Propaganda from the Center of the American Experiment has inspired dangerous racists to threaten several Edina teachers with physical violence. This situation goes beyond normal political discourse, and we ask the editors of the Star Tribune to refrain from reprinting the center’s incendiary materials without placing them in proper context.
The March 9 story “Bill aims to limit politics in school” focused on testimony before a state Senate education committee regarding a bill that would prohibit teachers from directing students to research and argue for ideas they don’t agree with.
The bill was inspired by the center’s irresponsible but extremely well-funded allegations of “indoctrination” in the Edina schools. Unfortunately, the news story didn’t mention the threats to Edina educators that arrived after the center’s claims were picked up by a neo-Nazi website. The news story also failed to report on testimony exposing problems with the center’s original report.
Had those two elements been included in the story, I hope the online version would not have been illustrated with the cover of the center’s magazine from October. That cover showed a 1950s-style female teacher instructing two white children. On a blackboard behind them is the phrase, “A is for activist.” Below the children is a provocative headline beginning, “Whose values?”
The report has a veneer of scholarship but is full of errors and distortions. Perhaps the worst is the reference to the book featured in the cover illustration. When Newt Gingrich wrote about the center’s work in an Oct. 25 column for Fox News, he said that “grade school-aged students in the Edina system are learning the alphabet by reading a book called ‘A is for Activist.’ ”
This is verifiable nonsense. As I testified in the hearing, there is only one copy of this book in all of Edina Public Schools. It exists only at one elementary school, and it has never been checked out. I presented the media center’s records to the committee.
The center’s report is intentionally misleading from the cover page. The sole purpose of the publication and those that followed was to create fear and anger in our community. And that they certainly have done.
Also worth noting is that as these mischaracterizations and distortions made their way from Fox News to Gingrich to Breitbart to the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer (all during the two weeks before Edina’s very contentious school board election), the intensity of the criticism and viciousness of the threats grew exponentially. My colleagues and I now work in a climate in which teachers have been subjected to brutal harassment and threats of violence for teaching the official curriculum — literally for doing our jobs. Security has been increased at our schools.
While I do believe the center distorted our school’s work in teaching a curriculum proven to close achievement gaps in our increasingly diverse student body, I also doubt the authors intended for things to go this far. Likewise, a senator’s outburst during the committee meeting at a testifier who mentioned the Nazi website was probably a gaffe and not evidence of darker sympathies. This newspaper’s decision to give the center free advertising by republishing the cover of its report presumably wasn’t designed to make a bad situation worse.
However, giving everyone the benefit of the doubt doesn’t change the fact that, at a time of heightened concern about violence in schools, every one of these acts increases the scrutiny of our teachers in Edina, thus further threatening our security.
It’s time to take a breath. The center and its national network of allies must clearly and publicly renounce violence and harassment. It’s time for the politicians to listen with more sympathy. And we all need Minnesota’s newspaper of record to make more careful choices in how it reports this story.
Tom Connell is a history teacher in Edina Public Schools and is president of Education Minnesota/Edina.