I speak of conservative provocateur David Horowitz, who pressed state legislatures in the early 2000s to adopt an “Academic Bill of Rights” requiring college professors to present a range of political opinions in class.
Now Horowitz has trained his sights on public school teachers, but with an added twist: They shouldn’t be allowed to express any opinions at all. And that speaks volumes about the low status of our teachers, whom many Americans simply don’t regard as real professionals.
Witness Horowitz’s recently released “Code of Ethics for K-12 Educators,” which would bar teachers from taking “any side of a controversial issue” while they’re on the job. If state legislatures or school boards adopt the code, as Horowitz hopes, teachers won’t be able to “endorse, support, or oppose” a political candidate, proposed law, or court decision in school.
Let’s be clear: Some teachers do try to impose their own viewpoints on students, instead of letting kids make up their own minds. And that’s a violation of the public trust. But Horowitz — and, I’m afraid, many other citizens — don’t trust teachers to abide by it. So the only solution is to muzzle our teachers, restricting their speech to dull pieties about the glorious virtues of America.
Alas, there’s a not-so-glorious American tradition of doing exactly that. Writing in 1856, the educator and children’s author Jacob Abbott insisted that teachers “could lead students only to accept, not to question, the existing order.” Teachers are hired to follow “the will of their employer,” Abbott added, so they had “no right to wander away from that purpose.”
In the early 20th century, teachers inspired by John Dewey and other so-called progressive educators began to introduce dialogue and debate into their classrooms. But when America entered World War I in 1917, allegedly to make the world “safe for democracy,” those who questioned that premise were fired.
One teacher in New York was dismissed when he refused to allow a uniformed military officer to address his class, unless a pacifist speaker was also invited “to present the other side.” Another instructor told his students that he didn’t have the right to share his own point of view about the war; as if to prove him right, the district fired him.
And so it went, through the rest of the 20th century. Teachers had a bit more leeway during the Great Depression, but were silenced when America entered the next world war in 1941. In the ensuing Cold War, teachers who criticized national policies risked getting tarred as as Communists — and losing their jobs.
The pendulum swung a bit toward liberty in the 1960s, when the Supreme Court’s Tinker v. Des Moines decision famously declared that “neither students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” But the courts have chipped away at that freedom ever since, allowing districts ever more power to restrict what teachers say in school.
In 2007, most alarmingly, a federal court upheld the dismissal of an Indiana teacher who had told her class — in response to a student question— that she opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “The school system does not ‘regulate’ teachers’ speech as much as it hires that speech,” the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court ruled, in a near-echo of Jacob Abbott in 1856. “Students … ought not be subject to teachers’ idiosyncratic perspectives.”
But how can students learn the skills of democracy — reason, tolerance, and deliberation — if we prohibit our teachers from modeling them? “The teacher must be free to do what he is trying to get his students to do,” philosopher Alexander Meiklejohn wrote in 1938. “To require our teachers to say to their pupils, ‘I want you to learn from me how to do what I am forbidden to do,’ is to make of education the most utter nonsense.”
That’s precisely what Horowitz’s code of ethics would do. Posing as a protocol of “professional responsibility,” it strips teachers of their professional discretion. Of course teachers shouldn’t be forced to say what they think, and there may be times and places where they should refrain from doing so. But we should have enough faith in their wisdom and experience to let them make that call.
All 22 state legislatures that considered Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights” rejected it, fearing that it would require professors to present arguments for creationism and other false ideas. Horowitz’s proposed rules for K-12 teachers would require them to pretend that they’re neutral, which is the biggest falsehood of all. You can’t have a democracy that way. And you certainly can’t teach people how to live in one.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with Emily Robertson) of The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools (University of Chicago Press, April). firstname.lastname@example.org