Free Speech and Diversity of Thought?

Andy Smarick has joined a growing sub-genre of Trojan Horse commentary across mainstream media with his Why Schools Must Safeguard Free Speech at Education Week.

Certainly, a plea for free speech and diversity of thought in education is something everyone can stand behind regardless of ideologies or partisan politics?

And that’s the Trojan Horse here because the veneer of calling for diversity of thought as a free speech concern thinly masks that this sub-genre of commentary is primarily a blitzkrieg by conservative pundits to further erode the public’s trust in education, especially higher education, and to dismantle what is left of evidence-based discourse.

I entered the classroom as a teacher in the fall of 1984, standing in the same classroom where I had taken sophomore and junior English taught by the person who would become my professional mentor, Lynn Harrill.

Growing up in this rural South Carolina town in the 1960s and 1970s, I was duly indoctrinated into a conservative ideology that emphasized tradition and a strict compliance to authority. Looking back, I can recognize that “tradition” was also a veneer for the less delicate realities that my hometown was deeply racist and sexist, as was my home.

Entering college, I was a recent convert to the reverse racism mantra that was growing just as Ronald Reagan was elected president after the relentless shaming of Jimmy Carter that allowed a country to seemingly forget the deep pit that was the Richard Nixon lesson then ignored.

By my junior and senior years of college, majoring in secondary English education, I had shaken off the embarrassing ignorances of my adolescence, mostly saved, I think, by my English professors, notably Nancy Moore, who introduced me to the works of Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and a list far too long including voices unlike the conservative bigotry of my upbringing.

I returned to my hometown to teach as a changed young man, not fully formed yet, but deeply changed. Often I had to check myself against Alice Walker’s warning against missionary zeal in her powerful The Color Purple, but I did have a mission.

With freedom of speech and diversity of thought in mind, I invite you to consider two moments from my high school English teaching career, both involved white male students and their parents—young men who in many ways reflected the person I was not so many years before I stood there as their teacher.

Early in my career, during the mid-1980s, one student submitted his argumentative essay on interracial marriage. He launched into a vigorous rejecting of marriage between blacks and whites (a recurring problem in my hometown throughout my youth and while I was a teacher there).

In those early years, I was developing my use of minimum standards for student work—as an alternative to grading—and this assignment allowed students to write on any topic they chose, but they were required to support their arguments with credible evidence.

This student’s essay was very brief, and he included not one sliver of support for any claim in the essay. I refused to accept the essay, prompting the student to resubmit with the required evidence.

The next submission, the student had essentially copied the earlier essay and added a perfunctory “it’s in the Bible” as his evidence. I rejected the essay again while explaining to him that if in fact he had evidence in the Bible to support his argument, he was required to quote and cite that evidence.

One aspect of my minimum requirement approach included that all work had to be submitted to pass the grading quarter; thus, this student knew that if the essay was not accepted, he would fail.

This stalemate resulted in a parent-teacher conference that included me, the student, the student’s father, and my principal (who had been my principal when I was a student). The father was a measured but red-faced man barely able to withhold his anger at me.

The principal had me explain the situation, which I did, and then the man interrupted, his anger slipping out some; he explained that he and his son had met with their preacher, who assured them the Bible did in fact reject interracial marriage. Although the three of them scoured the Bible for hours, he explained, they were never able to find the proof.

My principal brought the meeting to an end with “Well, I believe your son needs to find another topic.”

Several years later, probably around 1990, my American literature classes were starting a unit I taught most if not all of my high school teaching career, anchored in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” As I was handing out the essay copies, one male student backhanded the photocopy I placed on his desk onto the floor with an abrupt, “I ain’t reading that [racial slur].”

I picked up the essay, placed it on his desk with my hand firmly on the papers, and calmly explained to him he would never utter a comment like that again in my class and he would in fact read MLK. The class included black and white students, but these students also, as some shared with me, had been handed KKK propaganda smearing MLK in their churches.

A few brought me the crude pamphlets that represented about three decades ago that fake news is not a recent invention.

By holding the student to the same standard I held all students concerning the use of evidence in argumentation, by silencing a student who believed he was justified to reduce MLK to a racial slur and to refuse the curriculum I had provided—were these classrooms hostile to free speech, classrooms shutting the door on diversity of thought?

So let me return to Smarick’s disingenuous and frankly lazy argument. So many of these think pieces have sprung up lately, they suffer from circular reasoning because they tend to cite each other—Smarick leaps onto the easily discredited long-read on this same topic, The Coddling of the American Mind.

This commentary is a bit more ambitious than my student’s baseless and racist screed against interracial marriage, but it fails the credibility test in its use of evidence. Even more damning, these calls for free speech and diversity of thought seem to entirely misunderstand the concepts they claim to support.

These commentaries expose that conservatives think “free speech” and “diversity of thought” guarantee that people who have no evidence for their “opinions” should be afforded equal space to those with grounded and evidence-based positions. Their cries for both are cover for racist/sexist language without consequences.

Certainly as an educator, I strongly support academic freedom, but the classroom and scholarship are specifically seeking ways to navigate “thought” with discernment. To teach means to guide students toward credible and ethical thought, not to a lazy marketplace of ideas in which all speech carries the same intellectual weight.

Some ideas are simply not in debate. Typically in formal education, for example, the Holocaust is not taught as a debate that has equal sides between Holocaust scholars and Holocaust deniers. Some students are never exposed to those denials.

Some ideas remain in debate, but for education, even ideas in debate require credibility among all the positions expressed.

Conservative hand wringing about a lack of diversity of thought in classrooms are simply partisan pandering to ideologies bereft of ethical or empirical evidence—sexism, racism, homophobia, nationalism, and more.

Finally, another way to understand these commentaries are insincere is to note conservative pundits will not, however, have an honest and open discussion about the reality that free speech and diversity of thought are not about license, not freedom from accountability. They rarely discuss that some ideas have no place in discourse, that “let’s agree to disagree” is simply a way to maintain a status quo of inequity.

Some thought need not be aired, but it does need to be confronted and eradicated. When have you read those pleas from the right?

Conservatives cannot afford to support classrooms and academic settings that are about evidence-based, grounded discourse, but are not spaces for people just to say whatever they think, believe, or want.

Like my hometown, conservative ideology in the U.S. remains inextricably tied to ideologies the pundits dare not utter, bigotry of many kinds usually masked as “tradition” or “nationalism.”

Vapid arguments that education is some sort of liberal indoctrination are, ironically, jumbled efforts to indoctrinate, desperate efforts to maintain power by erasing the power of careful and evidence-based thinking, the very thing teaching and education must remain grounded in if we genuinely believe in freedom of thought.

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