Indoctrination is Not Education. Undoing Indoctrination is Discomforting

Oklahoma’s children need to be taught that “America is the greatest country in the history of the world because of the principles this country was built upon because we believe that individual rights were given to you by God and because we believe that morality and Christian values are the way to live your life.”

Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters on the passage of rules written by the State Board of Education to enforce House Bill 1775, known popularly as the anti-critical race theory bill

Dear Secretary Walters,

I watched your Twitter statement, several times, regarding the assurance that “critical race theory will not be taught in our schools.” Thank you for publicizing your position. I would like to offer a response.

I write as a Christian, a clergyperson, and a seminary educator for the past almost three decades. I believe morality and Christian values are good for my life and for many. Good for everyone? That is another matter.

I also know firsthand that the content of Christian morality and values is disputed. Those disputes, of course, are supposed to be within faith communities rather than adjudicated by agencies of government. I am ever grateful for the First Amendment. Nevertheless, we citizens “commit faith in public,” as one of my teachers said. But doing so almost always means entering an argument that might be informed by but will not and should not be settled by religion.

First, I am very happy to learn from your words that Oklahoma will not engage in “state-sponsored racism.” As a state that wrote racism into its original constitution (and where racism has played out historically, as in, the establishment by the federal government and then the white takeaway of Indian Territory, the Osage reign of terror, the Tulsa Massacre, lynchings, sundown towns), it would be wonderful to live in an Oklahoma where the state actively pursued anti-racist equality, which I take to be the opposite of state-sponsored racism.

Second, given the scope of HB 1775, might we also be confident that state-sponsored sexism in Oklahoma schools is prohibited? That would be wonderful.

Third, I, too, abhor public school children being “indoctrinated” by the Left, as you say at the conclusion. I also disdain children being indoctrinated by the Right—or any other position for that matter. Indoctrination has no place in public education.

As educators have argued for generations, we must teach critical thinking, an essential skill of discernment, for cutting through noise and catch-phrases that obscure and distract to gain cultural and political power. Especially in a day with more knowledge available and more opportunities for lies to be perpetuated and spread than any other time in history, critical thinking for a self-governing people is the only way we are going to have a republican democracy worth claiming to be “the greatest nation.” I am so glad our Founders rejected the inherited doctrine of monarchy, even as they struggled with their severely limited moral understanding of how much democracy they trusted, and for whom.

Fourth, on the matter of “discomfort.” The bill states, rightly, I think, that no child should be made to be uncomfortable for how they were born or to whom they were born. That would be a wonderful value to uphold for ALL our children. I surely don’t want a straight heterosexual cisgendered white physically able child to be denigrated because of any of those attributes! And if the bill’s intent is also to prohibit discomforting a child who is LBGTQ, of color, or physically challenged, this bill would pave a wonderful way forward.

But for those of us who think in terms of Christian morality and values, I think we should be very careful about fencing-off the powerful educational effect of discomfort. Being made uncomfortable with sin used to be essential to the evangelical conversion experience. To be converted is to turn around, to turn from what one was doing, to see and think and feel and act with new orientation and energy.

As mentioned above, critical thinking is a discomforting activity. I believe strongly in the need for safe-enough spaces in order to have really brave and discomforting conversations and arguments. Converting conversations and arguments. An example from Christian education: taking the Beatitudes seriously as a way to live and organize a community is a really uncomfortable experience, especially in a society so oriented toward power, wealth, punishment, and merit. Jesus surely discomforted a lot of people, and his words still do.

Here is a fact that seems to discomfort many people today: white Christians tend to tell American history differently from any other religious identity group. We represent the people who thought of America as the Promised Land but without accounting for the expenses incurred by native Americans and stolen Africans.

In addition to all the good that the U.S. represents in history, an adequate high school American history education should include:

  • A. the land of the Americas was populated with people, cultures, civilizations before 1492;
  • B. taking that land required the Europeans to justify their conquest morally and they used their religion for that end;
  • C. for wealth-seeking men, great swaths of land required a tremendous labor force to work the land and low to no wages to grow wealth;
  • D. the lives of many millions of indentured servants, enslaved Africans, enslaved Indians, and new waves of immigrants were all used to build wealth for others;
  • E. the history of our great nation could not be written without the stories of the construction of race and color, laws to protect property of white people and limit voting by poor and non-white voters, the Civil War (or, as Frederick Douglass wanted to call it, the War for the Abolition of Slavery), Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, lynching, voter suppression, the Lost Cause, internment camps, Indian boarding schools, and (skipping up to our time) voter suppression again and the rise of hate crimes and white nationalist militias.

Throughout all of this history, white Christians have often been at the forefront of aligning the laws and moral codes to benefit ourselves first. Sometimes we’ve joined others in the discomforting work of exposing the sins of racism, personal and systemic, and marching with persons of other skin-tones and religions for a society more like the oft-quoted line from the Declaration or the soaring rhetoric of the Gettysburg address or Dr. King’s brilliant usage of America’s sacred words.

Can a public school teacher teach everything I’ve just named above? Can a public school teacher teach that this history and the conflicts the history represents are not really past, that each of us has a personal responsibility to confront our nation’s past? Can a teacher teach that, while it is true children should not be found guilty for what previous generations did, each generation has a responsibility to do what it can to rectify inherited wrongs? That responsibility is both corporate and personal, or so my faith-based understanding of human nature (persons in communities) leads me to profess.

If not, then I would judge HB 1775 is, in effect, indoctrination on behalf of a society that has not faced its past, is not dealing effectively with its present, and cannot face the future together with hope.

I hope we agree we don’t want indoctrination of any sort in our public schools. In public schools, we want spaces hospitable for educating responsible citizens. Responsible citizenship requires recognition of our shared human dignity, learning together and from each other, thinking critically, conversing honestly, arguing civilly, making room for dissent, and learning to live together well both despite and because of our differences. In my opinion, these are all civic values highly compatible with how I understand Christian values and morality.

Thank you for your attention.

The Rev. Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend

President Emeritus and Executive Director, Center for Religion in Public Life

Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, OK

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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