Pressuring Students in the Service of Teaching Diversity

By Stanley Renshon on December 30, 2015

For many years immigration specialists have pointed to the historical success of assimilation in sparing the United States the ethnic, national, and racial conflicts that other counties have experienced. As scholars such as David Hollinger, Peter D. Salins, and Arthur M. Schlesinger have pointed out, this is no accident. Rather it comes from a history in which ordinary Americans and those who headed America's primary governmental and cultural institutions agreed that assimilation to American values and cultural premises were the not-particularly-hidden secret of that success.

That successful tradition has declined in the face of strong resistance along a variety of fronts – educational, civic, and cultural – to the very idea that assimilation is either desirable or necessary. In the last five decades, America's "cultural wars" have been fought out in almost every major American institution. Those championing narrow ethnic and racial identities have mounted pitched battles to suppress and supplant wider identifications, like simply being an American.

Those narrow identity race- and ethnic-warriors have certainly not succeeded in erasing American identity; yet they have been successful in establishing a level of public legitimacy for their claims and demands that have allowed identity politics to gain a solid foothold in American political and civic life. We may not all be multiculturalists now, as Nathan Glazer worried, but that phrase's misleadingly anodyne public face, diversity, is becoming enshrined as a core American value.

School is one of the very few institutions that immigrants and Americans alike pass though. It has been, in the past, a foundation for an American nation identity. Now there is the worry that in the name of experiencing and supporting "diversity," schools now encourage a form of reverse assimilation, in which wider national identities must give way to sympathy with and support of more narrow ones.

Diversity, it is endlessly proclaimed, is American's new civic, cultural, and political reality. And woe be it to any person or institution that doesn't accept the need to operate according to its dictates – be they "safe spaces" free from upsetting ideas, political parties that don't conform their policies to narrow ethic sensitivities, or schools that don't insist that their students embrace diversity, or else.

And that brings us to the New York Times story headlined: "Lesson on Islam Shuts Down Virginia School District". Or, as the Washington Post put it: "Schoolwork about Islam triggers backlash in Virginia county".

The proximate cause of the controversy was the assignment to copy a calligraphic version of the shadada, the Islamic statement of faith. Some parents objected to their children being "indoctrinated," although they were not asked to translate or recite it, and do similar exercises in their study of China. Angry emails were sent and some threats were received. Some parents were clearly upset, perhaps especially in the wake the murders of fourteen Americans in San Bernardino earlier that month and the continued public debate about bringing Syrian Muslim refugees into the United States. On balance, though, the strong reaction of some parents to the calligraphy lesson seems overblown.

But the calligraphy assignment was not the only part of the lesson plan that might have benefited from prior reflection. The teacher of the class, Cheryl LaPorte, also fueled controversy by "inviting female students to wear a head scarf, as many Muslim women do," as the New York Times put it.

Actually, "invite" does not seems like quite the right word; "pressured" seems more like it. Ninth-grader Laurel Truxell told the local television station: "When they asked me to dress up, I said no and the aide said okay, well the teacher pushed and pushed and pushed so I did it, and when she took a picture. I asked for it not to be in the yearbook and she said it was, so that's when my parents called the school."

Eric W. Bond, the superintendent of the Augusta County School District, was quoted in the Times article as saying that "the scarf used in the activity was not an actual Islamic religious hijab," as if that factoid resolved the issue. The real issue here is effort to pressure female students to conform to the teacher's view of what students had to do to demonstrate their acceptance of the lesson's purpose – inculcating the primacy of diversity's legitimacy.

Katie Reich, president of the district's parent-teacher association, came closer to the truth of the situation when she was quoted as saying, "The teacher who gave the assignment probably made some poor choices in her decisions," although given the apparent pressure for girls to don the hijab, "probably" is too kind an adverb to use.

There is, and should be, a large difference between teaching and indoctrination. There is as well a large difference, and a necessary one, between learning about other cultures and our own critically, and uncritically. And there is, and should be, a large difference between familiarizing students with subject matter and insisting on your viewpoint as the metric of understanding and evaluation.

The reported pressure by the teacher for female students to don the hijab as part of her lesson was unnecessary – students could have learned a great deal by viewing pictures or reading about some of the controversies that surround the wearing of it. That way the class might have learned something while not being subject either to demands for compliance from those in authority or the consequences of acquiescence against one's wishes.

Pressuring students to force compliance with diversity lessons regardless of what they think or without the chance to explore their own thinking is the real effort at indoctrination taking place here.