Teach Your Parents Well

by Neil H. Buchanan
 
Generally, I like to think that I "get" American politics.  That does not mean that I understand what is going on in, for example, Ted Cruz's head when he says that "voter fraud is real.  It is a problem ... Voter fraud has been persistent from the very first election that has ever occurred."  There is no there there, but I get what he is up to.
 
That is not to say that this is not puzzling, even on its own terms.  Particularly coming from someone who has claimed merely to be representing people whose unspecified "concerns" about the 2020 election supposedly need to be closely examined, I understand neither why Cruz is now saying unequivocally that people's worries about voter fraud are based in fact, nor why he is backing up that claim with something as pathetic as: "There's always been fraud, I mean, amirite folks?!"
 
But as Professor Dorf pointed out in his column yesterday, while it is truly baffling to think about what Cruz might have been thinking when he put his name on an embarrassing Supreme Court submission, it is quite easy to know what Cruz is doing in the larger sense: he is, as always, seeking "advancement in the right-wing-o-verse."  Moreover, although it is impossible for me to understand why what Cruz and his ilk are doing brings thrills to the people to whom these things are pitched, I can follow the nakedly corrupt logic: the rubes like Trump and owning the libs, so ambitious and shameless people praise Trump and try to own the libs.

Peeling back that additional layer, I can even still "get" the line of thinking from Trump supporters themselves.  Much (too much) has been written about whether it is racism, economics, despair, or something else that is the central motivation of the new Republican/Trump party, but one can still look at any given situation and say: "Ah, I see, this is about a dangerously misconceived notion of personal freedom, so they are cheering when Generic Republican A tells everyone not to wear masks, and also when Generic Republican B tells everyone that the omicron variant is a Democratic Party plot to control people's lives and win the midterms."  Again, there is no sense to this, and each new low is surprising in its way.  But once the shock subsides, it all fits.

Except for one thing.  The latest right-wing crazed attack on education mostly makes internal sense, but the idea that parents should be shocked that educators want to teach their children ... you know ... facts and ideas still makes no sense to me.  And why should it?

Let me take a moment here to note that I am deviating from my norm today by framing my core argument around a truly excellent op-ed.  Frequent readers of Dorf on Law are painfully aware that many of my columns are written in annoyance after reading one (or usually several) opinion pieces by utter hacks -- politicians or pundits -- who seem not to understand anything.  Not just technical subjects like taxes and the debt ceiling, but basic logic about things like bipartisanship seem beyond the grasp of people who have the power to destroy the country.

Today, however, I am motivated by a truly excellent op-ed.  Kate Cohen, who is on the Washington Post's roster of columnists but who writes relatively rarely, recently published a fantastic column: "Parents think they know what is best for schools. But they often don’t."  Below, I will discuss an important argument that sets Cohen's column apart from the usual run of even relatively good op-eds, but she won me over early when she wrote this:

Parents are pretty good at fooling ourselves. Which is exactly why we shouldn’t be in charge of our children’s education.

That’s right, I agree with the statement Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe made in a late-September debate, though it’s been dubbed a “gaffe” and a “blunder ”: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Of course we shouldn’t!
Thank you!  This has been driving me batty for weeks.  Again, even when I disagree with the underlying motivations or logic on display in the American political scene, I am almost never at a loss to explain why a gaffe was a gaffe, or why a zinger was so effective.  Going back decades, I personally found nothing exciting about Ronald Reagan's (in)famous line, "I'm paying for this microphone!"  It was obviously planned, and it simply made no sense, but it thrilled his supporters and was considered a big deal.  I can shake my head at why people found that to be a presidential moment, but I do get it.

But McAuliffe -- who, it should surprise no one, is not at all my cup of tea among Democrats -- supposedly cost himself the governorship of Virginia by say something that is simply true.  People for whom I have enormous respect have weighed in on this, explaining that it "sounded" like McAuliffe was telling parents that they had no right to express concerns about schools.  Professor Dorf was more helpful, allowing that McAuliffe's statement was "perhaps taken out of context but predictably and thus avoidably so."  In other words, if McAuliffe had taken even a moment to think about it, he should have realized that this would be political gold for Republicans.

All of which is why, no matter how much I follow American politics, I should never be allowed anywhere near a political campaign.  If I had been pulled into a meeting in which politicos were workshopping possible responses to Republicans' madness over Critical Race Theory, and someone had pitched the sentence that McAuliffe actually used, I would have said: "Sounds good."  If I were pulled into a post-debate debriefing and was asked if anything had come up that would require damage control, I would have said, "Nope, all good."  If McAuliffe's people had told me that they had heard rumors that Republicans were going to try to use that line against him, I would have said, "Let 'em try."
 
And if, long after it was obvious that Republicans were scoring political points with the attacks, someone had asked me how to fix the damage, I would have said: "He said that it makes no sense for parents to be telling schools what to teach?  How do you do damage control on something that is so anodyne?"  The only way that I can make sense out of this is if I allow that of course people would run with this because McAuliffe was not saying that they were right.  If that is the explanation, however, then anything that McAuliffe might say in any context could be just as damaging.  "Gas prices are high!  What are you gonna do about 'em?"  "I've been governor, and I can honestly say that there's nothing I could do."  GAFFE!!  McAuliffe fails to respect a voter's anger about gas prices!

I fully admit that this might be one of my blind spots.  Those crop up at times.  For example, as much as I love movies -- including tent-pole blockbusters, fantasies, and on and on -- I never understood why the "Lord of the Rings" movies excited people.  I thought they were trivial and boring.  And given the tiny minority within which I reside, I accept that this is a bit like color-blindness.  I can listen intently to excited descriptions by people who are transported by those movies, and I have even gone back and watched them again, but I still come away with, "Don't get it."

As I noted above, however, my excited reaction to Cohen's column was only partially in response to finding someone else who simply cannot see the gaffe that others think is all too obvious.  Knowing that I am not completely alone is a relief, but in this instance, she offers much more.

Cohen argues that "not only are [schools] educating students, they’re educating the rest of us, too."  She cites a study in Nature that concludes that "children who had learned about climate change in school can help their own parents grow on the topic, through something called 'intergenerational learning' — which, the authors note, works for topics such as gender and sexuality, too."
 
She concludes: "We need more child-to-parent intergenerational training, as when your child goes to school, learns about the world, and comes home and educates you."
 
Many years ago, a comedy of happenstance landed me at the University of Utah, where I was a visiting instructor in the economics department.  Weirdly, the U (not the one in Miami) at that time was the home of one of the only Marxist-dominated economics faculties in the U.S.  When the chair of the department hired me to teach an intro course, he said that the only requirement was that I use his textbook.  I was not in a position to argue about academic freedom, of course, but even if I had been, I would have accepted the requirement, because I found it so intriguing.

Not being any kind of Marxist (neo-, post-, paleo-, or anything else), I loved the idea of giving it my best shot to teach an economics course from that perspective.  The idea (both for myself, but also for the textbook in question) was to present an honest and fair description of Marxist economics, critique it, contrast it with other theories, and apply it to policy topics.

I was also, however, teaching teenagers who were commuting to class from their homes in the Salt Lake Valley.  When I began the semester by saying that we would be learning about Marxist economics, most of the students shut down.  This was, by the way, before the Cold War had ended.  I offered the argument (hardly original to me) that Marx's historical analysis and critiques of capitalism have power on their own and are thus worth understanding, even -- or especially -- for people who were sure that capitalism was in every way superior to communism.

That argument only went so far, of course, but it did lead to what was perhaps the best moment of my teaching career.  A student -- a young, unassuming woman who was extremely diligent and had not struck me as a likely rabble-rouser -- came to me after class and said something very close to this: "I love this class!  It's just so interesting to see things from a different perspective.  But I have to tell you, my father refuses to talk to me at dinner now.  He keeps telling me that Marx was wrong about everything, and I keep telling him things Marx said that make sense.  He's really angry."

I thought then, as I think now, that this captures what education should be about.  Make people think.  Make them uncomfortable.  Make them consider and reconsider what they know.  Not with nutcasery -- "Who knows whether we really landed on the Moon?"  "Maybe the Holocaust was right from Hitler's perspective" -- but by challenging people to think deeply about their preconceptions and, God forbid, possibly update their views.

It is too easy -- even as a liberal -- to lapse into thinking about education in technocratic, neoliberal terms, justifying education by describing how it "builds human capital" or makes future workers more productive and future citizens more rounded.  At least I conceived of the benefits broadly, but Cohen points to ways in which educating children benefits society that are even harder to measure than the direct benefits of education.
 
Unlike Cohen's hopeful version of reality, I have no delusions that my former student's father went to church that Sunday and said, "You know what, my daughter taught me something surprising.  Did you all know that Karl Marx might not have been wrong about everything?!"  And I doubt that the student herself was deeply changed by the course.  Even so, that story captures what education is supposed to be about.

Cohen's point is that schools that piss off parents are not merely changing the children in ways that the parents dislike.  The schools are changing the parents, too.  That makes people uncomfortable.  Some parents change.  Some indulge their children but do not change.  Some, unfortunately, start screaming at their school's administrators and teachers that the schools should not teach anything that makes the kids feel uncomfortable -- which actually means that it makes the parents uncomfortable.

Again, I am no fan of Terry McAuliffe.  But he did not say that parents should not care about schools, that they should shut up and go home, or that they should not talk to their kids about challenging ideas.  McAuliffe said: "I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach."  Parents have ways to weigh in on what schools should and should not teach.  But as Cohen says, of course parents should not be telling schools what to teach.
 
We have schools so that we can hire people who can make kids smarter, more aware, and maybe more engaged with a changing reality than their parents.  Some parents benefit from that, too.  The right's attack on expertise has crippled our responses to climate change, to election controversies, to the pandemic, and so much more.  Now, they are saying that people with expertise -- who have been hired to share that expertise with young people -- should shut up and simply not challenge anyone.  That always ends well.