Progressive Classrooms, Subtler Than You Think

September 7, 2021 Updated: September 15, 2021


“What constitutes a family?”

That’s one of the “Sample Guiding Questions” for kindergarten to second-grade students in the project called the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap (pdf). The Roadmap is a well-funded, amply sponsored initiative to boost civics learning in primary and secondary education, which everyone agrees is in poor condition. The goal is to get the Roadmap adopted in one way or another in school districts across the country, and it looks like the initiative has good odds of succeeding.

I have written about the Roadmap in City Journal and on RealClearPolicy, and I debated the project leader, professor Danielle Allen, in a webinar moderated by the Fordham Institute, each time arguing that the Roadmap is an ideological endeavor that will inject progressivist ideas into the classroom in a seemingly neutral way.

I won’t rehearse all those points here. But just consider the question above. The Roadmap advises teachers to bring it into class presentations and encourage discussion, which might raise immediate questions about the civic goal of the exercise. To be sure, the Roadmap contains many traditional topics such as the content of the Constitution and historical takes on immigration, expansion, voting rights, and political parties. But this query about the family doesn’t quite fit. Why would civics sessions with 7-year-olds turn on the definition of something many would regard as both irrelevant to civics learning and inappropriate to children of that age?

After all, the family is a contentious subject. The traditional conception of it—father, mother, married and with children, all in the same home—has been one of the left’s prime targets in the 50-year Culture War that continues today. That nuclear model is accused of being sexist, heteronormative, homophobic, reactionary, and denigrating to all those households that don’t have a traditional mother-father setup. It’s said to put down single mothers and same-sex couples.

The controversies have been heated, as we saw in the 2008 passage of Proposition 8 in California. The current mandates against the nuclear preference, in fact, will prevent you from getting a job in certain fields if you don’t reject the old-school notion as the best family formation (jobs in academia, for instance, require of applicants a “diversity-equity-inclusion” statement in which you’d better not signal anything but a liberal attitude toward social issues).

Why bring those tensions to children who haven’t the equipment to understand them? For the obvious reason: This is good old-fashioned proselytizing. It follows a standard leftist tactic: get ’em while they’re young. Let’s not be callow enough to believe that “What constitutes a family?” is a genuine question.

Imagine what would happen if a student were a fundamentalist Christian, an Orthodox Jew, or a devout Muslim. That student would rise and state a definition of the family that runs squarely against the liberal one, and the teacher wouldn’t let that stand. The ideology of the social studies profession and of the schools, in general, wouldn’t allow it.

A refutation would begin; it would have to in a world that has embraced diversity and tolerance as binding norms. The adoption of critical race theory (CRT) in public schools (and many private ones) tells you where all the momentum is going, notwithstanding scattered incidents of parents fighting back. This traditionalist child will have to be disabused and reeducated. The teacher will lead the process and lots of fellow students will join in.

No diversity on this one, no pluralism.

We know that’s what will happen because we’ve seen it a thousand times before. More than any other site in our country, for the past half-century, the classroom has been the place where traditional conceptions of family, men and women, God and country, marriage and parenting have begun to slip and fall.

When guests on CNN speak of Western Civilization as white supremacy, they may believe that they are cutting-edge commentators, but, in truth, they are parroting ideas that had become academic dogma (and cliché) by 1995. When young, energetically left-wing members of Congress opine about imperialism, they say nothing you couldn’t find in every average “studies” class in the 1980s.

For a long time, with a few exceptions such as William Bennett, prominent Republicans paid little attention to the advance of political correctness in the classroom. Or, rather, while all of them realized the bias going on, they did nothing about it. Either they didn’t fully understand how it was happening, or they didn’t know what to do to counter it, or they didn’t want to take action and face the inevitable smears of the media and activists.

And so, the leftist colonization of the classroom inched forward, sometimes in dramatic ways, such as the widespread adoption of the 1619 Project, but more often, however, in small incursions such as this little family question in the Roadmap. It will move ahead, I’m sure, as progressivism has so triumphantly done in the education sphere, and we will see more of this indoctrination of schoolchildren into the new dispensation. Republican politicians have shown that they can’t stop it; they don’t want to fight this battle.

It’s now quite clear that what happens in classrooms comes to happen in the public square 20 years later, but Republican leaders are too old or too poorly equipped to think in “long march” terms (as the left does). Besides that, their corporate donors have signaled their compliance with progressivism on social matters, and they don’t want their politicians to cross lines of political correctness. If the leftist momentum is to be stopped, it will have to be the people who do it.

That means getting them to recognize the tendentiousness, the tactical character, of small gestures such as “What constitutes a family?” We have people going to school board meetings and denouncing overt critical race theory exercises, which are easy to recognize as abominations. It’s not so easy to see the small ones as likewise dangerous. But they are. I can hear the leftist educator scoffing at the worry, claiming that the family question is just a discussion prompt about an important topic. Relax—lighten up!

But in cases such as this one, we have two renditions: one ideal and one actual. The ideal one, which progressives offer the public, is benign and nonpartisan and open-ended. “We’re just talking about important things—that’s all,” we’re told.

And then there’s the truth, what really goes on in real situations. There, the direction of righteousness is clear, and it’s always to the left. The curt query, “What constitutes a family” signifies one thing in the abstract—in the Roadmap document, for instance. It signifies a whole other thing in a classroom with a left-leaning teacher at the front and a captive group of 7-year-olds looking to her for guidance.

Do not believe the promises of the educators—they have broken their promises too many times in the past. Progressives regard the schools as an opportunity to spread the word, their word. Most liberals don’t see the classroom that way, but they have decided to let progressives call the shots when it comes to the social contents of the curriculum. The Woke Revolution is the result of decades of this leftist push in higher and lower education.

Conservatives, then, must accept themselves as counter-revolutionaries. No more compromises, no more benefits of the doubt. Flood those school board meetings, yes, and tell the authorities that you don’t trust them and you don’t like them—and you’re going to stop them.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Mark Bauerlein
Mark Bauerlein is an emeritus professor of English at Emory University. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, the TLS, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.