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Why Educators Often Have It Wrong About Right-Leaning Parents (Opinion)

Three decades ago, John Gray’s mega-hit book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, sold 15 million copies. The premise was simple: When we see the world in different ways, it’s easy to misunderstand or talk past one another.

That insight applies emphatically in today’s very online world. In polarized times, it’s all too easy to imagine that those who disagree with us are not just wrong but evil. Education is especially susceptible to this dynamic, given how personal our relationships with preschools, schools, and colleges can be. Because today’s education debates tend to map onto partisan differences, those on right and left can wind up with a superficial, distorted sense of one another’s views and values. That divides communities, makes it harder to solve practical problems, and corrodes public discourse.

While your mileage may vary, we think one big problem here is the professional education community’s trouble understanding or engaging with those on the right. There are certainly lots of right-leaning teachers and school leaders, but there just aren’t many visible conservatives in professional education associations, schools of education, or teachers’ unions. In the coverage of today’s education debates, conservatives tend to come off as cartoon villains hellbent on gutting public education, censoring history, and banning books. We’ve had plenty of experience with education professors who don’t assign readings by conservative thinkers because students “can see that stuff on Fox News”; superintendents who say they’d welcome feedback from “serious” conservatives on gender policies but “can’t find any”; and school leaders who dismiss concerns about social-emotional learning as “trumped-up nonsense” promoted by “outside agitators.”

Now, we’ll readily concede that the right today features its share of toxic actors. But we’re also used to seeing individuals we know and views we share depicted in ways that we find wholly unrecognizable. We fear that many well-meaning, nonpolitical educators wind up with a twisted sense of the views of right-leaning parents and voters. As a result, good-faith disagreements turn ugly, while something like 40 percent or more of the nation can wind up feeling maligned or misunderstood.

Over the years, educators have talked a lot about code-switching as a way to advance understanding and inclusion. Perhaps it’s time to apply some of those insights to our ideological divides. This is what we have in mind:

Where you may see “right-wingers” trying to “ban books,” conservatives see young kids encountering sexually explicit images and text without parental consent.

Where you may see heartless Republican governors “bar[ring] transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports,” conservatives see parents concerned about the fairness and safety of girls’ sports.

Where you may see bigoted parents seeking to “whitewash” history, conservatives see a response to politicized materials that replace one-dimensional portrayals of America the Great with equally stilted narratives of America the Evil.

While America’s politics are angry and alienated right now, those feelings needn’t bleed so forcefully into schools. After all, parents are intensely practical people. Whatever their views on Donald Trump or Joe Biden, they want their kids to be safe, valued, and educated. When our exposure to conservative (or progressive) thought comes mostly via social media and cable TV, it can be easy to forget that. We’d argue that anyone who views the debates as simple contests between the forces of goodness and malice is exhibiting an authoritarian moral sensibility that’s ill-suited to inclusive leadership in democratic schools.

We’ve found that being on the wrong side of conventional wisdom in education isn’t fun, but it has given us plenty of practice trying to explain where we’re coming from. Indeed, we spend most of our new book, Getting Education Right, doing just that. In the book, we offer a few principles that can help educators better understand conservatives—and, in turn, foster franker, more constructive discourse.

First, it’s useful to appreciate the central role of family in conservative thought. Russell Kirk, sometimes dubbed “the father of American conservativism,” argued in 1977 that “the family always has been the source and center of community.” When conservative parents rebel against school policies that keep them in the dark about their child’s gender identity, it’s because they think that (except in extraordinary situations) parents know and love their children best and have their best interests at heart. When they’re dismissed as narrow-minded bigots—even by educators who’d notify parents if they gave that child an aspirin—such parents start to see schools as hostile entities. Appreciating how parents see their role, even when you disagree with them, can enable a healthier relationship between families and schools.

Second, conservatives believe that schools should generally respect—rather than subvert—the shared traditions, norms, and practices of the communities served by the schools. That’s why right-leaning parents and advocates will frequently push back against curricula that depict the United States as a nefarious force or dismiss classic works of literature as “problematic.” This, rather than bigotry or ignorance, is why so many conservatives recoiled from the 1619 Project’s contention that the American Revolution is best understood as a convoluted conspiracy to preserve slavery. Rather than viewing our history with disdain, conservatives see cause for gratitude for the sacrifices of our forebears.

Third, while progressive icons like John Dewey and Paulo Freire have long made the case for a pedagogy in which educators seek to make students agents of social change, conservatives want educators to play a more circumscribed role. In the conservative imagination, the role of teachers is not to be classroom activists but to help students master academic knowledge, cultivate character, and become responsible citizens. If the reach of schools is less all-encompassing, it also becomes more important for families to send to school children who are respectful, diligent, and ready to learn. For conservatives, asking that educators not overreach or that parents do their part isn’t a matter of being anti-teacher or casting blame; it’s about an ethos of shared responsibility.

Now, if your response to these points is—“Wait! These aren’t conservative values! They’re shared values!”—that’s great. If you see it that way, it’s easier to intuit that a lot of politically polarized fights aren’t about good versus evil so much as how to apply our shared values in practice. If you’re thinking, “Eh, I still think those conservatives are flat wrong,” that’s wholly fair, too. But even just signaling that you understand things look different from Mars than they do from Venus can go a long way toward fostering healthier relationships and more constructive engagement.

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