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The Problem We’re Afraid to Name

In recent years, I’ve had to deal with parents much more frequently than I ever imagined I would have to as a college professor. One father even tried to blackmail me into giving his son easier work and higher grades so that he wouldn’t lose his football scholarship. I’m not alone: Many of my colleagues report hearing from parents more and more frequently in the past 10 years or so.

This is certainly a relatively recent phenomenon; when I was in college, my mother would no more have considered contacting my college professors to complain about my grades than she would have moved into a dormitory.

Many have noted that there is no more important an influence on a child’s intellectual development than parents or guardians, and every educator I know, from kindergarten to college, is thrilled when parents are enthusiastic. But there are other parents whose idea of educational support for their children involves attacking the teacher or professor (literally, in one recent Kansas City incident), pulling their children out of school, or exerting extreme pressure on school boards to conform to one particular belief system.

That pattern then shows up at the college level, where students are so used to Mommy and Daddy holding their hands through their education that they founder when forced to stand on their own. Worse still, many parents indoctrinate their children with such a narrow set of beliefs that when they enroll in college courses, they lack necessary critical-thinking skills and respond aggressively to any idea that deviates from what they’ve been taught at home.

I call this “The Problem We’re Afraid to Name” because educators and administrators are so afraid of the power of parents and other critics that they won’t deal with the problem that ideologically aggressive parents create in their schools and colleges, and the ways that such parenting can actually set students up for failure once they are on their own. Teachers are afraid that they will lose their jobs, be sued, etc. if they so much as breathe a word of criticism against parents. That creates an oppressive atmosphere in which real dialogue about the role of parents in education is fraught with tension and fear.

Is this solely attributable to changes in parenting philosophies in the past few decades? I think not. There’s more going on here than the rise of aggressive helicopter parenting. At root, our society’s current anti-intellectualism means that parents, politicians, and reformers think that they know more than trained educators and experienced classroom instructors, and feel completely qualified to make curriculum changes, press for new grading and assessment techniques, and try to shape education so that it suits their own needs and desires for their children, regardless of their own background, training, or area of expertise—or for what might be good for the children of other parents.

Anti-intellectualism and ideological dogmatism in the guise of parental involvement is a significant concern in education today, and parents and other noneducators have lately stepped way out of line in their pursuit of more control over the education systems in this country. The most recent obvious example of the phenomenon is the debacle in North Carolina in September, when a Randolph County school board voted to ban Ralph Ellison’s landmark novel Invisible Man following a 12-page diatribe against the book by Kimiyutta Parson, the mother of an 11th grader (who referred to high-school students as “young children” in her letter).

Parson objected to, among other things, the sexual content of the novel, which I find amusing considering that in recent years the teen birth rate in Randolph County, N.C., was almost twice the national average, with teen pregnancy accounting for 60 to 80 per 1,000 births. Something tells me that the teenagers in that county have more than a passing familiarity with sexual themes, and don’t need to read Invisible Man for tips.

What I do not find amusing, however, is that a single parent and unqualified board members felt that they could pass judgment on literature without any significant experience in literary criticism, curriculum development, or, even, apparently, basic critical thinking. For example, one board member, Gary Mason, said that he could not find any “literary value” in the text. I have scoured the journals and the Internet, but I can find no record of Gary Mason’s credentials as a literary critic. He’s certainly entitled to his opinion, but should uninformed opinion be the basis of public-education policy? Absolutely not—unless you think it’s OK for someone who has opinions on medical care but no education or training in it to conduct delicate brain surgery.

Such interference in elementary and secondary education is a crucial issue for college instructors because we rely on a successful and well-managed public-education system to prepare students for higher education. I need my students to have a certain background—to be exposed to such challenging material as Invisible Man, for example—before they reach college, so that I can actually teach at the college level.

But when students are not allowed to read, explore, and engage with different kinds of course content due to the ideological, anti-intellectual practices of many parents and school districts, they arrive unprepared for and unable to succeed in college courses. We should not wonder why so many students struggle in college. They are simply not intellectually prepared.

Certainly anti-intellectualism is nothing new in American life. Richard Hofstadter noted this as far back as 1963 in his Pulitzer Prize-winning study Anti-intellectualism in American Life. Susan Jacoby’s more recent examination, The Age of American Unreason (2008), asserted that the nation’s current “strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism” is damaging our democratic process and cultural development. In its review of Jacoby’s work, The New York Times noted that “conservatives have turned the term ‘intellectual,’ like the term ‘liberal,’ into a dirty word in politics.”

Sadly, this anti-intellectualism has made our culture abandon the respect it once had for educators. It has also created a generation of college students who shrink from real intellectual engagement, who are so influenced by our current partisan culture that any significant opportunities for rigorous and honest classroom debate are rapidly disappearing. In fact, it’s not uncommon for today’s college students to mirror their parents’ disdain for college professors; for example, after failing an examination, a student once told me, “Just because you have a Ph.D. doesn’t mean you know more about American history than I do.”

I was sad for that student because he was missing out on the opportunity to learn more, and more different things, to add to his own knowledge. This is the most heartbreaking result of the current influence of social and cultural anti-intellectualism in education: It is creating missed opportunities for students.

As a professor, I believe we must now fight to recapture that respect, to take back the classroom. This may mean going against parents, something educators at every level are afraid to do. The alternative—to do nothing—will risk the future of education in even worse ways than today’s reformers fear.

Jill Silos-Rooney is an assistant professor of history at Massachusetts Bay Community College.

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