Schools gone woke: a view from America
In a warning to teachers around the world, one American teacher opens up about the invasion of woke orthodoxy in the education sector
I am an American educator who began teaching nearly two decades ago. During that time, I have taught at some of the most prestigious private secondary schools in the United States. Starting about five years ago, these schools began to be consumed by woke ideology.
When I say “consumed by woke ideology” I mean that these schools are obsessed with sophomoric and divisive notions of diversity, equality, and justice; increasingly hostile to freedom of expression; addicted to cancelling anything that offends the woke movement; and prioritising activism over understanding as the goal of education.
The pendulum will not swing back because the woke movement is not a pendulum; it is a steamroller
I am writing this letter to alert those we may describe as “sleep-wokers”. A sleep-woker is one who has not taken the woke creed to heart, yet nevertheless tacitly complies with the linguistic, pedagogical, political, and moral imperatives of wokeness. Sleep-wokers go through the motions; they are like religious folk who say prayers without thinking, attend worship services without engaging, and perpetuate dogmas without believing. I was a sleep-woker. In some ways, due to a combination of timidity and tiredness, I still am.
Sleep-woking, like sleepwalking, is very dangerous. While sleep-woking, an English teacher can unwittingly help cancel Chaucer, Keats and Conrad in the name of decolonisation. A biology teacher might find herself obliged to deny important differences between the sexes. A football coach will not be able to cheer on a player after a strong tackle, as strength and physical violence smack of toxic masculinity.
Wokeness has proven to be oppressive and totalitarian rather than inclusive and liberating
Most of my sleep-woking colleagues are good people. Like me, they were lulled into complacency by a woke take-over that was slow and subtle. What’s more, some changes were initially promising and even corrective — of course we should pay more attention to marginalised voices and overlooked narratives, and I am glad that we now do. To bemoan an expanded curriculum is simple chauvinism. In the end, however, wokeness has proven to be oppressive and totalitarian rather than inclusive and liberating.
It is worth noting that I have been a supporter of the left for most of my life. The only political donation I have ever made went to a candidate in the most left-leaning wing of the most left-leaning party in American politics. My objection is to the effect of woke ideology on education, not to liberal politics. My grievance is that teachers are increasingly under pressure to adopt the woke agenda or be ostracised.
I empathise with the difficult situation that top school officials find themselves in. As wokeness takes over American culture, schools face enormous pressure to follow suit. That said, those with the power to stop the degradation of education have a special responsibility to do so, and those of us with less power have a responsibility to remind our superiors of their duty.
Here is some of what wokeness has wrought at top American schools:
Offence in is the Eye of the Offended
Schools openly preach that if one feels offended, one has been offended. For example, if a student or colleague claims to have been offended by your words or actions, it does not matter if you intended no offence. More troubling is the fact that it does not matter if your words and actions were not those that a rational person should find offensive — you are an offender merely by virtue of the fact that someone claims to have been offended.
Schools cannot yet codify this into an official policy. What the schools are starting to do, however, is to change the ethical norms associated with offence. Since legal norms follow ethical norms, if schools (and societies) succeed in changing the ethical norms of speech and offence, they will eventually have a basis upon which to change the legal norms. As soon as they can show that a normal or typical person is offended by certain language or certain ideas, they will be able to argue that a person presenting such language and ideas is failing to abide by the reasonable ethical expectations of school culture. In short, we are training students how to be offended so that their perceived offence can be used to eliminate anti-woke expression.
Elimination of Non-Woke Student Clubs
Any student group that resists woke orthodoxy is likely to be forcibly disbanded or prevented from forming. Student clubs cannot form without faculty sponsors. Since the vast majority of the faculty at these schools are woke (or too afraid to be seen as non-woke), conservative students have trouble officially meeting and inviting speakers. If a non-woke speaker is invited, the wokes mobilise to deny them a platform and they feel righteous for doing so. Few conservative students openly identify as such because they are afraid of repercussions from faculty and from other students. Not only is this unfair, but it is also dangerous. Alienated conservative students are being pushed away from moderate disagreement and towards political extremism.
No Resisting Woke Slogans
Opposing woke slogans or voicing contrary slogans is not tolerated. Since opposing wokeness is thought to be motivated by hate, voicing opposition to woke slogans is tantamount to hate speech. A student who challenges a woke slogan is bullied and harassed by the woke majority. Meanwhile, woke slogans and images are hung in school buildings and cannot be removed.
White or Western students are told not to participate in cultural traditions of non-white, non-Western people — the oppressors cannot participate in the culture of the oppressed. For example, several white students who wore shirts with African designs were reprimanded and forced to change their clothes. The fact that the shirts were a gift from their teacher, a black African man, made no difference. The students wore the shirts to show affection for their teacher and to honour his gift, but that was still cultural appropriation.
In another instance, a musician was reprimanded for blending a western and non-western musical style into a new artistic expression. The musician was accused of cultural imperialism.
Shakespeare, Homer and other canonical authors are being eliminated from the curriculum. In some cases, schools and teachers boast about cancelling these patriarchal racists. Even at schools that do not officially cancel canonical Western texts, the texts are subtly replaced in the name of anti-racism.
Most of my students will go to university never having read Homer or Shakespeare, though they will have been required to read many texts and attend many lectures on intersectionality and gender identity. They can speak at length about toxic masculinity and a panoply of so-called phobias, but they would not recognise the terms “iambic pentameter” and “dactylic hexameter”, let alone recognise actual examples of the meter.
Ad hominem attacks are presented as the cornerstone of critical thinking rather than as a fallacious form of argumentation. We teach students to evaluate texts and arguments by primarily attending to the author’s race, gender, and sexuality.
Students attend mandatory training sessions in which experts teach them how to identify and report microaggressions. And since to a student with a hammer everything looks like a nail, the students begin informing on each other and on their teachers. White teachers are told to attend racial-political re-education workshops in which they strive to overcome their whiteness in the classroom. (It has long been accepted that “whiteness” is a meaningful category.)
If you claim to not be a racist, you are seen as the worst, most unredeemable kind of racist. You are a heretic who will not admit heresy. You are thought to be suffering from something called “white fragility”.
Before introducing a new unit, teachers compile lists of trigger warnings for the material in that unit. A trigger warning serves to alert students to any and all things in the unit that could cause them stress, frustration, anger, or sadness. These lists are shared with students.
Manners and Dress Codes
A side-effect of the woke attack on tradition, authority, and hierarchy has been the revocation of dress codes. So long as their genitals are covered and no profane words are visible, students can and do wear anything they like. Arguably the only rule left in the dining halls and cafeterias is “Don’t throw food.”
Many students eat meals with headphones in their ears while watching videos on their phones. The less respectful students don’t bother with headphones. “Sir” and “Ma’am” have long since disappeared as too authoritarian and gendered. The terms “master” and “headmaster” cannot be used as master might connote slavery.
Elimination of Objective Assessments
Exams are being eliminated for two reasons: first, because exams are apparently inherently racist, sexist, classist, heteronormative, or otherwise unfair; second, because exams cause students stress, and stress makes students feel bad, and feeling bad negatively impacts their well-being. Additionally, some students do poorly on exams, and this has the potential to result in a situation that is inequitable.
Faculty are frequently pressured to identify their pronouns. Failure to identify one’s pronouns is seen as transphobic or cis-centric or both. Students can reassign their own pronouns at will. If a teacher mistakenly does not use the student’s preferred pronoun, the teacher is accused of misgendering. Misgendering a serious offence, even a kind of violence.
The unchecked advance of wokeness will do two things to your school. First, you and your students will lose the ability to freely read, write and speak as pupils and teachers. Second, the education that you now provide will become unrecognisably impoverished.
Wokeness has been achieved at the expense of education
This second effect is probably the hardest to believe, especially for those of you at top academic institutions, but it is the effect of which I am most certain. In place of free-thinking young scholars, you will begin turning out a generation of woke activists who believe that feelings matter more than facts, that perception is reality, and that it is more important to judge a text than to understand it — where “judging” means anachronistically interpreting the author’s words in light of the most recent woke orthodoxy.
Many of my students claim to be proud practitioners of social justice (don’t push them too hard on what that means) yet they have only an elementary command of grammar and geography, struggling to write complete sentences and unable to locate Turkey on a map. Some have begun to ask why we take math so seriously given that math is apparently grounded in Western patriarchal rationalism. Wokeness has been achieved at the expense of education. Reason has been subordinated to passion. Plato’s charioteer has been replaced by the horses he was meant to reign in.
To not be woke is to be asleep: unconscious or ignorant of what is really going on
Perhaps some of you are disturbed by some of the woke excesses at your schools and in your communities, even if, like me, you readily support appeals for greater diversity, genuine inclusion, and a multicultural curriculum. Perhaps your instinct has been to dismiss these excesses as isolated incidents. Like me, you might have said “The pendulum will swing back” or “That will never happen at my school.” I am writing to say that the pendulum will not swing back because the woke movement is not a pendulum; it is a steamroller.
I am not claiming any moral high ground. My own failure to push back in the right ways and at the right times makes me part of the problem. Nor am I here trying to convince anyone else to become bothered by the advance of woke culture into education. If what I am reporting does not bother you, ignore me. If wokeness has begun to concern you, however, you now have a glimpse of where your own school may be headed.
One of the canniest bits of woke linguistic manipulation has been appropriation of the term “woke” itself. To not be woke is to be asleep: unconscious or ignorant of what is really going on. Either one is woke or one is not aware of reality. Or, as I was recently told by a student, if you are not woke, it must be because you are uneducated or hateful — or both. Such is the woke reality.
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