Academic Imbalance

A recent bill in the Minnesota Legislature threatens to create the ideological indoctrination it seeks to combat.

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

A bill currently working its way through the Minnesota Legislature threatens to chill academic debate and stifle student learning throughout the state. The academic balance bill, sponsored by Rochester State Senator Carla Nelson, would require schools to adopt an academic balance policy which would target “political, ideological, religious, or anti-religious indoctrination.” Policies would perform this task by prohibiting teachers from requiring students to articulate particular viewpoints and encouraging educators to exercise caution “when expressing personal views in the classroom.” On the face of it, these policies seem to be common sense. After all, no one wants students to be indoctrinated, or forced into holding political opinions they disagree with. However, this legislation is itself a form of ideological indoctrination, one far more threatening than anything currently taught in schools for the very reason that it poses itself as objective, as not ideological.

The bill claims to be eliminating ideological bias from the classroom so that students can concentrate on the real learning. Senator Nelson claims that the bill will allow students to “make up their own minds when presented with the facts instead of progressive talking points.”  Examined at face value, the goal of presenting students with “facts” instead of “talking points” seems laudable. Unfortunately, in many if not all academic disciplines, there is an open debate as to what the “facts” are. Perhaps some aspects of math or science education can be treated as settled questions, as facts. But in the sorts of classes which American Experiment senior fellow Katherine Kersten, a major force behind the new bill, has pointed to as problematic, these facts are lacking. In classes like English and History, appeals to “fact” ignore the entire point of the discipline. Any “facts” in these classes are themselves ideological truth claims, the very things Nelson’s bill purports to avoid.

Thus the real agenda of the academic balance bill emerges. By categorizing certain types of historical or literary investigation as “progressive talking points,” and advocating instead for “facts,” the bill seeks to install its own form of indoctrination as the standard school curriculum.  All claims to knowledge and truth in the humanities are inherently ideological because they rely on the construction of narratives which explain the world. As such, any presentation of history and English must require that students and teachers adopt a viewpoint, in order to understand the narratives that structure our society. The bill’s proposal to return to a mythical era where students learned simply “the facts” is not an attempt to free schooling of ideology. Instead, it seeks to place a limit on which ideologies can be presented; it removes some ideologies while further reifying others by presenting them as the absolute truth.

When politicians like Senator Nelson and right-wing ideologues like Katherine Kersten refer to facts or neutrality or “balance,” what they are actually proposing is that school teachers support the right-wing narrative, the narrative of the hegemonic forces in society. History classes would be required to purge references to America’s history of colonialism, slavery, and exploitation for fear that it could present a biased, “progressive” narrative of history. They would be required to leave room for a narrative which glorifies America as an exceptional nation. Similarly, if English teachers are forced to leave aside the lenses of post colonialism and feminism, which Katherine Kersten has denounced as “progressive indoctrination,” they will not teach literature in a manner free of ideology. Instead, they will be teaching literature through the lens of the dominant ideology in society, as a succession of great works written by dead white men, works which reflect “the human condition,” a condition which seemingly does not include student’s own experience of race, gender, and class.

If this bill passes, it will mean that instead of providing students with the tools to think critically and interrogate their social reality, teachers will be required to prop up the dominant ideas which students already receive from the world around them. Instead of providing a variety of ideological lenses through which to analyze literature and history, teachers will be required to teach students a set of “facts” determined by those in power. Instead of actually allowing students to make up their own minds by requiring them to consider a variety of perspectives which challenge widely accepted ways of thinking, teachers will engage in real indoctrination.