New York Local History: Yonkers Sculpture Garden

New York Local History: Yonkers Sculpture Garden

For Juneteenth 2022, the City of Yonkers debuted a permanent art exhibit honoring the legacy of the nation’s first freed slaves. The Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden includes five life-size bronze sculptures created by artist Vinnie Bagwell depicting formerly enslaved Africans. The sculpture garden is located along the Yonkers Hudson River esplanade. According to Bagwell, “Public art sends a message about the values and priorities of a community. In the spirit of transformative justice for acts against the humanity of black people, I am grateful for those who supported this collective effort. The strongest aspect of the Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden coming to fruition is that it begins to address the righting of so many wrongs by giving voice to the previously unheard via accessible art in a public place while connecting the goals of artistic and cultural opportunities to improving educational opportunities and economic development.”

In Yonkers, Philipse Manor Hall was the seat of the Philipsburg Manor, a colonial estate that covered more than 52,000 acres of Westchester land. The Philipse family was involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and probably as many as two-dozen enslaved African slaves worked and lived at the manor. The enslaved Africans were freed in 1799, one of the first large emancipations in the United States. New York State finally ended slavery in 1827.

New York Local History: Underground Railroad in the North Country

New York Local History: Underground Railroad in the North Country

Source: North Country Public Radio

A few minutes outside the small town of Peru in New York’s Champlain Valley, there is a small farm that looks like any other in the area. A cluster of silos and red barns with fading paint are flanked by snow-covered fields and apple orchards, dormant for the winter. But this farm has something unique. A blue and yellow New York State historical marker identifies the property as a stop on the Underground Railroad, where “runaway slaves were concealed and protected on their way to freedom in Canada.”

There was no actual train involved in the network, explains Jacqueline Madison, the President of the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association. “It was a trail of conductors who helped them along the way [and] safe houses where they could stay,” she notes.

Communities from Watertown to Lake Champlain were part of that network of safe houses that helped people escape slavery in the American south during the decades leading up to the Civil War. Escapees typically traveled by foot or water. The railroad moniker was part of a secret code: safe places to stay were called stations and the owners of those properties were known as conductors. A full journey on the Underground Railroad typically took several months.

This is the history that Madison and the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association are dedicated to preserving. The group operates a museum in Keeseville, in the Champlain Valley south of Plattsburgh. It features the stories from both sides of the Underground Railroad: Black passengers and white conductors. One exhibit is dedicated to the former owner of that historic Peru farmhouse, a man named Stephen Keese Smith. The abolitionist Quaker purchased the property in 1851 and quickly established one of the barns as a hiding place for runaway slaves headed to Canada. There is no way to know with certainty exactly how many people Keese Smith aided while working as a conductor. But his later writings provide an estimate. “He talked about helping people get to freedom and he thinks he spent about $1000 doing that,” Madison explained. “And if we spent $2.50 per person, he would have helped over 400 people.”

Exact numbers are nearly impossible to come by in historical records because those helping escaped slaves often avoided keeping a paper trail. Involvement in the Underground Railroad was extremely dangerous for everyone, black or white. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required that escaped slaves be returned to their former owners – and carried stiff penalties for anyone who aided them. “If you were caught helping someone get to freedom,” Madison noted, “you could lose your property, you could be jailed, you could be fined. Terrible things could happen to you, your family, and friends if they suspected them of helping as well.”

The North Star Underground Railroad Museum fills up the bottom floor of an old 19th Century house. It’s packed with maps, faded newspaper articles, and portraits of notable members of the North Country section of the covert network. Standing before a map, Madison explains the various routes freedom-seekers would have followed to reach Canada. A western path originating in Pennsylvania went through Buffalo, up to Watertown, and crossed the St. Lawrence River at Ogdensburg. Two escape routes followed Lake Champlain: one through Vermont and another running from Albany to Rouse’s Point along the lake’s western shore. To find their way, escapees used folk songs learned on the southern plantations. They worked as a kind of secret oral map; with coded lyrics guiding freedom seekers on their journey north. One such tune called Follow the Drinking Gourd referenced landmarks like certain rivers and offered hints for how to identify friendly conductors. Drinking gourd was code for the Big Dipper – a celestial constellation that can be used to identify the North Star.

Although details can be hard to piece together, some stories of those who passed through the North Country to freedom have been recovered. An article written in 1837 by Vermont-born abolitionist Alvan Stewart for an anti-slavery newspaper recounts the story of an anonymous man who travelled through the North Country on his way to Canada. “I was headed to Ogdensburg, on my way north to Canada from South Carolina,” an actor declares in a re-enactment exhibit at the North Star Museum. “I had come up through the Champlain Canal, and then gone through Clinton and Franklin County.” That unknown man did eventually reach freedom north of the border, but his quest nearly ended in disaster just a few miles from his destination.

Outside of Ogdensburg, he stopped into a post office looking for work. Since New York had outlawed slavery in 1827, that would not necessarily have been out of place. However, slave owners offered rich rewards for the return for those who escaped, and slave catchers were permitted to operate even in anti-slavery states under the Fugitive Slave Act. When the anonymous freedom seeker entered the post office near Ogdensburg, the postmaster recognized him and explained that a reward for his capture had been posted. “I said to him, if you send me back then they’ll do terrible things to me,” the re-enactment continues. “Whip me. Hang me. Skin me alive. I begged him not to turn me in.” In this case, the postmaster ignored the reward, worth about $20,000 in today’s terms, and helped the man cross the St. Lawrence River into Canada.

Other escaped slaves decided to settle in North Country. In 1840, a Franklin County landowner named Gerrit Smith pledged to donate more than 120,000 acres of wilderness land in the Adirondacks to free black men. It would eventually become a settlement known as Timbuctoo. A man named John Thomas received 40 acres of un-cleared land from Smith. Thomas later sold that to buy a larger plot near Bloomingdale, NY, which he turned into a successful farm. Many years later, Thomas wrote his benefactor a letter, thanking Smith for the “generous donation” and revealing that he and his family greatly enjoyed the peace and prosperity of their “rural home.” Although Thomas was successfully established himself in the region, that was not the case for most recipients of Smith’s land. Harsh winters and tough soil drove many of the Black farmers to sell the land they had received and move away. The climate was not the only danger; at least once, slave catchers came to the area looking for Thomas. According to Madison, they first approached his neighbors seeking their help. As Madison tells it, Thomas’ neighbors informed the slave catchers that he was armed, would forcibly resist capture, and declared their intention to assist Thomas in repelling the catchers. The slave catchers are believed to have given up their pursuit.

In his later letter to Smith, Thomas hinted that his adopted community had begun to treat him as one of their own. “I have breasted the storm of prejudice and opposition until I began to be regarded as an American citizen,” he wrote. This may also be a reference to civic participation. At the time, New York State required men to own at least $250 worth of land to obtain the right to vote. Thomas’ obituary was published in the Malone Palladium in May 1895. It described him as “much respected in the community where he lived so long.” His descendants still live in that community. Through genealogy research, Madison and the North Star Museum discovered that two of John Thomas’ great-great grandsons still reside in the North Country. One of the descendants lives less than two miles from the cemetery in Vermontville where Thomas and his wife are buried.

New York Local History: Water from the Catskills

New York Local History: Water from the Catskills

Michelle Young


Ashokan Reservoir in the Catskills

New York City has some of the best drinking water in the country, but it did not come without a price. Most are familiar with the Croton Aqueduct, the first to bring fresh water to the city in 1842 and updated in 1890. Catskill Aqueduct was next (a push after Brooklyn was incorporated into the City of New York), built between 1917 and 1924, bringing 40% of New York City’s water from a series of reservoirs 163 miles away in upstate New York. New Yorkers may not know the six reservoirs of the Catskill Aqueduct, including Ashokan Reservoir, New York City’s largest, were formed by flooding a dozen towns.

The plan for the Catskill Aqueduct began in 1905 when the New York City Board of Water Supply was formed, allowing for the acquisition of property by eminent domain and the construction of dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts. The area in question was formerly a farming area, with logging and the quarrying of bluestone, some of which ended up on the Brooklyn Bridge. Two thousand people were relocated, including a thousand New Yorkers with second homes. Thirty-two cemeteries were unearthed and the 1,800 residents reburied elsewhere, to limit water contamination. Residents were offered $15 by the city ($65 later for the Delaware Aqueduct) to disinter their relatives and move them elsewhere.

Buildings and industries were relocated or burned down, trees and brush were removed from the future reservoir floor–all the work done predominantly by local laborers, African-Americans from the south and Italian immigrants. To control the fighting that arose between labor groups, a police force that became the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP) Police, was created. In sum, four towns were submerged while eight were relocated to build the Ashokan  Reservoir. When the dam was completed, steam whistles were blown for an hour warning residents that the water was coming. Today, remnants of foundations, walls, and more can still be seen, particularly when water levels are lower–often in the fall. Although access to the reservoirs has been limited since 9/11, you can see some of those archeological finds from bridges. You can also hike and bike along a ridge of the reservoir.

The last of the eminent domain lawsuits in the Ashokan Reservoir area was not settled in 1940 and it was not until 2002 that New York City made any moves to acknowledge the history in the Esopus Valley. The NYCDEP installed an outdoor exhibition in Olive, New York that commemorated the lost towns and the feat of the aqueduct itself, with the intention to add exhibits at five other reservoirs (although we were not able to find that the exhibition or any others are still available). Signage now shows the sites of the former towns.

The Delaware Aqueduct is the most recent of the city’s aqueducts and its story is similar to the Catskill Aqueduct. The Pepacton Reservoir (aka the Downsville Reservoir or the Downsville Dam) was formed by flooding four towns and submerging half of the existing Delaware and Northern Railroad. This reservoir provides 25% of the city’s drinking water, and combined the Catskill and Delaware Aqueduct provides 90% of the city’s water. In total, the construction of these reservoirs and aqueducts resulted in the destruction of 25 communities and the relocation of 5,500 across five New York State counties. Something to think about the next time you run the tap in New York City.

How the First African American Doctor Fought for Women’s Rights in Glasgow

How the First African American Doctor Fought for Women’s Rights in Glasgow

Mathew D. Eddy

(This essay was originally published in The Conversation)

James McCune Smith was the first African American to receive a medical doctorate from a university. Born in 1813 to a poor South Carolina runaway slave who had escaped to New York City, he went on to attend Glasgow University during the 1830s. When he returned to America, he became a leading black physician, a tireless abolitionist, activist and journalist. McCune Smith led an amazing life. He exposed false medical data in the 1840 American census. He supported women’s suffrage alongside the noted feminist Susan B. Anthony. And he wrote the introduction to Frederick Douglass’s sensational 1855 autobiographical slave narrative, My Bondage and My Freedom. Now, for the first time, my research has revealed that McCune Smith was also the first African American known to be published in a British medical journal – and that he used this platform to reveal a cover-up by an ambitious medical professor who was experimenting on vulnerable women in Glasgow in the 1830s.

I am a historian of science and medicine. I study how people learned scientific skills and I am especially intrigued by the history of how scientists and physicians made discoveries and how that knowledge then circulated between the academy and the public. One way to track this process is to compare what students learned in educational settings to how they used their scientific training to solve problems and make decisions later in life. My forthcoming book, Media and the Mind (2020, Chicago University Press), for example, uses school and university notebooks to reconstruct how students historically learned to create, analyze and visualize scientific data in ways that helped them understand the human body and the natural world when they finished their education.

Several years ago, I decided to investigate the history of how the testimony of hospital patients was transformed into scientific data by physicians. I eventually stumbled across the 1837 case of a young Glasgow doctor who sought to expose painful experimental drug trials that had been conducted on the impoverished women of a local hospital. That doctor was James McCune Smith. He had written articles detailing how the women of a local charity hospital were being subjected to a painful experimental drug. It was a career changing moment for me because I had not encountered this kind of activism in my previous research on medical education.

Who was this doctor? What led him to speak out? Where did he learn to place his knowledge of science and medicine in the service of equality and justice? Upon closer examination, despite his many accomplishments, virtually nothing had been written about McCune Smith’s time in Glasgow or about his work as a practicing physician in New York. Like the children of many runaway slaves in New York, McCune Smith grew up in Five Points, Lower Manhattan, one of the poorest and most densely populated urban areas of America at that time. Though the state fully emancipated all former slaves in 1827,  when McCune Smith was a teenager, discriminatory educational policies, unsanitary living conditions, chronic illness and infectious diseases ensured that the prospects for a free African American teenager in the early part of the 19th century were limited. Indeed, in an article entitled “Freedom and Slavery for African-Americans,” published in the New York Tribune in 1844, McCune Smith observed that only six of the 100 boys who attended school with him from 1826 to 1827 were “still now living”. He noted further that they were “all white.”

Though technically “free,” the lives of African Americans in New York during the 1820s and 1830s were marred by the legacy of slavery and discrimination. Runaway slaves were openly hunted in the city’s alleys, streets and wharves. McCune Smith reflected on these events in an essay that he wrote about the life of his school classmate, Henry Highland Garnet. An abolitionist and Presbyterian minister, Garnet was the first African American to speak before Congress. McCune Smith recalled the trauma experienced by Garnet’s family in 1829 when they were tracked by slave-hunters. They barely escaped by jumping out of a two-story building and hiding in the house of a local grocer. When they returned to their home they found, in the words of McCune Smith: “The entire household furniture of the family was destroyed or stolen; and they were obliged to start anew in life empty-handed.”

Despite many challenges, New York’s African Americans founded their own businesses, churches, political associations, printing presses and more. In addition to receiving support and encouragement from a community of relatives and friends, McCune Smith’s path to becoming a doctor was significantly aided by his education at the African Free School. Older students were taught penmanship, drawing, grammar, geography, astronomy, natural philosophy and navigation. When American universities denied his medical school applications, the free school community played a role in raising funds for him to attend Glasgow University.

After sailing from New York to Liverpool, McCune Smith arrived in Glasgow in 1832. Thanks to maritime trade, it was one of the largest cities in the country and the university’s medical school was one of the best in Europe. Britain had prohibited the slave trade in 1807 and it fully abolished slavery the year after his arrival in 1833. Though there were not many African Americans in Glasgow, black writers, had been operating in Britain since the 1770s. Then, in 1809 Edinburgh University admitted William Fergusson who was from Jamaica and was the university’s first student of African descent. Though he took medical courses at the university, Fergusson did not stay to complete a medical doctorate. Instead, he received a license from the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh in 1813. He then practiced as a surgeon in the British military and eventually became governor of the then-British colony of Sierra Leone. McCune Smith joined the ranks of these torchbearers and became the first African American known to graduate with a BA, MA, and medical doctorate from Glasgow University. By the time McCune Smith began his studies in Glasgow, opposition to slavery had moved beyond the walls of the university. There was an active abolitionist community and it founded the Glasgow Emancipation Society in 1833. McCune Smith, still only an undergraduate, was one of the founding members. After he graduated, a number of black students attended the university over the course of the century.

Despite living in a foreign country, McCune Smith excelled at his studies and received several academic awards. The Glasgow medical faculty placed equal emphasis on scientific rigor and hands-on clinical experience. In addition to learning chemistry, anatomy and physiology from some of Britain’s leading doctors, he witnessed cutting-edge experiments and new medical technologies being demonstrated in his lectures. He graduated with honors in 1837 and was immediately given a prestigious clinical residency in Glasgow’s Lock Hospital. He worked there alongside the eminent Scottish obstetrician and gynecologist, William Cumin, treating women who had contracted venereal diseases.

The difficulty in pursuing a project of this nature is that many of the scientific papers and publications of black physicians have been lost to the sands of time. Unlike the many collections that university libraries have dedicated to preserving the legacy of white doctors who were alumni or donors, there is no “James McCune Smith Medical Collection” where scholars can go to study his medical career and scientific ideas. No one has yet told the full story of how African Americans like McCune Smith became doctors or how they used their knowledge of medical science to fight injustice and prejudice. The hidden histories of these black physicians based in countries spread around the Atlantic Ocean led me to start my current research project on how they used their scientific training to counter the rise of racist medical theories -theories which erroneously suggested that black bodies were physically different from other bodies and could more easily withstand the stress, pain and labour of enslavement.

Though a number of McCune Smith’s articles were republished several years ago, the whereabouts of his personal medical library, clinical notebooks, patient records, office ledgers and article drafts are unknown. Likewise, his manuscript Glasgow diary and letters have been lost. Though aspects of his career have received attention from historians in recent years, a biography of his extraordinary life has not been written.

This was the situation when I discovered his efforts to expose the harmful drug trials that were being conducted on the women of the Glasgow Lock Hospital. The evidence consisted of two articles that he had published during the spring and summer of 1837 in the London Medical Gazette, a weekly journal with articles about medicine and science.

I originally came upon these articles by reading page after page of medical journals housed in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. When I found them, they immediately stood out because they took the testimony of poor female patients seriously. When I realized that McCune Smith was the first African American to graduate from a Scottish university, I could not believe what I had discovered.

New discoveries

Discovering McCune Smith’s articles was momentous because they are the first currently known to have been published by an African American medical doctor in any scientific journal. Scientists in the 19th century published articles for many reasons. Some wanted to popularize their research in a way that advanced their careers. Others hoped their research would benefit the general public.

The fascinating aspect about McCune Smith’s articles in relation to the historical emergence of the scientific journal is that they were published to expose the unethical misapplication of scientific experiments. This means that they offer new insight into how he learned to combine the power of the press with his medical training to fight inequality and injustice in Britain prior to returning to New York.

The story they tell is extraordinary. The events occurred in the spring and summer of 1837 while McCune Smith was serving in the Glasgow Lock Hospital as a resident physician in gynecology. The hospital was a charity institution set up by the city for impoverished women suffering from acute venereal diseases such as gonorrhea and syphilis.

After consulting the ward’s records and speaking with the patients, McCune Smith discovered that Alexander Hannay, a senior doctor in the hospital, was treating women suffering from gonorrhea with an experimental drug called silver nitrate, a compound that a handful of doctors used as a topical treatment for infected skin tissue or to stop bleeding. But it was normally used in low concentrations mixed into a solution, with doctors emphasizing that it should be applied with caution and as a last resort.

But Hannay was administering the drug in a solid form, which meant that it was highly concentrated and caused a terrible burning sensation. He fancied this usage to be innovative and was relatively unfazed when his patients repeatedly asked for less painful forms of treatment. After speaking with the women and further consulting the hospital’s records, McCune Smith realized that Hannay was effectively treating the women as guinea pigs – as non-consenting participants – in an experimental trial that involved a very painful drug.

At that time, silver nitrate was a newly available substance and its long-term effects were relatively unknown. There were a handful of military doctors who used it experimentally to cauterize skin ulcers or wounds of soldiers that would not stop bleeding. But some medical books classified it as a poison. Glasgow’s medical students, particularly those who studied with Prof William Cumin, avoided using it on internal organs due to its unknown effects. Instead, when it came to gynecological cases involving ulcers or infections, students learned to use an alum solution because its effects were generally considered to be effective and less painful.

Hannay went beyond using the silver nitrate on the skin. He applied it to the internal reproductive organs of women, at least one of whom was pregnant. McCune Smith’s article pointed out that the baby subsequently died through complications surrounding a miscarriage. It also intimates that a few women died after the application of silver nitrate. Since the drug’s effect on internal organs was unknown, he believed that that the deaths could not be treated as a separate occurrence.

In addition to being McCune Smith’s superior, Hannay was a medical professor at Glasgow’s newly established Anderson University. The easiest thing for McCune Smith to do was to say nothing. The plight of the Lock Hospital patients would not have been a major concern for many medical men at the time. The patients were impoverished women and most doctors assumed they were former prostitutes.

But McCune Smith’s perspective was different. Unlike his peers, he had spent his early years in New York City witnessing the pain and suffering caused by poverty, inequality and exploitation. So he decided to place his knowledge of medical science in the service of these women.

McCune Smith knew that there were other effective treatments for gonorrhea. This allowed him to see that Hannay was more interested in bolstering his reputation with a pharmaceutical discovery than helping his patients. But his studies had given him another equally powerful tool – data analysis. His ability to use this tool can be seen in his London Medical Gazette articles. The gazette was a journal of some repute, serving the British medical community as well as physicians based in Europe and America. In his article, he wrote: “The materials of my paper on the subject of gonorrhea of women were collected whilst I held the office of clerk to the Glasgow Lock Hospital.”

He made his case against the experiments by extracting figures from handwritten registers that recorded the condition of patients being treated in the hospital over an entire year. He had learned to collect, categorize, and analyze data in the clinical lectures that were required for graduation. This method was part of the new science of “vital statistics” that used medical data to predict or prevent disease in people, cities and even countries. Known as “medical statistics” today, it was becoming more commonly used in journals that published articles on medical science.

McCune Smith’s articles showed that the drug trials were ineffective and presented an unwarranted risk. They also revealed that Hannay and his team of assistants had attempted to cover up data in the hospital records that damaged their claims about the drug’s efficacy and their position that its side effects were minimal. McCune Smith did not mince his words. He wrote: “By this novel and ingenious mode of recording the Hospital transactions for 1836, [Prof Hannay’s team] keeps out of view the evidence of the severity of the treatment, and the amount of mortality, while, at the same time, the residence of the patients in the house seems shorted, the cost of each diminished, and the treatment made to appear more than usually successful.”

Accordingly, he called for the trials to stop immediately. But McCune Smith was not happy to simply cite statistics. He wanted to give these women a voice too. To achieve this, he emphasized the extreme pain that they were experiencing. Their suffering had been played down by those conducting the experimental trials. Hannay even suggested that the women were dishonest and unreliable witnesses. To counter this suggestion, McCune Smith quoted the women themselves, some of whom said that the drug felt like it was “burning their inside with caustic”. This was strong language. They were effectively saying that the drug felt like a flame being applied to their bodies.

McCune Smith’s decision to use this kind of visceral language on behalf of impoverished women in a scientific article was rare at the time. Nor was it common in the lengthy, fact-laden lectures given at Glasgow’s medical school. So where did McCune Smith learn to write like this? Finding an answer to this question has been difficult because hardly any of McCune Smith’s manuscripts from his Glasgow years are known to have survived. But thanks to a recent discovery that I made with the rare books librarian Robert MacLean in the Archives and Special Collections of Glasgow University, a better picture is starting to emerge.

Based on my previous research on Scottish student notekeeping, I knew that Glasgow University kept handwritten registers of books borrowed by students from its libraries during the 19th century. Luckily, it turned out that McCune Smith’s manuscript library borrowing record did, in fact, still exist. It was a gem that had remained hidden for the past two centuries in the dusty pages of Glasgow’s library registers.

The discovery was historic because it revealed that he definitely took the university’s moral philosophy class. The course was taught by James Mylne and it encouraged students to judge the accuracy of statistical data when making moral decisions. The registers also showed that McCune Smith consulted the Lancet, the leading medical journal of research and reform that promoted the same kind of public health activism evinced in his 1837 Gazette articles.

Finding the student reading record for any historical figure is like striking gold. In McCune Smith’s case it was doubly exciting because so little is known about his intellectual development. In addition to literature relevant to his studies, he checked out several 1835 issues of the Lancet which regularly identified links between pain and maltreatment.

It is likely these accounts inspired him to use a similar approach in his gazette articles. But even the Lancet’s references to pain and cruelty barely addressed the plights of impoverished women, let alone those who had been regularly subjected to experimental drugs. In this respect McCune Smith’s concern for the Lock Hospital patients surpassed the reform agenda promoted by Britain’s most progressive medical journal.

Further investigations have revealed that there were many other black physicians who lived in America in the decades after McCune Smith became a doctor. As revealed in research by the Massachusetts Historical Society, there was, for example, John van Surly DeGrasse. He studied at Bowdoin College in Maine, received a medical doctorate in the 1840s, set up a practice in Boston and became the first African American member of the Massachusetts Medical Association.

There was also Alexander Thomas Augusta, who, despite Virginia laws that banned free blacks from learning to read, was educated by a minister, moved to Toronto and graduated from Trinity College’s medical school in 1856. Notably, both Augusta and DeGrasse served in the union army as physicians with the rank of major during the American Civil War.

After McCune Smith returned to America in the autumn of 1837, he served as a professional role model for African Americans who studied medicine from the 1840s onward. By the time younger black physicians such as DeGrasse and Augusta began their studies, McCune Smith had already opened a practice that served patients from both sides of the color line and had published several scientific articles. For the rest of his career his name was a frequent byline in articles about health and society published by the African American press, as well as larger newspapers with mixed readership, like the New York Tribune.

An excellent example of McCune Smith’s later medical activism is the collection of articles that he published during the 1840s about the national census. The main issue was that slavery advocates had noticed that the mortality rates of African Americans in northern asylums were higher than those of black people in the southern states. This led them to conclude, erroneously, that freedom somehow damaged their mental and physical health.

Rather than engage with their desire to co-opt convenient data, McCune Smith used his knowledge of medical statistics to skillfully undermine their attempts to find scientific data that fit their discriminatory world view. He conducted his own investigation and proved that the original collection of the figures on site in the northern asylums had been flawed and that, as a result, the data was incorrect and could not be used to accurately determine the health of black asylum patients.

McCune Smith did not stop there. He turned the tables on slavery advocates by transforming the new accurate mortality statistics into a tool that could be used to fight inequality. His 1844 New York Tribune article about the census concluded: “These facts prove that within 15 years after it became a Free State, a portion of the Free Black Population of New York have improved the ratio of their mortality 13.28% – a fact without parallel in the history of any People.”

Put simply, the correct data revealed that the health of African Americans unburdened by the deprivation and forced labour of slavery thrived once they left the south and lived lives as free citizens in the north.

McCune Smith’s publications are a significant early chapter in the history of how black activists have worked tirelessly over the past two centuries to disentangle erroneous interpretations of scientific data from discriminatory claims about poverty, gender and race. They provide crucial historical insight into the relationships between race, science and technology that exist today.

In many respects McCune Smith’s desire to locate and publicize correct data about asylum patients built on the approach that he had developed in his articles about the mistreatment of women in Glasgow’s Lock Hospital. He continued to publish articles throughout his career that challenged those who sought to use science to justify discrimination and inequality. In 1859 he even went so far as to challenge former President Thomas Jefferson’s discriminatory racial assumptions when he wrote: “His arrangement of these views is so mixed and confused, that we must depart from it.”

McCune Smith’s activism showed aspiring African Americans that becoming a professional black physician could be more than simply treating patients. For him, being an expert in medical science also included using his training to fight injustice and inequality.

His publications are an indispensable chapter in the American history of science and medicine. But they are an important part of British history too. Because it was in Britain where he first published articles that placed his knowledge of medicine in the service of equality and justice. It was the libraries of Glasgow University – which now has a building named in his honor – and the wards of the Lock Hospital, which fed his towering intellect and fired his passion for medical knowledge, as well as the pursuit of justice for the powerless and oppressed.

Reframing How to Become More Inclusionary in Social Studies: An Educator and an Expert Reflect

Reframing How to Become More Inclusionary in Social Studies: An Educator and an Expert Reflect

Casey T. Jakubowski

The inclusion or exclusion of people, places, and events from history and a state’s designated social studies curriculum is a political decision, made fraught with what makes the final cut is telling about a system or society (Osler, 2009).  As a New York State certified social studies teacher, and now a teacher educator, I recognize the need to broaden the State’s inclusion of so many different people, events, and history. Usually the addition of underrepresented voices to the predominant narrative focuses on peoples from outside European backgrounds. With the recent passing of my great aunt, and her connection to our family, and my exploration of genealogy, I was wondering  why does Poland not appear as a large empire, and its accomplishments not recorded in the New York State Social Studies Standards? I am also concerned that Poland’s narrative is cast as a victim of world history, and its large and cohesive diaspora ignored?

I was concerned, due to the positionality that I hold as a member of the educated elite (Camicia,2015) raising this exclusion as a “minor complaint” since my ethnic backgrounds (Polish, Irish, and other European nations) are robustly included in the state standards. Yet, I was bothered, remembering what I knew, and what I taught in 9th and 10th grade social studies, and when I was an adjunct college professor teaching introductory world history and United States History (Jakubowski, 2016). Most American students do not know “their history” (Heafner & Fitchett, 2018). As I now have an opportunity to teach future elementary teachers with responsibility to implement social studies, my students and I are partially aware of European history, and the diaspora of most Euro- American Immigrant history, so our pasts are not excluded from most classrooms. Yet  Poles and Polonia have often been treated as “others” due to their Eastern European backgrounds, Catholic and Jewish religions, and the tragedy of the Polish nation forced into the Soviet Sphere of influence after World War II (Davies, 2005). 

In the historiography of the empire, and its diaspora, Poland, has since 1066, leaned west with its culture, language, and religion (Davies, 2005). The nation of Poland uses Latin script, and adopted Western Christianity (Davies, 2005). Historically, its rulers, when not native Polish, have originated from France, the Holy Roman Empire, and western leaning states (Davies, 2005)

The Polish military, from the Siege of Vienna to World War II, have fought valiantly, and often against foreign aggressors (Davies, 2005).  With the Cold War ramping up, and  a desire by the US and the UK to appease Stalin, Poland’s government in exile, its historical contributions to the Western War effort in World War II, and other places were erased from the textbooks (Olsen & Cloud, 2003).

Unfortunately, in New York’s social studies curriculum and framework, a real exclusion of a large and resilient ethnic culture is missing. The importance and impact of Poland and Polonia to the growth and development of the United States needs telling, and it is really concerning that there is a large gap in the curriculum (Thompson, 2005).  This paper serves as a review, from my lens as an ethnically identifying Polish American (Polonia) to examine one of the five largest states (by population) treatment of a large ethnic minority in its history education curriculum.

Literature review

This is a two part brief literature  review. First is a brief introduction to some texts which may help teachers understand the significance of Poland and Polonia in history. The second part is a brief discussion of how exclusion from curricula can impact students. It is important to note, that while all history is significantly political, a question emerges: with almost 1 million Poles and Polonia in New York State, why is such a significant percentage of the population excluded from the social studies curriculum?

Poland and Polonia’s history is robust, and reflects many advances and challenges. Polonia is defined as the diaspora of the Polish Ethnic population into the world (Davies, 2005).  Very little of this profoundly engaging history, culture, and society is intentionally included in the New York State K-12 social studies frameworks. As I have written elsewhere (Jakubowski, 2021; 2020), teacher’s backgrounds are critical and crucial to understanding their professional pathways. Further, the exclusion of Polish and Polonia’s impact on world and US history is very disconcerting, especially as the role which the Pope, the nation, and its American diaspora played in ending the western-eastern cold war (Ubrico, 2006; Weigel, 2010).  I would recommend that we create a more balanced approach to European history, and offer additional opportunities for students to learn about places beyond France, Britain, and Germany.  One place to start is the extraordinary readable work by Bukowczyk (2017) which examines the Polish diaspora to the United States.  Recently published (Bukowczyk, 2021) work concerning Polish and Polonia women is a short, yet extraordinarily useful resource for teachers.

From the  American Revolution (Pulaski & Kosciuszko) Polish nobility heroically assisted Washington and others to fight for American independence.  Marie nee Sklodowska Curie, became the only winner of the Nobel prize in Chemistry and Physics. Poland was viewed as the breadbasket of Eastern Europe, and provided significant grains to Europe. After the division of Poland and the late 1800s uprisings, millions of Poles immigrated to the United States, where they became workers and leaders in the industrialization of cities in the Northeast. Through their ancestors’ hard work, and creation of religious and cultural communities, especially in urban areas, Polonia anchored the rise in industry and community architecture with the soaring churches and foods which are hearty and now part of American foods.  Dr Francis Fronczak, the first Polish American awarded a medical doctor degree, and became the Commissioner of Health, and led efforts during World War I and II for relief both in Europe and in the United States for displaced persons (Dabrowski, 2018).

When called upon to serve its adopted homeland in the trenches of World War I and II, as well as Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East, Polonia produced statesmen, leaders,  heroes, like LT. COL.  Matthew Urban, and General John Shalikashvilli (Bukowicz, 2017). With so much history to select, it is upsetting that Poland and Polonia are not a greater part of New York State’s social studies curriculum (Jakubowski, 2016).

Literature review: Exclusions

There has recently been significant national debate on who, what, and why certain aspects of teaching are acceptable.  As revealed by the debate over critical race theory, slavery, and under represented communities, many conservative state legislatures have enacted legislation banning the teaching of controversy. The public debate has led to a number of critiques of not only state legislatures, but of state standards in social studies, and who is included, who is excluded, and the politics behind the decisions (Popp, et al, 2021)

As one leading article reported (Au & Apple, 2009), all curriculum is designed to include or exclude people, events and memory for a multitude of reasons. With the current debates concerning Critical Race Theory, and what the term means, and the legality of teaching the topic in schools, many social studies teachers and elementary educators are concerned that a heritage crusade is emerging from the conservative powers to limit exposure to a wide range of topics, including slavery in the United States’ schools (Giroux, 2021).   Harris & Reynolds, (2014) in their review and study of history curriculum discovered that  “feel a lack of personal connection to the past, as they do not see themselves in the history they are taught.”  The need to ensure students understand history is crucial and critical. It is even more important that as the United States, and New York diversify, the increase of historically marginalized groups are included in the curriculum.  In a profoundly important study, Levstik (2008), investigated and found how absences in the state sponsored curriculum extended into the textbook, and classroom repertoire of teachers. Barton & Levstik (2018) also found this phenomena in a second study, and discovered that adolescents who are excluded from the curriculum as an identity group seek to understand what happened, both positively and negatively.

 Where there is absence, there is silence. And silence, especially among Polonia, has historical roots in discriminiation. As Pula (1995) and many others have reported, early Polish immigrants, and then later  Polish Americans faced significant discrimination from the more settled white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and others. The anti-Eastern European, anti-Catholic, and other forms of bigotry in the nation created burdens within the communities. In Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Albany, and New York City, many Polonia members created their own communities, civic societies, and schools, as the education system was charged with creating Americans, and recruiting for the Protestant churches through public bible readings. As Bukowczyk (1998) revealed in his work, the Polish American Community was othered deeply and with true discrimination across the north eastern United States, as labor looked upon these post 1890 immigrants as obsticles towards increasing pay, benefits, and unionization.

Therefore, a rich historical tradition is missing from the United States and world, with the exclusion of this literature. And, with significant numbers of Polish Americans in the New York State cities, suburbs, and rural areas, we now turn to the actual study of New York State’s Social Studies Curriculum.

The study

Utilizing critical discourse analysis (Gee, 2014) this paper examines the New York State Social Studies framework.  Critical Discourse Analysis is the examination of the materials and resources within a document. Critical Discourse Analysis further asks why documents were created, and what the significant purpose for the communication to a broader range of people beyond the initial stakeholders who created the document. The framework is crucial, as New York is one of the largest states in the United States, and is influential in publishing classroom resources such as textbooks. Further, many New York teachers are part of larger, national professional groups in the teaching of education majors, and social studies groups. This study reviewed the 2021 updates of the New York State Social Studies frameworks, or (NYSSSF, 2021) the guiding document for teachers and students in the 600+ school districts in New York State. 

The genesis for the latest social studies framework was the desire of the New York State Education Department, in the Board of Regents action plan to update the framework after the release of the Common Core State Learning Standards, identified the need to include more “history” post 9-11.  It was decided in 2014 to empanel a list of experts in multiple fields to create a more robust social studies curriculum, and a new set of Regents Exams, which are the penultimate end of course exams. With significant criticism of past regents exams by scholars (Dozono, 2020; Grant, 2001; Hursh, 2001; Maestri, 2006) the decision was made to implement new regents exam format, and mandate teachers and students, alike, focus on content specifications which was explicitly spelled out under broader  key ideas and  conceptual understandings (NYSSSF, 2021, p. 10).  The new framework retained the 10 areas of core knowledge and skills from the National Council for the Social Studies, and implemented five skills of an engaged scholar, as part of the national College, Career, and Civic Life standards (Swan & Griffin, 2013). An Inquiry Arc suggested to teachers that the C3 Standards, along with state specific content, would create a “ better social studies” experience for students (Swan & Griffin, 2013).

Undertaking Discourse Analysis, I started with an overall read of the K-12 New York State Framework. From the initial read, I explored for specific words related to Poland, the grade level of their first appearance, and then their frequency.


Poland specifically appears once in the entire 150+ page document. In 11th grade United States history and geography, Poland is included as a “throwaway” to the cold war, specifically how decisions were made to impact people following World War II. The point of the specific bullet is focused on America, and its Cold War conflict with the USSR. While 11th grade is focused on the United States, the unit wants students to understand how the previously “insulated” United States was forced onto the world stage as an emerging superpower. What does this significant lack of content mean? An over 1000 year old empire, the home to a number of scientific, political, religious, cultural, environmental and archeological treasures is absent. 


How can teachers be helped, educated, and resourced when there is a glaring and profound absence of one of the more significant ethic groups in the state? First, throughout the document, there are “latitudes’ ‘ given to teachers to allow them to focus on “local history” as necessary.  In the 2000 census, almost one million Polish and Polonia lived in New York State. Polish Americans are local to the State. Therefore, it is up to teachers in the classroom to include the Polish and Polish Americans across the curriculum, with little formal resources and training.

Second, the state of the current curriculum must be revised. With the (renewed) rise of Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, and the continued immigration of Poles to North America as the European Union and the United Kingdom have reduced acceptance of Polonia migrants. The state education department’s curriculum office must ensure that in their next revision to the state social studies scope and sequence, the Polish and Polish American community is represented in the topics covered.

Third, most students are unprepared with understanding the role of Eastern Europeans in US and American culture from the second great immigration wave post 1890. While the Irish, Armenian, Bosnian, and other tragedies are included, why are the achievements, and repression of the Polish not? Why does the 9th and 10th grade World history and Geography curriculum not include mention of the founding of Jagiellon University, the Liberal Veto by the Sejim? Why are the Western  names of the scholars, such as Copernicus and Curie included, but not their Polish ones?  The Polish Americans contribution to US history is profoundly lacking as well. Many immigrant Poles were part of the farming communities, the second industrialization in the United States, and the suburbanization following World War II. Many Polish American communities in the Northeast built the large churches which dot city skylines. The laborers, families, and homesteaders contributed to the growth and economic prosperity of the post World War II era. The Polonia community actively sent monetary aid to relatives in Poland suffering under communism. These Americans witnessed, supported and thrived, using their limited influence to help Pope John Paul II end communism in the Eastern European nations. Their Polish Language newspapers spread the business advertisements of local entrepreneurs, and their choices of houses, often vacated by previous immigrant communities enlivened downtowns, until the Post World War II suburbanization efforts and red lining led to the decay we see today. Yet the Polish culture and tradition of many communities is rebounding, and there is hope that the revitalization of historic Polonia will lead to more knowledge and understanding (Pienkos, 2019). 


History and Social Studies are an ever evolving part of the New York State school curriculum and standards. As literature reviewed above explains, excluding students from the curriculum leads to disengagement, and disassociation. In New York, one of the largest ethic groups, the Polish and Polish Americans, are de facto excluded from over 99% of the curriculum. In reviewing the 2021 New York State Social Studies Frameworks, the total number of times Poland, Polish Americans, or related content is explicitly covered is once. Therefore, the State of New York is excluding one of the largest and most significant groups from study. The lack of inclusion of Polish and Polish American history effectively excludes future generations an opportunity to explore the contributions, interdisciplinary, of one of the largest empires, and important immigrant communities to the United States. It is imperative that the New York State Education Department right this wrong, in order to increase the inclusivity in its guide to teaching and learning for the fourth largest state in the nation.


Au, W. W., & Apple, M. W. (2009). The curriculum and the politics of inclusion and exclusion. In Beyond Pedagogies of Exclusion in Diverse Childhood Contexts (pp. 101-116). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Barton, K. C., & Levstik, L. S. (2018). “It  wasn’ta good part of history”: National identity and students’ explanations of historical significance. In Researching history education (pp. 240-272). Routledge.

Bukowczyk, J. J. (1998). Polish Americans, Ethnicity and Otherness. The Polish Review, 43(3), 299-313.

Bukowczyk, J. J. (2017). A history of the Polish Americans. Routledge.

Bukowczyk, J. Ed. (2021). Through Words and Deeds: Polish and Polish American Women in History. University of Illinois Press.

Camicia, S. P. (2015). Positionality, recognition, and dialogue in democratic education. The importance of teaching social issues, 166-175.

Davies, N. (2005). God’s playground a history of Poland: Volume 1 & 2). Oxford University Press.

Dabrowski, S. (2018). Francis Eustachius Fronczak 1874-1955″ A Loyal Buffalonian” Study in Cultural Dualism. Buffalo State College, Fronczak collection.

Dozono, T. (2020). The passive voice of White supremacy: Tracing epistemic and discursive violence in world history curriculum. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 42(1), 1-26.

Gee, J. (2014). Discourse Analysis. New York: Sage.

Giroux, H. (2021). The Plague of White Supremacy in the Age of Fascist Politics. Fast Capitalism, 18(1).

Grant, S. G. (2001). An uncertain lever: Exploring the influence of state-level testing in New York State on teaching social studies. Teachers College Record, 103(3), 398-426.

Harris, R., & Reynolds, R. (2014). The history curriculum and its personal connection to students from minority ethnic backgrounds. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(4), 464-486.

Heafner, T. L., & Fitchett, P. G. (2018). US history content knowledge and associated effects of race, gender, wealth, and urbanity: Item Response Theory (IRT) modeling of NAEP-USH achievement. The Journal of Social Studies Research, 42(1), 11-25.

Hursh, D. (2001). Social studies within the neo-liberal state: The commodification of knowledge and the end of imagination. Theory & Research in Social Education, 29(2), 349-356.

Jakubowski, C. (2016). The Polish Americans and American History. Social Science Docket 16(1) pp. 31-32.

Jakubowski, C. (2020). Thinking about Teaching. Alexandra, VA: Edumatch

Jakubowski, C. (2021). A Cog in the Machine. Alexandra, VA: Edumatch.

Levstik, L. S. (2018). Articulating the silences: Teachers’ and adolescents’ conceptions of historical significance. In Researching history education (pp. 273-291). Routledge.

Maestri, M. A. (2006). The myth of a multicultural curriculum: An analysis of New York State US history regents. The History Teacher, 39(3), 381-402.

NYSSSF (2021) . The New York State Social Studies Frameworks. Albany: New York State Education Department. Retrieved from

Olson, L., & Cloud, S. (2003). A Question of Honor: The Koâsciuszko Squadron: the Forgotten Heroes of World War II. Alfred a Knopf Incorporated.

Osler, A. (2009). Patriotism, multiculturalism and belonging: political discourse and the teaching of history. Educational Review, 61(1), 85-100.

Pienkos, D. E. (2019). The New Ethnicity Movement and Polish Americans: Its Coming, Going, Significance, Consequences. Polish American Studies, 76(2), 64-79.

Popp, J. S., Montgomery, J., Hoard, J., & Brock, C. (2021). Transforming social studies curriculum to integrate a social justice framework. Social Studies Research and Practice.

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Swan, K., & Griffin, S. (2013). Beating the odds: The college, career, and civic life (C3) framework for social studies state standards. Social Education, 77(6), 317-317.

Thompson, E. M. (2005). Ways of Remembering: The Case of Poland. Toronto Slavic Quarterly, 12, 1-14.

Ubriaco, R. D. (2006). Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due: Cold War Political Culture, Polish American Politics, the Truman Doctrine, and the Victory Thesis. The Polish Review, 51(3/4), 263-281.

Weigel, G. (2010). The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II–The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy. Image.

Teaching Controversial Issues: Teachers’ Freedom of Speech in the Classroom

Teaching Controversial Issues: Teachers’ Freedom of Speech in the Classroom

Arlene Gardner

What is the purpose of education? The conventional answer is the acquisition of knowledge. Looking beyond this facile response, most people will agree that the true purpose of education is to produce citizens. One of the primary reasons our nation’s founders envisioned a vast public education system was to prepare youth to be active participants in our system of self-government.  John Dewey makes a strong case for the importance of education not only as a place to gain content knowledge, but also as a place to learn how to live. In his eyes, the purpose of education should not revolve around the acquisition of a predetermined set of skills, but rather the realization of one’s full potential and the ability to use those skills for the greater good.

Democratic self-government requires constant discussions and decisions about controversial issues. There is an intrinsic and crucial connection between the discussion of controversial political issues and the health of democracy. If we want our students to become informed, engaged citizens, we need to teach them how to “do” democracy by practicing the skills of discussing controversial issues in the classroom and learning how to respectfully disagree.

Research has demonstrated that controversy during classroom discussion also promotes cognitive gains in complex reasoning, integrated thinking, and decision-making. Controversy can be a useful, powerful, and memorable tool to promote learning. In addition to its value in promoting skills for democracy, discussing current controversial public issues:

  • Is authentic and relevant
  • Enhances students’ sense of political efficacy
  • Improves critical thinking skills
  • Increases students’ comfort with conflict that exists in the world outside of the classroom
  • Develops political tolerance
  • Motivates students
  • Results in students gaining greater content knowledge.

(Diana Hess, Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion (2009); Nel Noddings and Laurie Brooks, Teaching Controversial Issues: The Case for Critical Thinking and Moral Commitment in the Classroom (2017); “Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools” (2011); Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan at

Yet, teachers may consciously (or unconsciously) avoid controversial issues in the classroom because of the difficulty involved in managing heated discussions and/or for fear that parents will complain or that the school administration will admonish or punish them for “being controversial.” These concerns are certainly not groundless. How well are teachers protected from negative repercussions if they address controversial issues in their classrooms? How extensive are teachers’ First Amendment rights to free speech? How can heated disagreements among students be contained in the classroom?

Two different legal issues exist regarding free speech rights of teachers: The First Amendment directly protects a teacher’s personal right to speak about public issues outside of the classroom and “Academic Freedom” protects a teacher’s right and responsibility to teach controversial issues in the classroom.  However, both have certain limitations.

First Amendment protection of public speech by teachers

Although the First Amendment free speech protection is written in absolute terms (“Congress shall make no law…”), the courts have carved out several exceptions (for national security, libel and slander, pornography, imminent threats, etc.).  The courts have also carved out a limited “government employee” exception based on the rationale that a government employee is paid a salary to work and contribute to an agency’s effective operation and, therefore, the government employer must have the power to prevent or restrain the employee from doing or saying things that detract from the agency’s effective operation.  Thus, the government has been given greater latitude to engage in actions that impose restrictions on a person’s right to speak when the person is a governmental employee, which includes teachers who work in public schools.

Some of the earliest threats to the free speech rights of public school teachers were the loyalty oaths that many states imposed on government employees during the ‘‘red scare’’ and early ‘‘cold war’’ years of American history. In Adler v. Board of Education (1952), the Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision rejected First Amendment claims and upheld a New York statute designed to enforce existing civil service regulations to prevent members of subversive groups, particularly of the Communist Party, from teaching in public schools. The Supreme Court effectively overturned this ruling in the 1960s and declared several loyalty oath schemes to be unconstitutional because they had chilling effects on individuals which violated their First Amendment rights (Baggett v. Bullitt (1964); Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction (1961); and Keyishian v. Board of Education (1967)).

Much of the reasoning regarding the “government employee” exception to the First Amendment outlined in Adler was abandoned altogether in the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Pickering v. Board of Education. Teacher Marvin Pickering had written a letter complaining about a recently defeated school budget proposal to increase school taxes. The school board felt that the letter was “detrimental to the efficient operation and administration of the schools” and decided to terminate Pickering, who sued claiming his letter was protected speech under the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court held that Pickering’s dismissal violated his First Amendment right to free speech because public employees are entitled to the same measure of constitutional protection as enjoyed by their civilian counterparts when speaking as “citizens” and not as “employees.”

In Mt. Healthy City School District v. Doyle (1977), non-tenured teacher Fred Doyle conveyed the substance of an internal memorandum regarding a proposed staff dress code to a local radio station, which released it. When the board of education refused to rehire him, Doyle claimed that his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights had been violated. The court developed a “balancing test” that required the teacher to demonstrate that the speech act was a ‘‘substantial’’ or ‘‘motivating factor’’ in the administration’s decision and gave the school board the opportunity to demonstrate, based on the preponderance of the evidence, that the teacher’s speech act was not the ‘‘but for’’ cause of the negative consequences imposed on the teacher by the school board. Finally, the court would “balance” the free speech interests of the teacher and the administrative interests of the school district to determine which carried more weight.  Based on this test, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the teacher’s call to the radio station was protected by the First Amendment, that the call played a substantial part in the board’s decision not to rehire Doyle, and that this action was a violation of Doyle’s rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

In a 5/4 decision in Connick v. Meyers (1983), the U.S. Supreme Court held that speech by public employees is generally only protected when they are addressing matters of public concern, not personal issues. Sheila Meyers was an Assistant District Attorney who had been transferred.  She strongly opposed her transfer and prepared a questionnaire asking for her co-workers views on the transfer policy, office morale and confidence in supervisors.  She was terminated for insubordination. Meyers alleged her termination violated her First Amendment right to free speech. The district court agreed and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. However, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed because Meyer’s speech only dealt with personal not public issues.  “When a public employee speaks not as a citizen upon matters of public concern, but instead as an employee upon matters only of personal interest, absent the most unusual circumstances, a federal court is not the appropriate forum in which to review the wisdom of a personnel decision taken by a public agency allegedly in reaction to the employee’s behavior.” Although the case involved an Assistant District Attorney, it is applicable to all public employees: teachers must demonstrate that their speech is of public concern.

This was confirmed in Kirkland v. Northside Independent School District (1989) where the school district did not rehire non-tenured teacher Timothy Kirkland because of poor performance and substandard teaching evaluations. Kirkland filed a lawsuit in federal district court against Northside, claiming that he was not rehired in violation of his First Amendment rights after he gave his students a reading list that was different from Northside’s list. Northside argued that Kirkland had no right to substitute his list without permission or consent and he had failed to obtain either. The district court ruled in favor of Kirkland and Northside appealed. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and dismissed Kirkland’s complaint, holding that Kirkland’s “speech” did not infringe on any matter of public concern and was in fact “private speech.” If the nature of the speech is purely private, such as a dispute over one employee’s job performance, judicial inquiry then comes to an end, and the question of whether the employee’s speech was a substantial or motivating factor in the decision not to rehire him need not even be reached. The U.S. Supreme Court denied cert, leaving this decision in place.

Academic freedom

Although primarily used in the context of university faculty rights, “Academic Freedom” protects a teacher’s ability to determine the content and method of addressing controversial issues in the classroom.  This is more limited at the K-12 level because the courts have long held the view that the administration of K-12 public schools resides with state and local authorities. Primary and secondary education is, for the most part, funded by local sources of revenue, and it has traditionally been a government service that residents of the community have structured to fit their needs. Therefore, a teacher’s “Academic Freedom” is limited to his or her content and method of teaching within the policies and curriculum established by the state and local school board. By finding no First Amendment violation, the court in Kirkland implicitly held that he had no right to substitute his own book list for the one approved by the district without permission or consent, which he failed to obtain. 

In an early case, following the end of World War I, Nebraska had passed a law prohibiting teaching grade school children any language other than English and Robert Meyer was punished for teaching German at a private Lutheran school. The court held that the Nebraska law was an unnecessarily restrictive way to ensure English language learning and was an unconstitutional violation of the 14th Amendment due process clause (the 14th Amendment had not yet applied the First Amendment to the states until Gitlow v.  New York in 1925) that exceeded the power of the state (Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923).

“The Fourteenth Amendment, as now applied to the States, protects the citizen against the State itself and all of its creatures-Boards of Education not excepted. These have, of course, important, delicate, and highly discretionary functions, but none that they may not perform within the limits of the Bill of Rights. That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.” Justice Jackson in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnett (1943)(holding unconstitutional a requirement that all children in public schools salute the flag).

The Supreme Court has more than once instructed that “[t]he vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools” (Shelton v. Tucker (1960)). In Epperson v. Arkansas (1968)(a reprise of the famous 1927 “Scopes Trial”), the Arkansas legislature had passed a law prohibiting teachers in public or state-supported schools from teaching, or using textbooks that teach, human evolution. Sue Epperson, a public school teacher, sued, claiming that the law violated her First Amendment right to free speech as well as the Establishment Clause. A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court declared the state law unconstitutional. The Court found that “the State’s undoubted right to prescribe the curriculum for its public schools does not carry with it the right to prohibit, on pain of criminal penalty, the teaching of a scientific theory or doctrine where that prohibition is based upon reasons that violate the First Amendment.” Seven members of the court based their decision on the Establishment Clause, whereas two concurred in the result based on the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment (because it was unconstitutionally vague) or the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court, however, has not clearly defined the scope of academic freedom protections under the First Amendment, and commentators disagree about the scope of those protections. (See, e.g., William W. Van Alstyne, “The Specific Theory of Academic Freedom and the General Issue of Civil Liberty,” in The Concept of Academic Freedom 59, 61-63 (Edmund L. Pincoffs ed., 1972); J. Peter Byrne, “Academic Freedom: A ‘Special Concern of the First Amendment’,” 99 Yale L.J. 251 (1989); and Neil Hamilton, Zealotry and Academic Freedom: A Legal and Historical Perspective (New Brunswick, 1998). 

Whatever the legal scope, it is clear that the First Amendment protection of individual academic freedom is not absolute. For example, in Boring v. Buncombe County Board of Education (1998), the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a teacher could be reprimanded (in this case transferred) because she sponsored the performance of a play that school authorities subsequently deemed inappropriate for her students and inconsistent with the curriculum developed by the local school authorities. This judicial deference toward K through 12 institutions often can be seen in cases involving teachers who assert that their First Amendment rights were violated when school administrators imposed punishments on them for engaging—while they taught their classes—in some form of expressive activity that the administrators disapproved.

The content

While cases about academic freedom, such as Epperson,  involved state laws that limited or prohibited certain content being taught (in this case prohibiting teachers in public or state-supported schools from teaching, or using textbooks that teach, human evolution); New Jersey has taken a very broad approach to classroom content.  Since 1996, New Jersey has established state standards (currently called “Student Learning Standards”) that set a framework for each content area.  Unlike many other states, New Jersey does not establish a state curriculum but rather leaves this to local school boards. Subject to applicable provisions of state law and standards set by the State Department of Education, district school boards have control of public elementary and secondary schools.  How much protection do New Jersey teachers have when they address controversial topics?  Most First Amendment education cases in New Jersey involve students’ rights rather than teachers’ rights (e.g., school dress, vulgar language, threats, religious speech, equal access, See However, several recent cases from the Third Circuit (which includes New Jersey) provide some parameters.

In Edwards v. California University of Pennsylvania (3rd Cir. 1998), a tenured professor in media studies sued the administration for violating his right to free speech by restricting his choice of classroom materials in an educational media course. Instead of using the approval syllabus, Edwards emphasized the issues of “bias, censorship, religion and humanism.” Students complained that he was promoting religious ideas in the class. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the Third Circuit’s summary judgement against Edwards, holding that a university professor does not have a First Amendment right to choose classroom materials and subjects in contravention of the University’s dictates.

A very recent decision regarding a New Jersey teacher confirms the fact that the First Amendment does not provide absolute protection for teachers in public schools to decide the content of their lessons if it is not within the curriculum set by the school district.  In Ali v. Woodbridge Twp. School District (3rd Cir. April 22, 2020) a non-tenured public high school teacher at Woodbridge High School was teaching Holocaust denial to his students and was posting links to articles on the school’s website saying things such as, “The Jews are like a cancer” and expressing conspiracy theories accusing the United States of planning a 9/11-style attack. When the Board of Education fired Ali, he sued claiming that his employment was terminated on the basis of his race and religion, and that defendants had violated his rights to free speech and academic freedom, among other claims. The District Court rejected all of Ali’s claims, awarding summary judgment to the school board, and the Third Circuit affirmed.

These are extreme cases where a teacher is addressing issues that are NOT within the curriculum set by the university or within the state social studies standards and the local school district’s curriculum.  When teachers are teaching a controversial topic that is included in the New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Social Studies and their school district’s social studies curriculum, the existing case law seems to support the fact that they would be protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, unless they are violating school policies that require teaching in a neutral, balanced manner that does not seek to indoctrinate students.

For example, what if a teacher wants to assign a research paper about the Stonewall Riots or the Lavender Project?   Since the history of LGBT rights is in the state standards and supposed to be included in local school district social studies curriculum, the Stonewell Riots and Lavender Project would be part of this history. This is not a situation like Ali where the materials were beyond the scope of the local curriculum (as well as being taught in an indoctrinating manner—see below). If the teacher fears that the topics will be controversial with the community, he or she should make the school administration aware of what he or she is planning to do.  Since here, what the teacher plans to teach is within the state standards and the local school district curriculum, the school administration should support the teacher.  If parents object, the real issue is one of policy (Should LGBT history be taught?), which is decided by the state and local boards of education, not the teacher. Therefore, the parents’ argument should be with the state and local boards of education.

What if a teacher wants to show scenes of an R-rated movie in the classroom (i.e. Revolutionary War scenes from The Patriot or D-Day from Saving Private Ryan?) Obviously, the American Revolution and World War II are part of the state standards for U.S. History and in every local school district’s curriculum.  The movie scenes would need to relate to the district curriculum and the teacher should get prior administrative and parental approval if some movie scenes are going to be very graphic.

How should a teacher prepare lessons on Nazi Germany during the 1930s? Nazi Germany is also part of the state history standards and every school district’s curriculum. It should be taught in a way so that students can understand how the Nazis came to power and the prejudices they carried.  Some of the World War II footage and movies may be shocking but our students will not be able to become informed, engaged citizens if we hide the past from them. 

An ounce of prevention beforehand will help.  Before starting, teachers should be clear about the goal of their lesson: The classroom activities should encourage critical thinking. You are not trying to convince students of any particular point of view. Preview any materials, especially visual media which may be very powerful or provocative. Be aware of the biases of the sources of information that will be used by students.

Teaching Tolerance suggests in Civil Discourse in the Classroom that “Teachers can effectively use current and controversial events instruction to address a wide variety of standards and even mandated content. To do so, however, teachers must work carefully and incrementally to integrate this new approach in their classrooms.”  The University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching offers guidance for how instructors (offered for college instructors but applicable for K-12) can successfully manage discussions on controversial topics. See Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan at The “Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure” of the American Association of University Professors, suggests that teachers should be careful to avoid controversial matters that are unrelated to the subject discussed.

Before engaging students in an activity or discussion involving a controversial subject, tell your supervisor and/or principal what you are planning on teaching and, if necessary, reference the district policy on teaching controversial issues, explain the lesson’s connection with the district social studies curriculum and explain the goal and value of what you plan to do.  Then, consider the demographics of your community. If you anticipate that the topic of your lesson will be controversial with the community, send a note and/or talk with your students’ parents and/or the Parent Teacher Organization.

In an informative piece titled “Do You Have the Right to be an Advocate?,” published by EdWeek, Julie Underwood, a professor of law and educational leadership and policy analysis at the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains that the “district or the state can regulate employee speech during school hours or at school-sponsored activities to protect their own interests in instruction and political neutrality.” Despite the ambiguity in the laws protecting a teacher’s freedom of speech, Underwood concludes: “If it relates to the in class instruction and is age appropriate there is a good rationale for having a political discussion”.

Teaching in a Neutral or Balanced Manner

If the teacher has created a supportive, respectful classroom climate and built tolerance for opposing views, it will be easier to consider controversial topics. For example, considering historical controversies might be good background as practice for looking at current controversies. Establish a process and rules of adequate evidence or support so that the discussion is based on facts rather than simply opinions. To help maintain classroom order even when students are having heated disagreements, set clear rules for discussions or use activities that require students to use active listening skills when considering controversial issues, such as:

  • Continuum/Take a Stand
  • Civil Conversations
  • C3 Inquiries
  • Guided discussions
  • Socratic Smackdown
  • Moot courts—structured format for considering constitutional issues
  • Philosophical Chairs discussion
  • Legislative hearings—structured format for considering solutions to problems

Carefully consider how students are grouped if they are to work cooperatively.  Provide closure (which may be acknowledging the difficulty of the issue).

School boards work primarily through policies which set guidelines for principals, teachers, parents and students, as well as the district curriculum. To avoid a problem afterwards, the teacher should make sure that the controversial topic is within the state standards and the curriculum adopted by their local school board. Then the teacher should consult the school district’s policy regarding the teaching of controversial issues. Most school districts have a policy (usually #2240) that supports and encourages the teaching of controversial issues and sets guidelines for teaching controversial issues, including a process for dealing with challenges.  Although the language may differ, policies dealing with controversial issues generally focus on the need for the classroom lesson to be balanced, unprejudiced, fair, objective, and not aimed at indoctrinating students to a particular point of view.

Clearly, the type of indoctrination attempted by the teachers in the Edwards or Ali cases is beyond protected speech.  In addition to avoiding indoctrination, teachers should avoid telling a joke in the classroom that might imply a negative characterization of an ethnic group, religion or gender.  A “joke” that might be a put down of any ethnic group, religion or gender told in the classroom to students is never a good idea. It is not even a good idea for a teacher to post such a “joke” on Facebook because such speech might be considered as not addressing a matter of public concern and would not be protected by the First Amendment. However, using an historical photo, engraving or picture that included a negative image of an ethnic, racial or religious group might be okay in the context of examining what was seen as humor in the past and understanding the prejudice that existed during a particular time period. For example, when teaching about the Holocaust, a teacher might carefully use Nazi cartoons to demonstrate the high level of prejudice at the time. Another example might be using images of blackface or corporate ad campaigns to show racial attitudes when teaching about Jim Crow. The teacher does not need many examples to make the point. Know your audience. Choose carefully and be aware that certain advertising images from the Jim Crow era may offend some students in the class. The purpose of using controversial issues is important. At the core of deciding what a teacher should or should not say or do in the classroom is good judgment.

Should a teacher share his or her viewpoint on a controversial issue with the students?

Whether a teacher should share his or her opinion or viewpoint on a controversial issue will depend on the age of the students, if the opinion was requested by the students, and the comfort-level of the teacher.  A teacher’s opinion may have too much influence on younger students and should probably be avoided. What if a middle or high school student specifically asks for your opinion? Such “natural disclosures” in response to a direct question by a student should be accompanied by a disclaimer, such as “This is my view because…” or “Other people may have different views”.  If you prefer not to disclose your view, explicitly state that and explain why. Remember, the goal is to help students develop their own well-informed positions. Be mindful of your position as the “classroom expert” and the potential impact on the students. If you decide to disclose your own view, do it carefully and only after the students have expressed their views. Unrequested disclosures may be seen as preachy, or may stop the discussion. (See Hess, Controversy in the Classroom)

So, for example, should a teacher take a position on climate change?  In terms of content, climate change is in the state standards and should be in the local school curriculum. If parents disapprove of this topic, this disagreement is really with the curriculum set by the school board, not with the teacher.  However, the teaching strategy is important. Rather than taking a position, which may be seen as indoctrination or may simply stop the classroom inquiry, the better approach might be to have the students examine the issue and let the facts speak for themselves.  Let students use the facts that exist to construct their own arguments about whether or not climate change is the result of mankind’s use of fossil fuels in industry and transportation.  If the topic is presented in a balanced, neutral, non-indoctrinating manner, the teacher should not be subject to discipline. Objections by parents should be referred to the school administration because it is a matter of policy (Should climate change be taught?), which is decided by the state and local boards of education, not the teacher.

How should teachers address questions from students regarding Black Lives Matter and racial inequality? The ACLU in the state of Washington prepared a short online article, “Free Speech Rights of Teachers in Washington State” (NJ’s ACLU only has a publication about students’ rights) with a related hypothetical:  The teacher is instructed not to discuss personal opinions on political matters with students.  In a classroom discussion on racial issues in America, the teacher tells the class that he/she has recently participated in a Black Lives Matter demonstration.  Revealing this is the same as giving an opinion and may not be protected speech. Teachers can be disciplined for departing from the curriculum adopted by the school district and this would be a departure.

Can a teacher state that New Jersey is a segregated state when it comes to communities? Is the teacher stating this as a personal opinion or as a fact related to a topic of learning? There is no reason to simply state that NJ is segregated unless it is in the context of helping students understand and appreciate the history of segregation in NJ consistent with state standards and district curriculum. (For example, see “Land Use in NJ” and “School Desegregation and School Finance in NJ” for history, context and facts at

Is a teacher permitted to take a stand on the issue of removing public monuments? Assuming that this is part of a current events lesson, it would be better if the teacher remained neutral and let the students’ voice differing views. If the students all have one position, perhaps the teacher can take a position as “devil’s advocate,” but it should be made clear that this is what the teacher is doing.

Can a teacher assign blame to protests to specific groups or left or right extremist groups? Assigning blame is the same as a teacher giving his or her personal opinion. The better approach would be to have students look at the actions of specific groups and determine their appropriateness.

Can a teacher assign blame to Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett regarding a Supreme Court decision that is 5-4 and against the teacher’s preference (i.e. Affordable Care Act, marriage, etc.).  Assuming that this is part of a classroom lesson about the Supreme Court, the teacher should refrain from “assigning blame” because this is expressing his or her opinion, but should instead let the students consider the reasoning and impact of the decisions.

Is a teacher permitted to criticize or defend the government’s policies or actions on immigration? Outside the classroom, a teacher has a first amendment right to express his or her views on public issues. As part of a classroom lesson about immigration, rather than criticizing or defending the government’s policies or actions on immigration, the better approach would be to present or let students research the history of immigration policy and its impact and let the students discuss and draw their own conclusions (For example, see “Immigration Policy and its impact on NJ” at

Can a teacher show a video clip from a specific news station (Fox, CNN) or assign students to watch a specific news program as an assignment?  As long as the purpose is not indoctrination to any particular point of view and the assignments are balanced. If the teacher wants students to see and compare various media views on the same topic, that would be a valuable classroom activity. (For example, see “Educating for Informed, Engaged Citizens” virtual workshop, for background on helping students understand bias in news, at the New Jersey Council for the Social Studies website at;  also see Choices Program at Brown University: Teaching with the News at;   and Constitutional Rights Foundation Fake News at and


A teacher has a personal right under the First Amendment to share his view on public policy issues in public but NOT in the classroom.  A teacher sharing his opinion or viewpoint in the classroom may be seen as indoctrination. So, for example, teachers should avoid sharing personal views on one’s sexual preference, regarding a particular candidate, President Trump’s taxes, a decision by a Grand Jury, prosecutor, FBI on racial issues, etc. Your school district may even have an explicit policy that teachers should not discuss personal views on political matters in the classroom, in which case, this policy should be followed.  Everything a teacher says or does in the classroom should be considered based on the possible impact on the students.

This does not mean that teachers should avoid having students examine and discuss controversial topics. Encouraging the development of civic skills and attitudes among young people has been an important goal of education since the start of the country.  Schools are communities in which young people learn to interact, argue, and work together with others, an important foundation for future citizenship.  Since the purpose of social education is to prepare students for participation in a pluralist democracy, social studies classes NEED to address controversial issues.  Teachers have the right and the responsibility to help their students understand controversial topics and to develop critical thinking skills.  However, the controversial topics should relate to the broad scope of subjects included in the NJ Student Learning Standards and the local school district curriculum.  And controversial subjects should be addressed in a neutral or balanced manner, without any effort to indoctrinate students, but rather to help them develop the knowledge and skills they will need as workers, parents and citizens in a democratic society.

Background Materials

Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923)

West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnett, 319 U.S. 624 (1943)

Adler v. Board of Education, 342 U.S. 485 (1952)

Shelton v. Tucker, 364 U.S. 479 (1960)

Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction, 368 U.S. 278 (1961)

Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360(1964)

Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589 (1967)

Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968)

Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968)

Mt. Healthy City School District Board of Education v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274 (1977)

Connick v. Meyers, 461 U.S. 138 (1983)

Kirkland v. Northside Independent School District, 890 F.2d 694 (5th Cir. 1989), cert. denied (1990)

Bradley v. Pittsburgh Bd. of Educ., 910 F.2d 1172 (3d Cir.1990)

Boring v. Buncombe County Board of Education, 136 F.3d 364 (4th Cir. 1998)

Edwards v. California University of Pennsylvania, 156 F.3d 488 (3rd Cir. 1998), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 1143 (1999)

Ali v. Woodbridge Twp. School District, 957 F.3d 174 (3rd Cir. April 22, 2020)

Keith Barton and Linda Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good (Erlbaum, 2004)

Diana E. Hess, Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion (New York: Routledge, 2009)

Nel Noddings and Laurie Brooks, Teaching Controversial Issues: The Case for Critical Thinking and Moral Commitment in the Classroom (New York:  Teacher’s College Press, 2017).

William W. Van Alstyne, “Academic Freedom and the First Amendment in the Supreme Court of the United States:

An Unhurried Historical Review,” 53 Law and Contemp. Probs. 79 (1990)

ACLU-Washington at

American Association of University Professors, “Academic Freedom of Professors and Institutions,” (2002) at

Center for Research on Instruction and Teaching, University of Michigan at

Choices Program at Brown University: Teaching with the News at

Constitutional Rights Foundation at

EdSurge at

Facing History at

Find Law at

Forbes at

John Goodlad, “Fulfilling the Public Purpose of Schooling: Educating the Young in Support of Democracy May Be Leadership’s Highest Calling,” School Administrator, v61 n5 p14 May 2004.

Jonathan Gould, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Peter Levine, Ted McConnell, and David B. Smith, eds. “Guardian of

Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools, Philadelphia: Annenberg Public Policy Center, 2011

Amanda Litvinov, “Forgotten Purpose: Civic Education in Public Schools, NEA Today, Mar 16, 2017 at

New Jersey Center for Civic Education (New Jersey lessons) at

New Jersey Law Journal at

New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association at

Phi Delta Kappa, “Do you have the right to be an Advocate?, at

Poorvu Center, Yale University at

Teaching Tolerance at

Texas Association of School Boards at

The First Amendment Encyclopedia at U.S. Civil Liberties at

Academic Freedom: Are American Teachers Free? Should They Be?

Academic Freedom: Are American Teachers Free? Should They Be?

James K. Daly

In 1936 Howard Beale asked if American teachers were free. It is a question that still resonates today. The issue is entangled in the complex and ever-changing world of educational policy, political pressures, and cultural tensions. A second question to Beales earlier one could very well ask, should they be? What does it mean for teachers to be free? How do cultural expectations impact on what schools, communities, and larger groups perceive as appropriate for examination in public schools?

Many suggest topics, issues, and claims to truth should not be examined at all. Those who know the truth often feel compelled to teach it. Educational orthodoxy, whether of the political Left or the political Right, can silence opposing views, materials, attention. There is a long history of efforts to suppress perspectives. Legislation in many states has institutionalized restrictions on viewpoints, and textbook publishers have complied. Practitioners supporting the status quo, or the work of activist special interest groups have also contributed to censoring views (Jenkinson, 1979, 1985; O’Neil, 1984; Parker and Weiss 1983; Merry, 2009; Fallace, 2011; Hill, 2020, Nelson, 2021).

The essentiality of critical thinking

Critical thinking is regularly cited as an essential skill for preparing the young to succeed in the 21st century. The NCSS C3 framework identifies critical thinking as a key element in developing engagement and participation among citizens (NCSS 2013). Nelson et al. (2021) cite critical thinking as among the most important issues in schools.

Scholars have long stressed the need for schools to move away from indoctrination, the antithesis of critical thinking. Social studies is where young people must examine conflicts in beliefs and values (Hunt & Metcalf, 1955). Any belief not carefully examined is by definition a prejudice. Oliver and Shaver (1966) assert that the ability to choose on issues of public importance depends on awareness of alternatives. Schools must not just tolerate but encourage the examination of these alternatives. To accomplish this critical thinking is essential.

Critical thinking in schools allows individuals to scrutinize information and claims to truth. Learners explore what can be demonstrated, proved, and accepted using the best available information. Views are challenged, defended, discarded, or temporarily accepted. Learners recognize that acceptance of truth may well be tentative, pending additional knowledge (Pinker 2018).

Critical thinking skills are essential to examining topics on which society is divided (Nelson, 2021a). They protect against propaganda and conspiracy theories. Without these students are simply told what is correct, and which views are to be accepted. Recent years show the danger of this.  In a world of rapid fire media proclaiming new truths throughout the day, with little or poorly supported evidence, students can be ignorant of their own ignorance. This may be welcomed by any number of special interest groups but is anathema to maintaining democracy. 

Critical thinking takes a great deal of time. It requires considerable financial and other resources, from purchasing tools and materials to providing professional development opportunities. The amount of energy needed to do this in a field not easily measured is a challenge (Nelson et al., 2021).

Critical thinking and critical issues

Can critical thinking be promoted when only one or a narrow range of similar views are explored? Can critical thinking be developed for transfer to authentic settings if current critical issues are not examined? Traditionally many ‘givens’ are found both in the formal and the hidden curriculum. They are drawn from the dominant political and cultural perspectives reflecting the larger community. Scholars have consistently asserted that discussing controversy is essential in a diverse democratic society. Critical thinking needs to be about issues that in themselves are critical, with many and competing views. Critical thinking helps students explore different outlooks, and constructively consider consequences of alternative views. Ettinger (2004) refers to this a “constructive harnessing of conflict”. Conflict can be embraced as offering opportunities for exchanging information, evidence, and making tentative conclusions on actions.

Barton and Levstik (2004) state that the aim of history education, and indeed for social studies, is preparing the young to act. Actions and consequences of historic challenges can be scaffolded to frame current day issues. They cite Newman (1975) and his call for intelligent action, the ability to use knowledge and skills to develop a commitment for addressing social problems. The context in which critical thinking skills evolve is pivotal. Barton and Levstik mention Parker and others in advancing the need for the young to understand and experience participatory democracy. Students need to be taught, and practice critical thinking skills on topics where disagreements are analyzed.  They refer to McCully (2002) suggesting that just working on critical thinking skills may not help in examining current divisive topics. Building critical thinking skills without an exploration of authentic current issues may fall far short of what is needed.

Claims to truth need to be analyzed, with critical thinking skills scaffolded, enhanced, and regularly practiced. These skills support conflict resolution strategies, utilizing active listening and clear communication (Katz, 2020). This reinforces what Lortie (1975) referred to as the apprenticeship of observation. Learners routinely experience situations in which these skills are refined and improved. They grapple with different views and competing sources of evidence. The routine and expected school experience would demonstrate a respectful appreciation of diverse views. The hidden curriculum would be supportive of the intellectual work of considering conflicting opinions. The norm would be examining issues in practiced and familiar patterns, respectful of opinions, while accepting disagreement on conclusions. Democratic principles and foundational documents along with Human Rights concepts need to provide the context in which critical thinking evolves. Examining how well these principles, documents and concepts have demonstrated themselves over time provides framing for analyzing current issues.

The need to address critical thinking skills, and the need to do so when addressing current controversial topics puts the teacher at the center of public scrutiny. It is in the larger public arena that controversy is housed, and from which it enters classrooms.

The preponderance of scholarship supports dealing with controversy. Schools must offer individuals opportunity to escape the limitations of the group into which they were born (Dewey, 1916). Schools should create awareness of the larger society. Few other institutions can guide an analysis of past events, an exploration of current considerations, with a focus on the future. 

In a nation as diverse as ours, and in the current political and cultural climate, controversy enters schools and classrooms. The interactions between teachers, administrators, professional organizations, and the public are fraught with complex and often contradictory expectations. Sustaining a democratic republic in this context requires citizens who can examine topics on which there is disagreement (Lynd, 1939; Selakovich, 1967; Newman and Oliver, 1970; Shermis and Barth, 1979; Berlak, 1977; O’Neil, R.M.,1981); Apple, 1982; Besag and Nelson, 1984; Engle and Ochoa, (1986); Daly, et al., 2001; Underwood, 2017; Nelson 2021a).

Are American teachers free?

Teachers appear to be willing to address controversy but often don’t because of concerns about the consequences (Byford, 2009). Nelson (1992) writes that many report they have academic freedom. However, when questioned about teaching specific issues, a typical response was that they were too controversial to teach. Teacher belief in their ability to address controversy does necessarily translate to their doing do (Daly, 1986; Mitchell, Evans, Daly, & Roach, 1997; Misco and Patterson 2007). Patterson (2010) reveals that while 98% of teachers in one study reported they had academic freedom (of varying degrees), over 93% indicated limits to what can be taught. Some of those restrictions might be called self-censorship. Limitations included barriers raised (or anticipated) from community members, administrators, and students. Girard and Harris (2021) describe that teachers in one study found it easy to add topics and issues to provide a more inclusive view. However, they were unwilling to examine contemporary society and power relationships. The local commuity was cited as a significant influence on what teachers address.  In an Education Week article considerable percentages of teachers disclosed they avoided teaching many topics (Pendharkar, 2021). 

Potential Sources supporting teacher freedom

Decisions made by practitioners have consequences for what is taught and how it is taught. State curriculum standards impact those decisions. An analysis of state standards for History indicated clear and opaque support for teacher decision making and selection in many states (Girard and Harris, 2020). The impact on teacher freedom ranged from rigid specificity to almost limitless choice for teachers. Standards may well support considerable freedom in many states; however, more is needed.

Academic Freedom is a philosophical framework buttressing teacher freedom. There are legal decisions that help uphold it. Philosophical views without more compelling legal support cannot be relied upon. They can and should be used to engage educators and communities in discussions on exploring difficult topics. Language supporting academic freedom needs to be in district policy manuals and guides. Hess (2009) reminds us that controversy is a socially constructed phenomenon. She recognizes that the public has a right to have an influence on what is taught in the schools. Engaged and systematic review of the need for, the limits on, and the student benefits of academic freedom need to be promoted. While the specific topics may change, controversy is a given.  Underwood (2017) recognizes that many who would restrict teacher freedom fear indoctrination. They feel left out of curriculum discussions, unaware of pedagogical strategies, and suspicious of views other than their own. Discussions on the nature and purpose of academic freedom may ease that fear.

Academic freedom

The National Council for the Social Studies advocates teacher freedom. The organization issued Position Statements on Academic Freedom in 1969, revised in 2007 (National Council for the Social Studies, 2010).  The most recent maintains that teachers should be free to create settings that foster democratic processes (Social Education, 2016)). Academic Freedom for teachers is necessary to create citizens aware of contentious issues and positions on them. Students need to examine factual claims, discuss competing perspectives, investigate, and analyze topics of concern. This promotes understanding of the relationship between past and present, providing skills and dispositions for grasping local, national, and global views. Truth is difficult to discover and claims to it need to be thoughtfully considered.

Affirming academic freedom is important, as it informs educators and the larger community of its twin features. Academic freedom is not just a concept addressing the teacher, but one focused on the student (Hofstadter and Metzger (1968). Emerging from early German universities, the right of the student to learn was essential. The student was free to explore ideas and not simply compelled to accept all that teachers, text and school presented.

Reassuring the public that academic freedom does not promote indoctrination is critical when many believe schools are overtly trying to impose views antithetical to them. Compelling acceptance of views can create a spiral of silence (Noelle-Neumann, 1977; Journell, 2017). Students presented with one perspective, taught by teachers supporting and promoting that perspective, may feel themselves to be in a minority. That perception can lead to silence. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students, and families, know what teachers expect, what outlooks are correct, and often the moral value attached to various views. With academic freedom the constraints of local perspectives are open to be examined in a wider context, but student acceptance or belief in those viewpoints is not required. Those who embrace Academic Freedom recognize it is not a license for teachers to force views on students or to limit the issues examined. The concept is a defense against the imposition of certainty, which seems to be an objective of many along the political continuum.

The role of school boards

School Boards approve curricula, resources, and materials. Board meetings often have limited time for public discussion of issues, let alone providing for discussions and examination of curricula content. Entering the term Teacher Academic Freedom on the National School Boards website had no hits. Under one heading on that site Boards were urged to say no to any Federal intrusion of local decision making authority (School Boards Association, 2021). That would seem to provide support for considerable community influence on what is taught, and how it is taught. In the Advocacy Agenda for 2019-2020 (the only one on the website as of 2/16/22), there does not appear to be much about how to work with communities beyond the traditional interactions. No role for the larger public is evident.

Recently local Boards have addressed concerns about what may inappropriately be referred to as Critical Race Theory. A quick google or YouTube search provides evidence that the issue is one generating considerable conflict, and political action at the local and state level. The many YouTube videos, and anecdotal evidence suggest that school board meetings are not the best time or place for discussion. The very structure of public input at Board meetings seems to add frustration and anger to already potentially confrontational topics. Limited time, and the lack of a structure to permit significant and sustained conversation suggests other approaches need to be explored.

A memo from the FBI Director provides evidence that the anecdotal and social media reports of Board confrontations are accurate. The memo cites a spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school employees and officials. It indicates that the agency will use FBI agents to discourage, identify and prosecute such threats. (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2021).

What is the role of the larger community? Are they to be relegated to sporadic outbursts on social or traditional media, angry statements at school board meetings? How should public views be identified, shared, and considered. Who decides what is controversial, what gets addressed, and how, or if, opposing views are examined, welcome or tolerated?

Should American teachers be free?

American teachers should be free to foster citizens who can critically examine current controversial topics that divide the society. There is a need to protect the right of the student to learn. Teacher freedom brings responsibilities. There is a responsibility to ensure that practitioners and those preparing to practice are knowledgeable about the need for such freedom. There is a responsibility for practitioners to be open to guidance in planning, teaching, and assessing when focused on controversy. Administrators and Boards need to support teachers engaged in this work. They have a responsibility to create environments in which teachers work with colleagues, administrators, and the larger public to build support for addressing controversy. There are too few fora in which such conversation occurs. Those promoting teacher freedom and the right of students to learn beyond indoctrination need to work with school board members and the school community. Together those in schools must actively seek to find opportunities to have difficult conversations about the need for teacher and student freedom.

Preparing teachers for these challenges

Those planning to teach must understand the nature of academic freedom, recognize the need for dealing with controversial issues, and their relationship to citizenship education. Research on teacher preparation in this effort is mixed. Misco and Patterson (2007) report that teacher education candidates understand the concept of academic freedom but believe that it offers only limited protection. Some revealed they would not exercise those freedoms for several reasons, including fear of reprisals. Uncertainty about how to properly deal with controversy led to a deference to community preferences. The majority were aware of constraints on what and how issues could be addressed.

Even after completing a social studies methods course, participants in a study by Nganga et al. (2020) displayed limited awareness and understanding of teaching controversial issues. Most were unwilling or cautious about addressing issues with which they did not feel comfortable, or about which they had little experience. There was acceptance of the need to conform to the views and values dominant in the community (Engebretson, 2018; Hess 2002).

Teacher education programs themselves may not model ways to deal with alternative perspectives. The spiral of silence found in other settings may also be present within these programs (Journell, 2017). Holding conversations and exploring differing perspectives on foundational ideas may not be a priority. There may be ‘single stories’ (Adichie, 2009) in teacher preparation. Divergent views need to be shared and explored.  Doing so would model how to examine differences in the schools in which students will work.

Education programs may be one of many ‘silo’s’ within the university, with their own “silo’s’. Conversation and collaboration between the programs for administrators and other specialists is essential. Counselors, teachers, administrators in training all benefit from examining the nature of controversy, community engagement, and the benefits to teachers and students of academic freedom. There are overlapping interests, and common audiences. This collaboration would help explore ways to engage with the communities in which they already work and those in which they will work.

What needs to be done?

Little in the larger culture provides examples of how people can discuss deeply held and contrary views. The skills of active listening and clear communication need to be practiced examining issues of current importance, even when presented in an historic setting. Students need experience checking the validity of various claims. They need practice within agreed upon ground rules. Time needs to be provided for researching evidence on topics and discussing views. Students require opportunities to analyze issues using various strategies. Students need structure and practice in hearing contrasting views and doing so in respectful ways.

Teachers need to be free to select books, resources, materials, and strategies. This must support the curriculum and be consistent with state standards. Approaches on how to navigate those requirements is needed. Pre-service training and professional development for practitioners needs to be authentic, providing active participation in using various strategies. Routine focus is needed on the rationale for dealing with controversy. Pre-service training needs consistent and collaborative support from professors, clinical field supervisors, cooperating teachers and their administrators. Practitioners need support from colleagues, administrators, and local community members. These groups, committed to democracy, are essential to promoting conversation instead of confrontation on issues of significant disagreement.


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Daly, J. K., Schall, P. L., & Skeele, R. W. (2001). Protecting the right to teach and learn: Power, politics, and public schools. Teachers College Press.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. Macmillan.

Engebretson, K. E. (2018). One novice teacher and her decisions to address or avoid controversial issues. The Journal of Social Studies Research, 42(1), 39-47.

Engle, S. H., & Ochoa, A. (1986). A curriculum for democratic citizenship. Social Education, 50(7).

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New York State’s Birthday and First Constitution

New York State’s Birthday and First Constitution

Bruce W. Dearstyne

Social studies and history teachers routinely cover the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution in their courses. But every state also has a “birthday” (the day it got started as a state) and its own state constitution. The origins of states and their first constitutions can be very useful teaching tools, adding a new dimension to students’ historical insight and understanding.

New York State is an outstanding example. April 20 is New York’s Birthday! That was the date in 1777 when the Convention of Representatives of the State of New York, an ad hoc group elected the previous year to guide New York’s Revolutionary War efforts and develop its first constitution, finished work on that document.

The story of New York’s first state constitution is a dramatic one. New York had moved from steadfast loyalty to Britain to reluctant rebelling colony to a full-scale push for independence through the actions of three Provincial Congresses, the first elected in 1775, to guide New York in the growing alienation from Britain. The “Convention of Representatives” had been elected the year before as New York’s fourth Provincial Congress. Meeting initially in White Plains, they authorized New York’s representatives to the Continental Congress to approve the Declaration of Independence in early July, then, to keep out of reach of British forces, fled north to Fishkill and finally to Kingston where they completed their work. Along the way, they changed their name from Provincial Congress to Convention of Representatives of the State of New York. 

When they began their work it wasn’t entirely clear just what a “state” was. People knew about colonies/provinces (New York had been one), and nations or nation-states as they were sometimes called (such as Britain). There were few precedents of models to draw on. Other colonies-becoming-states were writing their own first constitutions. The Articles of Confederation, which would link the new states together, was not completed until November 1777. The U.S. Constitution was a decade in the future. The creative New York drafters drew on their own experience in colonial government, their knowledge of European writers on the concepts of natural rights and representative government, and  a few American leading-edge advocates such as Massachusetts’ John Adams. But mostly they drew on their own creativity and improvisation.

The delegates worked in haste and approved the final draft of their document, which still had strikeouts and marginal notes when they signed it. There was no time to make a clean copy before sending the document to the printer. They took a day off but the next day, April 22, the convention’s secretary mounted a flour barrel outside the court house where the group had worked and read it aloud to Kingston citizens.

New York State had in effect proclaimed itself into existence.

The document began by quoting the Declaration of Independence. This connected New York with the other colonies asserting their independence. It stated that the convention acting “in the name and by the authority of the good people of this State doth ordain, determine, and declare that no authority shall on any pretense whatever shall be exercised over the people or members of this State, but such as shall be derived from and granted by them.” In 1777, a document purporting to represent the consensus and will of the people, and their right to govern themselves,  was a startling, radical departure from the past.

The original copy of the first constitution is preserved in the State Archives.   The Archives has provided a scanned version at can read it online in typed form at the Yale Law School Avalon Project. William A. Polf’s 1777:  The Political Revolution and New York’s First Constitution, also available online, provides a good introduction. It is also described in Peter Galie, Ordered Liberty: A Constitutional History of New York and in my book, The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History.

The 1777 constitution is just over 5000 words in length, It outlined the structure and purposes of state government but did not provide much detail.

It created a two-house legislature — one house, the Assembly, to be more numerous and more broadly representative of the people, and the other, the Senate, to be smaller and more attuned to the interests and property. That basic structure is still in place today.

It declared that “the supreme executive power and authority of this State shall be vested in a governor” who “shall take care that the laws are faithfully executed.” That wording is similar to what exists in the current State Constitution. But the 1777 writers had had enough experience with the King of England and some colonial governors who had over-asserted their power that they hedged the authority of New York State’s governor. Instead of giving the governor veto power over bills passed by the legislature, they created a “Council of Revision” consisting of the governor, chancellor, and judges of the supreme court with veto power. Rather than giving the governor sole appointment power, they vested that in a “Council of Appointment,” consisting of the governor and four senators chosen annually by the Assembly,  to approve all appointments.

The document made only a brief reference the courts; fleshing that out later would require legislative action. Voting rights were restricted to men who met certain property-holding or other requirements.

The Constitution was not very long but it was a sound beginning. Hastily-organized elections were held in the spring and summer. The first legislature assembled in Kingston in September and got to work. The newly-elected governor, General George Clinton, had to await a lull in the fighting to come to Kingston, take the oath office, make  the first gubernatorial address, and then hurry back to lead troops again.

The fledgling government did not have tranquility for long. It had to flee as British troops arrived and assaulted and burned Kingston on October 16. The legislature soon re-assembled in Poughkeepsie and resumed work. By then, patriot forces had defeated British incursions from the west (at Oriskany, August 6), the east (at Bennington, on August 16) and the north (at Saratoga, October 17, a major victory that became the turning point of the Revolution).

1777 turned out to be something of a “miracle year.” New York State was here to stay. The new constitution endured without major changes until 1821.

There are many ways of approaching the use of the first State Constitution in social studies and history courses. Some possibilities:

*It is an inspiring, against-the-odds story. It is a story of people determined to control their own collective affairs through representative government.  At the beginning of 1777, the odds of New York’s success did not seem great. By the end of the year, New had written a constitution, established a government, held elections, fended off invasions from three directions, and survived invasion and destruction of its capital.

*It represented compromise and consensus. The writers had a number of disagreements and varying viewpoints and perspectives going into the process. But along the way they put aside their differences, compromised, and came together to develop a consensus document. That process is worthy of study now, when too often it seems difficult to reach agreement on divisive political issues.

*It was successful, flexible, and enduring. The first constitution proved to be a viable framework for years when New York grew remarkably fast. Even when the first major revisions came in 1821, the structural changes were relatively modest. The revisions abolished the Council of Revision and the Council of Appointment and replaced them with procedures more similar to what we have today.

*It left important work undone. The convention discussed abolishing the horrible practice of slavery but in the end it did not. That had to await legislation in 1799 and slavery was not formally abolished until 1827. Restrictions on men’s voting rights were gradually abolished in ensuing decades. Women finally got the right to vote in 1917. The constitution had no bill of rights other than protection of freedom of religion. The legislature enacted a bill of rights in 1787 and they were embodied in the 1821 constitutional revision. Since then, the constitution has been revised, updated, changed, and amended many times. That is a reminder that constitutions are subject to update and change over time, with voters’ approval.

*It was influential. The New York constitution includes some of the principles that were embodied in the U.S. Constitution a decade later, 1787. New York led the way in a sense. That is not surprising because New York patriot Gouverneur Morris was one of the principal writers of the New York document and a decade later, then a delegate to the Constitutional Convention from Pennsylvania, he was also one of the writers of the U.S. Constitution.

*It is a source for teaching about self-government, constitutional law, and civic responsibilities. The constitution could be a source for deepening students’ understanding of self-government and their roles and  responsibilities as citizens. Educating for American Democracy , a recent report on civics education, notes that students need more study of “the social, political, and institutional history of the United States in its founding era, as well as the theoretical underpinnings of our constitutional design. The state constitutions and the federal 1787 Constitution, as amended, form diverse peoples and places into an American people: one overarching political community.”

The Rise of Corporate Power and the Disintegration of American Democracy

The Rise of Corporate Power and the Disintegration of American Democracy

by Anthony  Higueruela

“No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack”.[1]  These words open the Powell Memorandum’s “Attack on American free enterprise System”, written by Lewis Powell and sent to the United States Chamber of Commerce in 1971.  Lewis Powell would become one of four justices Richard Nixon appointed to the United States Supreme Court that would gradually dismantle the more liberal leaning Warren court of the 1950s and 1960s.[2]  For Powell the sources of the assault on American business were wide and varied.  “They include, not unexpectedly, the Communists, New Leftists, and other revolutionaries who would destroy the entire system, both political and economic”.[3]  Powell is thorough in his inquiry into the many forces at work throughout the United States hell-bent on upending the capitalist order.  He states that: “Yale, like every other major college, is graduating scores of bright young men who are practitioners of despair.  These young men despise the American political and economic system… their minds seem to be wholly closed.  They live, not by rational discussion but by mindless slogans.  A recent poll of students on 12 representative campuses reported that: almost half of the students favored socialization of basic U.S. industries”.[4]  The Powell Memorandum would prove to be a rallying cry for big business and global corporations to assert their rightful place in the sphere of American economic and political life.  Powell argues in almost Orwellian tones that the battle for corporate dominance must be waged on multiple fronts: that textbooks in universities should be kept under surveillance, television networks closely monitored and scholarly articles propagated on the positive benefits of a capitalistic system.[5]  He urged corporations to take a page out of the playbooks of labor and realize that political power is essential for corporate growth and must be meticulously cultivated.[6]  The Powell Memorandum is essential because it provides a framework for business interests to utilize and manipulate the existing framework of the United States legal system to gain rights that would become akin to corporate personhood.  One can think of Powell’s letter to the Chamber of Commerce as both a rallying cry and a blueprint for corporate America in order to gain greater hegemony in the United States.  The purpose of this paper is to argue that through corporations’ utilization of the legal system to gain personhood and the rights that accompany it, the political and economic welfare of the American citizen has been jeopardized. 

The first battles in the war for corporate supremacy would be waged on the legal front.  Corporations used the court system to gain access to rights historically reserved for United States citizens.  With the continual accruement of First Amendment speech rights, corporate America argued that monetary contributions by business is protected free speech guaranteed by the constitution.  This came to have disastrous consequences for the future of America’s political and democratic systems.  As corporations grew more powerful they were able to use the wealth and resources at their disposal to buy political influence and favorable legislation.

The first defining court case appeared in 1976, a few years after the establishment of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA).  FECA’s primary goal was to establish new standards for fundraising and influence in the political spheres, much of which grew out of the reforms post-Watergate scandal.[7]  This act mandated public disclosure of contributions, made campaign contributions over a certain amount of money illegal and set caps on the amounts for campaign spending.[8]  The most ardent opponents of FECA were anxious that the law could be used as a tool by established politicians in order to maintain their own stranglehold on power.[9]  Their main concern lie in the fact that if the government could enact punitive measures on political communication, then entrenched politicians could utilize spending limits on insurgent political operatives in order to hold onto their own power.[10]  This law would eventually be challenged in the United States Supreme Court with the case of Buckley v. Valeo.  On January 2, 1975 a suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by New York Senator James L. Buckley and Eugene McCarthy.[11]  The plaintiffs in this case argued that the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and the Presidential Election Campaign Fund Act were unconstitutional.[12]  The Supreme Court upheld the majority of the law, however it struck down the spending limits on grounds of the First Amendment.[13]  The Supreme Court reached the conclusion that legislatively passed limits on spending were unconstitutional due to the fact that they infringed on the First Amendment and were not adequately related to solving the issue of corruption.[14]  Buckley would serve as a starting point for the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on money and political affairs.[15]  The influence of money and monetary contributions to politicians had far reaching consequences to the U.S. political system.  Robert Kaiser’s So Damn Much Money makes note that “the more important money became to the politicians, the more important the donors become to them”.[16]  This new setup, although beneficial to corporate America, was problematic to the health of American democracy and the right of the average citizen to have fair representation.  With the growth of corporate donors and their extensive resources which allow them to donate large sums of money to political campaigns, one must ask the question—what does this do to the balance of influence between people and corporations?  This answer is simple: it dramatically shifts it in favor of corporations.

The culmination of over three decades worth of litigation would result in Citizens United v. FEC (2010).  This seminal case proved to be the crowning victory for corporate America’s right to donate unfettered amounts of money based on their first amendment rights to freedom of speech.  Just as Bellotti opened up a loophole for corporations to donate money in ballot measures, Citizens United threatened to do the same for corporate money in campaign elections.[17]  The case that would forever alter the landscape of campaign finance law began when a conservative nonprofit corporation sought to air a ninety minute movie about Hillary Clinton on DirecTV.[18]  Citizens United also wished to air thirty second advertisements for their movie regarding Hillary Clinton on cable television.[19]  The Federal Election Committee (FEC) sought to block both the movie and the television ads on the basis that they violated the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (2002), which did not allow corporate funded campaign ads within thirty day of a presidential primary contest.[20]  Citizens United challenged the decision handed down by FEC on the basis that it was a documentary and not offered on broadcast television, therefore BCRA was not applicable.[21]  The government, however, argued that it was a ninety minute advertisement designed to damage Clinton in the primaries and its distribution did indeed count as broadcast.[22]  Ted Olsen, one of the leading lawyers for Citizens United argued that the law had no justification since there was no quid pro quo when corporations donate money to campaigns.[23]  His argument rested on the fact that Congress’s power to limit corruption in elections rested on their power to punish and deter clearly explicit bribes, anything else could not truly be counted as corruption.[24]  Olson went so far as to tell the court that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was essentially a ban on the free speech of corporations, and that the government had distinctly prohibited speech.[25] 

Proponents of Citizens United often attempt to downplay the damage it did to democracy.  In the Wall Street Journal, Bradley Smith argues that the ruling allowed corporations to make independent expenditures in campaigns and elections.[26]  He also argues that Citizens United opened the door to new political challengers and is quick to dismiss any critics as simply being put off that their preferred candidates did not win.[27]  What Smith fails to recognize is that the ruling from Citizens United puts corporations and wealthy individuals at a disproportionate advantage when compared to the ordinary citizen.  Citizens United essentially gave big business and special interests a pass to legally bribe politicians for legislation favorable to their interests.  This in turn diminishes the political rights of the American citizenry.  

Citizens United is unique in the sense that corporations are described as associations that have taken on corporate form.[28]  Historian Adam Winkler noted, “if the first amendment has any force, Kennedy read aloud from his opinion, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens or associations of citizens for simply engaging in political speech” (Winkler 364).  What is significant in this fact is that by defining corporations as associations of citizens, it allows them to subsume the rights of other people, in other words the corporations own members.[29] 

One must then examine the implications of allowing corporations to assume rights of multiple individuals.  If a corporation, as an association of individuals, can assume their collective rights then what recourse is left to individuals within the corporation to seek redress from grievances perpetrated by the corporation?  If all rights belonging to individuals within a corporate framework are taken by the corporate entity then workers and employees are left powerless against corporate abuse and excess.  The adoption of corporate personhood and corporate legal speech rights to utilize money in campaigns robbed the average citizen of their rights to a free and fair democracy.  According to Zephyr Teachout, “while corruption has narrowed to quid pro quo, free speech has expanded to encompass all money spent on communication”.[30]  Large corporations, due to their wealth and resources, are at an unnatural advantage when compared to the average citizen in terms of spending money on campaigns and referendums.  This undermines democracy as it creates rule by a few large corporate entities as opposed to rule by the people.  It also allows corporations to buy greater access to political candidates in order to secure favorable legislation towards their own interests.  Taken a step further, Teachout argues, “because of Citizens United it is not illegal for a corporation to spend millions of dollars to punish a congressperson who voted against their interests”.[31]  This only further increases the power of corporations at the expense of the American citizens due to the fact that corporations are able to use their money and lobbying power to ensure favorable outcomes for themselves in regards to legislation.

[1] Lewis Powell,, 1.

[2] Adam Winkler, We the Corporations (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018)

[3] Lewis Powell,, 3.

[4] Powell, 3.

[5] Winkler, 286-87

[6] Winkler, 287.

[7]Teachout, 206.

[8] Teachout, 206-07

[9] Teachout, 207

[10] Teachout, 207.

[11], 1.

[12], 1.

[13] Teachout, 207.

[14] Teachout, 207.

[15] Teachout, 207.

[16] Teachout, 209.

[17] Winkler,

[18] Teachout, 229-230

[19] Teachout, 230

[20] Teachout, 230

[21] Teachout,  230

[22] Teachout, 230

[23] Teachout, 231

[24] Teachout, 231

[25] Winkler, 361

[26] Bradley Smith, “The Incumbent’s Bane: Citizens United and the 2010 Election”, Wall Street Journal, 2.

[27] Smith, 2.

[28] Winkler, 364

[29] Winkler, 364

[30] Teachout, 241.

[31] Teachout, 112.

Transforming Education for Our Children’s Future

Parts of this essay appear in At the Center of All Possibilities: Transforming Education for our Children’s Future (Peter Lang, 2022).

Transforming Education for Our Children’s Future

by Doug Selwyn

            A group of approximately 30 teachers, administrators, over the family members, health officials and others in our town of Greenfield, Massachusetts met summer of 2020 attempting to plan for the opening of the 2020-2021 school year. COVID-19 was raging and we had to make choices about whether to have in-person schooling, a hybrid model that had children in schools some of the week and learning remotely the rest of the week, or to conduct school entirely remotely, at least to start.

            Several things became evident as we considered our options. First, there might be no institution as inextricably bound to the community than are schools. Any decision we made would reverberate through the community, with consequences for families, for businesses, for those needing childcare, for virtually every aspect of town life. It also meant that what was happening in the community would have significant consequences for what was happening in the schools. Second, it was clear that what we already knew, that there was (and is) significant inequality across our community, was even more prevalent and more consequential than we had realized. Third, our schools were already severely underfunded and under-resourced before Covid. The arrival of Covid made things even worse, stretching resources beyond the breaking point, which made realistic planning all but impossible because there was no way to really do what needed to be done. Fourth, there would be no time to offer adequate professional development or preparation time for faculty and staff. And fifth, the federal and state governments were prioritizing political and economic interests over educational or health-related concerns.

And what was most clear was that the best-case scenario was to be able to get back to near “normal,” to the education we had before the arrival of the pandemic. We were in crisis mode and getting ready for the school year was all that mattered.

I had written a book two years before focused on the question, what would our schools look like if our primary focus was on the health and wellbeing of our children. What I found was that if that really was our primary concern we would have to address the underlying issues in our society such as the increasing gap between rich and poor, a lack of health care for mothers during pregnancy and for newborns and their families through their first months and years of life, and the various stresses and traumas our children were experiencing from racism, from living in a toxic environment, from a lack of access to health care, and from other social, or economic factors if we wanted our children to both be healthy and able to come to school ready to learn. We could not simply say to schools fix yourselves while doing nothing about the underlying issues in our communities and country.

No one on our committee had time or energy to think about these larger issues as we pondered how to open schools. They simply wanted to get back to as close to “normal” as possible. While I recognized the enormous pressure the committee was under to get schools open one way or another, having as a goal returning to a school system that was failing so many of our children, particularly those who are most vulnerable, was not good enough, so I decided to research the question what do our children need to learn and know and how can we help them to learn it so that they are going to be as prepared as possible to move into their future, which is, by definition, unpredictable. While we recognize that one of the responsibilities of the adults in our society is to educate our young, there is not always agreement about what that education should consist of, who should receive it, who should offer it, who should pay for it, and how it should be assessed. These questions led me to invite the thoughts of educators and activists on what education our children needed and how we might help them to achieve it. I cast as wide a net as I could in gathering points of view, experience, perspectives, and understandings, and we looked at several aspects of the question including understanding the role of schools within the larger society, learning from our experiences with COVID, looking at the content we offer, considering who should be teaching and how they should be educated, how we might assess, and what other models of education might we consider, beyond public schooling. I pulled the essays and interviews together into a book, At the Center of All Possibilities: Transforming Education for Our Children’s Future (2022), and want to briefly share what I learned, starting with a brief look at my own story.

I was mis educated about much of U.S. history by Walt Disney and other programs on television. I “learned” from Disney and other media that U.S. history really began with the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and continued as (white) European Americans moved across North America fulfilling their Manifest Destiny to civilize and settle the essentially empty continent. I watched Disney’s take on Davy Crockett to learn about what that meant; fighting hostile, savage Indians who stood in the way of that Manifest Destiny, and later, fighting hostile, evil Mexicans who surrounded and murdered heroic Americans at the Alamo. Disney never mentioned the genocide and forced resettlements that were at the heart of Manifest Destiny, or the land grab that was the so-called Mexican War, or its link to perpetuating and maintaining slavery. It was nationalistic myth making that was echoed by virtually everything else that appeared on television, our prime window on the world outside of our neighborhoods.

Disney and other media also (mis) educated me about race relations, gender roles and values, which seemed to center on strong, silent, gun toting men who traveled alone or sometimes with a clownish sidekick, and pretty, vulnerable and relatively helpless women. And, of course, all the good guys (and women) were white.

Despite the fact that I went through a well-regarded K-12 school system, I did not encounter any real pushback to the Disney version of history until I was in college, and that pushback mostly came from “teachers” and situations outside of the classroom. I spent my summers living across the street from the Six Nations Museum, in Onchiota, NY (population 62), within a small Mohawk community, and got to know Ray Fadden, the man who built and ran the museum., “Uncle” Ray and my other neighbors helped me to learn a much more accurate picture of the genocide and forced removal that were the hallmarks of Manifest Destiny, and I learned more about the complex and layered governing and social systems at the heart of the Iroquois Confederacy that challenged virtually everything I’d been taught at school, or by Disney.

This experience awakened me to the need to question, to challenge, and to not automatically accept what I was being told in school, in my neighborhood (which was an essentially middle class, white, quietly racist community of young families), and from media of all sorts, including the news.

When I finally decided on becoming a teacher, more than a decade after graduating from college I thought back on my relentless mis education and realized I had to formulate my own goals, my own purpose as an educator. I came up with a short list of goals and aspirations for my work as a teacher, which I continued to add to with experience. They included:

The children are more important than any of the subjects.

  • Every child should feel welcomed and valued.
  • All children in class should have the opportunity to explore what is most important to them, at least some of the time.
  • I should avoid using textbooks as much as possible as they are both deadly boring and inaccurate or incomplete.
  • It is crucial to bring in more points of view and voices than what are featured in textbooks or in mandated curriculum.
  • I must be a learner, to model what I hope the students will take from their time with me.
  • I will bring as much joy and excitement to learning as possible.
  • I want to help students to learn to critically question what they are encountering, including me.
  • I must do everything I can to tell them the truth, and to help to learn to find the truth for themselves.

I can’t say that I have always been successful in meeting those goals, but they are always the compass points I try to steer by. My research and conversations while editing At the Center of All Possibilities have moved me to update my list. I would now add:

  • Having an increased awareness of the cultures, histories, and contexts of the students.
  • Learning much more about the impact that inequality, white supremacy, racism, and capitalism play in determining, or strongly influencing the lives we lead
  • Becoming a more active and engaged advocate for social justice outside of the classroom. Helping students understand the crippling impact of slavery and racism on our society, that continues to this day
  • Supporting students learning to listen and communicate clearly with their peers, and to work with them as allies and cooperators rather than as competitors.
  • Developing alternative ways of organizing education that pattern after the freedom school model, with a focus is on a smaller, more personal educational experience focused on the needs and interests of the students.
  • Assessing the quality of our work together, in my classroom and in my school by the quality of our lives inside and outside of school. How are we feeling about ourselves and each other, how are we behaving with each other, how much are we engaging in learning that is of interest, and how are putting what we learn to use in service to what we care about, in school and out. If there is no evidence that school is moving them towards becoming engaged, caring, and joyful humans then we are failing them and need to change what we are doing.

I would also add to my list the importance of reaching out to the community to help me to learn about the students, to learn about content I don’t know, to help me identify resources and to help me think through how best to make the educational experience as effective and meaningful and joyful as possible. Many of us enter classrooms thinking we must do it all ourselves and are reluctant to “blow our cover” by admitting we don’t know how to deal with particular content or a particular student or situation. That is evidence of a flaw in how we are trained rather than educated in our K-12 and university systems. I learned so much by asking them to be a part of this project. I hope that readers will keep this learning in mind as you think about how to transform education in your school or district, that you will be well served by inviting others to think and plan and act with you. We are in this together and are wiser and more powerful when we join together.

I want to close with a few words from Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander Folk School, in Tennessee. He was in dialog with Brazilian educator Paolo Freire and said this: “If I had to put a finger on what I consider a good education, a good radical education, it wouldn’t be about methods or techniques. It would be loving people first…. and that means people everywhere, not just your family or your own countrymen or your own color. And wanting for them what you want for yourself. And then next is respect for people’s abilities to learn and to act and to shape their own lives. You have to have confidence that people can do that… The third thing grows out of caring for people and having respect for people’s ability to do things, and that is that you value their experiences. You can’t say that you respect people and not respect their experiences.” (Bell, Gaventa, & Peters, 1990, p 177-178)

There is so much that we can do if we trust, respect, and value the people we work with, beginning with our students and their families. When we trust, respect, and value people enough to listen to them when they share who they are, what they care about, and what their goals and dreams are, we have already taken a significant step towards the transformation of their educational experience, and ours.


Bell, B, Gaventa, J, & Peters, J. (1990). We make the road by walking: Conversations on education and social change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Selwyn, D. (2022). At the center of all possibilities: Transforming education for our children’s future. Peter Lang.