Subversive Teaching


We Need Strategies for Subversion

I recently participated in a forum with the American Historical Association with regard to teaching history at the secondary level under the new strictures from fascist politicians like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott. Laws like Florida’s censorship of so-called Critical Race Theory and flat-out banning of The 1619 Project from classrooms are a threat to anyone who believes that a comprehensive and critical history curriculum is important for all citizens in a democracy.1 The policies are also anathema to anyone who believes that academic freedom is the best policy for securing a quality education for all students.

I must say that the representatives from the AHA were well-meaning and demonstrated a deep concern for us secondary level history teachers on the front lines of the discipline. It was gratifying that their first step was to come to us as respected professionals to find out what we needed to help us in the face of this new, authoritarian environment. Unfortunately, they were asking the wrong questions.

The underlying question they seemed to be asking was, “how can we as an organization help secondary teachers teach with integrity while at the same time obeying the law?” The answer is, “you can’t.” These laws are wicked, and must be disobeyed by anyone who takes their professional obligations as an educator and as an academic seriously.

I say that you cannot administer a wicked law impartially. You can only destroy, you can only punish. And I warn you, that a wicked law, like cholera, destroys every one it touches. Its upholders as well as its defiers.

Inherit the Wind, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

So, as the organizer asked, “Is there anything that we can do to help you as teachers,” my thought was, ‘well, if I teach something that a parent believes to be objectionable, I can be sued…so, a legal defense fund would be nice.’

The bottom line is that teachers do not need more curriculum materials. Not that we’ll ever turn down free curriculum materials (or free anything else for that matter). What we need are avenues and tactics by which we can subvert the law.

I would never teach such stuff. Teaching this stuff is against the law. So I expressly forbid anyone scanning this QR Code.

This website is just such an avenue. It’s a private site that I specifically do not use as a curriculum resource. In fact, all around my classroom, there are QR Codes that open to Dangerous Knowledge, but they are all specifically labeled “Under no circumstances should you scan this QR Code.”

I have the relevant text of the legislation printed out and posted in the front of my classroom, so whenever the conversation strays to something that might be considered “Critical Race Theory,” I direct students to the law.

For instance, in a discussion about redlining in my Sociology Class I immediately stood in front of the guiding text of the law and explained…

“Yes, banks and many federal and state programs denied loans to African Americans and would not finance loans for improvement of properties in African American communities. That made it near impossible for African Americans to benefit from the same opportunities to gain wealth through housing that was available to other Americans. Furthermore, this was instituted in the law…but that’s an example of Critical Race Theory and [pointing to the text of the law] teacher Critical Race Theory is against the law. So I will, under no circumstances, teach you that this happened. And I will in no way insinuate that this historical fact is still materially significant today.”

When discussing the Great Recession the discussion turned to the fact that African Americans disproportionately held subprime mortgages despite qualifying for prime mortgages when they applied. A lot of this had to do with the fact that many African American homeowners were the first generation in their families to hold a mortgage and, therefore, had nobody to advise them on how to negotiate these loans in their interests. They were first-time home buyers, of course, because of the policy described above in the discussion about Red Lining.

Again, “what I just described is, according to the law, Critical Race Theory. It is illegal for me to teach you Critical Race Theory, so I will not do so.”

Obviously, this ruse will fool nobody. But it’s the best I can think of. Really, what else can I do? When I became a teacher I had to sign on to a very clear Code of Ethics. As a member of the American Historical Association and the American Sociological Association, I also agreed to accept their professional standards of ethical conduct. I also must hold myself accountable as a responsible adult charged with maximizing the human potential of all students in my care.

Fortunately, all of these different ethical influences align. I’m not to discriminate, I’m not to cause harm, I’m not to falsely represent the academic revelations of my discipline, and I must share a comprehensive and critical context associated with all of the lessons I plan. These are Codes of Ethics that every parent should assume that I will uphold when their children are under my tutelage.

The only dictate that I’m expected to follow that does not align with the ethical standards of these three institutions is the law. Hence I’m faced with the age-old question, what should I do when what I know to be right contradicts the law?

There’s no one good answer. The wages for disobedience are, for many, severe. It is no testament to anyone’s character that they choose to obey the law and protect their livelihoods, putting their own children first of those of their students. Wicked laws force us onto this moral tightrope. That’s how we know they are wicked. And it’s easy to legitimize. After all, most of my students’ parents either voted for the fascist Governor and his equally fascist legislators who made this wicked law possible, or they didn’t bother to vote at all. So, there. Now your kids can remain ignorant because that’s what you actively or tacitly want.

On the other hand, the people we admire the most are those who took a stand against wicked laws by finding innovative avenues of disobedience.

If organizations like the AHA, or the ASA or any association dedicated to the advancement of human knowledge wants to help they can start here. We don’t need better informational pamphlets. We need political cover. We need resources by which we can be disobedient. We need innovative and nuanced methods of subversive teaching so we can do what’s right for our students.


  1. It should go without saying that such legislation is not an unfortunate side-effect of otherwise well-meaning legislation. Indeed, censorious legislation is the fundamental to the fascist agenda. Step one for any fascist movement is to gain control of a nation’s historical discourse. This is done by a. Creating a mythology that reflects the self-interest and perception of the “true” citizens. In other words, this mythology reinforces the beliefs that the target population has about its own superiority, intelligence and virtue. It tells the story about the base that the base wants to hear. b. Eliminating or deligitimizing any avenue by which this mythology may be challenged.

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