Four answers to “Should teaching be political?”

[This one sort of ran away from me. It started with just taking some notes about the historical sources and kind of just exploded from there. This all is very provisional for me. I don’t trust the commentary. Mostly you should read it for the sources cited. OK, caveat lector etc.]


George Counts was a fire-breathing advocate for using school to influence students’ political views. Specifically, Counts comes down in favor of the political indoctrination of students:

You will say, no doubt, that I am flirting with the idea of indoctrination. And my answer is again in the affirmative. Or, at least, I should say that the word does not frighten me. We may all rest assured that the younger generation in any society will be thoroughly imposed upon by its elders and by the culture into which it is born. For the school to work in a somewhat different direction with all the power at its disposal could do no great harm. At the most, unless the superiority of its outlook is unquestioned, it can serve as a counterpoise to check and challenge the power of less enlightened or more selfish purposes.

This is from Counts’ 1932 talk, “Dare Progressive Education Be Progressive?” It was delivered in front of the Progressive Education Association, and caused quite a stir:

The challenge of Dr. Counts was easily the high point of the program. Following the dinner meeting at which he spoke, small groups gathered in lobbies and private rooms to discuss, until far into the night, the issues raised in Dr. Counts’ sharp challenge. These discussions were marked by a general willingness to accept the viewpoint of Dr. Counts that the schools have a real responsibility for effective social change. There was, however, a considerable difference of opinion as to how this was to accomplished. The method of indoctrination, advocated by Dr. Counts, was widely questioned.

I took this quote from Richard Niece and Karen Viechnicki’s very interesting article on Counts’ talk. They cite many contemporary educators’ reactions to Counts’ talk. They ran the gamut, from complete agreement to shock at his frank talk of power and imposition on the child. For his progressive audience, it was the talk of indoctrination of the child — as opposed to commitment to the child’s own natural flourishing — which was truly shocking. Counts was trying to steer his audience away from children and towards socialism.

Niece and Viechnicki think that Counts’ speech split the progressive movement in a way that ultimately led to its dissolution. “The chasm between child-centered supporters and social welfare advocates became too vast to bridge.”

In 1935, three of Counts’ talks — including his live-wire PEA lecture — were reprinted as Dare the School Build a New Social Order? Intriguingly, the section on indoctrination was rewritten to include an anecdote about Counts’ discussion with the Commisar of the Soviet school system:

The advocates of extreme freedom have been so successful in championing what they call the rights of the child that even the most skillful practitioners of the art of converting others to their opinions disclaim all intention of molding the learner. And when the word indoctrination is coupled with education there is scarcely one among us possessing the hardihood to refuse to be horrified. This feeling is so widespread that even Mr. Luncharsky, Commissar of Education in the Russian Republic until 1929, assured me on one occasion that the Soviet educational leaders do not believe in the indoctrination of children in the ideas and principles of communism. When I asked him whether their children become good communists while attending the schools, he replied that the great majority do. On seeking from him an explanation of this remarkable phenomenon he said that Soviet teachers merely tell their children the truth about human history. As a consequence, so he asserted, practically all of the more intelligent boys and girls adopt the philosophy of communism. I recall also that the Methodist sect in which I was reared always confined its teachings to the truth!

Counts is just absolutely delicious in the way he stares power in the face. He’s just so quotable:

That the teachers should deliberately reach for power and then make the most of their conquest is my firm conviction…In doing this they should resort to no subterfuge or false modesty. They should say neither that they are merely teaching the truth nor that they are unwilling to wield power in their own right. The first position is false and the second is a confession of incompetence. It is my observation that the men and women who have affected the course of human events are those who have not hesitated to use the power that has come to them.

People just don’t talk like that anymore, unless they’re part of antifa or something. It’s a blast.


Is Counts right? He is absolutely insistent that teaching involves imposition and indoctrination. Another juicy quote:

There is the fallacy that the school should be impartial in its emphases, that no bias should be given instruction. We have already observed how the individual is inevitably molded by the culture into which he is born. In the case of the school a similar process operates and presumably is subject to a degree of conscious direction. My thesis is that complete impartiality is utterly impossible, that the school must shape attitudes, develop tastes, and even impose ideas.

I think it’s clear that Counts, at some level, is right. School is an imposition; teaching is an imposition. So is parenting.

But there are impositions, and there are impositions. Counts correctly notes that all education is an imposition on a child. Then he says teachers should unilaterally take control of the curriculum and train children in the truths of socialism in the hopes of creating a class of socialist revolutionaries. Woah, Counts!

“Any time you watch a TV show it changes your mood, how you think,” George Counts might’ve said, “so the question isn’t whether or not to use TV for mind control but how.” George Counts is the sort of fellow responsible for Facebook’s emotion control experiment. He’s really into controlling people, but then again he’d be happy to tell you that himself.

It’s true: all education is an imposition on the student, parents and communities, but should we or should we not try to minimize this imposition? That’s the question that George Counts doesn’t ask.

Personally, I like to think of our education system in terms of tensions and equilibria. It’s not a question of the amount of imposition but the direction of those impositions. Some parts of society want us to impose professional training on children. Others want political training. We also want to use our powers of imposition to impose a safe environment, where kids are happy and safe.

And I think this is more-or-less how schools should be. They should be places that find points of balance between the competing needs of students and communities. At school, we use our powers of imposition towards contradictory ends so that a broad range of students can get something out of these institutions.

It’s true — there’s no neutrality in school — but we shouldn’t mistake the slurry, messy non-neutrality of schools for an institution with a particular aim and purpose. Counts’ vision would be a disaster for public education, I have no doubt.


W.E.B. Du Bois was not a fan of George Counts’ take on education. In a 1935 address to black teachers in Georgia — a few things I’ve read say that he was addressing the Counts controversy in this talk, but I can’t see where exactly — he began by deemphasizing the ability of schools to effect direct social change. “The public school,” he says, “is an institution for certain definite ends. It is not an institution intended or adapted to settle social problems of every kind.”

Du Bois, however, was a big believer in the ability of knowledge to erode social barriers, eventually:

Now, of course, indirectly, and in the long run, all men must believe that human wrong is going to be greatly ameliorated by a spread of intelligence; that the spread of such intelligence beyond the confines of a narrow aristocracy and the pale of race, down to the masses of men, is going to open great and inexhaustible reservoirs of ability and genius. But, mind you, this intelligence is the essential and inescapable step between the school and the social program, which cannot be omitted without disaster. The school cannot attack social problems directly. It can and must attack them indirectly by training intelligent men, and these intelligent men through social institutions other than the school will work for a better organization of industry, a juster distribution of income, a saner treatment of crime, a more effective prevention of disease, a higher and more beautiful ideal of life without race, prejudice and war.

Du Bois goes on to criticize the ability of progressive education trends — “new methods of teaching” — to address the needs of black children. Du Bois takes aim at the entire progressive education enterprise, preferring a sort of early version of the “back to basics” approach:

What we need, then, and what the public school, college and university must supply, is intelligence concerning history, natural science and economics; and the essential key to this intelligence is a thorough, long-disciplined knowledge of the three “R’s.” To assume that instead of this, and be allowing the curriculum of the public school to encroach upon thorough work in reading, writing and arithmetic, we can cure the ills of the present depression by training children directly as artisans, workers and farmers without making them intelligent men, is absolutely false.

Du Bois, though, is clear that this sort of training can’t possibly help the impoverished and oppressed break through all on its own. School can educate, but the rest of the work happens outside the institution.

There’s a fascinating moment when Du Bois talks about his disappointment of his daughter’s education in a progressive school:

My daughter attended as a child a first-class kindergarten and a progressive grade school. But there was so much to study and to do, so much education rampant, that when she went to a real school and entered the fifth grade, she had to stop everything and learn the multiplication table. The learning of the multiplication table cannot be done by inspiration or exortation. It is a matter of blunt, hard, exercise of memory, done so repeatedly and for so many years, that it becomes second nature so that it cannot be forgotten.

I remember a parent-teacher conference with the mother of a student of mine who was black. I couldn’t tell if she was particularly concerned about my class, but she was very clear about her concerns: “My son is a black boy, and he’s going to leave school a black man in a society where it’s not easy to be that. I want to make sure his math won’t hold him back.” I hear that parental concern in Du Bois.

Du Bois, like Counts, is just so direct and quotable. (“The pressure upon Negroes is to increase our income. That is the main and central Negro problem.”) They also shared a love of communism. (Du Bois would suffer terribly at the hands of McCarthyism, an episode I know basically nothing about.)

While reading Du Bois’ address, I found myself thinking of James Baldwin’s remarkable Talk to Teachers, and Baldwin’s closing message:

Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them –  I would try to make them know – that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal.  I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him.  I would teach him that if he intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that his is stronger than this conspiracy and they he must never make his peace with it.  And that one of his weapons for refusing to make his peace with it and for destroying it depends on what he decides he is worth.

Du Bois would probably have little patience for this project, and he’d probably also take issue with Baldwin’s characterization of the purpose of schooling:

The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not.  To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.

This comes much closer to Counts’ progressive view on the role of school, but Baldwin has no interest in indoctrination. He is interested in self-sufficiency, the ability to decide. Baldwin just wants school to tell the truth about the world, so that students don’t blindly make their choices.

I do think that something like a mish-mash of Baldwin and Du Bois is possible in our schools today. Baldwin was not a teacher, and (as far as I know) didn’t have any concrete views on curriculum, not like Counts did. Where do those lessons about America come? How are they learned? Is Baldwin talking about the curriculum, skills and knowledge, or is he talking about the space between all that stuff?

So much happens in the empty space of school. Kids are formed by the ephemeral qualities of school just because school is where they are for (if all goes well) more than a decade of their lives — everyone’s influenced by their environments, no? Kids will make friends, find adults to admire and despise, and learn a way of moving through their world. Kids really do take something from all that other stuff when they leave — though what any particular student takes with them may vary. Tricky, maybe impossible to engineer, yes, but there are chances in school to help children really understand their place in the world, and we shouldn’t lie.


Eric Gutstein is a professor of math education at University of Illinois. Following Paulo Freire, he talks about math education for reading and writing the world. In other words, math education should help you understand social injustices and also lead to you battling them.

Gutstein’s pedagogy is nicely encapsulated in his article Teaching and Learning Mathematics for Social JusticeThe piece is his account of the two years he spent teaching social justice math at an “urban, Latino high school.” His approach is a version of real-world math, and he is a big believer that engagement with personally relevant mathematics leads to better learning and more positive feelings about math.

Much to discuss in Gustein’s work. I’m interested, mostly, in the Counts’ question: are we OK with indoctrination?

There is no clear and direct statement, ala Counts. We do get a very measured statement that seems to address the concern of imposition of political views:

I did not try to have my students answer questions so much as raise them. Questions such as why females, students of color, and low-income students score lower on SAT and ACT exams are not easily answerable–and students did raise that question in one of our projects…And I did not want my students to accept any view without questioning it. I did share my own opinions with my students because I agreed with Freire’s contention that progressive educators need to take the responsibility to dispel the notion that education can be the inactive transfer of inert knowledge and instead to promote the idea that all practice (including teaching) is inherently political I take Freire to mean that educators need to be explicit in their views while at the same time to respect the space of others to develop their own.

There is a lot of “yes, but…” going on here. Yes, I share my political views with my students, but I don’t ask them to accept them on my authority. Yes, I show my students examples of social injustice, but I don’t offer simplistic answers. (Though Gutstein in his paper describes prompting his students to explain why they thought a given injustice arose.  I think that this inevitably supports students in forming definite answers to the questions he raises.) For Gutstein, we are to be explicit in our political views and design math lessons around them, but we are to also give students space to develop their own views. (Where?)

Counts might have caused a fissure in progressive education by placing a wedge between child-centered and social justice progressives; Gutstein represents an attempt to reconcile these forces in his own pedagogy. For that matter, it aims to satisfy Du Bois by claiming rigor and mathematical sophistication for his students, and Baldwin too by aiming for student independence in deciding what to believe, as long as they’re armed with the truth.

And what would Counts say? I imagine this would bother him. After all, how can you claim that you’re leaving room for students to develop their own views when you’re hand-picking topics to support your political views? (Counts on curriculum: “the dice must always be weighted in favor of this or that.”) He would see in Gutstein a contradiction, an attempt to erase himself from the role of political influencer even though he totally echoes Counts’ line in saying teaching is inherently political.

If teaching is inherently political, then why not own up to the attempt to politically influence your students? Own up, man!

For better or for worse, though, we aren’t living in the 1930s. (Come to think of it — of course it’s better that we aren’t living in the 1930s.) Back in those days communism was a semi-respectable political view, fascism wasn’t funny, an educator like Counts could earnestly go around talking about power grabs, and everyone had the distinct feeling that the world was about to fall apart at the seams — they were correct. School was up for grabs, along with everything else, and advocates for social reform wanted a piece.

This is not the world we live in now. We’ve been through the 20th century. Schools are now places of compromise, as reflected in Gutstein’s rhetoric. George Counts, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin all tug at school, along with like seven other totally different tuggers.

And because of all this — because schools are places of compromise, and because they should be — I am generally not excited by teachers trying to help their students come to take one side in a political controversy.

It’s not that I want politics out of schools. There’s no reason for that, and politics is part of the story that we need to tell — Baldwin is right. Du Bois is also right: schools have enough trouble teaching the curriculum, and can only create social change indirectly, by educating students who go on to create institutions for good.

Counts, however, is wrong, and to the extent Gutstein echoes him I think he is wrong as well. True: there’s nothing “natural” or apolitical about education. But I think we do our best job when schools accurately reflect the incompatible desires our society places on schools, rather than taking a particular social desire and running with it. So while schools will never be politically neutral, I think in our lessons we should try.

23 thoughts on “Four answers to “Should teaching be political?”

  1. I mostly agree with you, but I lean towards a more assertive stance:

    – What teachers do outside the classroom matters — I committed civil disobedience a few times, to protest the Iraq wars, and to support Palestinian rights. I made sure everyone at school knew about it. If that is deemed to be indoctrination, so be it.

    – In the classroom, when choosing data to discuss and analyze, the choices are very political. One student who took my stats class was shocked when she found out who votes and who doesn’t vote. Obviously more went into her decision later (as an adult) to organize voter registration drives, but if my choice of data influenced her, I’m happy about that. I’m personally not super-interested in “real world” contexts to teach math, but I support those teachers who go the extra mile to look for politically important data. (For example, someone should create a middle school / high school unit on gerrymandering!)

    – When a student makes a racist or sexist or homophobic comment, letting it pass is not an option.

    – Addressing issues of status within the classroom is political, and is entirely within our job description.

    All this to say, you’re right that this is complicated. But the fact it’s complicated does not absolve us from responsibility.

    — Henri

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Fabulous. I appreciate you sharing your opinion, too, as it would have been easier just to leave the questions on the table.

    I agree about rejecting Counts, although my younger self is shouting at me from about 20 years ago. Gutstein, though… that’s probably pretty close to my own practice, though I was not as intentional in constructing it. Food for reflection, so thanks.

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    1. I’d be curious to know what you think about Counts vs. Gutstein. A lot of people I talk to say that they reject Counts instrumentally — they just don’t think that indoctrination is an effective way to think about influencing their students politically.

      But if we reject Counts because we think schools should show some political restraint, then why should Gutstein get a pass? Everyone agrees that picking and choosing what data to show your students is a means of influencing them — it IS an attempt to politically impose on our students.

      I’m not sure if this is strictly in response to your comment, but here’s an addendum to the post:

      As I’ve been talking to people today about this post, it seems to me that pretty much everybody makes a distinction between (a) reasonably controversial issues and (b) unreasonably controversial issues. This is natural, right? Racism, in general, is clearly bad and impactful, and to the extent that it’s controversial it’s not reasonably so. So why be neutral?

      And I think I believe in that distinction myself, so that adds some nuance to my conclusion. It doesn’t matter whether something is politically controversial or not — once you’re really, really, really sure that it’s right or wrong, there are only instrumental reasons to show neutrality. (This is a natural opportunity to bring up Nazis. No, you should not be neutral about Nazis.)

      I want school to be a place where you’re not made to feel less-than because of your political views, and I think a certain amount of political neutrality from teachers is good for that. But, I admit, this is not such an uncommon view, and most of the action seems to be in deciding when something has gone “too far” and you really need to speak up and act.


      1. Part of my difficulty with the current political situation is that as a young radical, it took me unreasonably long to understand that there were conservatives (Reagan era) with good intentions and reasonable beliefs. Finally having gotten there, I think the current president violates the principle by being someone actively pursuing policies to manipulate, to accumulate power, and to benefit a select group.

        Maybe that’s the exercise about distinguishing controversial issues.

        For myself I wonder if the ways in which I default to a Gutstein-like classroom are because I am personally non-confrontational, or because I am truly working on creating a positive culture for my learners. I want math class to be a place where tough things can be discussed because learning how to responsibly and respectfully argue is part of math culture, and the application of reason to non-mathematical objects is one of the main reasons for teaching math in the first place, along with problem solving, which is also relevant here. That said, DuBois caution is a good hedge keeping us from wandering too far from mathematical content.

        What I like about Gutstein philosophically is that his position acknowledges we are teaching values, whether explicitly or implicitly. Avoiding questions of political sensitivity and cultural import is saying something to our learners. The hypothetical criticism you raise for Counts against Gutstein, isn’t your selection of issues predetermining what students will come to think, assumes that the students have no voice in the questions that get raised. If they are discussing the issues that matter to them, then it is okay for the teacher to support inquiry and maybe model their own process.

        So much to think about here!

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      2. And I don’t understand the notion that some topics are OK because the teacher is really really sure it’s right or wrong. Seems all topics are appropriate for a democratic citizenry to debate. Some will fall flat because the collection of people see no controversy — but that is a decision to be made by the collective, not the tyrant.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. @Brian:

        I reject Counts not because I dispute that all education is indoctrination. I mean, I wouldn’t put it like that, but I see what he means. My issue is that he goes from 1 to 11, very quickly. Sure, there’s a sense in which all education is indoctrination. But that just raises more questions: what sort of indoctrination is OK? What kind isn’t? Is *all* indoctrination permitted just because, sure, all education is a kind of indoctrination?

        It’s not hard to imagine Evil George Counts. Evil George Counts points out that, yes, all parenting involves some sort of coercion (a kid doesn’t get to choose to run into the street). Therefore, a parent shouldn’t shy away from ANY form of coercion. Evil George Counts goes around encouraging parents to lock their kids up in a pit and to beat them for wrongdoings.

        (Another analogy I like that I saw from someone else: Sure, all food contains sugar, but that doesn’t mean you should go around eating cake all day.)

        So Evil George Counts is wrong because the fact that parenting is coercion in one sense doesn’t permit coercion in any sense. Likewise, the fact that teaching is political in one sense doesn’t mean it should be political in any sense. And, contra Counts, the fact that it’s indoctrination in some sense doesn’t mean that all is permitted.

        (The most charitable way to read Counts is that his defense of indoctrination is limited to those who would use the “indoctrination” label to reject his ideas out of hand. “Just because it’s indoctrination doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” he’d say. And, under this charitable read, he’d then go and explain the difference between good indoctrination and bad indoctrination. I’d take no issue with that project, and I’d really like if people who espouse “all teaching is political” would dig in a bit. Surely not ANY political activity is justified in school, so say more: what sort of political activity in schools would you support? what would you not? why? etc.)


  3. Thanks for this post, Michael. Once again, thought provoking.

    When I see thoughts about introducing, or understanding how to and/or if we should, deal with social justice issues in the math classroom as easy 1, 2, 3 step procedures/”we just need to” ideas, it indicates to me of a lack of understanding the complexity and subjectivity of how philosophical stances can, and do, fall prey to our own logical biases and cognitive distortions. We are emotional beings. We have histories, as well as cultural and environmental influences, We can not forget this.

    I am NOT suggesting an idea of blind acceptance and tolerance. That leads to chaos, is dangerous, and is not sustainable, as history has proven over and over again. What I am suggesting is that it is important to listen to all views…even views that are tyrannical. What? Yes! Why? If we don’t seek to understand why an individual, or group, thinks and reasons the way they do, we will never be able to address (even attack) the underlying falsehoods. It is also important to note that, in fact, we may not have all the relevant information we need, or we fail to acknowledge the entirety of a situation, in order TO address the danger and falsehoods.

    I absolutely agree with Henri about not letting comments pass and that addressing issues of status IS part of our responsibility as teachers inside the classroom. To not speak up is to be complicit. But, I do not believe it is my place to persuade/indoctrinate my students to my way of thinking. Rather it is my responsibility to teach them to reason and come to their own conclusions.

    This holds for purely mathematical contexts (e.g., determining which procedure/method to use), as well as views and opinions related to politics, religion, etc. The globalization of our world requires more of teaching than simply procedures for solving numerical problems devoid of context. However, we STILL need to teach students about tools we can use, and how to use the tools of mathematics, so that they CAN use them in ANY context.

    Ok…that’s all opinion. Let’s look at a real world example. I detest everything about slavery. I hate that our founding fathers were slave holders. I can not change that history. We could write numerous blogs about the various racial, cultural, religious, and gender groups who also suffered from issues related to power and prejudice. I can’t change those histories either. Still, I detest that today our country is gripped with the effects of bias and hatred towards these various groups. We can’t change history, but we CAN present a holistic view of those histories (and current situations) to hopefully change the course of our current lived out histories in this moment in time. Where I am cautious and concerned is what I sometimes see now as a one-sided view: all the ills of our country are due to “whiteness” or “white patriarchy.” It IS a logical, and I’d argue necessary, pushback to the one-sided view that dominated, and dominates, the “narrative” – to be sure. But, it is simply false, or at the very least, not true in it’s simplistic, reductionist, presentation.

    How so? Two examples: There are several religious groups, for example, predominately “non-white,” that promoted and still promote patriarchy. And, slaves were captured and sold by fellow countrymen; and still are today in the sex-trade industry. I listened to a Rubin Report last week with a guest speaker who promotes “sex work” freedom; believing that sex for hire should be legalized. Whatever you think about that in terms of freedom of rights, you can not hold this view if you do not consider that a large number of young women and men are forced into sexual bondage. This is NOT a “white patriarchy” evil. This happens across countries.

    Does this mean I don’t believe white patriarchy exists, or that the effects of that are an illusion. Absolutely not. They are real. Where I become concerned is that I see this almost demonization of whiteness, in particular toward men, that is not entirely valid: i.e. not all white men are racist pigs. I am married to a white male who has worked his entire life to promote freedom of expression, rights of the individual, sanctity of the human. I have two adult white sons who have done the same. But what I see is that my sons have this sort of guilt for being born white. They had no control of where they were born, or by whom. They both chose professions, and outside advocacy, to help overcome injustices. So, ok, maybe I’m pushing back and being defensive. But, that is the point. We must proceed with caution when we decide to take up issues of social justice and present the holistic story…as best we can given our human limitations.

    What on earth does this have to do with mathematics? I again point out that I believe we need to teach students the tools of mathematics (including logic and reason), so that they have them at their disposal for current and future problems. If a teacher wants to frame that with current events, do it…in balance. How to do that in the early primary grades? I wrestle with this a great deal. We need to have open discussions about this.

    But…as a start, the “easier” part is simply to acknowledge the imbalance of logistical things like amount of time spent with each student/student groups, vocabulary in word problems, balance of whose voice is present (teacher vs student). Those involve self reflection of our own power agendas. I am not sure were are even close to this level of solution, much less the bigger issues of embedding current political/ethical discourse.

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    1. Where I become concerned is that I see this almost demonization of whiteness, in particular toward men, that is not entirely valid: i.e. not all white men are racist pigs

      This isn’t strictly about what I was writing about in this post. Still, it’s interesting, and here’s what I think is going on as far as demonization of whiteness goes:

      (1) If I wanted to criticize Google for killing RSS (it still stings, Google) then I might say “Google, you suck.” If I wanted to reach for rhetorical power, I might shift my language to point to the individuals: “Googlers, you suck.”

      “White men are responsible for police brutality” is a similar statement. Supposing that police brutality is a legacy of slavery (what do I know, but I think it is) then it really is true that white men, as a group existing over time, are responsible for police brutality. For rhetorical power, we talk of white men as individuals.

      But there’s another thing too, which is…

      (2) Whiteness is a total lie, and its invention entirely correlates with the need to justify slavery. Whiteness *should* be demonized. It’s evil.

      “Men” is different. Men have been around forever. Even if maleness, as a gender identity in its current form, is a recent construction, there really is such a thing as being a man or a woman. It’s real, and not totally evil to be a man. (I’m aware the idea that there really is something real about gender is sort of controversial among some on the left.)

      I’m a lot of things. I’m Jewish, I’m American, I’m a father, a husband — consequently, a man — I’m a writer, a reader, a lover of math, a teacher. These are all identities that have something going for them. They’re not totally evil.

      I don’t know what it means to identify as “White” in a non-evil way.

      This isn’t to say that we should pretend that society doesn’t recognize us as white/not. That would be play-acting, given the world we live in. And I don’t think we should hate ourselves — Baldwin would be the first to tell you that White people need to learn to love themselves, before that nothing can happen. But I do think we have to recognize that Whiteness has always either been a non-identity or else a seriously evil one. We shouldn’t hate ourselves, but it seems to me entirely appropriate to hate whiteness, to hate the White community, if such a community exists. It deserve demonization.

      And what about white people? (More carefully, the people who have been made to think that they’re white.) We don’t deserve to be hated. We deserve to be loved for all the other things we actually are — as long as we actually are something else.


      1. a) Michael – whoa. That’s a cutting argument against viewing whiteness as a neutral or positive characteristic ever again. I will be referring to this in the future.
        b) You and Rene make me think that part of the issue here is the overwhelming power of teacher expectations. If we are not aware of these forces and conditions, then we are one of the primary implements passing on inequity to the next generation. Then the political message might be necessary tool to protect them against the slings and arrows of future education.

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    2. Rene, so who decides the views to be held? The topics to be discussed? The mathematics to be learned? Is it by way of a radical classroom democracy decisions are made, truths determined? Or the teacher ultimately makes these determinations? As I read your thoughtful replies, it seems you lean on the authority (authoritarianism) of the teacher–what George Counts argued cannot be avoided.

      So our work is political, and we as teachers are necessarily coercive.

      Maybe the question is what are our Teacher Ethics?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yikes!!! Whoa! I’m going to have to go back and read my comments because nothing about me is “authoritarian.” I live by “every voice counts” and “this is our classroom, so we decide together…”

        Maybe you could point out where you think I was going down an authoritarian path.

        Now, in reality, teachers do hold the role of responsible party, Michael’s example of not letting a kid run out into the street is good example. I still have to teach certain concepts, eat lunch at certain times, put in place expectations of order. That’s not authoritarian, that’s structure to prevent all out chaos. Every society has rules & mores agreed upon (hopefully).

        And I think the word “indoctrination” is strongly emotive. It feels to me similar to brainwashing with negative consequences for not going along.

        So, ok, a classroom is political in the sense that it is a democracy, like a family, but within those systems there must be structure to prevent others from taking control by force.

        But I push back on the word political when it comes to teachers intentionally crafting a lesson so as to sway (indoctrinate) a one sided view. Free speech is what makes our country different (flaws & all). But I’m sure as heck not going to craft a lesson in early childhood on abortion. To say any discussion is fair game dismisses age appropriateness.

        So what ages? What topics? In high school this feels easier.

        Let me ask this, is there any topic you feel is really, really evil, so evil that you simply wouldn’t allow the support of that idea to take over class time. Let’s pick something like racism or incest…are you going to allow those conversations to take over math class? What is students want to discuss this and come up with some weird data supporting either of those ideas. Surely we have the responsibility to direct students to discussions that don’t promote immoral behaviors. And whose morals?

        Adults can reason through these discussions; in fact, they should. By allowing free speech, we allow evil thoughts to be brought into the light. More importantly, we allow the community to decided what believe. Who is an adult? Good question.


  4. “Racism, in general, is clearly bad and impactful, and to the extent that it’s controversial it’s not reasonably so. So why be neutral?”

    “It doesn’t matter whether something is politically controversial or not — once you’re really, really, really sure that it’s right or wrong, there are only instrumental reasons to show neutrality.”

    That’s fair, but too easy. Specifics are always harder than generalities, but that’s where the tension lies. What if you’re personally really, really, really sure that affirmative action is/is not the best way to combat discriminatory practices in higher education? What if you’re really, really, really sure that private schools are immoral (

    One approach I’ve used to help teach the controversies is to draw co-centric circles on the board…
    I’ve done this often enough that kids know what it means if I say we’re “in the third circle.” Sometimes I’ll share my own views, sometimes not. But I teach at a religious school, so we do this all the time for theological issues as well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Rachel, I love your post. My wife is a Jewish studies teacher at a Jewish school, and when I forced her to read my post she told me that, like your school, they also have had many conversations about the appropriateness of imposing on students.

      What if you’re personally really, really, really sure that affirmative action is/is not the best way to combat discriminatory practices in higher education?

      Are we asking a first-personal or a third-personal question here? In other words, are we asking what you should do if you are really, really, really, really sure that AA is important, and anyone who disagrees is wicked?

      The first-personal question seems like a non-question to me. If you’re so confident in your views, why would you ever hold back?

      If we’re asking a third-personal question — what would we want someone else who is like that to do? — then I think we’d have to start with urging them towards humility and respect for those who disagree with them. But, as you say, the devil is in the specifics here.

      This starts as a discussion about seeking guidelines for when it’s OK to try to influence your students politically, and maybe it ends with our views on what’s bad-but-OK for a person to believe, versus what’s bad-and-must-be-fought.

      I love your post, by the way. The concentric circles are a great image for this discussion, and I can see how being explicit about that would help make classroom discussions of political or other touchy subjects work better.

      Each thoughtful comment is a chance for me to summarize and restate (and revise) the position that I articulate at the end of this long shpiel, so let me try again:

      Full neutrality with respect to politics at school is impossible, and not desirable. Kids will says things that need to be addressed. Nothing productive happens from shielding kids from the non-school political activities of their teachers. Sometimes kids are going to want to talk about politics with you — shutting down this conversation is often a bad idea. Further, there are issues that go beyond mere politics and become matters of safety. If you’re dealing with Nazis, you should oppose the Nazis.

      That said, advocates like Counts or Gutstein call for a deeper kind of politicizing of classroom learning. They say the teacher should try to influence the political views of their students — the main difference between Counts and Gutstein being style — and they admit no distinction between different kinds of political views.

      What I’m saying is I disagree with Counts and Gutstein’s push to make politics the center of classroom learning, and I disagree that we should be trying to influence our students political views to more closely mirror our own — UNLESS those views are at the super-duper core of safety, respect, good and evil. (Again, we should oppose Nazis.)

      On most political issues — things that people ought to see as controversial, like affirmative action — we should try to make our schools places that feel neutral to our students, because schools work best when as many students feel like they fit in as possible. Neutrality gets whacked around a lot by teachers these days, but I think that it deserves a defense, with all the caveats above.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for all the comments. Ok, here goes…

    First, yes, I understand my comments weren’t really where you were going; but I skipped through conversations about the nuances of each of the philosophies you tackled to get to the meat of how any of this plays out in the classroom, today. In other words, regardless of which views you support, or portions of those views, what will this look like in the classroom and how should we think about this in our current political environment?” It was a pragmatic jump. “Cut to the chase” view.

    I’d like to hear some more about a few of your points.
    –“Supposing that police brutality is a legacy of slavery (what do I know, but I think it is) then it really is true that white men, as a group existing over time, are responsible for police brutality. For rhetorical power, we talk of white men as individuals.”

    The concern I have about this statement is that it, from what I am seeing, the jump to problems specifically in the US are extrapolated to global contexts and the view that whiteness is a holdover of white European power/authority brought to the continent by early explorers, our founding fathers, etc. Yes, that is true. Partially. What is not true is that it is only “European whiteness” that has perpetuated violence against humanity across the ages. There is no country (or ethnicity), current or historical, that is free from brutality against others and their own. I don’t believe we can gloss over that fact because to do so is indoctrination of view that all our current ills are caused by “white” power forces.

    Which leads to…
    –“I don’t know what it means to identify as “White” in a non-evil way.”

    So, I think, first, before any other discussion, we need an operational definition of “white.” Is it a philosophy of power to dominate (by any means) anyone whose skin color is not pale? Is it only European caucasian ethnicity? I think this is an important point because to continue to use the word “whiteness” as a proxy for evil is dangerous. It is, in reality, racist. It is polarizing. And it is not the whole truth. All ethnicities have committed evil acts of power and brutality against their very own, and others, …throughout history.

    To not address this is indoctrination in that we are cherry picking what to present to our students.

    Yes, own up to the evil of injustice and disparity in our current society. But not by using the word “white” or “whiteness” as substitute for evil through power by force. Can we find another term that does not promote racism against caucasians, as well as “white” guilt?

    One more thing…

    ==”It doesn’t matter whether something is politically controversial or not — once you’re really, really, really sure that it’s right or wrong, there are only instrumental reasons to show neutrality. (This is a natural opportunity to bring up Nazis. No, you should not be neutral about Nazis.)”

    I agree with Rachel in that “really, really, really sure” is too easy. Neo-Nazis for example, are really, really, really sure…

    I also agree that we should not be neutral about Nazis, or any ideology that enacts violence against an entire race/population. But…can we be sure that we are entirely “neutral.” I fell trap to this for decades. I had convinced myself that the Nazis were the entirety of evil. What about those who did nothing? It’s easy to gloss over that. (And speaks directly to the point of being neutral in the classroom, not taking sides, etc.). Sure, I’m quick to point to the disgusting, evil, and hell brought on the world by Nazis. It’s not the whole truth. What of those who saw this evil and did nothing? I had convinced myself that I could never have been a Nazi, and I would have been part of the underground…but am I so sure of that? Really, really, really sure? That was a personally painful question I had to face when we visited Dachau when I was pregnant. Being in the city, in my own imagination, I felt like I could still literally feel the presence of evil left over from the Nazi regime. I told my husband that I “knew” there were still individuals in that town who were Nazis that walked by the concentration camp every single day, and closed their eyes choosing not to know. His reply was, “You have reduced this to a simple decision. You are pregnant. What would you do, now, knowing that if you made the decision to stand up, to be part of the resistance, the very real possibility that the Nazis would take your baby, you, me and send us to the very same types of camps we see here?” — I am ashamed to admit that I hesitated in my answer. Because it is not an easy answer. The point being, we can easily recognize evil wrought against mankind when we see it in others, but the real possibility that we can, too, become just as evil is a darn scary thing. We are forced to confront our own potential for evil. To not do so is also indoctrination of sorts: our views (whatever they may be) are the truth (i.e. being, really, really, really sure…) –“Everyone agrees that picking and choosing what data to show your students is a means of influencing them — it IS an attempt to politically impose on our students.” Should we present Nazism as evil. Absolutely. Should we also present the truth that all humans have the capacity to commit evil, under certain circumstances, and that knowing this means we have to learn to see the entirety of a situation…the opposite of indoctrination.

    How does all this play out in the math classroom? Are we off topic? I don’t know. Your post title was “should teaching be political” – so we first need to think about “what teaching” (math, social justice, math FOR social justice, is social justice the only lens of political, what politics, etc.)? As I said earlier, and because I am in early education, I am not entirely clear how to go about this. It feels like uncharted territory. Unless we define “political” in terms of democracy as: all students are created equal and have rights of equality in our classroom; and have equal access to learning (voice and choice). It is not possible to be “truly” democratic in terms of choice because that would mean a student could choose simply not to participate in an activity/learning/content area, or even come to school.

    Rambling and probably not entirely coherent…but…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think this is an important point because to continue to use the word “whiteness” as a proxy for evil is dangerous. It is, in reality, racist. It is polarizing. And it is not the whole truth. All ethnicities have committed evil acts of power and brutality against their very own, and others, …throughout history.

      Speaking of Nazis, I think the best analogy for “White” is “Nazi.” Nazis were part of a destructive political regime. They didn’t exist before or after that regime. That regime was evil — evil ideology, evil actions, etc. Was every Nazi a bad dude? Of course not. Did the Nazis have some good ideas? Oh god, probably.

      Are Nazis responsible for ALL the world’s atrocities? Of course not. Do other countries have their own political regimes that committed genocide? Of course they did.

      Contrast that with Jews. Have Jews committed evil acts? Absolutely. Have we abused power, committed violence and evil, been brutal against others? Absolutely.

      But that’s not all that it means to be Jewish. Jewish culture and communities are bigger than whatever atrocities were committed in the name of Judaism. (Ditto for Christians and Christianity. Christianity is bigger than the Crusades or the Inquisition. Same for Islam, which is bigger than suicide bombers or ISIS.)

      Which brings us to Whites or Whiteness. I’m not suggesting that Whiteness is another name for evil, or is responsible for all the world’s evils, or that all White people are evil, or anything like that.

      What I am saying is that Whiteness is like Nazism. Its existence as a category is like Nazism’s. It exists to subjugate. There wasn’t a white community or white culture that predates the desire to contrast that whiteness with blackness, and to thereby justify violence to those labelled black. There are beautiful cultures that we sometimes confuse with White culture — American culture, European culture, Irish American culture (by the way, Irish immigrants were sometimes considered non-White). Those identities should be celebrated, but White is a category that adds nothing of value to those others.

      That’s what I meant above.


      1. Gotcha! Thanks.

        I am still concerned with the term Whiteness, though, because it is a red herring. The idea of tyranny, violence and subjugation is being linked directly to a skin color. Nazism is not, or at a basic level, it was not possible to tell a Nazi by the color of their skin. A label such as White Culture, as you mention can become confused with any culture/ethnicity whose skin tone is light…and therefore lumps anyone with light skin tone into one category. Not helpful. Divisive. I don’t have a “one” word replacement in mind because the word Whiteness is a meme of sorts. And, to be sure, there is bias and racism against African Americans (and I’m not even sure if this is an acceptable term now) that is perpetuated by groups other than “whites.”

        Look, I’m not trying to suggest that the African American community hasn’t suffered, and still suffers, at the hands of those in power who still, knowingly or unknowingly, hold the views under the category of called Whiteness. It makes me sad and sick. And angry! — You can bet your bottom dollar that schools in Baltimore who had students with a majority of light skin tones had heat last week! I’m just saying I don’t like the word Whiteness because it IS a red herring. It’s a distraction. I think it perpetuates racial divides.

        Turn that around, think of anything you can that bigots, supremacists, and neo-Nazis spit out as vomit in hate speech that represents what their views of POC and call it Blackness. Now that word is designed to feel ugly because it is mapped directly to all the harmful lies inherent in their evil thoughts. If we are trying to describe the evil wrought be racists, why don’t we just call it what it is: racist, bigoted, tyrannical, dictatorial, fascist, etc…We have enough words in our English language to be very, very specific about what specific action/belief is being described in very specific incidents.

        I don’t even think using Nazi is all that helpful. Mostly because there are those who consider themselves Nazis and are proud of that. But all the evil embodied in the word Nazi was lived also out through Stalin, Mao, and Mussolini. We don’t often call someone a Mao. (Or categorize them by Mao’s particular skin color. Why not? It’s easier to say Nazi because we have an emotional or personal connection, maybe? I don’t know. Maybe that is the point. Emotion and personal connection. We can easily connect and understand emotive words. I don’t think linking the word white to all things evil is helpful, in the long run. Easy, effective, but maybe harmful.

        This is tangental from the problem of whether or not schools, in particular math classrooms, should be political. But, we can’t ignore bigotry, oppression, violence, and hatred either. This is our reality. It’s on the news, it’s in our neighborhoods, in our schools, and maybe even in our own homes. When we see racism and bigotry, we have to call it out for what it is: evil. But can we label actions with the words they actually are rather than reduce them, and group them, into one word (an incomplete word at that)? When we see powers oppressing peoples, we have to call that out.

        And…oh, yeah, we have to teach content. Math IS a gatekeeper. So, even if a teacher never actually embeds a social justice lesson (math FOR social justice), if he/she doesn’t work diligently to ensure all students have a solid conceptual understanding of math, how we use (and abuse) it in our world, how to analyze the math around us, and how reason across any given topic, we have perpetuated gaps of poverty and race. The most simple acts of choice, voice, and access to learning opportunities that are designed intentionally to create understanding and self efficacy can be/are powerful. Of course that also assumes the teacher has established a respectful, nurturing environment. In this way, I think I’m more aligned with DuBois. It’s the stuff in-between.

        Anyway…thanks for helping me (letting me?) think through why the term Whiteness does not sit well with me.


  6. Interesting discussion!

    I would love to jump in to the topic about race . . . . but I’m not that brave! So I’ll restrict myself to a non-teacher, non-mathematician’s view of politics in the classroom.

    Du Bois (from your quotes, I haven’t read the source material) seems to think trained intelligence will produce a good character. But historically, society has been built by “intelligent” people and yet social injustices are created and continue. Society doesn’t merely need more educated people, it needs educated people who were taught compassion, respect, perseverance, etc. What good is intelligence without integrity? If the end goal of education is a person who creates “institutions for good,” can we really reduce it to the three “R’s”?

    Frankly, I think politics is a weird concept to latch onto. It only really makes sense to me if the desired output *is* an indoctrinated student. Otherwise, isn’t it more accurate (and even helpful) to talk about teaching character in the classroom? Aren’t virtues/morals/ethics the very things that go “beyond mere politics,” even while being at the *heart* of all politics? Rather than teach social issues (racism, sexism, immigration laws, etc.) what it sounds like most teachers want is to teach values (justice, compassion, equality, etc.). They want to influence their students at “the super-duper core of safety, respect, good and evil.” Not to indoctrinate them into a specific political view or camp, but to encourage them to be better human beings. No matter how neutral you are about politics, this kind of influence does exist in the classroom.

    Of course values can be formed by investigating social issues, but social issues are not simple! That’s why they are *still* issues. Even seemingly clear cut ones, like not treating people different because of their skin color or historical origins, can get complicated fast (i.e. affirmative action). Even simplifying the issues doesn’t make them appropriate for teaching kids character, if anything this just opens the door to a Gusteinian bias. Do we teach math by giving students unsolvable problems and asking them to try to apply what they know to them? No. So why would we do it for values? Most students are struggling just to learn the basics. Most people are struggling just to learn the basics. That’s not to say, “don’t bring real life problems into the classroom.” Students know the world has problems and school can (sometimes) be a safe place to discuss them. Inevitably they will come up or lend themselves to inclusion in a lesson. But, for students, the focus of school shouldn’t be “solve these real life problems,” but instead, “here are some tools you’re going to need to tackle real life problems.” And for teachers the question shouldn’t be “how can I make my students aware of, and passionate about, social injustices,” but, “how can I prepare my students for what’s ahead?” One tool you might give them is honesty, and the other might be a solid recall of their multiplication tables.

    As to whether teachers should teach character, yes they should. Anyone involved with children has an obligation to model good values (I know, I know, where is the support for this? I’ve talked myself out already and don’t have words left to defend it!). Does this need to be explicit? No. Everyone is going to do it differently, and that’s fine. That’s just another sort of lesson.

    Thank you, everyone, for this conversation. It was challenging to respond without bringing up a whole host of other assumptions and beliefs. I enjoyed hearing the different perspectives on this topic and am curious to see if my own opinions change!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have many things on my mind but this comment thread has gone in a lot of directions. But I am compelled to make some comments.

      Race is a construct that was codified by white people for the specific purpose of subjugating people of color, mostly black people (Note “The Origin of Race” by Audrey Smedley or American Apartheid by Massey and Denton). So when we talk about Whiteness as evil, it is not about a specific person (necessarily) but rather about the systemic racism upon which this country was founded and which continues to be perpetuated by deeply ingrained societal structures.

      I come from an immigrant background several generations back, but because my ancestors were white (albeit Jewish), they were able to assimilate and succeed in many of the ways Americans measure success within a generation (or less) – accumulating education, wealth, and some personal power. I cannot, nor do I care to, deny that I, and my children, walk in privilege every day because of this, and the accomplishments of which I am so proud are due in part because I have never had to face discrimination based on the color of my skin. I cannot change the terrible things upon which our country was founded – genocide of Native Americans and enslavement of Africans – but I can acknowledge and confront the fact that intelligent men (and women) who did some brilliant things in creating this republic were guilty of these crimes as well.

      As a teacher, I do think it is my duty, if not to wear these opinions on my sleeve, to speak to these truths when the context of conversations requires it, and not to hide my views. The majority of of my students live with the consequences of this history, and to deny them this reality is to perpetuate the crime.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks for this Wendy. Of the views we’ve been looking at here, this pair of sentences sounds most to me like Baldwin:

        As a teacher, I do think it is my duty, if not to wear these opinions on my sleeve, to speak to these truths when the context of conversations requires it, and not to hide my views. The majority of of my students live with the consequences of this history, and to deny them this reality is to perpetuate the crime.

        And I agree.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Du Bois (from your quotes, I haven’t read the source material) seems to think trained intelligence will produce a good character.

      I don’t think that’s quite right on Du Bois. I haven’t read him deeply, but from what I have read closely (i.e. that speech) his view is that schools shouldn’t try to teach character. They should teach academic knowledge.

      Why? Two reasons:

      (1) It’s the most important thing. School itself doesn’t change anything in society. The major forms of oppression are economic. Black people need good wages, more money, and hence they need the knowledge to build institutions that can compete in the economy. (He’s not expecting a fair shake from employers; he wants to build capacity.)

      (2) Schools can’t really do those other things well while also focusing on knowledge.

      That’s my read of Du Bois. Maybe agree with you about teachers implicitly modeling behavior, but I don’t know how much stock he would put in that. I would have to read him more widely, I think, to understand his thinking on that.


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