Will Today’s Students Learn About Gender and Racial Inequality?

5 min read
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College lecture hall

Source: Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock

We can never let it seem normal, or appropriate, when governments ban teaching topics that are controversial, in literature or science. Most of us old enough remember being appalled at the censorship and propaganda that was normalized and taken for granted in the Soviet era. Religions were vilified and capitalism portrayed as evil.

But here we are, in 2023, in America, where state governments are banning the teaching of gender. State governments are also banning teaching about race and systemic inequality. Whatever happened to free speech? How can we have an educated citizenry when social scientists are banned from teaching what our research findings indicate about structural racism, sexism, and privilege?

As a sociologist who teaches about gender inequality, about how gender as a social structure embeds inequality into our daily lives, our expectations for one another, and our institutions, I am appalled that social theory, analysis, and empirical findings are no longer allowed in classrooms in Texas, Florida, and perhaps other states with conservative legislatures. As a sociologist who teaches younger scholars pedagogy and prepares them for careers in the academy, I fear that a job as a professor is no longer one that I can recommend, at least if you end up in a state that forbids you to educate your students!

But I do not teach in such a place, so for the last several months, I’ve been interviewing faculty, particularly young faculty, who do teach in places where their very subject matter—gender and race—are controversial, topics limited and even banned. What are they doing? Is there any hope for students being educated in those states to learn up-to-date social science about gender or race?

Interviews With Faculty

The good news: I did not talk to anyone who planned to keep teaching and change their classroom presentations, readings, or approach. To a person, every one told me that if they teach a course, they will do it correctly. I spoke to one young scholar on the tenure track, a woman of color, in Georgia. She told me she teaches, does her writing, and, in her words, “I keep my head down and hope no one notices me.” Instead of building a reputation for herself, she stays off social media and never posts about her research. I asked her why she stays in the job and the city where she lives. Her response was about economic security; a possibility of tenure in a city where she can afford to own a home and raise her children is worth the suffering.

Another young scholar, this one in a precarious job with no security in Florida, told me—with some bravado—“they offer me nothing anyhow; if they fire me, I’ll just find something else.” And then, I spoke with a tenured professor whose attitude was the same: “I will keep teaching what needs to be taught,” he told me, “and if they fire me, I’m lucky enough to have a wife who is employed and can carry us over until I find something else.” He grew up in Florida and has a commitment to remaining there to educate those who come behind him. So, even the good news is not so good. Committed scholars are staying and teaching as always, but are preparing for plan B if they are fired.

The bad news: I talked to several people who have chosen simply to no longer teach courses on gender or race. It isn’t worth the risk. They have the latitude to choose which courses they will teach and they will let someone else take that risk. Unfortunately, that is risky business for the students. What if no one is willing to take the risk to teach about gender or racial inequality across South Carolina? Where does that leave the ability of our next generation to learn about research on systemic racism, gender inequality, gender identity, and even sexuality? If I were sending a child to college now, I’d be very careful to send them only to a state where teaching all topics was still allowed.

The even worse news: Across these states with teaching bans, I talked to faculty who were planning to leave, either their university, their state, or, perhaps most disturbing, the academy. And these folks were not a random sample of faculty; they tended to be faculty of color who are already underrepresented on our campuses. This breach of basic academic freedom was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many of them. They were looking for jobs in industry, or real estate, or as consultants—anything to escape universities where teaching about research evidence on important topics about race and gender was no longer supported, nor sometimes even allowed.

Creating Educated Citizens

Gender matters. Race matters. Teaching what we know from our research is the only way to create educated citizens. I worry we have already begun to stumble down the road to Soviet-style censorship.

Let this short column remind you that research and teaching matter. Protect the scholars in your state, or your children will grow up ignorant of the world around them, ignorant of systemic inequality, and without a way to address it. And perhaps that is the victory that those who ban such teaching truly seek.

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