Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Role Of Teacher Opinions In Public School

I was listening in this morning to Joy Cardin on WPR as she was interviewing Deb Mayer, a former teacher from Bloomington, Indiana. The impetus for the discussion was Mayer's dismissal from her position with the Monroe County public school corporation in 2001. The school district contends that several complaints were registered against Ms. Mayer at the time; however, the one that concerned the discussion was that she openly advocated for peace prior to the invasion of Iraq.

From The Education Wonks:

In the tense months before the United States invaded Iraq, elementary school teacher Deb Mayer was asked by one of her students whether she'd ever join an anti-war protest. The question was prompted by a Time For Kids magazine story that Mayer's students had just read about a peace march in Washington, D.C.

Mayer, who had never been politically active, told her Bloomington, Ind., class that she sometimes blew her car horn to support demonstrators carrying "Honk for Peace" signs at the local courthouse. Mayer also told the class she thought it was important to seek out peaceful solutions before going to war.

That conversation in January 2003, which lasted all of five minutes, launched a nearly three-year odyssey for Mayer, who now lives in Madison as she awaits the outcome of her federal lawsuit against the Monroe County, Ind., school system for firing her.

The school board of Monroe County has gone on to claim that Ms. Mayer was terminated for being a sub-standard teacher who was rude and confrontational to her students, not for her views on Iraq. Mayer claims this is absolutely false, which, of course, her federal lawsuit will attempt to settle out. I tend to believe Ms. Mayer in this case for several reasons.

First, I lived in central Indiana for several years and it is a very "red" state, to use the vernacular of the day. Given that Republicans overwhelmingly support the invasion of Iraq and given that parents tend to push their political beliefs onto their children, I have no trouble whatsoever believing that certain parents in Monroe County would find any anti-war message objectionable. President Bush and his ilk have done everything in their power to dishonestly frame the Iraq war debate as the strong, "patriotic" Americans versus the wimpy terrorist sympathizers and such divisive rhetoric is bound to result in cases like Ms. Mayer's.

Second, the allegations about Ms. Mayer's job performance really didn't surface until several years after the peace incident took place. A case such as this, where it at least appears that the free exchange of ideas has been stifled, cuts awfully close to the First Amendment and is the kind of publicity no school board wants. Also, given the performance of Republican-controlled school boards in Kansas and Pennsylvania (see here, here and here) in recent years, it's not much of a stretch to imagine some partisan hackery going on in Indiana as well.

Consider the actions of the school board:

Mayer said she never talked about it after the "peace incident," for fear of losing her job. Her concerns were heightened by the school's decision to cancel its annual Peace Month, a memo sent to teachers warning them "not to promote any particular view on foreign policy related to the situation in Iraq" and a note sent to her to "refrain from expressing your political views."

It seems terribly hypocritical of the school to demand that its teachers take no position on the discussion of an Iraq invasion and yet choose to cancel a school event promoting a study of peace.
This leads into the larger question of the role of teacher opinions in public schools. In the particulars of this case, it appears to me that the school is out of line. A discussion of peaceful alternatives is germane to a study of the current events prior to the invasion. But at what level, in a general sense, should the opinions and political views of an individual teacher be allowed as part of a curriculum of study?

A discussion of current events, especially today, can rapidly lead into some very ideologically charged areas. While I would readily agree that a discussion of peaceful alternatives to invasion, a discussion clearly not taking place in the White House at that time, was wholly appropriate, there are plenty of other topics where that clarity begins to blur. Should a teacher be allowed to discuss arguments for or against gay marriage, for example. Or the controversy over teaching "Intelligent Design" in biology. Is it appropriate for a teacher to express an opinion on an issue while teaching it to students?

My short answer to this question is "yes", though it's a qualified "yes". I absolutely think that a biology teacher should be allowed to express the belief that "Intelligent Design" is non-scientific garbage, especially in light of a court ruling that says the same. I believe that it should be permissible for a teacher to express an opinion on any topic they like, so long as they stop short of trying to convince their students to believe as the teacher does. Unfortunately, that can be a very subjective sticking point. I believe that a teacher telling my child that the teacher believes gay marriage is wrong due to that teacher's religious beliefs is just fine. I believe it's good for children to hear conflicting opinions; it stimulates critical thought. However, I recognize that there are many parents, both liberal and conservative, who feel that a teacher's position of authority implies a coercive aspect of opinion-giving; that my sample teacher, by even mentioning his/her view on gay marriage, is effectively sending the message to the child that said child should believe as the teacher does.

Further, I think the age, or more specifically, the maturity level, of the child has to be taken into account. Ms. Mayer taught a fourth-grade class and there is definitely a credible argument to be made that certain public policy issues are not appropriate for that age group. I would stridently disagree with this thinking, but I can understand from where it stems. I don't believe that there is any issue that cannot be broached with a school-age child; it's all in how the subject is treated. I believe we do a disservice to our children when we institutionalize ignorance under the guise of protecting the child's "innocence". This is the same kind of thinking that leads folks to accept a President breaking the law in order to "protect" them from terrorism. Children have a civil right to education and I believe that insulating them from public debate issues runs contrary to that right.

By way of personal experience, I can relate some frustration to the lack of attention paid in public schools to controversial issues. Even in high school, the history classes I took barely touched on Vietnam, The Great Depression, The genocide of Native Americans, The Civil Rights Movement, the AIDS epidemic...just to name a few. These are issues which define what America is today, but are almost completely avoided, at least at Forrestville Valley High School, due to their controversial natures. The classes I took stuck with "safe" topics, such as The Revolutionary War, The Civil War, World War II, the Industrial Revolution, The Space Age; important topics, all, but also topics that fit a certain "rose-tinted" view of what America is. I believe there is a great deal of nobility in the American ideal, but that nobility was forged in the fire of conflict and public debate. Americans have done some awful things in our short history, and we're a stronger nation when we confront those wrongs and redress them. Hiding them from our children teaches that our nation is beyond reproach and, I believe, plants the seeds of a misguided nationalism so prevalent, frankly, on the Right side of the political spectrum these days. The free flow of ideas in the classroom, even if they're opinions that may not be popular, is the surest way to cultivate adults able to think critically and take principled stands.

As a final thought, I think it's worth noting that this case could very well be headed towards the Supreme Court, as it meets at the intersection of two parties' rights under the First Amendment. This national prominence basically assures that Deb Mayer, like Cindy Sheehan before her, is likely to come directly into the crosshairs of the Right's "mighty Wurlitzer" of partisan attacks. So be it. If nothing else good ever comes from the horrendous governing of the Republicans over the past five years, at least they will have succeeded in motivating patriotic Americans to turn off "Survivor" and "American Idol" and take an interest in their country once again. To that end, Ms. Mayer, in her new role as a political activist, has started a veterans organization called Share the Sacrifice, dedicated to helping Iraq war vets get back on their feet. Given this, and that her son is a nuclear engineer for the Navy, when the Right crucifies Mayer the way they did Sheehan (and they will), the attacks will ring just as hollow and will serve to reveal once again which side of the political spectrum actually cares about the troops and which only cares about their misguided ideology and cathartic warrior fantasies.

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