While on vacation, a friend and I were discussing the paradox of parenting.

A parent often feels a tension between fostering and supporting a child to be the person they want to be as that contrasts with dictating what is best for the child (knowing as adults do that children, teens, and young adults often make decisions necessarily without the context of experience that would certainly change many decisions).

That paradox, that tension has existed for me as a teacher/professor, parent, grandparent, and coach.

I am constantly checking myself in roles of authority to determine if I am imposing my authority onto children and young people (authoritarian) or if I am mentoring and fostering those humans in the cone of my authority in ways that support their own autonomy and development along lines they actively choose for themselves (authoritative).

This is a dichotomy examined by Paulo Freire, and a central concern for any critical educator.

The current misguided attacks on anything “critical” is particularly frustrating for critical educators since these attacks are designed to fulfill the demands of authoritarian systems, partisan politics and formal education.

It has occurred to me recently that I have been in roles of authority for a very long time, beginning with working as a lifeguard in my mid- to late teens. My role of authority literally began, then, with the expectations that I would guard human life—any human life that came into the sphere of the pool where I was charged with monitoring swimming and the safety of not only individual swimmers but all of the people in the pool.

I was a very good and capable swimmer, and for a teen, I was reasonably responsible (although I cringe thinking about being a head lifeguard when only 17 or so). But having the level of authority and responsibility that being a lifeguard entails was quite likely asking far more of me that I deserved.

Those days of lifeguarding set me on course for being the responsible person for the next 40-plus years, exacting a significant toll on me psychologically and emotionally.

Maintaining a critical authoritative pose when in positions of authority is extremely hard, much harder than being authoritarian.

Way back in the 1980s and 1990s, I was practicing in many ways the sort of critical teaching that is coming under attack in 2021, even resulting in a teacher in Tennessee being fired:

At issue was Hawn assigning the essay “The First White President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates to students in his Contemporary Issues class in February, and later in March, playing a video of “White Privilege,” a spoken word poem by Kyla Jenée Lacey to the same students.

A Tennessee teacher taught a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay and a poem about white privilege. He was fired for it

Many conservatives see the work of Coates, for example, as radical, while those of us on the left would argue Coates’s work is quite mainstream and accessible—but far from radical. This is the same dynamic around Barack Obama, for example; Obama is a moderate and an incrementalist, but certainly not a radical leftist or Marxist (as conservatives like to suggest).

While I taught high school English in the very conservative rural South, I was mostly allowed to teach texts with only occasional complaints from parents. What looks quite odd now is that I included Howard Zinn in my classes for many years without a peep from anyone (Zinn is a key target of the ant-CRT movement now).

But I also included Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythology in my classes in order to help students navigate metaphorical approaches to narratives (a key skill needed in the Advanced Placement course I taught and as preparation for college).

Including Campbell did cause problems since his work complicated the literalism many of students experienced in their religious lives. Fundamentalist Christianity was the background of nearly all my students, and Campbell’s casual claims that all religions and mythologies told similar archetypal stories stepped on the toes of arguments that accepting Jesus was the only way into heaven.

I aroused similar complaints by including Gandhi in my Emerson/Thoreau/MLK unit.

The parental challenges to Campbell and Gandhi were grounded in a type of insecurity that had never been examined critically by those parents, all of which was the result of having been raised in authoritarian environments.

I did have my students interrogate that Sunday school and preaching were not places where they were encouraged to ask questions or challenge any of the “lessons” they received.

So in 2021, I cannot stress too much that the Republican attack on critical race theory and how history is taught is simply a battle for the integrity of the mind of children, teens, and young adults.

Learning and knowledge—especially if we genuinely believe in human autonomy and democracy—are not simply about accumulating facts determined to be true or important by some authority, but are about learning how to know what we believe is true and why.

Human freedom is most threatened by unexamined beliefs, not by the act of questioning itself.

Authority doesn’t just resist questioning, but entirely rejects it as an act.

Republicans and the conservatives drawn to authoritarianism do not trust human agency, do not believe in the free exchange of ideas, and do not believe in the essential power of questioning, especially when the questions are aimed at their authority.

Nothing is as simple as “both sides,” and certainly we should never fall into traps of “only know this.”

There can never be free people, however, without free minds cultivated in the guarantee of academic freedom.

And the free exchange of ideas will never be spaces without discomfort, which now seems to be a smokescreen used by Republicans in their pursuit of securing authority.

Suddenly, Republicans are concerned about uncomfortable white students, but seem oblivious to the discomfort, for example, of thousands and thousands of Black students experience reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird.

Teachers must now tip-toe around the uncomfortable texts and conversations about race and racism because of the possibility of white discomfort (note that Black discomfort about Huck Finn has been repeatedly swept aside under the guise of “classic literature”)—a stance once again disregarding the daily discomfort of Black children experiencing racism.

Intellectual discomfort (what texts and discussions prompt in formal schooling) is often necessary for learning, but existential discomfort (what targets of racism and sexism experience) are not necessary and are essentially harmful.

Authoritarian education is willing to sacrifice the existential comfort of marginalized children in order to shield some children from intellectual discomfort.

Even more disturbing, however, is that what is really being protected is the frailty of those students’ parents and those people in authority who are not willing to risk being challenged or questioned in any way.