People protest outside the offices of the New Mexico Public Education Department's office, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The education department proposed changes to the social studies curriculum that critics describe as a veiled attempt to teach critical race theory. Supporters say the new curriculum, which includes ethnic studies, is "anti-racist." Credit: Cedar Attanasio / AP

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Ian M. Mette is associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Maine. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the University of Maine.

Teachers who are accused of socialist indoctrination for simply building empathy in students by reading about the conditions of the historically marginalized. Growing anti-intellectual sentiment among Americans that reject science and social awareness in the name of being culturally sophisticated or woke. Principals leaving the profession because they no longer believe the public education system is capable of helping children develop as contributing members of our society.

These are all examples of how educators are stuck in the middle of a cultural proxy war, one that is steeped in ideological differences across the United States. Here in Maine, we see national attention being shined on the education system in our state that will determine how we will move forward in discussing and addressing racism, various forms of identity, and class. But to do so will require that we stop considering education an ahistorical endeavor.

Here’s the thing: If you have any sort of privilege in our country it is often hard for people to acknowledge that our culture is oppressive because it means unpacking the reality of what our society is built on almost seems unfathomable. We live in a capitalist society that devalues the condition of the working poor, which often deprives people of basic living conditions, safe housing, and access to healthcare that are all seen as second class. Our society increasingly celebrates anti-intellectualism, ignoring basic tenets of medicine as well as decrying those who are educated by labeling them as elite.

We continue to see attacks on people who give voice to the historically marginalized, including groups based on identities such as racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, and sexual identity/orientation, just to name a few. And we often fail to acknowledge that our country’s economy was founded on the enslavement of people to propel itself into a global powerhouse in just a few short generations, one that Maine certainly benefited from historically by providing lumber and shipbuilding that literally helped the logistic distribution of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

I say that these conditions of our society almost seem unfathomable because they are so layered and nefariously nuanced. But the reality is we live in a society that requires education to stop trying to be ahistorical if we are ever able to move forward as an equitable democracy. And that means that here, in Maine, we have to start acknowledging that education can no longer center on many of the traditions we were taught as “truth.”  

We need to allow children to explore ideas and empower them to change the world, one that needs rapid transformation if we are to respond to the societal and environmental consequences our society has already caused. We need to help our children think of making our society more inclusive, not less, by allowing children to read and reflect on different ways of being. We need to use education as a vehicle to have open dialogue about the political and moral actions that supported the enslavement of people, one that is an artificial social construct perpetuated today through various forms of anti-Blackness.

We need to stop testing kids so much and labeling them as at-risk or failing, and instead we need to humanize education by meeting children where they are and helping them better understand a world that often doesn’t see them as valuable individuals. We need to more actively combat anti-intellectualism and reimagine how education can be seen as a societal product instead of an economic engine. And all of this will require us to use the lessons of the past to stop pretending as though these realities don’t impact our work as educators.

We are at a time in the U.S. society where the wealth gap is greater than that of France in 1789. Think about that for a minute. That means that our society is so inequitable, the last time there was this large of an economic gap in a Western country a social revolution occurred. We can make a difference with this generation and all those that come after it – but it will require us to rethink and reimagine how we provide a “good” education to make our society better for all.