The main argument of such folk seems to be that those “bad people” are using the “education system” to INDOCTRINATE our children into all things “woke” and we have to stop this! As a person who thinks of himself as having reasonable intelligence and some educational attainment, to say nothing of having spent roughly 65 of my almost 79 years primarily involved in the educational system, either as a student, or as a faculty member (including several years in close contact with administrative personnel), I’d like to think I have a better than typical view of how that system works and what it thinks it’s supposed to do, so I consider myself reasonably well qualified to consider at least some of its strengths and weaknesses.
Since much of the concern seems to revolve around the evils of “Wokeness,” it would seem wise to start with some sort of definition of what that means. According to a FOX NEWS story of Dec. 7, 2021, “Merriam-Webster added the word (Woke) to its dictionary in 2017, defining it as, ‘aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).’ The Oxford dictionary adopted it the same year, defining it as ‘originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.’” This appears to suggest that, “woke” refers to the idea of being attuned to issues of “racial and social injustice.” If that’s the case, I’m not sure why that should be a matter of much concern. After all, shouldn’t we want to be aware of and responsive to such issues?
Certainly it is the case that the United States hasn’t always performed in a completely even-handed and fair way towards all of the people living within it’s borders. Even the most cursory look at the facts of our history demonstrates that there has been prejudicial treatment of many groups of people: almost EVERY identifiable group of immigrants; those whose heritage includes ancestors once held as slaves; the indigenous people who were here before “Europeans” arrived; people who practiced (or practice) religious beliefs not in conformity with mainstream “European” Christianity; those whose sexual practices fall outside of the usual; and so on. The fact is that ALL of these groups, and probably others, have, at least at times, been vilified, legislated against, discriminated against and, generally, been denied the “equal treatment under the law” which we accept as the proper standard in this country.
For much of our history, the educational system (like many parts of our social structure) has been geared to simply ignoring such people and practices as if they had no right to exist, so why should we pay attention to them? We didn’t think of ourselves as prejudiced, we just didn’t talk about discrimination in housing practices, education, employment, etc., along racial, religious, or sexual lines. Remember that even women weren’t REAL citizens (they could not vote) until 1920, over 130 years after the Constitution was ratified. As long as we could ignore such things, everything was “just fine.”
In the last few years, however, I would argue since the late 1950s, people have become more aware of the fact that, while we like to believe that the US has ALWAYS been the home of freedom, justice, equality, etc., that’s really as big a myth the idea of young George Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River. (Note: there were NO “Silver Dollars” until 1794, just five years before Washington died, and the Potomac River is about a mile wide near his property, which makes this notion pretty improbable.)
The simple facts, which have always been fairly easy to discover if one bothered to look, are that US society and government has been dominated for virtually all of its existence by mostly male, mostly “white” (Note: the definition of “white” has changed several times over the years), mostly Christian (Note: “acceptable” forms of Christianity have changed with time, too.), mostly property-owning, business-oriented people who really didn’t want people who didn’t fit into their picture of what was “proper” to be allowed much (if any) say in the running of things.
Shortly after the Civil War, the pressure for change probably first took root with women’s suffrage, but that at least kept things oriented towards the dominant group and wives could be assumed to obey their husbands, because they weren’t expected to have actual opinions on significant subjects. But then, they started actually getting an education in things besides, cooking, sewing and child rearing. THEY WENT TO COLLEGE! They started to get JOBS! Then “colored” people (mostly men at first) started to get educated, too. Then, Truman really upset things by “Officially” integrating the US military in 1947 (although the process was far from complete for many years, if it’s actually accomplished yet).
In the mid-1950’s, the so-called “Civil Rights Movement” got underway with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. By the ‘60s, civil rights actions were underway and were soon joined by the protests against the war in Vietnam as people began to view this action as a misguided adventure simply doomed to failure. When The Pentagon Papers were published, anti-war sentiment expanded.
Protest movements from Women’s Rights to Native American Rights to “Gay” Rights soon moved into public awareness. These were often considered controversial, often were suppressed by the forces of politics, but people became aware of their existence because they were NEWS, and we now had video news available to most people pretty much every day. AND, there were the “talk” shows (mostly on Sunday mornings) which often included interviews and discussions with both political and protest leaders with the various network news reporters. This meant that many more people became aware of these topics and, obviously, thought and talked about them in their homes and businesses.
As these issues have NOT completely gone away, although the situation HAS changed some in more recent years. This IS, in (highly shortened) fact at least a passible summary of some of the developments in US history in the last 100 or so years. If having some interest in understanding these events, how they came to be, and how we are trying to deal with them has become a significant part of contemporary life in the US, and that interest and awareness is what we call “WOKE,” I fail to see how it’s possible to have an educational system which doesn’t include some contact with these sorts of ideas. Dictionary.com, after all, defines education as: “the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.”
Ah, but some would say that the “education system” isn’t just “imparting … general knowledge…” about these things, it’s indoctrinating our children into attitudes and behaviors which are contrary to what we wish and trying to “destroy our country.” Please note that the Cambridge Dictionary defines “indoctrinate” as: “the process of repeating an idea or belief to someone until they accept it without criticism or question.”
Now, from where I sit, if education concerns the “acquiring of information” and “developing the powers of reasoning and judgement,” what’s implied is exposure to a wide variety of ideas and the encouragement of thought to arrive at judgments about which ones make the most sense, seem most desirable, etc. I fail to understand how, provided that appropriate discussion regarding consideration of sources, validity of arguments, and some consideration of reason has been attended to, there should be much in the way of ANY idea which can’t be considered. Or, to use my favorite quote from the musical 1776 one more time, “In all my years, I never seen, heard nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about.” As far as I’m concerned, if THAT’s what they mean by “indoctrination,” I’m not sure I have any problem with that idea.
I would suggest that; “indoctrination is truly the process of only allowing the consideration of ‘approved’ ideas and insisting that only they can be allowed as worthy of contemplation.” BUT, acquiring information and developing the tools so that one can examine that information intelligently, ISN’T indoctrinating our children into “wokeness,” if that’s the concern. It seems to me that we would want our children to make reasonable and intelligent choices and decisions based on facts and information, not simply to blindly follow the whims and desires of loudmouths and demagogues. No, it appears to me that the loudmouths and demagogues simply want to scare us into assuring that our children are incapable of making their own choices because then they might not be scared into blindly following these “leaders.”
I watch the news, I have some knowledge of what those “leaders” are saying. When they say that they want to control how slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, etc., is discussed in the schools so that; “…little white children won’t be ashamed of being white,” what they are really saying is that we shouldn’t allow them to acquire the information that we allowed such institutions and practices to exist for a long time after we SAID they were abolished. After all, if they knew the facts, they might ask US embarrassing questions as to why we weren’t more active about changing such things before they were born.
Recently around here, there has been some discussion about the boarding “schools” which were set up by the government, often with the assistance of churches, or church groups, to “civilize” (indoctrinate) Native American children through trying to abolish their tribal languages, culture, religion, and social structure because they couldn’t be allowed to be different from “real” Americans. REAL Americans, of course, are those of us who came here from Europe (at least mostly). This “Americanization” even extended to burying those children who died at those schools in unmarked graves so that no one would actually know what happened to them. After all, they weren’t important as they weren’t REAL Americans.
Now, as best I can tell, I’m about as completely “white” as one can be. My heritage appears to be largely English/Scots/Irish/Welsh with some Scandinavian, French, & German thrown in, with perhaps a touch of Iberian/Mediterranean for good measure. At least that’s what my sister (our family genealogist) has been able to determine. We can trace our presence in North America back to 1620 with the Plymouth Colony. We know of none of our ancestors who owned slaves, although I can’t think of any reason why that question would matter, since there is absolutely nothing we can do to change the past. If any of my ancestors owned slaves, maltreated Indigenous people, engaged in any of a wide variety of nefarious and undesirable practices (as they probably did), I’m not happy about it, but I think there’s little likelihood that there’s much I can do to alter that.
I grew up in Evanston, IL, a suburb of Chicago with a somewhat varied population of “Whites” and African-Americans. It’s worth noting that there was some variety of social classes (working “poor,” full-time employed, business-class, professionals, etc.) among the “white” folk, as was true among the Black. Thinking back on my childhood, I’m aware of the fact that the different social and/or racial groups tended to live in different neighborhoods, so there was a “Black” part of town and there were areas which were, rather obviously, more well-to-do than others. This was probably due, at least in part, to real estate being “redlined,” but there were class divisions in the “white” neighborhoods, as well. Elementary schools did tend to follow neighborhoods, so I don’t think there were any “Black” kids in my grade school, but there were only two Junior High Schools in the District, so they were integrated, even in the 50s when I was there, and there was only one High School, so it, obviously, was integrated as well. I say this because I think I grew up reasonably free of racial prejudice. I can’t say I was really close friends with any African-American kids, but I knew a good many. Some I liked (whether they knew it, or not) and some I didn’t much care for, but I can say the same about the “white” kids I knew and the Jewish ones who were in the Evanston school district from the part of Skokie in Evanston Township, because of the way Illinois school districts are set up. In any case, I don’t believe that race or religion had much impact on my feelings about other kids.
When I was teaching, I tried to be as fair and non-biased as I could be in grading and, generally, in how I treated students. There were relatively few non-“white” students at Western, especially in a program like theatre, but I think the ones I encountered would admit that I probably wasn’t any harder on them that I was on the “white” ones. I have always suspected that many of my students felt I was a “tough” teacher. I even had students say so on occasion. As I remember it, I got this comment from one of my students after that student’s graduation. Needless to say, I was extremely moved. This sort of thing didn’t happen all that often, but it did suggest to me that all of the work I put into my teaching was understood and appreciated by some. That meant a lot. Here’s part of what that student said:
Dr. Beam will remain in my memories as the classic hard ass college professor,
academically demanding excellence of his students. Looking us in the eyes and saying,
“I don’t care what anyone else says, I want you to be the best damn student who ever
graced these halls after you leave my class room.” Yes, he demanded excellence, but I
only had three classes with him, and that is not enough time to bring me up to his
standards. I wish I did have more time with him. I want to give him everything he asks
of me. Above all I want to impress him the most with my work, make him proud of how
far I have come, because only he demanded it of me, and then told me how I could
What I am most proud of (and a little embarrassed by) is that final phrase. Could it really be true that I was the only “teacher” who made an effort to tell this student how to achieve higher quality work? If so, I confess to being a bit embarrassed by our educational system. Of course, I did observe over the course of many years that so called “higher” education is, in large part, really more interested in faculty research (especially if it gets grants), publication of scholarly works (whether anyone reads them, or not), and major involvement (holding office) in respected professional organizations (no matter how small they may be). Yes, I think ALL colleges and universities make loud noises about the importance of teaching, but that doesn’t really seem to be how it works. There seems to be an assumption that one MUST practice “good” teaching if one has written enough scholarly papers, preferably at least one book (more IS better), been an officer in a professional organization, and, especially, if he/she has “won” a substantial grant which supports research (preferably including support for more than one graduate student). Now, THAT’s a great professor!
So, what does this mean? I have no pretensions of having been a GREAT professor. I’d like to think that I took my position seriously and tried hard to be the best professor I could, and I always tried to put the needs of my students first. Occasionally, I think I succeeded. I particularly enjoyed discovering this note posted on the little whiteboard outside my office one day shortly before I retired.
Oh, well, perhaps this, too, will pass. I hope so.
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
— Nelson Mandela
“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic; capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” ― Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
“Not everything which can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
— from a sign in Albert Einstein’s office