag-order bills in 2022, and these laws are increasingly punitive. Such limitations on the power of educators to propagate the woke faith are, ironically, interpreted to be an attack on the very idea of free inquiry necessary for democracy

The PEN report displays a profound misunderstanding of American politics. Elected legislators are being demonized for enacted laws well within their statutory authority. and then penalizing violations. Equally condemned are those with the gall to sue public officials to discover what occurs in the classroom. How dare elected officials punish those who substitute their personal political views for the required curriculum”! No doubt, leftist organization such as PEN will soon ironically denounce this conservative pushback from elected legislators as “undemocratic.”

PEN’s report also rests on shaky intellectual foundations.  Do the authors believe that anything can be taught to children since “an idea is an idea” and everything is thus “free speech,” so imposing standards is “gagging teachers”?  What if teachers promoted astrology or eugenics?  Would PEN defend them in the name of “free speech”? Try envisioning an educational system where teachers could whimsically just express personals views on any subject that entered their brain at that moment? Yet this anti-intellectual anarchy is what PEN now implicitly demands.

The PEN report also ignores how curriculum conflicts are endemic in American education and how they are settled without recourse to mendacity and demonization. In the early 19th century, for example, Catholics in urban areas were alarmed that public schools were covertly indoctrinating their offspring into Protestantism, and so they funded their own schools that adhered to Catholic doctrine. Battles over creationism vs. Darwinian evolution have been endemic in American schools, and there is scarcely any ethnic-based interest group that has not attempted to add their history to the state-mandated curriculum. Conventional give-and-take politics works fine; no need to claim that brainwashing youngster about America’s alleged racist past is fundamental to sound pedagogy.  

Ongoing “curriculum wars” have resulted in a huge variety of public and private schools reflecting countless viewpoints. We have explicitly left-wing schools and schools for religious fundamentalists, even Afro-centric schools. If PEN and co-believers want to instruct kindergartners about sexual dysphoria, why not sponsor their own private academies and advertise for enrollees?  

Leftist organization such as PEN should be careful of what they demand. Not all outcomes may be welcomed. If teachers gained greater freedom to impose their personal woke ideology on hapless students, many parents would just jump ship to private schools or home schooling. Since these options are disproportionately available to affluent white (and Asian) parents, public education would lose funding and many public schools might decline academically. The ideological message per se might not instigate this exodus. After all, many rich whites drink the woke Kool-Aid.  Rather, replacing the standard academic pedagogy with chaotic ideological proselytizing will hardly help junior be admitted to Harvard.

There are also opportunity costs -- time spent on explaining gender fluidity shortchanges genuine education. To be sure, children from affluent, education-oriented homes may survive this wasteful nonsense while poor blacks and Hispanic may now learn more about the evils of slavery. Alas, this will be “paid for” by shorting basics. Economic inequality will only grow and this inequality, when combined with what is conveyed in the “hate whites” grievance agenda, will not make for a happy America. But perhaps this is PEN’s aim -- dumbed down education whose chief product is an angry radical citizenry.    

PEN might be better advised to stick to their core mission of protecting intellectual freedom, not advancing identity politics through the schools. A barely literate radicalized citizenry is unlikely to embrace intellectual freedoms that PEN members so desire.

Image: PEN America

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