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The anti-woke education wars are a symptom of a broken community. We don’t agree about schools because we don’t agree about the value of education or about what it means to be American. This is a fraught time to be a teacher, as polarization and distrust reach into school board meetings, libraries, and classrooms. It’s also a difficult time to be a parent and a student, in a world where schools are a focal point of political divisiveness.
The anti-woke school movement
The Trump era was a time of polarization, and Donald Trump’s divisive message has not abated. The former President recently warned that American schools have been “taken over by radical Left maniacs.” He announced that if he were re-elected, he would ban federal funding for any “school or program pushing critical race theory, gender ideology, or other inappropriate racial, sexual or political content onto our children.” Trump’s anti-woke alarmism seems to echo and amplify what we are hearing from Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis, has been waging a war against woke.
Trump took this to another level, however, when he suggested in his recent speech that what was being taught in the schools was antithetical to “Judeo-Christian values.” He said that woke ideology resembled, “an established new religion.” Trump concluded, “If we have pink-haired communists teaching our kids we have a major problem.”
I doubt that many pink-haired maniac teachers are trying to establish a new religion, or subvert Judeo-Christian values. The teachers I know, and have worked with, are acutely aware that we live in a diverse world. They often avoid discussing race, religion, and gender because they know that these things are divisive in a world that is increasingly polarized.
The shifting First Amendment
Most teachers are aware that the First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits them from imposing a religion at school. The Establishment Clause of that amendment means that Judeo-Christian values cannot be pushed in schools. Nor can any other religious ideology.
Yet recent Supreme Court rulings make it easier for educators to bring religion into school. A recent case (Kennedy v. Bremerton) involving a Christian coach leading a prayer at a football game was decided in favor of the coach, who claimed that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause gave him the right to pray with students. In an essay about this for OnlySky, I suggested that this opens the door to a contest of religious views in the schools.
That’s not an optimal outcome. It would be better if the Establishment Clause were interpreted more firmly to keep religion out of schools. But in the present legal environment, the result appears to be that conflicts of religion will creep into the educational space.
Are Trump’s warnings about “woke-ism” as a religion a case of the chickens coming home to roost? Hardly. I doubt many teachers are actively pushing any religion, woke or un-woke. But our legal system is shifting and the world is becoming more polarized, making conflict more likely.
What are schools for in a democracy?
None of this will be resolved easily or soon. The Court has shifted its understanding of the First Amendment, and polarization makes it harder to find common ground. This is especially true with regard to questions about the purpose of education in a democracy.
This politicized debate includes the fundamental question of whether schools exist to teach what parents want them to teach or serve some other social purpose. A school board member in Iowa got lots of pushback when they said, “The purpose of a public ed is to not teach kids what the parents want. It is to teach them what society needs them to know. The client is not the parent, but the community.”
Despite the pushback, this idea is not absurd. It can be traced back to Plato, who thought that education was about the well-being of the whole community. Plato went so far as to suggest taking kids away from their parents in order to give them a proper education. This proposal should be read in light of the fact that Plato’s ideal republic is more dictatorship than democracy.
But defenders of democratic education have made a similar point. John Dewey, America’s most important philosopher of democracy, put it this way:
Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife. Moreover, it is only education which can guarantee widespread community of interest and aim. In a complex society, ability to understand and sympathize with the operations and lot of others is a condition of common purpose which only education can procure.
Dewey’s point is that in modern democracies, education brings diverse people together, helps them to understand each other, and encourages them to discover a sense of common purpose and identity. Parents may want their children to be protected from this. But it is good for society for kids to become citizens of a broader community made up of diverse others.
Our broken community
Of course, the problem is that the American community has been corroded by polarization, identity politics, disinformation, and distrust. What after all, is the American community? We don’t seem to know anymore. And if we don’t know what the community is and what it stands for, then we will not be able to agree about the value of education.
There is a paradox lurking here. The solution to our broken community is an education that can help us understand our shared values. But that solution will only work if there are shared values to be understood. And it is becoming apparent that we don’t agree: about who we are, what we value, and what we want our kids to learn. The next generation will pay the price of more polarization and fragmentation unless the adults can agree about what it means to be an American, and why American schools exist.