In Defense of Teaching the Left to Future Educators

A recent Pew Research Center poll suggests that a majority of conservatives believe colleges and universities “have a negative effect on the country.” The results of the poll are not particularly surprising since professors have long been criticized for their supposed liberal views, a claim recently reignited by the founding of Turning Point USA’s “Professor Watchlist.” Many current and past critiques of professors and teacher educators’ assumed political agendas have relied on syllabi and reading lists as evidence of liberal bias and indoctrination. However, these documents—usually just outlines to help students organize their semester—neither point to the ways in which leftist materials are used in the classroom, nor do they highlight the value of such texts.

Although I am not—currently—on this most recent watch list, I am among the many professors who assign liberal-leaning texts in my courses (although I use centrist and conservative materials as well). As a historian of education at Michigan’s premier teacher-preparation institution (with its origins as a normal school, Eastern Michigan University has the reputation in the state as the university to attend if one desires to become a teacher in the K-12 schools), it would be impossible to outline the contours of educational thought in the U.S. without reading, discussing, and debating the Left’s influence on schooling.

Using leftist texts is essential for understanding the history of American education and, by extension, the current educational climate. When studying educational trends in the Progressive Era, for instance, it is imperative to read the work of the liberal philosopher John Dewey, who had a tremendous impact on educational thought, and the socialist George Counts, whose ideas shook the world of education during the Great Depression. Additionally, the conservative educational reform movement that began in the 1980s was partially a reaction to the liberal educational thought that took root in the 1960s and 1970s. Thus, for a fuller understanding of the origins of today’s policy environment one must know something about the ideas of radical theorists like Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich and the alternative educational movements they inspired.

In addition to the historical context of educational policy, liberal texts posit alternative visions of the purposes of education, visions that go beyond the often-utilitarian justifications that characterize the educational discourse among current policymakers. Pre-service teachers are well acquainted with the today’s mainstream and conservative aims of education: preparing individuals for twenty-first-century careers, improving the United States’ economic competitiveness, etc. These mantras are regularly chanted by political leaders of all stripes whenever they are asked about their position on public schooling, and, as such, the ways they envision achieving those ends—testing, accountability, and choice—are incessantly given coverage in the media. What education students rarely read, however, is the view that education, especially public education, can be a means to fight oppression and prejudice and to foster a more caring and pluralistic democratic society. For example, that socialist George Counts argued in the 1930s that schools should help young people envision a more humane democracy—one that was not so mired in religious bigotry and racism—so that one day these future citizens would advocate for a more just society. Reading such views—those seldom given media coverage—imparts important lessons about the social purposes of schools and about how those institutions could be a partial antidote to the vitriol that is currently poisoning our democracy. Surely, alternatives to the very narrow purposes of education that currently hold the most political currency should be something to which future teachers are exposed.

This is not to suggest that job preparation and bolstering the U.S. economy are not important goals of education; they simply should not be the only goals. Therefore—as college professors are fond of saying—these aims need to be critically analyzed, as do the alternatives promoted in leftist texts. A thoughtful scrutiny of educational agendas brings to light the strengths and weaknesses of both the Right and the Left. Pre-service teachers need to learn how to analyze these competing visions of education because their profession and their classrooms will be impacted by them.

Despite the rhetoric of the various watch lists, I don’t know any professors who see their role as indoctrinating students in liberal worldviews. Rather their aim, as is mine, is to help cultivate knowledgeable professionals and thoughtful citizens, a goal that can only be accomplished by using a full range of ideas—including those on the Left—regardless of their unpopularity in the current political climate.