It’s Back to Compelled Speech Time Again

Posted September 20, 2018
By Danielle S. McLaughlin

Whose speech is compelled more than anyone’s in the country? Why teachers and students in K-12 schools, of course. From the singing of the National Anthem each morning, to the recitation of historical dates and multiplication tables, to astronomical theories, to dress codes, to the pep rallies, to the macaroni covered mothers’ day cards, to the schedule of mandatory holidays, each school student and teacher is compelled to express herself in the correct fashion at the correct time. 

It is all on the curriculum. But what, after all, is a curriculum? It is a set of compelled texts, facts, ideologies, discussions, and lessons. Whatever is on a curriculum, whoever has made that selection, there are important, perhaps even crucial items that will not appear. And because there is a shortage of time every year for the curriculum to be delivered, even the most well-meaning teachers will not be able to fill the gaps they find. They will have to resort to the compelled expression they have contracted to teach, with little opportunity to augment, update, or amend it.

But wait, it gets worse. Teachers and students who stray beyond the curriculum could be subject to punishment. Ask Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford what he plans to do if teachers are caught using the more recent health education curriculum, rather than the one from the 1990s. He has opened a snitch line so these errant teachers can be reported. Even the limited amount of freedom of expression that teachers and students are permitted will be deeply chilled by such a measure.

The bigger question, however, is about how Canadians can teach and learn to think critically. Can we count on our current system to deliver a robust and thoughtful education to each learner?  Is this process affected by compelled expression? How can teachers and students feel free to explore ideas and complex questions when they are obliged to stick to a rigid curriculum? It is not easy.

When speaking with teacher candidates in faculties of education, I meet numbers of education students who are clearly fearful, and others who are simply uninterested. When presented with the kinds of questions and issues that will inevitably come into each teacher’s classroom, these people say, “If it’s not on the curriculum, I am not going to teach it.”

What does this mean? In my view it means that these teachers will be seeking opportunities to avoid unplanned “teachable moments” because they do not see themselves as creative thinkers, or even as competent educators. Instead of being teachers of people, they choose to be teachers of curricula. Does the fact that they believe the curriculum to be a rigid document contribute to this problem? There is little question that it does.

In case we forget, a curriculum is a political document. Each time there is a change in government, there is generally a review of the policies that will be promoted. The ministers of education are responsible for developing the curriculum and setting student requirements. They prepare lists of approved text books and other materials. If teachers want to choose materials that are not on the approved lists, they must check with their principals. Principals can and have said no to such requests. The trouble with this is that the rationale for denying the admission of additional or supplementary materials is often vague. To be told that a book is inappropriate does not tell us if the book is badly written, not suitable for the intended age group or presents politically unpopular ideas. 

Learners and their families cannot be the adjudicators of everything that will be taught each day. For this, public schools must rely upon an elected governments’ development of curricula. In case we forget, each government in power will compel young people – those who have no choice because they are not yet able to vote – to learn a set of ideologies, histories, cultural, social, scientific, and even religious “norms.”

If we are lucky, courageous and intelligent teachers will help those learners to think critically and rationally about what they study. Our young people should be taught at a very early age that freedom of expression is for everyone, not just for those in authority. Our democracy depends upon it.