Education could be transformational if politicians come out


Wynn and Ziff are assistant professors of sociology and co-directors of the Community Research Center at Indianapolis University. They are Public Voice Fellows through the OpEd Project.

The onslaught of bills on what can be taught in schools would imply that education is a zero-sum game. Florida recently enacted the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill and an Education Week analysis found that “37 states have introduced bills or taken other actions that would restrict the teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism”. And Pennsylvania librarians have reported a quiet but concerted effort to remove the books from school library shelves. Banning the discussion of topics only creates an information vacuum and leads to a terribly underprepared population. Rather than preparing students to tackle tough problems in the world, bills like these hurt them.

As sociologists and university educators who teach content that has been miscategorized and weaponized, we have paid close attention to these battles unfolding across the country. After all, policies that address the substance of what we can teach have a direct impact on our future students.

A new report from the Brookings Institution reveals that these battles are mostly being fought by politicians looking to boost their base rather than worried parents. In other words, Republicans in state legislatures are playing politics with raising children. Classrooms are once again the battleground of culture wars and the future of children hangs in the balance.

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When we walk into our classrooms every day, we see no battleground for controlling students’ minds. Instead, we see young people who are eager to learn.

In our courses on social inequality, urban sociology, and sociology of the family, we introduce undergraduate and graduate students to the history of the U.S. government that forcibly removed Indigenous peoples from their lands and gave white settlers; the federal government’s historic practice of withholding loans in black-populated neighborhoods; to the fact that even 50 years ago, banks often refused bank accounts to single women. Every semester we are asked, “Why didn’t I learn this before?!” Students express dismay and disappointment that this material was not taught to them growing up. They feel lied to.

During the semester, we observe the students develop their sociological imagination. A concept developed by sociologist C. Wright Mills, the sociological imagination describes the idea that when large numbers of people experience social problems in a structured way, they are public problems, not personal problems. Sociologists use their sociological imagination to understand public issues.

Unleashing the sociological imagination requires understanding both history and how society is structured by social institutions. This learning process develops information literacy, teaches students the skills to approach issues and information from multiple sources and perspectives, and enables students to better understand the world around them.

We also see the power of students seeing themselves and themselves in classroom content. For example, in one of our urban sociology classes, several black male students shared in class discussions that they felt empowered reading poetry about neighborhoods like the ones they grew up in and writing by poets who resembled them.

In one of our sociology of families classes, while discussing academic work on transnational families, a Latina student shared that reading had helped her better understand her mother’s immigration experiences and her his grandmother.

In introductory sociology and sociology of gender courses, students who have experienced abuse wrote that they appreciated the open space to read and discuss sexual and physical abuse in our society in a way not stigmatized.

We deeply believe in the transformative power of education. Rather than prioritizing research or seeking higher paying jobs in the private sector, we both sought out teaching university jobs because we find nothing more invigorating than seeing a spark of understanding or watching a student connect with a new idea.

But transformation rarely comes without some discomfort. Too often in the past, teachers and administrators avoided uncomfortable topics — like racism, sexism, or our country’s undeniable history of chattel slavery. As a result, nobody had the opportunity to address topics that have lifelong effects on the lives of every American, regardless of background. By giving students the opportunity to learn about the events, policies and laws that have advanced hate, we reduce the likelihood that we will repeat them.

Also, learning something and feeling uncomfortable has nothing to do with the actual effects of it. A student’s unease, or an adult’s unease, discussing racism, sexism, or genocide is nothing compared to enduring it.

Admittedly, the role of education in society is multiple. Students go to school to learn information, be socialized in the values ​​and norms of their society, learn how to interact and work with others, and acquire the skills needed to maneuver through adult life. Educating students about historical facts, providing a curriculum that accurately represents each group, and teaching them the skills to navigate diverse conversations and social contexts is invaluable to their personal future, as well as the collective future of our society.

As sociologists, we know that representation, both historical and contemporary, is important to all students and provides foundational building blocks for their development of self, empathy, and connection to others. It also helps prepare students to thrive in their future careers and communities.

We implore politicians to stop playing political games and trust teachers and school districts to provide quality, age-appropriate educational content that will enable the possibility of transformation. Ideally, a classroom is a space where students can tackle difficult problems and find joy.

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