Sunday, September 6, 2009

How to Sink a Ship

Below is the mission statement of the school where I work. It's really not much different from the statements you'll find at most schools around the nation. I copy it here because September is a perfect time of year to reflect on how teachers' actions in the classroom and their buildings are true to such generalized statements of decent human action, and how we often have to defend such statements against actions taken by adults outside the school environment.  Sometimes such reflection helps us place our actions and the actions of others in a light that will make us better people, and sometimes it allows us to see the hypocrisy inherent in such actions, be they our own or the actions of others. Either way, we ought to think and use the historical moment to improve ourselves.

Mission Statement
In order to create responsible citizens,
it is the mission of Perkiomen Valley Middle School East
to provide a learning environment that utilizes all resources to enable students to reach their highest potential;
to foster respect for others and self;
so that students may excel independently and interdependently; and to ensure educational opportunities for all.

So it might clarify things if I were to place the above information in context.  On Tuesday, September 8, 2009, the President of the United States, Barak Obama, is planning to address the students of America's public schools.  Districts around the country (including mine), bowing to pressure from parents and others opposed to the President himself, have made the decision to deny students and teachers the opportunity to watch the speech live and will, instead, recorded it, decide upon it's appropriateness for certain curricula, and then allow it to be shown.

I bristle at such actions.  It makes no difference whether the president is a black liberal or a white, fortunate son of the south.  If the President of the United States wants to address the students of America with  a positive message, students should see it, and teachers should be allowed to use the historical moment as a teachable one.  Sure, I'm a teacher, I'm a believer in the enlightening and redemptive powers of education.  So call me biased.  I'd rather live in a world where we listen to and have the right to criticize all people than one in which we silence a leader because others paint him as a dictator, "racist", or the antichrist.

Below is a letter I've mailed to several newspapers, local and national, about the situation.  I don't know if it will be published.  But I'll do so here.  Most of the information in the letter appeared in another, more detailed form, in a letter I sent to the administration in my district.

I encourage open discourse on this topic.

For almost twenty years I’ve taught a humanities class in the same school district.  For almost twenty years I’ve enjoyed helping students understand the myriad ways that human beings have created to express themselves, their desires, their dreams, and their differences.  For almost as long I’ve coached students on the district debate team where one must know not only how to rebut arguments of the opposition but they must also prepare arguments both for and against the given resolution.  I do this because I believe in the power of human language to achieve consensus and community.  I do this because I know that when my students enter college and the workforce, their abilities to listen to and persuade others will make them productive and prosperous members of a civil society.  And thus, I work to achieve one of the primary ends of public education in America—the preservation and perpetuation of the democracy.  At all points in my curriculum, I am open to assistance from the community in helping make my curriculum authentic and lively so that achieving this goal is somewhat easier. 
And so, I’m turning to those citizens who have successfully blocked the live viewing of the President’s address to students to ask for their help in understanding the purpose of the lesson our national argument teaches.  (Make no mistake, we are teaching a lesson.)   Was the purpose to protect students from dangerous rhetoric and propaganda?  Was it to exhibit the achievement of ends through fear and hatred and vocal disagreement without intellectual discussion?  (Or is that a definition for racism?  Sorry.)  I’m just not sure, but I doubt it really matters.  The kids won’t be paying attention to the lesson but rather to the manner in which the lesson is delivered.  And to me, it seems what our children will take away from this event is what they always take away from watching adults argue: a heightened sense of the ridiculousness of the institutions created by adults, and of adults themselves and their utter hypocrisy.  Here we are, in this historical moment every American a teacher, trying to maintain a democracy predicated on civil discourse, open access to information, and reasoned argument, and what do we do?  We listen only to those with whom we already agree—that’s called prejudice. We show up to political speeches with weapons—in my book, while that may be an exercise of second amendment rights, that is an ignorant and dumb (in the sense that it is silent) exercising of rights.  And we use the power of threat and fear to achieve our selfish ends--eg, “I’m going to keep my kids home if you show this, and you’ll hear about it at the ballot box.”  Such ignorance teaches children nothing but that acting like a hurt child can achieve certain ends, that pouting and crying “foul” at the local baseball diamond and then taking your bat and ball and going home so that no one else can play is a productive way to react to perceived injustices.  In the end, such actions engender a distrust of the very same public institutions we’re trying to promote through education and role modeling.
As someone who has been involved in pubic education for almost two decades, I know the importance of strong parents in a child’s life.  Thus, I’m not deaf to the complaints being made at districts around the country.  I, too, believe that some of the suggestions in the lesson plans accompanying the speech are ridiculous and should be ignored, regardless of whether or not you believe them to be worshipful adulation of “the anointed one.”  However, these lessons are not reason to ignore the president, or even to record the speech for a later time.  Doing so calls into question the professionalism and decision-making capabilities of the very teachers to whom we entrust our children each day.  (Besides, no one is making teachers use the lesson plans.)  But districts that are bypassing the teachers and taking the decision out of their hands communicate nothing so much as that teachers are powerless automatons, capable only of running scripted curricular programs designed for the least common denominator so as to leave no child behind.
In my own district, we were told that the president’s speech would be recorded and distributed on DVDs to teachers with appropriate curricular tie-ins.  The assertion is that this  “will provide a better opportunity to have an honest and educational discourse."  Sure, that sounds good, but how is honesty born of silencing the voice of the leader of the free world (or anybody for that matter)?  How is discourse educational when it will come predigested to a select few?  In the end, what do we teach our students about civil discourse when we deny them authentic participation in such?
Of the ends of American Public Education, none is more important to me than the preservation and perpetuation of the democracy.  But at the point that any district makes the decision that it's better to just ignore or, perhaps better stated, to "mediate" the words of a president with whom some disagree (which is the only way to read a district’s decision to “tape and show at a later date”) that point, those districts countenance an acceptance of all such actions, from screaming as a form of public discourse, to censoring access to information, to carrying a [insert weapon of choice here] as a means of silently, sinisterly announcing disagreement. Thus, because they have bowed to hatred and fear, these districts abdicate a central role of their institution and perpetuate the dissolution of the people's power to rule.  And this, I suppose, is the lesson we teach:  that government of the people, by the people, and for the people isn’t worth the intellectual struggle it takes to listen to those with whom we disagree. 
Thomas Jefferson tells us that people always get the kind of leaders they deserve.  Given the lesson we have taught them at this time, these children deserve much better than many of us.    


Bob said...

What's the worst that can happen if I decide to put it on in class today? Oh.. I'm not tenured.

symbot said...

I once read about an educator (I think it was in a textbook) who taught a young age group... something in elementary or middle school... and always wore business suits to her classes. When people asked her why she did it, she said it was so her students knew they were important to her, and deserved to be treated with respect... that she was actually working for them.

It would be so lovely if we trusted our children enough to let them watch a speech by the President of the United States, a figurehead whose government, position, history, and public importance we've been banging into their heads since their first social studies class.

Instead, as you point out as well, they see us provoking one another, falling prey to divisive hostility, and favoring self-righteousness and spectacle over reasoned debate. They also see that we're talking ABOUT them, not TO them, and they see that we don't think they're smart enough to engage in any way with the broader world that they're ostensibly learning about.

And they probably learn the lesson that their parents don't take them or their education very seriously.

I hope that your perspective catches on, and that liberal education can eventually incite these young people into action... to bring about some sort of reactionary rationality, and some kind of subversive pluralism, to rage against the shortsightedness of a foolish older generation.