Fears like these have filtered through public schools across the country for more than a century. But calls for teacher control are fabricated political myths to animate voters and preserve the bureaucratic and inequitable status quo. In reality, teachers in American public schools have neither the kind of tenure protection that critics fear nor academic freedom.
As early as the 1880s, teachers in municipally supported public school systems began to lobby for mandate. This female-dominated body of workers was fired without cause and they had to reapply every year. In this first vision, all teachers wanted was stability and due process. Even so, school leaders denounced the proposal as absurd. Baltimore’s education commissioner called teachers “stupid” and a Massachusetts district superintendent argued that the instability teachers faced worked as a “helpful spur that helps them stay in the zeitgeist”.
By the end of the 19th century, however, educational policy makers began to view the issue differently. School systems were expanding. Not only were districts rehiring teachers every year, but high teacher turnover rates meant they were locked in a constant cycle of recruitment and training. Seen in this light, tenure represented a path to bureaucratic efficiency and stability.
Within a decade, tenure became widespread, but it did not imply academic freedom. Rather, in most places it simply meant that teachers could not be fired without cause and deserved due process. Even with this new protection, teachers continued to lose their jobs for a variety of reasons, including getting married, having children, disagreeing with supervisors, pushing for social justice, and teaching divisive subjects.
In 1915, the American Association of University Teachers adopted its “Statement of Principles” in which the organization argued that tenure and academic freedom were essential to the ability of professors to “properly render [their] distinctive and indispensable service to society. Leaders of the new American Federation of Teachers hoped that this framework would also apply to public school teachers, but they immediately encountered resistance.
In the fall of 1917, the New York City Public Schools fired three teachers for “holding views subversive of school discipline and undermining good citizenship.” A teacher had been assigned the task of writing a letter to President Woodrow Wilson, but failed to rebuke a student who used the essay to vent his frustration, telling the president, “You’re ready to slaughter us all.” Another teacher also decided to remain neutral during a heated classroom conversation among students about the “merits of anarchism”, and the other handed out a dubious reading list.
Union leaders pushed back, arguing that teachers had the academic freedom to run their classes as they saw fit. They raised more than $10,000 to defend teachers and invested years in the fight, but school leaders remained skeptical and demanded that teachers “continue to teach obedience to authority”.
Loyalty oaths became common practice, and teachers across the country faced circumstances similar to those that had cost teachers in New York their jobs.
But in the 1930s, critics began to question whether the associated costs were too high. An investigation by the National Education Association’s committee on academic freedom found that the repressive and frightening climate in schools may be driving teachers out of fear. In 1949, a committee of leading educators, including General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served as president of Columbia University, issued a report stating, “State laws requiring special oaths for teachers or establishing detailed prescriptions for the school. curriculum … undermine an important guarantee of freedom in education. The committee called on the public to “resist exaggerated fears which tend to rise in times of heightened tension”.
Local leaders ignored this warning. A few years later, 180 New York teachers found themselves under investigation as part of a campaign to purge communists from schools.
Concerns about teachers’ unbridled academic freedom not only stemmed from fears about their loyalty to the country, they also stemmed from doubts about teachers’ loyalty to the public school system. In 1959, James Worley, a longtime teacher who served as head of the English department at his school in Westchester County, New York, was fired for insubordination when he refused to file blueprints. course with its administrator. For Worley, the surveillance undermined his professional authority and academic freedom. His superiors cared about neither. In its dismissal report, the board wrote that “a teacher must recognize and respect the balance between administrative authority and teacher freedom.”
The situation was even more serious for black teachers in the country. Throughout the South, teachers of color fought for racial justice through equal pay and inclusive education.
Howard Pindell taught public schools in Anne Arundel County, Maryland for five years and had earned tenure privileges. Yet when he lobbied for a higher salary in 1938, he was transferred to another district without a warrant and fired. In South Carolina, 12 veteran teachers of color – all with the highest levels of certification – were fired before the start of the 1954 school year because they had signed a school improvement petition, refused to sign a petition in favor of school segregation, and had parents who were actively involved in the NAACP. In 1956, 17 other black teachers were fired in South Carolina because they refused to sign a pledge detailing their affiliation and views on the NAACP. Time and again, black teachers who have fought for and taught racial justice have been demoted, transferred, and fired without recourse in the name of mastering what white school leaders have defined as self-reliance and dangerous academic freedom.
Critics have long viewed public school teachers as the problem plaguing schools nationwide and the path to improvement. This formulation has driven changes to the American education system in the 21st century, as fears over academic freedom and tenure have accelerated the standardization and restriction of school curricula and efforts to roll back job protections. teachers.
But in reality, public school teachers across the country have never had academic freedom, even though the fear they might have has been historically persistent. These circumstances led to the burnout of teachers of all races and made it more difficult for teachers of color to enter and stay in schools. While we are facing a severe shortage of teachers, this is no small problem.
But perhaps even more important are the consequences for American society. By preventing teachers from guiding students in debate and critical inquiry and preventing them from educating them about social justice, we have weakened the fundamental elements of American democracy. Indeed, the fear of what might happen if children encounter difficult subjects may well date back to generations of adults who were never taught to do just that.
This essay is the seventh in the Freedom to Learn series sponsored by PEN America, providing historical context to the controversies surrounding free expression in education today.