Friday, April 14, 2006

The New McCarthyism?

A British friend of mine from grad school sent me an article on teachers being persecuted for stating political opinions in the classroom. The article was from the Guardian in London and it came attached with an email that said “Apparently it’s not only the Norwich School of Art and Design”-- the school where we both studied publishing. Nope, the problem, just like the Pilgrims, seems to be migrating across the Atlantic.

I’d had whispers of thoughts I didn’t like before reading it. I had heard an NPR story about assinine racist comments a teacher had made over the weekend. I’d seen a colleague of mine chewed out for making his viewpoints known. And the other day, another colleague announced he was retiring over similar narrow-minded thinking. In my office today (which I share mostly with fantastically bright people and great teachers), we were talking about the disparities between race and class in education, but of course we came back to the bigger issue: it’s culture. Then I told them that I have to scale back my college teaching to one class. I make more money waiting tables. Point is, everywhere I turn lately, teachers are leaving, being forced out, or being reprimanded. How can we encourage independent thought if we, as teachers, are being asked to not think independently?

That article Ian sent me struck me as a warning of a new era, the ushering in of a new McCarthyism-- beginning with education. We’ve always liked our enemies, creating them at times where they do not exist. But now, instead of communism, the enemy seems to be free thought. As a society, we have grown so conservative, as we often do in times of war and diaster. 9/11, Iraq, Katrina: we are learning to toe the line, yet I’m afraid we’re going to lose our balance and fall in. Consumerism and globalization have started the erasure of distinctive places and distinctive people. Sure, they remain, but we bury them like some dirty secret, marginalizing all who do not conform. And yes, I realize it has always been this way, but come on, it feels like the stakes are changing.

That homogenity has actually lead us to start punishing people for original thinking, expressing viewpoints, and God forbid, dissenting. It’s gotten to a point where we cannot disagree with our government without being un-patriotic. It’s treacherous to even want to demonstrate. And public speaking is a forum no longer available to us in any real way. Media has been controlled by conglomerates for so long that we have started to accept that because we have more choices, it is okay to pay for information. Think about it, how much longer will we have free radio and free television; how much longer will any thoughts be free, or free thought tolerated, nonetheless encouraged, especially when access to information is becoming pay-on-demand. No wonder we discourage free thought, and no wonder we are making people pay for it in other ways.

Officially, most schools do not censor opinions or political viewpoints-- not so long as you claim them as such and present both sides (and the students are of an age to be able to think more indpendently). But unofficially, I keep seeing and hearing about people getting essentially blacklisted for doing so. Loss of job is the extreme, but the norm is to no longer get put up for a promotion or a raise, to lose bidding for classes or get a reduced classload, or to get extra assignments, or lose the assignments you love-- essentially to be punished. Schools like to ride the middle ground, and as an institutional policy, I can understand that.

But this covert punishment, and the often overt censorship (“Stay away from that topic,” “Do not discuss that,” Steer students away from this.”) and the backlash that educators receive makes an already difficult job tantamount to impossible. I keep thinking we’re ushering in a new Red Scare, a new blandness, a new fear of that which is different. In the 50’s, the backlash and blacklisting began with intellectuals; are we beginning to see that trend again starting with our educators?

It’s obvious that, as a society, we don’t value original thought, that we can’t, to some degree, because of our economics-- but of all the places where I thought we’d allow free thinking, I thought it would always be education. Isn’t that the point: to question?

I teach my elementary school students to look at language as power, that words are weapons and our knowledge can be used powerfully. I just hope I don’t have to teach them that sometimes people use that power against you.

The article from the Guardian:,,1746473,00.html


Jordi said...

Hello Allison

I found your blog doing some blog-surfin'. I'm trying to learn your tongue, so I read in English as much as I can. I apologyze for my bad use of your language.

Once I said this, I would like to tell you that the picture you painted in your post is just the same we can see when we look from europe to the USA.

You have talked about a general ambient where is difficult to behave like a free-thinker. And yet you haven't talked about religion. Is it possible to teach in a school being openly atheist? Do you know anybody in this situation, I mean, hiding his/her atheism in order to keep on teaching? Is it possible to say 'I don't believe in god'in your country?

Perhaps the first problem you must solve is this. Or perhaps I'm wrong in my perceptions.

In any case... keep on thinking with freedom.

(Could you tell me what does "Skip to the 'Lou" mean?)


Allison said...


Thanks for the comment. I have been thinking about it since I read it last week. My initial inclination was to respond and tell you that religion can't have much to do with it because of our separation of church and state. That being said, religion is also everywhere within the state, as one of my students and I discussed today.

I don't have an answer for you, but I did appreciate the provocative nature of your question. When discussing this with friends the other night, one answered that it was too easy to pin everything off on religion, and that's true. But there's also more to it than that.

I think simply that we are in our adolescence-- afraid to change, and yet desperately clinging to our love of freedom. It's an awkward growing pain we are in as a country. I just hope we grow up before none of the other kids want to play with us on the playground.