That Iron String: Censorship in American Education (an op-ed)

By Paige Wyatt

Right now, in my home state of Indiana, a piece of proposed legislation known as Senate Bill 167 has been in committee hearings this past week. As a high school American literature teacher, I have first-hand knowledge of how damaging a bill like this could be. The purpose of this bill is to ban teaching “divisive” concepts in the classroom. These include topics such as slavery, civil rights, anything related to politics, and social commentary in general.

This legislation also says that a committee of parents, teachers, and school administrators should review and approve all curriculum, that teachers should post all of their class materials online for approval, and that if a parent does not want their child to engage in said curriculum, the teacher must provide an alternative. 

More troubling, this bill prohibits teachers from discussing anything that could be deemed controversial in the eyes of a parent, including historical events or philosophy. During the hearings, the Senator that authored the bill, Scott Baldwin, stated that Nazism was included in the “-isms” he desired teachers to present in an objective way. According to the Washington Post, Senator Baldwin stated: “‘Marxism, Nazism, fascism … I have no problem with the education system providing instruction on the existence of those ‘isms.…I believe that we’ve gone too far when we take a position. … We need to be impartial.” The IndyStar has a video of him saying this in context.

This bill is a response to the recent controversy surrounding Critical Race Theory, and will directly affect the way I do my job. Due to the vague wording, I would have to cut entire meaningful, relevant units to appease the new requirements. That would undoubtedly include my unit on Frederick Douglass and his role in ending the Civil War, as well as the Transcendentalism unit.

Transcendentalism is a philosophical art movement that can be seen in art, writing, and essays in the 1820s all the way up to the start of the Civil War. One of the most famous founders of this movement is Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote extensively about nonconformity and individualism. 

This year, I am teaching excerpts from Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” This essay’s premise yields one of the most famous quotes to come from transcendentalist thought: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

As we read and discussed this essay, I could see Emerson’s words ignite a sense of validation within my students. These students–who have lived through two years of pandemic life, who have had to support their families with jobs, who have, in spite of all odds, continued to show up to class each day and be open to listening to new ideas–found kinship with a 180 year old piece of writing that encourages them to live a more authentic life: “My life is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady.”

One of the most powerful conversations I have had in my decade-long career was this week when students discussed the expectations society pressed upon them. I heard them say the reason they sleep in class or disappear into their phones isn’t because they don’t care–it’s a retreat and a coping mechanism. Teenagers today are placed under more stress than any other generation before them. We expose them to every problem in the world, and then we have the nerve to tell them it’s their job to get good grades and fix those problems. We ask them to raise their siblings so their parents can work multiple jobs to survive in late-stage capitalism. Our society is set up so that they have to work to help their families or afford luxuries all teenagers want, such as cars, phones, and clothes. These are luxuries an average family cannot easily afford without supplemental income. 

The pressure is real. Students agreed with Emerson when he wrote: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion.” When we talked about this quote, students who I barely knew opened up about their anxiety, depression, anger, and turmoil. They admitted that they are buckling under the weight that society has put upon them. They shared these concerns with me honestly, freely, and without judgement.

Most shockingly, they told me no one ever asks them what they think.

I don’t know how to fix the problems that society places on the backs of our teenagers. I don’t know how to alleviate their concerns. I do know that I provided a safe space for them to discuss these ideas and let their voices be heard. I also know that many of them left my classroom knowing they are not alone in how they feel, and that maybe for the first time in a while, an adult listened to them.

This lesson was about more than writing perfect sentences or reading comprehension. It was about connection, inquiry, and honesty. How can we take this safe space away from students? How can we, as a society, continue to crush their spirits by disallowing free discussion and tampering down individual thought? These are the lessons students remember and take with them as they set out to fix the messes we’ve made. SB 167 would deprive them of these experiences. 

As Emerson says, “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” It has always been my job to encourage students to think independently. My own school’s mission statement includes the words “independent thinkers.” Censorship is not the answer. Students must learn to trust themselves, to think for themselves, and to live authentic, truth-filled experiences. I will always believe it is our responsibility to nurture them to fulfill their potential. Whether SB 167 passes or not, my heart vibrates to the same iron string it always has, and my educational philosophy remains the same: Help the kid.

Here is a link to the bill if you’d like to read it yourself. The education part starts on page 18.

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