Education Yes, Propaganda No
by Jonathan Zimmerman - May 12, 2017
This commentary considers the case of Jill Bloomberg, a principal who was questioned about her political affiliations. It argues that teachers have the right to speak their minds, but they also have to let students make up their minds.
Is Brooklyn, New York school principal Jill Bloomberg a Communist? I dont know the answer to that question and I dont care about it either.
Neither should investigators at the New York City Department of Education who allegedly asked her if she was a member of the communist oriented Progressive Labor Party. The real question isnt Bloombergs views, but whether she used her position to propagandize students on behalf of them.
This is the distinction we all need to remember amid reports that school officials were investigating Bloomberg for political organizing at her high school. She countered with a lawsuit, alleging that officials had violated her right to speak out against racial segregation in education and other hot button contemporary issues.
Across the country during the Time of Trump, teachers have been declaring their hate (or, less often, their love) for our voluble new president and his policies on immigration, schools, and much else. As citizens, our teachers are free to say whatever they like. If school officials singled out Jill Bloomberg because of her beliefs, as she claims, they should suspend their probe and profusely apologize to her and her school.
Nor should investigators be snooping around the school to inquire whether Bloomberg or anyone else was engaging in communist activities as her lawsuit charges. This kind of fishing expedition carries eerie echoes of the McCarthy era when hundreds of New York City teachers lost their jobs because of actual or alleged communist affiliations.
Instead, the school system should ask if Bloomberg tried to impose her politics on the people in her charge. Teachers have the right to speak their minds about President Trump and everything else, but they also have to let students make up their own minds.
When Bloomberg lent her support to students who were fighting the installation of metal detectors in her school, did she also listen to students and parents who endorsed these detectors to enhance security? When she held school assemblies about police brutality, did she include the perspectives of community law enforcement personnel?
When Bloomberg led parent and student rallies against a new charter school that went into their building, which allegedly reinforced racial segregation, did all parties understand that students grades did not hinge on their participation? Also, if Bloomberg and other people at the school recruited students to join the Progressive Labor Party, as school officials have charged, did students feel pressured or coerced to say yes?
It will not do to reply that Bloombergs activities were somehow above politics as some of her advocates have argued. Ive never seen her furthering any political agenda whatsoever, said one teacher at the school, where Bloomberg has served as principal since 2004. She fights against racism, the teacher added.
Of course she does. However, Bloombergs anti-racist activities have a sharp political edge nevertheless. Not everyone thinks metal detectors, or charter schools, are racist. The question isn't whether Bloomberg engaged in politics; it's whether she abused her authority by trying to influence the politics of her students.
Every educator needs to think more about this issue. According to news reports, some teachers at Bloombergs school are now afraid to wear Black Lives Matter shirts out of fear that school officials will target them. This is very bad news if it makes the teachers reluctant to say what they believe.
However, if it makes the teachers warier about imposing their beliefs on unwary teenagers, then its a very good thing. When a teacher wears her politics on her sleeve or on her T-shirt, it becomes harder for students to dissent from her point of view or to develop their own.
After all, the teacher is the adult in the room; the students look up to her. They also know she is responsible for grading them. So it is easy to see why they would echo what she thinks without really thinking the ideas through themselves.
Thats not education; its indoctrination. Our teachers must be advocates, but they may never be salesmen or propagandists, the great civil libertarian Alexander Meiklejohn wrote in 1938. The very existence of democratic schools depends on that distinction (Stokes Brown, 1981, p. 214).
Did Jill Bloomberg breach the line between education and propaganda? Again, that is the question all of us should be asking. Teachers should be free to advocate for communism, capitalism, or anything else. However, they should not make students into tools for their advocacy. The very existence of democratic schools depends on that.
Stokes Brown, C. (Ed.) (1981). Alexander Meiklejohn, Teacher of freedom. Berkeley, CA: Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute.