Adam Laats: The history of the surveillance of teachers.
In a piece for Slate, education historian Adam Laats takes a look at the long tradition of “picking on teachers.”
For a full century now, conservative politicians have attacked teachers to score easy political points. This, despite the fact that teachers, as a group, tend to consider themselves “moderate” (43 percent) or even “conservative” (27 percent), and their political views have long tended to match those of their local communities. Nevertheless, scare tactics about subversive teachers have been too tempting for politicians to resist. But although targeting teachers might score a short-term payoff at the ballot box, those attacks have always harmed public schools by driving teachers away.
In the first round of our modern educational culture wars, for example, lawmakers in Kentucky considered a bill to eliminate suspect teachers from their public schools. Their 1922 bill would have banned teaching evolution as well as atheism or “agnosticism.” Casting a wide net, the bill outlawed the teaching of any idea that might “weaken or undermine the religious faith of the pupils” in public schools. In addition, if any alert citizens suspected an educator of surreptitiously teaching science, they were enjoined to report the teacher, who would be interrogated within five days by the school board. If the school board considered them guilty, the teacher would be fired. The bill failed to pass, but only because a few conservative lawmakers received assurances from the president of the state’s flagship university that teaching evolution would be banned in practice, even without the new law.
In the 1930s, too, politicians were quick to accuse teachers of subversive schemes. In 1935, the U.S. Congress passed a law to force teachers in the public schools of D.C. to abjure any mention of communism, either inside or even outside of the classroom. Teachers were required to swear their innocence each time they picked up their paychecks. The law’s sponsor, Texas Democrat Thomas Blanton, even sent questionnaires to D.C. teachers, asking them if they believed in God or belonged to a union. In this case, the response of teachers’ defenders was swift and successful. Critics pointed out that schoolchildren would not be allowed to learn anything about global current events, the Soviet Union, or even the course of the First World War if the law were enforced. Due to the intense criticism, the law was repealed in 1937.