Conservative Education Critics Need Not Worry: Our School Curriculum & Textbooks Pose No Threat to the Status Quo

Photograph Source: Clemens v. Vogelsang – CC BY 2.0

Republicans are looking to bolster their electoral prospects by declaring war on “woke” teachers. President Trump warns against “indoctrinating America’s schoolchildren” with “toxic and anti-American theories,” and demands legislative and administrative changes designed to give children a “patriotic, pro-American education.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential hopeful, says teachers are “not trying to educate; they’re trying to indoctrinate,” and pledges “We’re not going to let that come to Florida.”

But Trump, DeSantis, and their supporters can rest easy.  While public school textbooks and curriculum do throw some sops to us leftist teacher-indoctrinators, they’re filled with all that’s necessary to perpetuate the status quo. These materials don’t lie, exactly, but they distort and omit. The problem often is not what they tell students, but what they don’t tell them.

If a fact undermines or threatens the case for America’s big business-dominated political and economic system, our materials will distort, minimize, or omit it. If a fact does not threaten the raison d’être of the system or is so commonly known that it cannot be credibly omitted, it will be included, sometimes in a sanitized form.

The most egregious and telling distortion in our textbooks is the diminution of the Labor Movement. When we begin the topic of labor in class, I tell my students:

My mother often had tears in her eyes when she told and retold me this story about her childhood during the Great Depression:

‘I remember men in suits coming to the back door of our apartment kitchen, knocking softly, then silently entering, sitting with heads down, quietly eating a meal my mother had prepared. Then they tipped their hats, softly thanked my mother, and left. These were well-dressed men, educated men, men who had had status, and there they were–begging for food at the table of an immigrant family whose sole provider was a truck driver without an education, my father.’

I explain to my students that my grandfather was an immigrant, like most of their parents, and ask them, “How is it that an immigrant was capable, during the worst economic crisis in our history, of giving charity to educated, native-born men?”

My high school juniors are stumped. Over and over they guess, and miss.

Finally, I explain that he was in a union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. It was the union that gave my grandfather the ability to provide a good life for his family.

I ask my students, most of whose parents work for minimum wage or close to it, “Would it make a difference to your parents if in their jobs they could be making two or three times the minimum wage, had free healthcare, a pension, and protection against getting fired or laid off?” At first the students struggle to imagine it, but they quickly understand the difference this would make in their lives.

I tell them about 1934, when major strikes rocked the US—the Teamsters in Minneapolis, the longshoremen in San Francisco, the auto workers in Toledo. Trade unions fought off police and company goons (“security”), forced the companies to recognize their unions, and at times even seized control of parts of cities.

In each battle, the unions were led by avowed socialists, strikers of various races fought side by side, and strikers were killed. These strike victories opened the way to larger ones in the late 1930s and created a path for millions of working class families to gain a middle class standard of living.

I hand our 11th grade US History textbook to a student and ask her to look up a few items: “Teamster”, “Longshoremen”, “Battle of Toledo”, “Battle of Deputies Run” (Minneapolis), “general strike”, and others.

The student is surprised that she cannot find any of them.

In our textbook, the rise of the power of labor unions is mostly attributed to the New Deal and the National Labor Relations Act (aka “Wagner Act”) of 1935.

I tell students about the Wagner Act and ask, “What is the significance of it being passed in 1935? Why then?”

Some of the students figure out what the textbook publisher won’t tell them—it was passed because of the strikes of the previous year. In the year after these mini-civil wars in the streets of three major American cities, the US government in effect legalized the unions and took most of the battles off of the streets and into the offices of the newly-formed National Labor Relations Board.

The textbook doesn’t mention the 1934 battles at all–only the pro-labor act passed in direct response to them. It’s as logical as crediting the end of slavery to the Emancipation Proclamation or the 13th Amendment without mentioning the Civil War. No Gettysburg, no Union Naval blockade strangling the South, no black soldiers joining the Union Army to fight for their people’s freedom, no Sherman’s March to the Sea—just gentlemen amicably agreeing to end 250 years of extremely profitable oppression.

Our textbook does contain some sterile mention of a handful of strikes, and the book even concedes “Not all labor disputes in the 1930s were peaceful.” However, it largely ignores the widespread street battles and police and company security thuggery, violence, and murder that often accompanied strikes.

I recall for my students my mother’s worry when my grandfather joined a truckers strike in Chicago, and how she and my grandmother sat anxiously in the apartment, watching the door hour after hour, hoping he would come home safely.

Even the one instance of anti-labor violence the textbook does mention, the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago, has a happy ending because “Shortly afterward, the National Labor Relations Board stepped in and required…Republic Steel…to negotiate with the union. This and other actions helped labor gain strength during the 1930s.”

The book spends almost as much time on big business’ challenges to the Wagner Act and the Supreme Court mulling the limits of the federal government’s use of the Commerce Clause as to the entire rise of organized labor in the 1930s.

To the textbook’s credit, it does give some recognition and sympathetic treatment to the Civil Rights, Feminist, Chicano, and Gay Rights Movements. Yet it shorts the Labor Movement, arguably the most impactful movement of all. Why?

The Labor Movement is the only movement that threatened big business’ control over the economy and working people’s livelihoods. Strikes endangered its profits. Plant occupations and sit-down strikes threatened America’s ultimate idol, property. The history of the Labor Movement–and particularly the central role “reds” played–is the last history the elite want American youth to learn.

Trump, DeSantis, and the many state legislatures and school boards taking action so schools will only produce Americans who think like they do need not fear our textbooks and official teaching materials. They certainly have their good moments, but they pose no threat to the established order.

In our schools, the only real questioning of our society’s power structure that is possible is created and inspired by teachers. Perhaps that’s why there are now so many attempts to muzzle us.

Glenn Sacks teaches social studies at James Monroe High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He was recently recognized by LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner for “exceptional levels of performance.”