The New York Times ran a story on 1/11 that Fieldston had fired a Jewish, transgender history teacher for remarks made online and at school that were critical of Israel. The teacher, Dr. Brager, referred to Israel as a “colonial” “ethnostate.” They were fired for being antisemitic. This incident brings into sharp focus the difficulty of being a history teacher at private schools in the United States in the age of Trump and the climate of intense identity politics. As a former private-school history teacher, I can tell you that firing these teachers does not help students. Firing teachers for their politics demeans the intellectual abilities of young people, when we should be empowering kids by teaching them to question authority.
History is an inherently political discipline. Even if a teacher never overtly expresses an opinion in class, students and colleagues can still ascertain her political viewpoint. What events does the teacher include in her curriculum? Does she spend a full month teaching about the rich history of indigenous peoples in the Americas to start off a United States history course? Maybe she makes sure to include the role of women in every event, rather than saying “And also there were women but they just stayed at home.” Does the teacher explain that the Civil War was caused by slavery (yes) or “state’s rights” (no)? Does a World History course focus on Europe? Does the teacher use a Peters projection map in class, or keep to the Euro-centric Mercator map? All of these choices indicate a political point of view, without ever saying anything.
But teachers of history are expected to address current events. On an almost-daily basis when I was teaching history at three different elite, expensive prep schools, kids asked me questions about American and/or world politics. When Scotland held it’s referendum to leave the United Kingdom, I replied to a student’s question about the issue by giving an answer about British imperialism and nationalism that directly showed my views on the subject, and moreover on British presence in the north of Ireland (which I oppose; I am by trade an Ireland expert).
Questions about American politics are stickier. I have been asked about Trump’s “Muslim ban”; students have asked me to explain constitutional issues about Supreme Court cases such as Masterpiece Cakeshop (the “gay cake” case) and Roe v. Wade. I am a very vocal supporter (just look at my Twitter feed) of LGBTQ+ rights and of abortion rights, and while I explained the constitutional issues involved in those cases, I honestly made no effort to hide the morally correct stance. There are few issues in the United States, within and without education, that are more of a lightning rod than abortion—but one of those, especially in New York, is the state of Israel.
Indeed, Riverdale Country School, down the road from Fieldston, lost two teachers who also took a stand on the human rights of Palestinians. I am a Jewish woman who supports the right of Israel to exist and of Israelis to live peacefully and freely. But, surely we can all agree that assertions that Palestinian civilians deserve the same rights is not an antisemitic statement? Apparently not at New York City’s private schools.
To be sure, I have never worked at Fieldston, and I don’t know Dr. Brager. But I do know the ins and outs of New York City’s private schools. And it is abundantly clearly that Dr. Brager was fired because powerful parents didn’t like the way they were doing their job—not because they were a “bad” teacher. I have seen many teachers lose their jobs for similar reasons—including myself. And because there is no standardized process, with oversight from a state board of education, for dismissing teachers—and because all teaching contracts at private schools are “at will” contracts—schools can sack teachers for whatever reason they want. And, believe me, schools absolutely fire excellent teachers for personal and political reasons. They probably fire teachers for such reasons more often than they fire teachers for being bad teachers.
Teaching history is an extremely important job, and it’s one that is frequently diminished in our STEM-obsessed society. Historians, after all, don’t usually found start-ups that make billions of dollars; you don’t choose history as your life’s work because you want to be a millionaire. But teaching history helps young people to understand the world they live in, figure out what their values are, and articulate those values in oral and written formats. History courses help shape active global citizens.
So schools should not fire teachers because they don’t like a particular point of view expressed in class. Students can and should question their teachers—especially in the United States, where the right and, indeed the duty, to question authority is an important national value. There is a vast difference between saying something racist or antisemitic, and suggesting that Israel’s governmental policies mistreat Palestinians. Criticizing a government is not de facto a form of hatred of the Jewish people, though in some cases, yes, criticism of Israel can be antisemitism wrapped up in a more palatable package. Is criticizing Donald Trump code for hating America? Some people think so, but few of those people work at New York City’s private schools.
Stop firing teachers for their political viewpoints, and start teaching our children to question authority. This kind of education will empower them in the present and the future