What do you mean when you say someone is “speaking in code”?

Some critics of our schools, including some candidates for school board, speak in code. Speaking in code is an evasion and a subversion. It is an evasion in that people do it to avoid taking responsibility for that they are saying. It is a subversion because it undermines the usefulness of language.

Breaking the code

What they say: The schools are ignoring biology!

What they mean: When kids say they are trans, teachers don’t say, no you’re not.

What I think: Being transgender means having a psychological gender that doesn’t match your physical anatomy. This is a real condition that affects a small minority of the human population. Recognizing this as a reality doesn’t mean “ignoring biology.”

What they say: I believe in parental rights!

What they mean: Parents, individually or in groups, can overrule schoolteachers and administrators on issues they care deeply about.

What I think: Of course parents have rights. Under some conditions parents can withdraw their children from particular elements in the curriculum. But the rights of parents are not unlimited. For example, schools must follow epidemic-containment directives from the health department. Neither parents nor schools have the right to overrule or ignore the public-health authorities. Giving all parents the right to overrule any and every school policy would produce chaos.

What they say: The schools are destroying family values!

What they mean: The schools acknowledge the existence of families different from my own.

What I think: Families have great value. I grew up in a family with a mom and a dad and two children. There are families with only one parent. There are families with adopted children. Some families are formed around a same-sex couple. “Family values” language usually signals antipathy toward this last type of family. School board cannot instruct or permit teachers to refuse to recognize families of different types.

What they say: Teachers are grooming our kids!

What they mean: Teachers are telling my children that in American civil society we recognize the existence and the human rights of queer people.

What I think: Teaching your children to respect gay people is not the same thing as trying to turn them gay. That’s not how this works.

What they say: Get CRT out of the schools!

What they mean: Honest talk about systemic racism and its effects should be banned.

What I think: CRT is not being taught in Caledonia schools. The enslavement of Africa-derived people in America from 1619 to around 1860, and the systematic denial of equality to Blacks for many decades after Emancipation, still have effects. White people don’t get to decree that we don’t talk about that. Calling stuff CRT that isn’t CRT is a deliberate political strategy.

What they say: Get SEL out of the schools!

What they mean: Get SEL out of the schools!

What I think: OK, this one is a change-up: they mean exactly what they say! They don’t want social-emotional learning to be part of the curriculum. But social-emotional learning, in olden days, used to be called character education. It was closely related to civics and to what my report cards when I was a kid called “conduct” or “citizenship.” It’s about self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness, and relationship skills. So are they really opposed to that? Or do they just not know what they’re talking about? My observation is that the people who complain the loudest about SEL are people who could most use a remedial course in it.

What they say: I support parental rights!

What they mean: Vote for me and I will make all your wildest dreams come true! (Apologies to Pedro Sánchez, a far better candidate.)

What I think: Decades ago, “parental rights” was the code slogan for parents who opposed desegregation. Now it’s used by candidates who know better to promise explicitly that that will do various things that no school board trustee can deliver, such as overrule mandates from public-health authorities, remove the need for sex education, or make gay students disappear.

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