For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been talking about public education -in the U.S. overall, and Tennessee in particular. I addressed the fact that people have, for the last several years, been feeling free to treat teachers like garbage, to control their every move while taking away more and more of what they need to do their jobs, and generally using them as a political punching bag - as evidenced by the Hillsdale College guy’s incredibly insulting comments and the fact our governor, Bill Lee, sat quietly by while they were made and still has not said one word to condemn them.
Last week, I talked about the Founding Fathers’ support of public education - supported by taxes, NOT by charitable individuals, so that everyone has a stake in educating our children. I pointed out that public schools were well established in the North in the early 1800s but did not appear in the South until more than half-a-century later… and, ever since, the South has had a dismal record of investing in education. Or in education for everyone, anyhow.
Today, if you look at the numbers (money spent per student) in all 50 states, plus D.C., the bottom 10 are all “red” states. Tennessee is #49 of #51. That is about where we have always been. And yet our government blames everything on the teachers.
The Hillsdale fiasco MAY prevent Gov. Lee from fulfilling his dream of tax-supported charter schools, not answerable to state and federal education laws, sucking all the funds out of our public schools and punishing working class families… but that doesn’t change the fact our state legislature has already passed laws designed to prevent public school teachers from talking about uncomfortable “divisive concepts” like slavery, racism, the Trail of Tears, the Holocaust, and so forth. Well, technically, you can talk about them - you just can’t explain what they were, why they happened, or what the results were. Or say anything about anything that might make a student feel uncomfortable. The state legislature has even tried to extend that classroom control into our public universities and would have you believe they succeeded - but it was only a partial victory. The recently passed “divisive concepts” bill is going to have a huge impact on what college administrations can do so far as promoting diversity or training non-teaching staff but doesn’t reach as far as they wanted (or claimed).
The original bill had a long list of things professors were not allowed to talk about and requirements for them to be written up on a first offense and fired on a second if they did so. When it seemed this was almost surely going to pass, I looked into what was being done in other states and started making plans. I lined up support from multiple education and civil rights organizations around the state, and from professors all across Tennessee, to coordinate with the ACLU and sue the state the minute that law passed. It didn’t come to that, because literally a day or two before the final vote, some of the university lawyers were finally able to explain to the legislature that the courts guarantee academic freedom in higher education, that governments are not allowed to tell professors what topics they can discuss or how they do it when it is within that professor’s area of expertise and relevant to the class subject matter, and that they would successfully be sued if they tried (which is what is happening in other states). Right before the bill passed, all the language about restricting classroom activity and discussion was dropped from it. They are still counting, though, on college teachers being too scared to broach those topics now.
Well, I’m not scared to do my job and neither is any other teacher in White County or Tennessee that I know, liberal or conservative.
Why are politicians so scared to LET us?
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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