All posts by Gary C. Woodward

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Disturbing Roadblocks to Educational Freedom

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Fighting back against our modern thought-police

A year ago it was apparent that the headwinds against progressive schooling were getting stronger. This post written at the time reflects that problem.  Since then, a group of mostly of states have sought to legislatively impose all sorts of restrictions on teachers, professors, librarians and school boards.  As I noted then, we could reach a point where scholars and teachers may need to pass over job offers because of draconian state laws. Reduced academic freedoms and free expression are central to the academic workplace.

In particular, Florida, Alabama and Texas have passed legislation that would prohibit academics from teaching about the social and political histories of the nation. Many would also not allow discussions or facilities provided for trans students.

We do not yet know how many of these hate laws will withstand court scrutiny.  But the very thought should send shudders down the spines of those familiar with the attempts of German Fascists to purify their society of “decadent” art and “alien” ideas. Most of the homegrown pinheads proposing this censorship may have never learned that the United States and the West did the world a favor by sheltering a important German academics fleeing to safety from authoritarians.  Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik and Herbert Marcuse are only a few intellectuals that found their way to the United States. They fled the Nazi’s thought police who found their teaching and religious beliefs alien to the culture. All focused their scholarship on culture and society, making advances in American explorations of philosophy, psychology, sociology and cultural analysis.  Indeed, Adorno and Frenkel-Brunswik’s explorations of “The Authoritarian Personality” remains relevant in this era of populist-fascist dictatorships. What they described as theory we now understand as fact.

The “problem” that social conservatives think they are addressing includes ostensibly “dangerous” leftist ideas, and the teaching of what most misunderstand as “critical race theory:” a phrase that triggers fantasies that chain out past what are useful historical and theoretical probes. The goal is to prohibit teachers in history and the social sciences from confronting the fact of American racism first institutionalized with slavery and then embedded in nearly every corner of our national life. Tina Descovich, of “Moms for Liberty” sets out very narrow guardrails: “To say there were slaves is one thing, but to talk in detail about how slaves were treated, with photos, is another.”


No one alert to the challenges facing modern nations can ignore the enormous effect that racial and religious bigotry has had on its victims. The most advanced societies have made amends. But we are still easily upside down if the classroom is subjected to gag rules imposed by non-expert and misinformed politicians. Legislating away American attempts at necessary reckonings with the past is truly a fool’s errand.  And ghosting services for gay and trans citizens is its own nightmare.  Legislators would do well to acquaint themselves with Nazi programs in the 1930s and 40s to purge public spaces of supposedly “degenerate art,” including pieces by Picasso, Henry Moore and Jewish painters.  Some of their work was officially hidden away, even though societies need the revitalization of those who may seem to be on the fringes.

The best educational communities do not impose curricular guidelines that would muzzle the insights of authentic scholarship. If it were possible to do so, such limits would empty out academia of its best and brightest in the fields of media theory, American history, modern criticism, American literature, philosophy, sociology, ethnic and religious studies. It’s one thing for a church or private organization to impose a-priori “doctrines,” that allow only narrow pathways for exploration. It’s quite another for non-expert legislatures or school boards to set rules that would restrict the free discovery of ideas that is the very reason for a university. We could reach a point where professional bodies representing various disciplines may need to issue warnings to teachers and scholars to reject job offers in states that have decided to turn their backs on the hard truths of the American experiment.

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Sometimes we can’t help but be part of an interaction pattern that can turn toxic.

Interactions with others can be hard to reduce to formulas.  But there are forms of interaction that can be identified readily, one of which is a pattern of exchange sometimes known as “teaming.”  We can often find it in groups, where most of the individuals know each other. As the seminal sociologist Erving Goffman noted, teams are several people who work to create a shared “definition of a situation,” “performing” a point of view that emerges as distinct from the view held by a holdout. This happens by accident or design, usually when one person in a group of three or four people is singled out and seemingly out of step. Those in agreement emerge as an ad hoc “team” that identifies and usually attempts to change the non-compliant individual. We have probably been on both sides of this equation in the long trajectory of our interactions, sometimes as part of a team, and sometimes as the outsider.

Friendship can protect us against teaming.

Bullying can be one form of this. It’s easy to imagine school days when it seemed like even friends took sides in a one-against-the-rest series of transactions. The apparent unanimity of those engaging in this kind of “micro-aggression” are encouraged by their numbers; agreement with others can easily become comfortable. By contrast, the person who is the object of the challenge may still hold fast to their view, but with probably with less comfort and a degree of isolation. Friendship obviously provides some protection. The implicit compact with make with friends is that they will be considerate and loyal, mostly avoiding conversational space that might open up and feed a feeling of abandonment.

We can imagine a scenario of a group of teens, who can so easily construct and destruct personal identity over the simplest of choices. Perhaps the scene is where three want to go on an amusement park ride that terrifies a fourth. Pressing the holdout rather than accepting their fears is a form of teaming. No wonder adolescence is likely to produce our first efforts to protect our sense of self from others.  I suspect this is why many young males find themselves to be their own best company.  They have yet to figure out how to deal with being provoked into unwanted conformity.

Teaming is an ongoing sport in office politics.  The stakes surrounding a proposed course of action may seem bigger. Egos can easily align with a given outcome.  And it is common practice to abandon the idea of a common approach to a problem that may leave at least one apparent holdout. Maybe those in the team have good reasons to hold fast. But to the holdout, the exchange can look like duplicity. The resulting feeling of betrayal is a predictable workplace complaint that some members of families are likely to share at the end of the day.

An effective leader may step in before teaming makes a decision or attitude look like a binary choice. Their goal may be to help the holdout save face.  Even better, and on an important decision, the leader may take a page from Quaker doctrine and withhold a final decision until everyone can comfortably endorse. Negotiating differences always sounds good, but may not be possible, especially if an office bully is after a firm “win.”

This dynamic of interaction is relatively obvious. But the idea is useful for two reasons. First, having a name for it helps us see it. Only then—which gets to my second point—can we query this dynamic for its negative effects a community member’s sense of self.  We’ve mentioned harms. But teaming can also be done for therapeutic reasons, is in an “intervention” intended to confront a friend with a destructive addiction. Even so, the person who is the subject of this pressure may view it differently: as a kind of ganging up, where all of the burden for significant change falls on them. Who wouldn’t experience some psychological wounds, even if the group is motivated by altruism?

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