I will not go teach in a state where I am surveilled as a potential threat,” one teacher told me. What warning signs is this highly qualified educator warning us about?
What if, as survivors have told me, we live in a society where thinking is dangerous? When history is seen as dangerous and politicized? Where public space contracts through fear? What if we are afraid to question? American moral philosopher Susan Neiman wrote, “How we remember the past constrains the possibilities we consider for the future.”
For those who are invested in public education, New Hampshire’s “Right to Freedom from Discrimination in Public Workplaces and Education” Act, sometimes referred to as the “divisive concepts” law, amplifies and weaponizes a fear that people are targeted and marginalized when history is taught. The “group think” fear motivating this attempt to undermine the First and 14th Amendments is, ironically, fostering a group think that regrettably targets and marginalizes teachers.
Our public educators share the same concern about political or ideological influences in public spaces. To teach that “individuals or groups are inherently oppressive, superior, inferior, racist, or sexist” is a violation of their professional ethics. Indeed, such reduction of complex history benefits no one. Many will remember a teacher whose classroom was a secure, welcoming space, a place where discussion was vibrant and respected, and ideas were expressed as teachers helped us learn to navigate difference. Public education, the bulwark of our democratic experiment, helps us develop analytical skills, critical thinking, empathy, flexibility and adaptability, cooperation, conflict resolution and the tools to confront difficult history.
And yet, “gotcha” culture, which wants to shut down conversation for momentary satisfaction, is pushing us in a direction in which we do not want to go. The understandable need to distance ourselves from painful truths unfortunately does not protect us. Isolationism from facts only makes us more vulnerable. It makes us afraid and more willing to buy into this “gotcha” culture that targets, weaponizes difference and destroys incentives to build trust. It undermines the ability of the marginalized and the immigrant to make their claim on and contribution to our democracy. That hurts all of us who seek dignity, safety, progress and freedom from fear.
New Hampshire’s newly proposed House Bill 1255, “An Act Relative to Teachers’ Loyalty,” seeks to make us afraid of each other, of history, and to limit access to the public space to those who do not meet an arbitrary standard of someone’s definition of ideological purity. Seeking purity can be an incredible burden on anyone — except the perfect people. It is a good thing that I am humble enough to recognize how imperfect I am. In the same light, our founders added amendments to our Constitution recognizing that the nation itself is a work in progress.
By prohibiting “promoting any theory that depicts the U.S. in a negative light” the loyalty law exposes the false premise that teachers promote anything. The bill asks us to suspend our courage, our common sense, and live in Brigadoon. Although there is a certain temptation, I must recognize that the Union itself was created as an imperfect compromise. We had to start somewhere. It is not a “theory” that the three-fifths compromise of the 1787 Constitutional Convention created a formula that disproportionately distributed political and economic power to white Southern enslavers as a precondition to forming the Republic. Not only did this allow nonrepresentational power to flourish, it expanded slavery and even played a role in the removal of indigenous peoples from their land. It also led to the self-inflicted wound of the Civil War when the rest of the advanced world had outlawed slavery. How many New Hampshire soldiers gave their lives in defense of the Union? Confronting this truth empowers us to reject those who seek to manipulate us.
The “divisive concepts” law is difficult to enforce. Being purposefully vague and ambiguous, its purpose is more focused on creating an atmosphere of intimidation and fear. Teachers are silenced by the threat of retribution for knowingly, or unknowingly, violating any of these ill-defined ideological points. The law allows for a broad scope of groundless accusations from a frightened public whose standard is perception, not fact, and whose actions of intimidation are sanctioned by public authorities.
The new online link on the N.H. Department of Education’s website, encouraging “informers” to identify teachers who are perceived as threats, empowers fear. The link allows state authorities to circumvent superintendents and principals and potentially end a teacher’s career by suspending their license. The effect, regardless of intent, is to vilify, harass and threaten teachers, undermine shared public spaces, while imposing the beliefs of the few through the power of the state. It is producing a chilling effect in our classrooms. New Hampshire Moms for Liberty is offering bounties to “catch” offending teachers.
“I definitely feel targeted,” one teacher told me. Others reveal the growing fear: “It was definitely chilling when Moms for Liberty put a ‘bounty’ on our heads.”
Some librarians feel the growing threat of violence from voices that wish to purge their libraries. The fear is palpable. I am reminded of Heinrich Heine’s warning, “Where they burn books [ideas], in the end will also burn human beings.” We must not ignore the troubling warning signs being signaled by this creep in fear and intimidation. We face an increasing risk of violence fueled by those embracing an exclusionary ideology, a distrust of democratic values and an exploitation of social fragmentation.
The escalating process of targeting teachers is an egregious betrayal that violates the charge of any public official to do no harm.
Luckily, we are not powerless. We can hold diverse and ambiguous thoughts and have healthy and heated discussions like those modeled in our public schools. We are a strong, resolute, generous and resilient people who find the courage to recognize our mistakes and realize that marginalizing people undermines our progress and promise. From the trials of the Civil War, we examined our past and added the 14th and 15th Amendments.
We do not need to be frightened by the past. We can identify our human prejudices and failings and recognize that we all have space to grow and build a better Republic. We can trust democracy and invest in the promise of public education by supporting our teachers and the important work that they do in modeling respectful, fact-based, learning. Fear of the past and surveillance of teachers reduces the possibilities for all of us to build a more perfect Union.