Playwright David Mamet, perhaps promoting the revival of his “American Buffalo” on Broadway, spoke up in favor of Florida’s law prohibiting early grade discussion of gender identity by arguing, “If there’s no community control of the schools, what we have is kids being not only indoctrinated but groomed . . . by people who are sexual predators.” He added that “Teachers are inclined, particularly men, because men are predators, to pedophilia.”

We could simply dismiss this obnoxious rant were it not for the fact that it is in sync with the unjustified attack on teachers being launched in state legislatures, school board meetings, and political discourse around the country.  Mamet’s comments echo the old Anita Bryant canard that homosexuals have to recruit because they can’t reproduce, and they amplify the ludicrous argument that teachers talking (for example) about some students having same sex parents is actually an attempt to “groom” children as sexual partners or at least indoctrinate them in to becoming gay or trans. It has been well established that sexual identity is not a result of persuasion or even choice but is deeply rooted in us all.

These attacks are a ludicrous form of homophobia that is likely driven by a backlash to the legalization and acceptance of same sex marriage and the increased mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ+ lives. The hyperbolic and unfounded accusations are also linked to the myth that teachers are indoctrinating students across the country through teaching “critical race theory,” a term appropriated to mean anything from anti-racism to American History that talks honestly about the pervasiveness of white supremacy in our complex legacy.

Various states have attempted to criminalize teaching about “critical race theory” (very broadly defined), as other communities have banned books from school libraries that celebrate diversity. In the process, teachers are being vilified and targeted. Students are encouraged to record their teachers saying something prohibited in class, while professors at state colleges are facing ambiguous legislation or state education department guidelines that have a chilling effect on honest discussion.

At Russell Sage College, we educate teachers who are well-trained, well-informed, open-minded and reflective practitioners. They are motivated by caring for students and learning, and they are committed to exploring throughout their careers how best to engage and inspire their students. They are not drawn to the field to indoctrinate students in a political view or to shape their sexuality and gender identity. Indeed, there’s little reason to think those things are even possible.

Increasingly, we ask too much of our teachers: to be not just teachers but surrogate counselors and parents; to master active shooter drills and train for disasters; to walk a tightrope where any potentially offended parent could cost them their job. They have been serving on the frontlines of COVID, often in the absence of vaccination and mask requirements. It’s a wonder that our most talented are not fleeing the profession—but this is surely a risk in the current environment.

I’ve taught for half my professional career; my father taught high school for thirty years and college for ten. Neither of us aggrandized that vocation, but we respected a responsibility to knowledge, learning and the intellect, and we took seriously the trust placed in us by young people and their parents. Virtually all teachers do; it’s the nature of the job—not child exploitation as Mamet implies.

The attack on the classroom is unabashedly political, and it reflects a cynical strategy that choosing the classroom as a battlefield creates a viable wedge issue for cultural conservatives, cloaking homophobia, transphobia and racism under the guise of protecting children and supporting parents’ rights. The grooming rhetoric amplifies QAnon delusional theories about pedophilia as well. Sadly, this hyperbolic rhetoric may turn out to be a successful electoral strategy, but the real victims will be the good people driven away from teaching and—ultimately—the young people they wanted to teach.

I wrote recently about the most memorable commencement speech I ever heard, Kurt Vonnegut in 1999. He ended his address this way after talking about a beloved uncle who would exclaim in pleasant moments “If this isn’t nice, what is?”:

I ask [a favor] not only of the graduates, but of everyone here, parents and teachers as well. I’ll want a show of hands after I ask this question.

How many of you have had a teacher at any level of your education who made you more excited to be alive, prouder to be alive, than you had previously believed possible?

Hold up your hands, please.

Now take down your hands and say the name of that teacher to someone else and tell them what that teacher did for you.

All done?

If this isn’t nice, what is?

What a fitting way to mark the rite of passage we call graduation from college, and what a genuine, warm-hearted understanding of teaching and learning! Let’s not forget what our teachers have done for each of us.

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