“Your children are being indoctrinated,” writes Douglas Blair, a former teacher, now Heritage Foundation pundit. “The education system designed to teach them how to think critically has been weaponized by the radical left to push an anti-American agenda.”
He’s not the only one. “We are too far over the hill,” Morgan Watson, a public school teacher from the Chicago area, told The Daily Signal. “Public schools have become indoctrination centers.”
“The public school system is one of modern society’s most disastrous and destructive inventions,” Matt Walsh, a pundit for The Blaze, tweeted in August of 2020. “Public school teachers are afraid that you might be able to hear them brainwashing your kids,” he continued elsewhere. “The public school system cannot be saved,” he declared. “Save your child. Get them out. Let the system collapse and die.”
If you take these sentiments at face value, you will end up believing that we are in an intractable crisis that threatens the very soul of our nation. You should not, however, take these sentiments at face value.
Beyond the very straightforward fact that folks like Matt Walsh generally lack credibility—they exist seemingly for no other reason than to make big bucks by generating clicks by stirring up outrage—but beyond that, nothing about the “public schools are indoctrination camps” narrative really fits with the realities on the ground in most public schools.
For one, in order for any given public school to successfully function as an indoctrination center, it would have to be reasonably well functioning to begin with—operated by actors with a significantly greater reserve of competence than the average school administrative team. I say that not to insult the administrative bodies behind the average American public school, but simply to point out that it strains credulity to believe that school systems that struggle to teach their children basic mathematical skills are somehow well equipped to churn out young Stepford kids.
The narrative typically hinges on the notion that public schools are run by leftists, specifically secularists who are determined to root out any trace of religious devotion from your children. Even more specifically, we are told, the schools are governed by sexual revolutionaries, avant garde extremists looking to gain access to your children in order to induct them into a life of bizarre sexual fantasy.
I am not exaggerating these fears: “Children are being used as propagandized shields in the fight to force the sexual preferences of a few down the collective throat of the American people,” wrote North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson. “From teaching ‘gender fluidity’ to grade schoolers, to story time with drag queens, to nine year olds [sic] sexually dancing for grown ups [sic], those who intend to victimize children for their own sake are on the march. Those who push these agendas do so by bullying society with threats of castigation. They have created a climate of fear that pushes the painfully obvious voices of reality and reason from the conversation.”
To point out the obvious, there is a hint of truth to the narrative, in the sense that many school districts now require some form of compulsory “sexual identity” curriculum. So, your child takes a fairly strange 60 question test to tell them whether or not they’re trans. It’s goofy, no doubt. It’s probably actively harmful, given that kids are profoundly impressionable – especially adolescents in desperate search for an identity. But it’s profoundly unlikely that this is the primary source of your children’s newfound radical gender ideology.
“We need a collective organization of parents who oppose the current crop of gender ideology curriculums without flying off the handle and furnishing the internet with viral videos of themselves engaged in unhinged rants at the local school board meeting.”
Thinking back to when I was in school, students were forced to take a compulsory sex ed class. This being the buckle of the Bible Belt, our sex ed class was, as they say, “abstinence based.” Somebody came to the campus, held a school assembly, and talked about the importance of “saving yourself for marriage.” They said some weird gobbledygook about how “Your virginity is a special gift” that you’re supposed to “give to your husband.” Then they talked about “herpes,” “unwanted pregnancy,” the number of teenage girls who die during botched abortions each year. They tried to scare us out of copulating with stories of flesh-eating diseases, transmittable via our looming prom night hookups.
They meant well, but they fell on deaf ears. They might as well have been one of Charlie Brown’s teachers. Our looming prom night hookups proceeded as planned. Our classmates still had unprotected sex, still became pregnant, and rather valiantly raised them while completing their high school education. We ignored the endless, droning Don’t-Have-Sex-isms offered up by the School People who towered over us.
And to a significant extent, that same principle applies to today’s wonky gender ideology curriculum. While it will inevitably influence the current generation of public school students, that influence is subject to certain built-in checks and balances. Today’s “Gender Identity” programming is yesterday’s “D.A.R.E. To Say No To Drugs” programming.
The reality, much more difficult to swallow, is that if your children are coming to these beliefs, they are probably getting them through Tik-Tok or Tumblr, or Facebook, and so forth. It’s happening primarily under your roof—not, in most cases, via the classroom. The “public schools are indoctrination centers” narrative falters because it overestimates the competence and efficacy of the average public school.
None of this changes the fact that much of this curriculum really is off the rails and needs to be reined in and replaced with something more nuanced.
For example, the Washington public school system recently unveiled a new set of standards regarding their gender ideology curriculum:
“Beginning in Kindergarten, students will be taught about the many ways to express gender. Gender expression education will include information about the manifestations of traits that are typically associated with one gender. Crossdressing is one form of gender expression. Third graders will be introduced to the concept of gender identity. These children will be taught that they can choose their own gender. Fourth graders will be expected to “define sexual orientation,” which refers to whether a person identifies as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual; they’ll also be taught about HIV prevention. Children in fourth grade will be told that they can choose their sexual orientation. Fourth and fifth graders will learn about the relativity of gender roles and why such roles are social constructs that are not inherent to who we are as male or female human beings. Seventh graders will be expected to “distinguish between biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.” High school students will critically “evaluate how culture, media, society, and other people influence our perceptions of gender roles, sexuality, relationships, and sexual orientation.”
A piece of sample curriculum produced jointly by several advocacy groups dictates that “A student’s age and maturity — or that of their peers — should never be a basis for denying a transgender student an opportunity to transition.”
Unsurprisingly, California has been at the forefront of the controversy. “In June 2019, the California Teachers Association voted to support a proposal for allowing children leave school during school hours to receive transsexual hormones, without parental permission,” Allison Schuster reports. Similarly, she reported on several California Kindergarten classes in which “teachers inform their five and six-year-old students that their sex was randomly decided at birth,” that “now their mission to find what their gender is,” and that “anyone who questions this is abusing them.”
There’s nothing unreasonable about being troubled by these trends – and seeking to reverse them. But little is accomplished by adopting the full-tilt panic modeled by pundits like Matt Walsh or politicians like Mark Robinson. As the public school system suffers in thrall to extreme and irrational ideologies, the only viable antidote is to develop a “Calm Guard” – a collective organization of parents who oppose the current crop of gender ideology curriculums without flying off the handle and furnishing the internet with viral videos of themselves engaged in unhinged rants at the local school board meeting. Leave the extremism to the actual extremists, you could say. If we can be the Reasonable Person In The Room as these debates play out, public opinion my actually shift back in our favor. Let’s give it a shot.
Ryan Ellington is a pastor in rural North Carolina. He is the cofounder of Grindhouse Theology and The American Commons. He has a B.A. in Religion from Oklahoma Baptist University and a M.A. in Ethics, Theology, and Culture from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is distantly related to Johnny Cash, but not in a cool way.