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Dangerous Ideas and Where to Find Them


From the age of thirteen I considered myself to be bisexual, and, although I spent my senior year of high school pissed off at all the boys and thought I was therefore a lesbian, “bisexual” (“pansexual” wasn’t a thing then) was really the best fit. But then when I converted to Catholicism at the age of twenty-four, I had to come up with a new narrative, and the story I made myself believe was that I had “chosen” to “indulge” feelings that I should have instead worked to contain. The pseudo-progressive Christian line was that the feelings weren’t sinful, just ever-ever-ever acting on them. OK, fine, so that was my story for the first several years of my Catholic phase.

One day, in maybe 2002 or 2003, I was wandering the stacks of my university library, and this book caught my eye:


Standing in the stacks, it took me a while to decide to check out the book and read it. To be a good Catholic, I had put boxes around so many ideas in my mind. The ideas were in the boxes, and the edges didn’t touch, and I didn’t allow other thoughts to get in there and argue with the boxed-up ideas. I knew that if I read this book, it was going to mess up the boxes. Standing there, I recognized that the cost of continued obedience involved closing my mind to ideas that would challenge the Catholic dogma I had adopted. The twenty-four years of freethinking I had enjoyed before putting my mind into those boxes reared up, and I knew I would be ashamed to become a person afraid of other ideas. I checked out the book. I chose freedom of thought. I left the Catholic Church in 2004.

I see this struggle in my students. The students whose relationships became more complicated because of the ideas they encountered in the women’s studies course I taught about work-life balance. The advisee who was worried about taking a history course named “Witchcraft and Witch Hunts,” because she wondered if what she might learn in that class would conflict with what her religion teaches her. The students whose course evaluations criticized my courses on Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser for mentioning sexual and scatological themes demonstrably present in their work.

Even more so than the classroom, though, art is the home of dangerous ideas . . . and what is even more threatening is how art frames those ideas in ways that foster empathy and imaginative identification.

But people have to make the choice to receive the ideas. Yesterday, I drove to Detroit with my daughter to see Fun Home, the musical based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel. I couldn’t get tickets when I was in New York City in June 2015, and I will be teaching the book in the Spring 2017 semester, so I had to make a special pilgrimage to see it.


Who knows when this award-winning play, the first Broadway play to feature a lesbian protagonist, will make it to Fort Wayne, Indiana? There is a market here for touring companies of Broadway shows, but the shows that might challenge the area’s conservative morals either don’t come or arrive years and years later. Both Fun Home and Hedwig and the Angry Inch began national tours this fall, and neither will stop in Fort Wayne. One could argue that the city just isn’t big enough to be included in the first year of touring, and that is undoubtedly true, but still . . . the slightly edgy Avenue Q came to Fort Wayne seven years after it opened on Broadway and three years after it began touring. The Book of Mormon began touring  in 2012 and still hasn’t made it to Fort Wayne. It’s smart business in Fort Wayne, I’m sure, not to bring troubling ideas to town about sexuality, gender, and religion.

But I will stand behind the insight I had that day in the library many years ago: ideologies that can be sustained only by adherents’ studiously avoiding competing ideas are brittle, weak, doomed. The artists and teachers of the world keep threatening the status quo—here and in other states where the majority want to either stop time or else turn back the clock to the 1950s—with their dangerous, dangerous ideas.


Blue Teacher, Red State

In 2006, a few months after I began my job as an assistant professor at a regional state university in Indiana, one of my colleagues announced that she was quitting her job in order to move to Washington state. She told me that with the 2004 election she had reached her limit of living in a red state—she couldn’t stand it anymore, and so she left. Another colleague, a native of California, spoke of Indiana as though she were an exile. She returned to California in the summers and was eager to leave forever upon her retirement in 2014, but cancer took her just two months after she taught her last class. Sometimes life kicks you in the teeth that way.

I couldn’t fully understand that drive to live somewhere more politically liberal, because I have always lived in conservative, Republican-dominated states: first Kansas, and now Indiana. You get used to it. To the extent possible, you surround yourself with like-minded people (additionally, if you’re me, you spend eight years in your twenties as a conservative Catholic trying to agree with the Republican party, as you’re told by your priest to do). You don’t expect your side to win in elections at the local and state level, so the national political game takes on outsized importance—a Democratic president is the main way that progressive change happens in red states, so that becomes the thing you hope for. As a white, middle-class person, my privilege has shielded me from the worst there is to suffer in red states. So I was used to it, and after the election, when I read a bunch of headlines with variations on “don’t move to Canada, move to a red state!” I recognized that as, logically speaking, a pretty good idea.

But it’s dispiriting to be a liberal in a red state, and not simply the bummer of being the fan of a team that always loses, but something that makes you wonder about humanity and compassion and love and hope, because the stakes are so often life and death. For me in recent years, more and more, my red-state suffering comes from my identity as an educator. Sure, Republican politicians regularly demonstrate their contempt for women, poor people, minorities, but in addition, their contempt for teachers is just breathtaking. They hate us. For years, people in Indiana have been saying that the Republican legislators’ work to hurt public K-12 education was just the first step, and they would turn their attention to public postsecondary education soon enough. That moment has now come, and it sucks.

To try to boil down the current Republican ideology about public education:

  • Your kid is not my problem. I shouldn’t have to pay for her education. Education should focus on job training. Education that doesn’t lead to higher lifetime wages for the learner and higher productivity for his or her employer is a waste of time and money. (Rich people can study medieval French literature or anthropology or whatever. We don’t know why any of them would want to, but it’s OK if they do.)
  • The only things worth considering in decision making are things that can be measured and counted. Bonus points if the things being measured and counted are dollars, but test scores are good, too.
  • Uniformity of instruction will lead to uniformity of outcomes, and uniformity is good. Happy corollary: in a world where uniformity of instruction is the goal, we can stop thinking of teachers as professionals with expertise and instead treat them as expendable and unimportant (because another Republican axiom is that workers are not as important or worthy of respect as bosses are).

In Indiana, the Republican assault on K-12 education has attacked both school districts and teachers themselves:

  1. Decrease public school funding by (1) bleeding money out of school districts through a generous voucher program, initiated in 2011 under then-Governor Mitch Daniels and expanded in 2013 under Governor Mike Pence, and (2) creating strict property tax caps in 2008 that guarantee that school districts in areas with lower property values will have lower funding for schools.
  2. Deprofessionalize teachers: (1) make it easier to get certified to teach, and (2) make it clear that teachers’ experience and education don’t matter by ending the practice of giving teachers pay raises for earning a master’s degree. Teachers with master’s degrees don’t produce students with higher standardized test scores than teachers with bachelor’s degrees do, and therefore it’s a waste of state money to pay them more for a worthless credential (remember, the only things that matter are things that can be measured).

I could go on and on. Really, I could, and I could include a bunch of hyperlinks to stories about everything the Republicans have done to fuck over public K-12 education in Indiana in the past decade, but that’s not the point of this blog post.

The point is that I finally understand what drove my colleague to want to leave this red state, because all of that contempt for educators is now making its way to my world of postsecondary public education in Indiana, and it’s maddening. When a politician’s ideology trumps my experience and expertise, it’s insulting. When I can shout as loud as I want to and carry signs and write letters and actually have my opinion be considered less important than those of the average taxpayer, because I’m a liberal college professor and therefore my ideas about education and teaching are wrong-headed, it makes me wish to be part of a different system, one where my ideas about education were not so completely at odds with those of the people with the power to decide.

The two states I know best, Kansas and Indiana, are both experiencing teacher shortages at the K-12 level. I’m not surprised—it’s demoralizing to work, and to work hard and to work well, and nevertheless to be treated with contempt at every turn. It’s dispiriting to have ideals about education as a public good, about the right of every citizen to a good education and the benefits that will flow to everyone from providing that education, and not to have those ideals inform education policy at any level in the entire state. It’s a shame, but the small daily battles we educators in red states face, the fighting and fighting and fighting to have our expertise in any small way affect policy, will continue until these folks are voted out, and if November 8 was any indication, that’s going to be a long time coming to Indiana.