Let our teachers speak
If you’re a liberal, you’re likely up in arms about the Tennessee teacher who was fired for telling his class that white privilege “is a fact.” But when an Indiana school administrator was dismissed for denying that idea, you probably sat on your hands.
If you’re a conservative, you’re likely outraged by the sacking of the Indiana educator, who you may argue was simply saying what he believed. But you probably won’t speak up for the Tennessee teacher, if you think he got what he deserved.
Welcome to America, where everyone talks a good game about teachers and free speech. At the end of the day, though, we want teachers to echo our own view of the world. And if they don’t, we’re perfectly happy to discard them.
Start with Kingsport, Tenn. social studies teacher Matt Hawn, who compared Jacob Blake — the Black man shot by police in Kenosha, Wis. and partially paralyzed — with Kyle Rittenhouse, the white teenager who shot and killed two men and injuring a third during demonstrations triggered by Blake’s shooting. Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges under the state’s self-defense law.
“My question to you, and this going to be a tough one,” Hawn asked his class in August 2020, “is how is that not a definition of white privilege?”
Parents complained, and a school official warned Hawn about foisting his own views on students. “Going forward, I would ask that you provide space in your discussions for students to objectively express their views,” the official urged.
Hawn apologized to the offended parents and decided to put the matter aside. But after a mob stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, he assigned Ta-Nehesi Coates’ essay “The First White President,” which claimed that racism powered former President Donald Trump’s election win in 2016. That generated another parental complaint and a second reprimand of Hawn.
The final straw came the following April, after Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin, a white man, was found guilty of murdering George Floyd, a black man. A student asked Hawn what would have happened if Chauvin had been acquitted. In response, Hawn showed a video of a profanity-laden poem — called, yes, “White Privilege” — performed by African American activist and writer Kyla Jenee Lacey.
“I will probably get fired for showing this,” Hawn joked before he hit the play button. A few weeks later, he was.
Was Hawn seeking to indoctrinate his own ideas about white privilege? In interviews with reporters, his students said “no.” Hawn was a popular teacher, precisely because he welcomed challenges to what he believed. School officials never showed that he required anyone to agree with him. The officials simply didn’t like what he had to say.
Ditto for the Indianapolis School District, which placed science coordinator Tony Kinnett on leave for posting a video claiming that Critical Race Theory (CRT) had infected local schools. Conceived by legal scholars in the late 1970s, CRT — an approach taught in American law schools — contends that racism is baked into America’s legal, educational and cultural institutions.
Although Kinnett admitted CRT isn’t explicitly invoked in his district’s standards or policies, he asserts its spirit suffuses the curriculum. “We tell our students that every problem is a result of white men. And that everything Western civilization built is racist,” he claimed. “This is in math, history, science, the arts and it’s not slowing down.”
In professional development sessions, Kinnett charged, math teachers are asked if they discussed the “racist history” of the subject. He said music teachers are instructed to use “culturally relevant music” and to reject “white-centric music theory.” and that science teachers are told to examine environmental racism.
According to Kinnett, that substitutes tribalism for individualism. It teaches students that they are products of their racial identities. White students are indicted for their “privilege,” while everyone else is portrayed as a victim of them.
The district fired Kinnett a few weeks later, ostensibly for “sharing public files” — including one of an administrator discussing systemic racism — with news outlets. But if he had praised the administrator rather than criticizing her, it’s hard to imagine the district dismissing him. “It’s embarrassing that I work for a district … that fires teachers for holding different political views,” Kinnett said.
That should embarrass all of us, no matter our views of white privilege. The real privilege of democracy is that each of us gets to decide what we think. If you believe in that ideal, you should want students to hear from both Tony Kinnett and Matt Hawn. My question to you, and this is going to be a tough one, is whether we have enough faith in our teachers — and in our democracy — to let that happen.
Jonathan Zimmerman is an education historian and professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools,” which will be published in a revised 20th-anniversary edition this fall by University of Chicago Press.
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