Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Prescribed and proscribed values

Governments seem drawn like moths to flame by the fantasy that they can dictate to teachers what opinions they should hold and what ideas of the world they can teach. The controversies that ensue can be clarifying. It may seem that in the era of 24/7 internet-facilitated information glut such efforts would be inherently laughable. But they recur.

When I arrived at the University of California at Berkeley in 1965, the saga of faculty resistance to a McCarthy-era anti-Communist loyalty oath was still an iconic part of campus history. Many of the participants were senior faculty in the 1960s. When the oath had been introduced, some professors and more non-academic employees were fired for failing to sign; the faculty quite rapidly won a free speech judgment against the oath. The university governing board rescinded the rule. Ordinary employees were not so absolved however; to this day the California state constitution requires state workers who are US citizens to sign a loyalty oath as a condition of employment. In 2008 this was challenged by a Quaker who could not promise to use violence to support the state. The state cobbled a compromise. The most recent national litigation about a loyalty oath seems to have reached the Supreme Court in 1972; the Court agreed that Massachusetts could require an oath to "oppose the overthrow of the [government] by force, violence, or by any illegal or unconstitutional method." So existing precedent makes this sort of thing legal.

Apparently another round may be currently playing itself out in Nebraska. According to reporting by Sarah Lazare:

Dating back to 1951, the law requires "all persons engaged in teaching in the public schools of the State of Nebraska and all other employees paid from public school funds" to sign the pledge of loyalty. The oath includes the following language (emphasis added):

"I acknowledge it to be my duty to inculcate in the hearts and minds of all pupils in my care, so far as it is in my power to do, (1) an understanding of the United States Constitution and of the Constitution of Nebraska, (2) a knowledge of the history of the nation and of the sacrifices that have been made in order that it might achieve its present greatness, (3) a love and devotion to the policies and institutions that have made America the finest country in the world in which to live, and (4) opposition to all organizations and activities that would destroy our present form of government."

The local affiliate of the ACLU threatens a civil rights lawsuit if a school district enforcing a requirement that its employees sign this pledge doesn't back off. This will be worth watching. Do we currently have a civil liberties consensus in which courts would invalid such an oath? I'm not sure.

Interestingly, something like this is going on Great Britain as the acerbic Cambridge don Mary Beard discovered:

For various reasons, I was having a careful look yesterday at a secondary school's website and was surprised to discover that they had a whole section of their website devoted to the question of how they promoted British values. For those readers abroad, this clearly related to a government directive last year that all schools should do precisely that: promote Britishness. This apparently means the values of "democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs".

Now there are all kinds of obvious problems with this. For a start, it is hard to know what the government thought any teacher was supposed to do when confronted by the clever 13 year old who asked if the law-breaking suffragettes were promoting British values or not. And the idea that these values are peculiarly British causes one to gag a bit (one section of the government guidelines actually suggests that teachers should  get across "the strengths, advantages and disadvantages of democracy, and how democracy and the law works in Britain, in contrast to other forms of government in other countries". Like what "other countries"? France?

She goes on to report that a quick examination of other schools' websites shows that they've all sought compliance by posting the same verbiage. She doubts there is much real world effect of these boilerplate affirmations, except perhaps to burden police and fire departments with school visits.

I enjoyed Ms. Beard's response to her government's mandatory "values" boosterism. If we can't get rid of such initiatives legally (and I don't think either here or in Britain we can look to courts to do that job) we can perhaps mock them into the moth zapper. That seems worth the attempt.


Hattie said...

People who refused to sign could find shelter in community colleges and secondary schools. They may not have had great careers, but it was worth it to them to have a clear conscience. Not everyone would or could be so noble,and plenty of people were on board with it, the cold warriors. But most were just cynics.

Rain Trueax said...

Amazing and at one time, that would've meant supporting slavery, blocking women from voting, and then maintaining Jim Crow laws. I think people just don't think and if something 'sounds' good to them, they go along with it-- irregardless of where it leads.

I read today how the right wing, who are so supportive of the Constitution would like to amend or change the parts that don't suit them.

We truly are becoming a divided nation in a way that makes a person wonder where it all will end.

janinsanfran said...

Hattie: to my amazement, the California State oath is STILL required in the community colleges (probably state colleges as well.) I know this because at one point Erudite Partner was going to teach a course at a community college and up pops the requirement. The course fell through, so she never had to decide ...