High schools have become one of the biggest battlegrounds in the fight over viewpoint diversity. Conservatives are—in many cases, rightly—concerned about what they see as an ideological takeover of education, particularly around issues of identity. Liberals are—in many cases, also rightly—concerned about the top-down, often censorious, legislative attempts to address what some of them don’t see as a problem. In Tennessee, these concerns collided in the case of Matthew Hawn.
Hawn is a liberal former high school teacher in largely conservative Kingsport, Tennessee. Prior to his dismissal in July 2021, he had taught for 16 years in the Sullivan County school system, including courses on economics and world history. But it was his “Contemporary Issues” course that eventually cost him his job. In that class, Hawn regularly addressed questions related to race, along with other potentially controversial issues.
Although Hawn had taught the course multiple times before, his troubles began in early 2021. The original charge against him, as noted in a letter of reprimand dated February 2021, stemmed from a parent’s complaint that he assigned an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates called “The First White President.”
In the piece, Coates argues that the political landscape historically, and Trump’s campaign and presidency specifically, should be seen through the prism of racism. For instance, Coates writes, “Certainly not every Trump voter is a white supremacist, just as not every white person in the Jim Crow South was a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.”
In response to the parent’s complaint, the letter of reprimand recounts that Hawn was asked to respond to the following question: “What other reading or other materials have [you] assigned recently that would offer a different perspective than the one taken by Mr. Coates in this piece?” Hawn is quoted as responding, “There is no credible source for a differing point of view.”
To be sure, Coates’s argument warrants serious consideration, and it reflects a position held by a substantial portion of voters on the left. However, Hawn’s claim that there were no credible alternative perspectives is demonstrably false (see here, here or here for a few examples).
Hawn’s trouble came from charges that he violated the Tennessee Teacher Code of Ethics. That code states that, among other things, “an educator shall…[n]ot unreasonably deny the student access to varying points of view.” While one could reasonably debate whether such a code is a good or a bad legislative step, it does appear, based on the available evidence, that Hawn’s classroom behavior was inconsistent with the spirit in which it was written.
Hawn’s letter of reprimand came in February 2021, likely prompting him to reflect on his teaching approach. However, the trial and conviction of Derek Chauvin later that same spring brought him new challenges. As the Washington Post reported, for Hawn, Chauvin’s conviction brought topics of race and privilege again to the fore. During this period, he showed a video on white privilege by the poet Kyla Jenée Lacey. Lacey’s poem concerns oppression, identity, dominance and unearned advantage—and it is clearly written from a particular worldview. Hawn, presumably in an attempt to avoid making the same mistake that he made with Coates’s piece, tried to balance Lacey’s poem with a different perspective. On May 7, 2021, Hawn wrote a letter to administrators, trying to defend his decision to show the video. He stated:
Following the materials and discussion about white privilege, I attempted to then lead a class discussion about black privilege. I asked the class to define it and encouraged discussion by using things like affirmative action, BET, and Black History Month, as examples, so we could compare and contrast the two. In doing that I was attempting to have my students explore the subject of race in America and to think independently by asking them to examine privilege from two perspectives.
He concluded his letter with:
I want you to know that I am committed to ensuring that my students are exposed to appropriate material that will encourage them to engage in critical thinking. I will ensure that all instruction will expose my students to varying points of views so that they may consider varying and credible perspectives, especially when instructing on controversial topics.
For the administrators in Sullivan County, Hawn’s response was too little, too late. A letter of dismissal was filed three days later, on May 10, 2021.
What Hawn Got Wrong
A Washington Post article about Hawn’s case recounted a lesson in class in which Hawn “compared the fates of Jacob Blake and Kyle Rittenhouse.”
Blake, a Black man in his late 20s, was shot seven times in the back and side by police in Kenosha, Wis., leaving him partially paralyzed. Rittenhouse, a White teenager from Illinois, drove to the same area of Wisconsin and shot and killed two men, wounding a third, before surrendering, unharmed, to the same police force. A jury later acquitted Rittenhouse of all charges under the state’s self-defense law.
On August 27, 2020, in the classroom, after describing the two situations, Hawn addressed the class:
My question to you, and this is going to be a tough one, is how is that not a definition of White privilege?
The comparison he was making between Blake and Rittenhouse is interesting and worth discussing. But because his question on a highly controversial topic is asked in a way that assumes the answer is already universally understood, it is the antithesis of both viewpoint diversity and critical thinking.
Instead, Hawn might have asked:
- How can we know when a person is treated badly (or well) because of their race?
- What does it mean if we either incorrectly attribute some action to race or incorrectly think race was not involved?
- Are there explanations other than white privilege that might explain the divergent outcomes? How do we know which explanation is correct?
As an indicator of the scope of the challenges related to a lack of viewpoint diversity, it is worth noting that the Washington Post compounded the problem. They allowed the record of the question as asked to stand unchallenged. Their reporting implied that it was obvious that Hawn was right to ask the question in a rhetorical, rather than a critical, manner. In doing so, the Post reified an ideologically narrow—and morally certain—position on a larger platform.
What Hawn Got Right
When it came to issues that didn’t touch on race, Matthew Hawn was capable of connecting, at least with conservative students, in a way that encouraged broad, nuanced and balanced thinking. Hawn was able to get them to recognize that some of the ideas they so avidly supported might have downsides.
One anecdote provided by the Washington Post demonstrated that, as a result of Hawn’s thoughtful prodding, a conservative student began to wonder if there might be downsides to Tennessee’s lack of income tax on wages. Specifically, Hawn pointed out that the policy forced the state to implement a higher sales tax than they otherwise might—presumably to offset the absence of an income tax. Regardless of how the students ultimately vote on this issue, shifting them from thinking that a particular policy or solution results in all benefits and no costs to a place where they weigh both with an even hand is the mark of critical thinking and viewpoint diversity at its finest.
The Problem with Legislative Solutions
The Tennessee Teacher Code of Ethics was adopted by the Tennessee State Board of Education in 2010 to solve a problem of genuine concern—the need for ideological diversity in public schools. And, to be sure, a code that requires a diversity of viewpoints is vastly preferrable to the censorious attempts to ban certain kinds of thought and language outright.
However, legislative attempts to shape what and how teachers teach—particularly when it comes to issues that are ultimately moral in nature—will almost certainly create tension, resentment and do little or nothing to resolve the underlying problem. Even worse, such mandates can have the unintended consequence of discouraging educators from tackling any difficult topics at all. A teacher might reasonably wonder: Why should I bring up this controversial subject if it could cost me my job? In the end, this policy led to Hawn’s dismissal. And Hawn, at least anecdotally, was in many other ways a good teacher. Good teachers are difficult to come by.
The upshot is that the lack of viewpoint diversity in schools is a problem that’s bigger than any one teacher, and solving it requires more than a one-size-fits-all legislative solution. Addressing it requires a willingness to think broadly and a commitment to teaching in a manner that prioritizes the presentation of a variety of viewpoints on equal moral ground. Without a doubt, bringing such an ethos into the classroom requires either a motivated instructor or a motivated administrator.
While that motivation can and should be nurtured and encouraged, people ultimately find it in different places. Some may be moved to act by their own intellectual curiosity, while others may be concerned about promoting democratic norms. Still others may see viewpoint diversity as necessary to building and growing community trust and social cohesion.
For teachers like Hawn, who value diversity of thought, bringing it into the classroom requires growing the skills through professional development. Hawn used critical thinking to show his conservative students that the Tennessee income tax is a complex policy with both upsides and downsides. That’s a good start. The right solution, however, demands a willingness to apply the same approach to his progressive students and to a much wider range of issues—including many of those that touch identity, race and, yes, privilege.