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The 74 Interview: Author Bonnie Kerrigan Snyder on Free Speech, Critical Race Theory and ‘Giving the Devil His Due’

By Kevin Mahnken | September 15, 2021

Bonnie Kerrigan Snyder, author of "Undoctrinate: How Politicized Classrooms Harm Kids and Ruin Our Schools — and What We Can Do About it"

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See previous 74 Interviews: NYC principal Alice Hom on anti-Asian sentiment and COVID, Gloria Ladson-Billings on culturally relevant teaching, and Mary Beth Tinker on free speech and youth activism. The full archive is here.

With repeated controversies erupting this year over how schools teach issues of race, gender, and sexuality, Republican lawmakers in state after state have proposed and passed laws focused on classroom discussions of “divisive concepts.” The movement — only the latest to ensnare local education officials in national political debates — has won the approval of some families, who fear their children are being taught anti-American propaganda about systemic oppression and the sins of whiteness. But many teachers say the bans trample on their free speech and risk sanitizing the realities of American society.

To Bonnie Kerrigan Snyder, a fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the pushback against what she calls “thought reform” in the classroom is overdue. A former teacher and school counselor, she is the author of Undoctrinate: How Politicized Classrooms Harm Kids and Ruin Our Schools — and What We Can Do About it, released Tuesday by Bombardier Books. And while she proclaims herself somewhat uneasy with the prospect of legislating what can and can’t be said in the classroom, she also believes passionately that teachers in too many communities have lapsed into preaching about politics.

It’s an accusation that has triggered shouting matches at board meetings and led to calls for some teachers to be removed from the classroom. But the controversies also vary widely in substance. On the one hand, critics point to third graders being asked to describe their identities in terms of privilege and oppression, and major school districts seeking to insert elements of ethnic studies into math instruction; on the other, educators around the country are earnestly attempting to refocus some lessons on long-neglected episodes from American history, such as the Tulsa race massacre.

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The struggle over politics in teaching is typically associated with higher education, which is where FIRE focuses most of its efforts. The nonprofit often represents faculty members suing their colleges over restrictions to free speech on campus and has defended the due process rights of students accused in Title IX investigations of sexual misconduct. It also takes a nuanced view of the proposed restrictions on classroom speech, with Kerrigan Snyder and organization president Greg Lukianoff recently arguing that many are “probably constitutional,” though not above criticism.

FIRE does not presently take on K-12 cases, but Kerrigan Snyder — who helps lead FIRE’s high school outreach program — argues that K-12 educators are becoming increasingly willing to indulge their own ideological predispositions, in large measure because of teacher preparation programs that have developed into what she describes as political “monocultures.” When it comes to the teaching of intrinsically controversial subjects, she adds, instructors need to ask themselves: “Is it age-appropriate? Is it aligned with the curriculum? Can I be even-handed? And could the discussion become inflammatory?”

In a conversation with The 74, Kerrigan Snyder discussed her views on how schools began to drift toward “indoctrination.” The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: FIRE is an organization I associate with the cause of free speech on college campuses. Where does K-12 teaching, and controversies around its content, become a free speech issue? A lot of your book focuses on protecting the rights of kids to be able to speak their minds in the classroom. But many argue that the state laws being proposed to curb discussion of “divisive concepts,” such as race or or gender, just end up censoring teachers. Where do you stand on that?

Bonnie Kerrigan Snyder: At FIRE, we’re paying close attention to this legislation that seeks to ban certain ideas in K-12. We support what the First Amendment says and what the Supreme Court has ruled on freedom of expression. We’re very concerned about the thought reform aspects of this, where teachers are attempting to enter the private realm of thought and belief and try to compel students to affirm views that they might not wish to. And we’re concerned about students who self-censor. When children are afraid that if they say something the teacher doesn’t like, there’ll be retaliation, then everybody is being inauthentic in the classroom, and nothing meaningful is being discussed.

Students are showing up on college campuses with some very strange notions about the First Amendment, their rights, and other people’s rights; they seem to think they have the right to censor other people if they don’t like their speech. So a lot of what we try to do is educate teachers, students, and parents to counteract this, and generally, we’re in favor of more speech versus enforced silence. That’s why we would prefer that these disputes over curriculum be settled through persuasion, not coercion. When the government gets involved, it’s a matter of might making right.

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That being said, at the end of my book, I warn teachers that if they lose the trust of the community, they’re going to be micromanaged and see greater supervision than they have before. I submitted the book earlier this year, and already what I said is coming true: With these laws coming down from legislatures, we now see that teachers could lose professional discretion in ways that will limit the scope of their operations within the classroom.

When there is goodwill and trust between parents, teachers, and the community, teachers can operate with a great deal of flexibility. But I’ve unearthed some teacher communications where they call themselves “co-conspirators,” or they talk about “creative insubordination.” I wrote an article giving the example of a district official in Missouri that was getting complaints about some of the lesson plans; the official just instructed teachers to change the lesson plans so that parents wouldn’t know what was being taught. When these sorts of duplicitous means are being used, it does not surprise me that the state gets involved. [Editor’s note: The district placed private security at the home of the literacy coordinator in question following what the local teachers union described as “personal attacks and outright threats of violence” in response to the incident.]

In the end, checks and balances come into play. Teachers are going to speak their minds, it plays out at the school board, and we get to vote for the people in our legislatures. These bills have been proposed, not all of them have been passed, and we’re going to see where it goes. But the phrase that comes to mind is, “When you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind.”

But aren’t you concerned that if whole areas of inquiry are banned from the classroom, it will prevent students from becoming informed participants in democratic discussion? It strikes me that if teachers are nervous about initiating any uncomfortable conversations, kids will just be living in an intellectual safe space.

Teachers should absolutely have some flexibility, and it goes back to the issue of trust. The more professional you are, the more trust you build, the greater the latitude you should have in addressing those controversial subjects.

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I published an article in the Journal of the Middle States Council for the Social Studies about guardrails for educators. I know teachers are concerned about this, so I looked at the existing legal precedents from when teachers have found themselves in hot water. Based on what the law shows, one of the guidelines you should follow is, “Is it age-appropriate?” If you’re an elementary school teacher, should you be talking about, for instance, Afghanistan? What would make you think that you’re the right judge of what’s happening? Maybe it’s too recent for you to have sufficient perspective.

Another question is, “Is it aligned with the curriculum?” Do you even have a curricular mandate to be talking about current events? Possibly in social studies, but unlikely in other classes, so you might have to ask yourself why a certain topic is coming up. Then you ask, “Is it even-handed?” If you’re going to talk about something that’s going to ruffle feathers, it needs to be done in a way that gives the perspectives of competing sides. Teachers are expected to be honest brokers — are you doing that? If not, you’re liable to hear from angry parents.

And the last question is, “Is it inflammatory?” Which basically means that people get so upset, you can’t meet your learning objectives for the day. I tell teachers that sometimes you can hit a tripwire, and there’s no predicting that you just stepped into some inflammatory material. But anything that’s trending on Twitter or in the op-ed pages of your local newspaper probably won’t make for the best learning experience. Adolescents in particular can become very emotional, especially with things that are really personal to them, and then your rational faculties go out the window.

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So you do have to exercise a certain amount of professional discretion, but that doesn’t mean that you steer away from every topic that might be considered controversial. You want to be somewhere between “So boring that the kids fall asleep” and “So incendiary that an argument breaks out and no learning takes place.” A lesson can work in four classes and then just explode in a fifth because of the maturity level of the kids. That’s what professional experience helps teachers to navigate. So those questions I put forward are guardrails, but teaching is a practice; educators are not just functionaries, they have to apply their accumulated wisdom to an ever-changing array of circumstances. That’s what makes it a challenge.

Some of the backlash against what’s being called “critical race theory” in schools has been directed at efforts to broaden the curriculum and educate kids about the history of America’s racial problems. In one instance, parents have militated against the teaching of a curriculum that includes the autobiography of Ruby Bridges, one of the first African-American students to integrate an all-white school in New Orleans. Are you concerned that casting too wide a net can hurt learning?

I absolutely agree that so much negative attention has been attracted by some of the more objectionable aspects of CRT that reasonable attempts to broaden the curriculum could be undermined. On the other hand, all of the negative attention focused on CRT — they call this the “Streisand effect” — might just make it more appealing, more alluring to students. If you tell somebody they can’t study something, the natural instinct of a young person would be to defy that, so it’s important to be careful not to overstate the dangers of it. The theory at FIRE is that more speech, not enforced silence, is the best way to deal with what might be deemed bad speech. While I could argue that other things should occupy more curricular space, the wholesale banning of an idea typically can backfire.

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I’ve actually worked with 1776 Unites [an educational project launched by the nonprofit Woodson Center in 2020 to counter what it described as the “dangerous and debilitating message” of the New York Times’s 1619 Project], which includes a lot of African American scholars, as they develop lesson plans around these topics. And I discovered in that process many gaps and deficiencies in my own education on topics such as these. I learned about the Rosenwald Schools, which were some of the schools that Brown vs. Board of Education eventually decided were separate and inherently unequal. I’ve lived in South Carolina, and this was in plain sight, but it was just invisible to me because I grew up in a different part of the country and didn’t know anything about it.

I would love for kids to learn more about Native Americans in the curriculum, not to mention women. I’m a woman, and probably 95 percent of the U.S. history I’ve studied has been either written by or about men. That being said, it never really stopped me from looking for the common threads that are relatable to me. There are lots of stories about people, or by people, who look different from us, but we all want to see ourselves reflected to some extent in what we learn. That’s completely understandable.

Lynda Gunn poses next to the 1964 Rockwell painting “The Problem We All Live With.” Gunn modeled as Ruby Bridges in the painting, which depicts the 1960 fight over school desegregation in New Orleans. (Getty Images)

Going back to your book, could you describe the problem you address? You refer to it as “thought reform.” In your view, how prevalent is it in K-12 schools, as opposed to university settings, where FIRE is most active?

I would describe it as teachers exceeding the boundaries of their prescribed role in the classroom and commandeering the classroom for personal or partisan ends. When we’re talking about public schools, they’re a public good that’s paid for with tax dollars, so that really is a misuse of public funds.

I think this is much bigger than the current controversy. It’s not actually new; this problem has been with us for decades, and it’s been low-grade and chronic. But recently it’s become acute, like an underlying condition in your body that you’re able to ignore until you have some sort of sudden medical incident. It’s pretty well understood that this year, there was just a lot more transparency and ability for parents to see what’s going on in the classroom. And with all the cultural upheaval, some educators felt emboldened to do what they’d been inclined to do anyway, and what they’ve been doing in classrooms for quite some time.

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As to how much of this is going on, I think it varies from district to district, school to school, and classroom to classroom. It’s partly a function of location and partly one of demographics. At FIRE, we’ve seen a lot of anecdotal evidence that the problem is most acute in affluent areas and private schools, and seems more common in cities than in rural areas. Certainly I’ve mentioned this problem to people in a few places, and they didn’t even know what I was talking about.

I suspect that it is increasing because of the retirement of Baby Boomers, who were themselves educated by teachers from older generations with more traditional ways of instruction. I was educated by people who were probably trained in the ’50s. So you have to think not just of the age of the educator, but the age of the educator who educated them! It seems like the younger teachers coming out of ed schools are much more activist-minded, so I think this problem is increasing rapidly.

​​You’re arguing that a big pedagogical change has occurred over the last few generations, as older teachers have been replaced by younger, more radical ones. Isn’t it possible that the movement toward “anti-racist” pedagogy is driven by a much broader change in racial attitudes among whites along with a desire by younger, more diverse Americans to see themselves more reflected in schools and classroom materials?

There are some demographic changes that are driving this. One would probably be the decreasing number of white people in the population, but there’s also this retirement of a bubble of people who were born in the ’40s and ’50s. So it’s a confluence of demographic forces. I think the Baby Boomers have tended to portray themselves as being radical, but having been taught by prior generations, their education very much was not. That said, the Baby Boomers had a big hand in educating this generation, so maybe their radicalism is now showing through somewhat.

Historically, whenever there is a large group of young people, you tend to see big movements form. What we have now is a Baby Boom-let, the Millennials, who are their own bubble in the population. In the same way that Baby Boomers created something more than a ripple, partly because of their huge numbers, I think part of what we’re seeing now is a large generation that is of an age where people tend to be inclined to upend the existing order and make dramatic changes. It’s a stage that people pass through as they mature. In that sense, it’s not surprising, and it’s probably a factor in the appeal that these ideologies hold with such a large group of young people.

Where do you think these intellectual trends came from, particularly in K-12? For most of our history, it seems like public schools promoted a view of American history and society that was essentially patriotic, if not chauvinistic — certainly not one that questioned existing power structures.

FIRE published an article where we talked about how common schools in America were established by the government to promote government speech and ensure domestic tranquility. It’s not surprising that they would teach a view that promotes cohesion and patriotic ideas.

So there is a dominant position on American history that is open to interrogation, and I certainly would never want to interfere with a student’s right to critique it or with exposing kids to a reasonable amount of competing views; that’s part of what a thorough education provides. But when the critique seeks to become the dominant narrative, it’s giving kids a pre-digested conclusion and asking them to retrofit all the information they haven’t yet been given to this preconceived conclusion.

I’d also say that this critique seeks to suppress competing narratives and disallow dissent, which short-changes kids’ education and, really, trains them not to question authority. I just think this isn’t a healthy learning environment, and it doesn’t let kids develop the intellectual muscles they need to prepare them for self-government.

FIRE often defends the rights of university professors who say they’re being censored by their institutions. You’re not part of the legal team, but can you see a role for FIRE, or other organizations like it, in coming to the aid of teachers who are disciplined under laws restricting discussions of divisive concepts in K-12 classrooms?

We have people who ask FIRE to jump into the K-12 legal realm all the time, and I’d say it’s something that is under consideration. Teachers have the unions, which will obviously help to defend them. My understanding is that [leaders of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association] have come out to say that they will defend teachers who teach CRT.

I would say that parents have rights, and students have rights, but teachers have responsibilities. That’s why they’re paid. Teachers’ speech in the classroom is hired speech, and it’s really government speech; the government is hiring you to deliver a curriculum that’s democratically adopted by districts, in accordance with state legislatures. So I think that teachers have to realize that their instruction needs to be aligned with the learning standards that their state has adopted.

Anything you’re teaching, you should be able to relate it to the published learning standards for the grade and subject that you’re teaching. You don’t want to present a conclusion to students and work backwards from that because these are open-ended questions that we’re trying to figure out as a society. Critical race theory is a lens through which to view the world, but it’s not the only one. If I were going to talk about it, I would always want to present it in the context of competing versions of how to interpret historical and current events.

I want to pose another argument I’ve seen, even from those who are probably sympathetic to your views: There may be some teachers mixing ideology into their history or social studies lessons, but the fundamental issue is that too many kids just don’t reach proficiency in those disciplines at all, according to year after year of standardized test results. Given that the overall academic performance is so poor, shouldn’t we be more concerned about just providing kids with basic knowledge?

Yeah, it’s kind of amazing that teachers have time to be discussing these esoteric, advanced perspectives. I just don’t consider most of it to be introductory, it’s more in the realm of a late-night graduate study session. It’s not a good way to introduce students to basic material, so it really serves teachers’ needs more than students.

One of the problems we’re seeing is that teachers are covering content that is of interest to them but isn’t necessarily what their students need, and that’s poor pedagogical practice. The teacher is paid to meet the needs of the students, and the learning outcomes we’re seeing show that these ideological itches that are being scratched are not serving students in the classroom well.

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I also think that the way these ideologies are being expressed in the classroom is being perceived by students and parents as abrasive and, in some cases, tantamount to bullying. As Maya Angelou said, “People forget what you said, but they remember how you made them feel,” and I suspect that a lot of students don’t feel good about what’s going on in their classrooms. Kids are not a means to anyone’s end, they’re ends in themselves; their compulsory presence in your classroom is not to serve some partisan goal that you cherish. The word education means “to draw out” — to draw from the student what is inside of them. Each one is a unique, autonomous being, and you’re there to find out what they are capable of, not to enact your worldview.

Parents are mobilizing around this issue. There have definitely been some heated school board meetings this year, and state lawmakers seem happy to make this a campaign issue, but do you think it’ll go further than that?

Parents are certainly coming forward, and they’ve obviously had a great impetus to want to come forward: These are their children, and nothing’s nearer to their hearts.

I’ve been following this problem as a sort of unpleasant hobby for over a decade. Going back years, I’ve heard anecdotally about incidents all over the place, though I’ve focused on the ones that appear in the press. But for a long time, the strategy has mostly been to say, “It’s just a few more years, I’ll get my kid through and fly under the radar.” But it’s suddenly become very acute, so parents are speaking up — some would say too much, though I happen to think that we’ve been complacent too long, and people should have always been more involved with their school boards. Some of them are being too aggressive, but I do get it. They feel like their children are being targeted.

I think I’m optimistic at this point, mostly because I see parents asserting themselves. It doesn’t mean they’re right about everything they say, but it’s good that everyone is in the conversation and the checks and balances are operating as they should. Parents have been way too uninvolved, handing everything off to the teachers, and now they realize they’re going to have to pay closer attention to what’s going on in school board meetings.

If you’re ambivalent about the laws being passed in legislatures around divisive concepts, what do you think education authorities should be doing to address the concerns of parents? One of the avenues I’ve usually heard discussed involves changes to teacher preparation programs. 

FIRE has previously taken on teacher training when it came to [the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education] trying to impose “social justice dispositions” on educators — meaning that you’d have to believe in certain political ideas in order to be certified as a teacher. We fought back on that because of the aspects of thought reform, and we won. [Editor’s note: In 2006, following protests from FIRE and other groups, NCATE — formerly a leading accreditor of teacher education programs, and since reorganized as the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation — removed language referring to “social justice” in its glossary of recommended dispositions for future teachers.]

Definitely, we recognize that the best way to change this is in the ed schools. It’s going to be a tough climb, but it’s necessary at this point. Teachers are licensed for the same reason that doctors and dentists are licensed: They’re in a position to do real harm to vulnerable people, and no one in our society is more vulnerable than children. States have all the power they need to award or withhold licensure, and I think they’re going to have to apply more oversight.

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One of the recurring questions in this book is, “Where’s the oversight?” Department chairs and principals and curriculum directors should be applying more consistency throughout schools. The subtext needs to be that this isn’t a free-for-all; you can’t have one teacher who’s a freewheeling zealot doing whatever they feel while the rest of the classes are teaching to the end-of-year tests. That’s just a failure of administration.

Any time you have a one-party monoculture, things go awry. Things have definitely gone awry, and we’re overdue for a correction in our ed schools.

The thing is that teacher prep programs are themselves downstream of the larger intellectual culture. In the book, you talk about a need for a return to “normative social agreements” — basically, ideological restraint and respect for diversity in thought from all people, not just educators. It seems like it will be a lot harder to develop those traits than to just pass a law saying what teachers can and can’t say.

I actually think it’s kind of easy to legislate how contentious issues should be handled, which is that they should be approached from a variety of angles, leaving room for dissent. There are some things on which I think we’ve achieved cultural consensus — for example, that we were the good guys in World War II. I suppose somebody could advance a counter-narrative, though I wouldn’t give a lot of class time to that because I think we have a near-unanimous consensus. But when it comes to current issues under debate, you have to show some epistemic humility and leave room for the possibility that you might be wrong.

When you have this unscholarly certainty that you’re in possession of the absolute truth, that’s where you’re likely to get in trouble, because it’s a very un-academic stance for an educator to take. It’s that old John Stuart Mill idea, “He who knows only his side of the case knows little of that”: You have to give the devil his due.

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