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Thoughts on “Common Sense” Education in Virginia

Governor Glenn Youngkin, in interviews and presentations, often refers to his policies as just “common sense.” For example, “common sense” is the typical description he provides for his views on public education in Virginia, a topic that played an important role in his winning the 2022 election. Imagining myself to be a sensible individual, and having spent much of my adult life as a (public) university professor of ancient history, I happen to care a great deal about real, life-long, and life-changing education, and I do not believe that Youngkin’s policies deliver genuine goods.

Youngkin’s Executive Order Number 1 (2022) was entitled: Ending the Use of Inherently Divisive Concepts (my italics) Including Critical Race Theory, and Restoring Excellence in K-12 Education in the Commonwealth. The words “inherently divisive concepts” occur numerous times in the Order, which promises “professional development and training so teachers and schools are prepared to engage students on important civics and historical issues in a fair and unbiased manner without imposing their own personal beliefs.” This Order completely misstates the nature of historical studies, and, I fear, orders teachers to be automatons.

In my opinion, “history,” in the sense of our human understanding of what happened in the past, inevitably is a subjective course of study (like all topics I would argue) and is inherently ideological. That is why I am suspicious of teachers who claim to teach only the “facts” of history, because “facts” always come from a point-of- view. Anyone who has had a car accident after which “eye-witnesses” saw different truths should understand this concern about “facts.” Others may well not agree with how I define history, but I think that is the surest proof of the statement’s truth. Historical thought requires a point-of-view, which by its nature will be biased. (For that matter, our political system also is based upon different political points-of-view, which is why we have different parties and elections.)

I think that students should always be encouraged to analyze/question textbooks and teachers in order to forge their own understandings/points-of-view. That is what I see as active learning, and that is what provides true quality education. How in the world should I as a teacher discuss slavery in a “fair and unbiased manner”? In a manner that is not “inherently divisive.” Am I supposed to present supposedly positive as well as negative aspects of slavery like Governor DeSantis is attempting to do in Florida? How do I as a teacher deal with the large-scale extirpation of Native Americans in Virginia in a manner that is not “divisive”? Putting multiple choice questions about Powhatan and Jamestown on the Virginia Learning Achievement Tests seems of little help. In fact, how do I as a teacher discuss any period ancient or modern while avoiding “inherently divisive concepts”? I should hope rather that students in Virginia schools should be taught as much as possible about how intricately complex human society really is.

Youngkin also has been presenting a number of “Parents Matter” meetings, growing out of Terry McAulffe’s rather problematic responses to parent complaints about education before the last election. Indeed, I (and no doubt the majority of Virginia’s teachers) certainly agree that parental concerns about education should be taken seriously. However, I somehow feel that “Parents Matter” meetings could easily be viewed as “inherently divisive.” Do parents of all racial/ethnic groups in the state agree with the governor’s non-divisive educational model? From the meetings I have seen attendees appear to be primarily “White.” Would not organized public conversations between parents and educational professionals be more productive? In addition, a major part of parental concern involves children’s sexual orientation and gender identity. These are deeply personal and complicated subjects, but I do believe that they demand both familial and non-familial “common sense” attention. For sure, nothing could be more inherently divisive than book banning and policies aimed at limiting the intellectual understanding of all of us.

G.J. Johnson
Staunton VA


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