OPINION: On the side of academic freedom and free speech

Dear Southington Board of Education: 

As faculty and administrators at Southern Connecticut State University, we are writing to express support for the Southington High School teacher who came under attack at the September 8 Board of Education meeting. After viewing the meeting and reading the handout, we are having a hard time construing this as anything other than a politically motivated attack on free speech. 

As parents, professors, and teachers of teachers, we write to let you know that we are dismayed by the fact that the board seems to be engaging in partisan politics, restricting the free speech and academic freedom of teachers who are struggling to teach in remarkably complex and difficult times. 

What, exactly, is wrong with a worksheet that provides simple straightforward characterizations of concepts such as “marginalization” and “white privilege” as a way to help students contextualize literature? 

Sure, these concepts are difficult. So are discussions about genocide, the Holocaust, sexual assault, cyber bullying, suicide, and many, many other social ills. This does not mean that we avoid them. To ban the concepts is equivalent to the practice of antiquated practices such as banning books like “To Kill A Mockingbird” in the 1960s. We trust that you are not interested in engaging in censorship. If we are to prepare our students for the future, we can and we must teach them to engage in critical thinking, to participate in tough conversations. To do anything else is to encourage them to descend into partisanship and what George Orwell called groupthink or “doublethink”  — “a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments as a result of group pressurings” — in his novel, “1984.” 

The term “critical race theory” (CRT) has been co-opted by certain political forces as a rallying cry to silence discussions about racism. We reject the notion that what is being taught in the Southington English class is CRT, as some have suggested on social media; CRT is a legal theory that is well beyond the reach of any high school class. But we recognize that the Southington debate is closely connected to the debate over CRT, which is in effect a debate about the American historical narrative and the question of whether we are truly an individualistic meritocracy in which freedom and equality reign.  

We will refrain from entering into this debate in this letter, other than to acknowledge that it is a debate — one which, like all discourses, should be open and free from terror or intimidation. Teachers who choose to embrace discussions about racism, as well as those who choose to refrain from such discussions, should be equally supported in the classroom. 

One of the most common refrains in debates about introducing anti-racist — or religious, or (non) cis-gendered and (non) cis-sexual, or futuristic, or classic, or otherwise controversial — texts in the classroom is the concept of “parental rights.” We strongly support parental rights in the home. But we want to emphasize that very few parents are experts in education. While they are — and should be — free to engage in any conversations and language at home, parents should not be responsible for deciding whether teachers follow, for example, a whole language, phonics, or balanced literacy program. They should not dictate how teachers implement common core math standards. And they should not determine which texts are read, and what language is introduced in order to make sense of those texts. 

In other words, to permit parents — or students — to object to what they perceive as “divisive” texts is to descend down the slippery slope of allowing a relatively small but vocal group of parents and students to circumscribe and dictate the nature of public education.  

It is also to interfere and distract from the work that teachers need to do, which is to educate. When students and teachers are worried about whether things they say in class might end up on media outlets intent on inflaming controversy, how can teachers explore and express new ideas? The anxiety related to censorship is exacerbating the current severe shortage of teachers in Connecticut. 

The interconnectedness of our world is more apparent than ever. Even as parental restrictions, ideological walls, checkpoints, lockdowns, and detention centers serve as barriers, we know that ideas and voices will continue to flow across artificial boundaries that are constructed to divide us. 

We urge the Southington Board of Education, and all Connecticut boards of education, to resist attempts to divide us, and to stand firmly on the side of academic freedom and free speech in the classroom. We reiterate our support for all teachers, regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, or creed. And we call on Connecticut legislators, the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities System, and the Connecticut public to join us in voicing support for teachers who wish to discuss racism in the classroom. 


 Dr. Greg Adams, associate professor, sociology; Dr. Rosalyn Amenta, adjunct professor, women's and gender studies; Dr. Diane Ariza, vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, division of diversity, equity, and inclusion; Attorney Kauther S. Badr, associate professor, business law; Prof. Nicole Barbieri, adjunct faculty, English; Dr. Colleen Bielitz, associate vice president, academic affairs; Prof. Corinne E. Blackmer, professor, English and Judaic studies ; Dr. Laurie Bonjo, associate professor, counseling and school psychology; Dr. Laura Bower-Phipps, professor, curriculum and learning; Prof. Sean Brierley, adjunct faculty, English; Prof. Michael Brelsford, adjunct faculty, English; Dr. Mary E. Brown, professor, English; Dr. Sandra Bulmer, dean, College of Health & Human Services; Dr. Barbara Cook, associate professor, communication disorders; Dr. KC Councilor, assistant professor, communication, media, and screen studies; Dr. Carmen Coury, associate professor, history; Dr. Karen D’Angelo, assistant professor, social work; Dr. Margaret Dunn, lecturer, English; Dr. William G. Faraclas, professor eEmeritus, public health ; Dr. Marisa Ferraro, associate professor, curriculum and learning; Patricia M. Gagliardi, director of education and restorative justice, division of diversity, equity, and inclusion; Esteban Garcia, co-chair, diversity, equity, and inclusion advisory council; Dr. Adam Goldberg, professor and chair, curriculum and learning; Dr. Svenja Gusewski, assistant professor, communication disorders; Brittany Harden, co-instructor, counseling and school psychology; Dr. Rebecca Harvey, professor, marriage and family therapy; Dr. Stephen J. Hegedus, dean, College of Education; Cody Helgesen, graduate studies graduate assistant, counseling and school psychology ; Prof. Nicole Henderson, professor, English; Dr. Steven Hoffler, associate professor, social work; Dr. Brandon LA Hutchinson, associate professor, English; Phylis J. Iqbal, MFA adjunct professor, English; Dr. Elizabeth Keenan, professor, social work; Dr. Jessica Kenty-Drane, professor and chair, sociology; Dr. Audrey Kerr, professor, English Department; Dr. Gladys Labas, associate professor, educational leadership and policy studies; Dr. Steve Larocco, professor, English; Dr. Yi-Chun Tricia Lin, professor and chair, women's and gender studies; Dr. Heidi Lockwood, professor, philosophy; Dr. Nicole McGowan Madu, assistant professor, curriculum and learning; Dr. Travis Marn. assistant professor, curriculum and learning; Dr. Helen Marx, professor, curriculum and learning; Prof. Damien L. Mason, adjunct professor, English; Prof. Luciana Q. McClure, adjunct professor, women's and gender studies; Prof. Marie McDaniel, associate professor, history; Prof. Emerita Virginia Metaxas, professor, history and women’s and gender studies; Dr. Cassi Meyerhoffer, associate professor, sociology; Dr. Venezia Michalsen, assistant professor, sociology; Prof. Jeff Mock, professor of English, MFA coordinator; Prof. Patricia Mottola, adjunct professor, English; Dr. Vara Neverow, professor, English; Dr. Troy Paddock, Connecticut State University professor, history; Prof. Tim Parrish, professor, English; Prof. Michaela Papa, lecturer, English; Dr. Paul R. Petrie, professor, English; Dr. David Pettigrew, professor, philosophy; Dr. Daniela Pila, assistant professor, sociology; Jeanine Pocoski, adjunct professor, curriculum and learning; Dr. Laura Raynolds, professor, curriculum and learning; Dr. Elizabeth Kelley Rhoades, associate professor, school psychology; Dr. Andrew Richmond, assistant professor, English; Dr. Sarah M. Roe, associate professor, history; Dr. Samantha Scott, assistant professor, health and movement sciences; Dr. Meredith Sinclair, associate professor, secondary English education; Dr. Carmela Fusciello Smith, associate professor, social work; Dr. Julian Smith, assistant professor, communication disorders; Atty. Robert A. Smith, associate professor, management - international business; Dr. Andrew Smyth,professor and chair, English; Dr. Melissa Talhelm, professor, English; Dr. Judy Terpstra, professor, special education; Dr. Stephen Monroe Tomczak, professor, social work; Christopher E. Trombly, associate professor, educational leadership and policy studies; Dr. Lauren Tucker, assistant professor, special education; Dr. Tracy Tyree, vice president, student affairs; Dr. Joan Weir, assistant professor, special education 


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