On curricular speech.

Two investigations of teachers made the national news this week. In both cases there was concern that the teacher was ramming certain viewpoints down the students’ throats. That concern is probably not justified in one case, and probably is in the other.

Case One: At Parsippany High School in New Jersey, Joseph Kyle’s AP Government class conducted a mock war crimes trial of President Bush. Yesterday morning, school officials had a meeting to discuss the matter, but the mock trial went on. It seems innocent enough to me, based on what I’ve read. Prosecution and defense, a.k.a. “both sides,” are going to be heard, and as far as anyone knows, there have been no complaints from the students. Furthermore, Bush isn’t the only President that Kyle’s students have tried, which should allay some concerns. Kyle’s class conducted a mock impeachment trial of President Clinton, and next week one of his classes will put Andrew Jackson on trial—which Jackson would probably have welcomed—for his treatment of Native Americans. In short, no biggie.

Case Two: At Overland High School in Colorado, geography teacher Jay Bennish was ranting about Bush, Rice, Hitler, Castro, Iraq, Iran, Latin America, Israel, Palestine, and so forth, and a student recorded it. After hearing the recording, I think it’s fair to characterize it as a “rant.” For somebody who doesn’t “even know if he’s trying to take a position,” he was pretty one-sided. The student played the recording for district personnel, who thought Bennish might have violated the district’s “balanced viewpoint policy” and put him on paid leave while they investigated. In protest of the district’s action, hundreds of Overland students walked out of school on Thursday. Bennish has claimed that his First Amendment rights were violated, and he might file suit in federal court. If it turns into a federal case, it’s a biggie.

I disagreed with much of what Bennish said, but I can sympathize with him a little as a teacher. It is very important to get students to see multiple sides of issues and arguments—not necessarily so that they’ll change their minds, nor to reinforce their beliefs, but rather to develop their ability to think critically. Yes, he was probably trying to persuade some of the students to agree with him, and yes, he was over the top at times. But he was also clearly trying to get his students to think.

On the other hand, I can sympathize with the students, too. I remember what it’s like to hear teachers ranting and feel like you’re being force-fed certain beliefs, as opposed to discussing them. In high school, I had a teacher who made it very clear that she held a particular political ideology and that she was proud of it. While her political lectures (not discussions) never took up more than five minutes of a fifty-minute class period, we heard them more days than not. It never offended me, but it did get old after a while—especially since I had her class from eighth grade to my senior year.

Here’s the bad part: she would give extra credit to people who would join particular political clubs or attend particular political events. In a debate class or a government class, that might make sense as long as it included clubs and events of all political stripes. But this was an art class, and the extra credit opportunities were definitely not ideologically balanced.

I made A’s in her classes anyways, so the extra credit wouldn’t have helped me much. But looking back, it was clearly wrong and I should have challenged her—not because of her beliefs, but because she created a situation where your ideology could affect your grade. And that just ain’t right.

While I know that students who listen long enough and carefully enough might figure out my political views, I don’t want them to think or feel that they have to share my viewpoint in order to get good grades. That is why I try, not always successfully, to dodge students’ questions about my political beliefs, and why I try to explain multiple sides of an issue, or at least the side a student may not have contemplated. (Note: This paragraph was not meant to convey any concern whatsoever about any other feelings students may or may not have.)

I think Bennish’s lawsuit would be fruitless, unless he could prove the district violated a contract or policy. He’s alleging a First Amendment violation, but the fact is that as a school district employee, his right to free speech in the classroom is not absolute. If he doesn’t stick closely enough to the geography curriculum, or if he violates the district’s “balanced viewpoint policy,” then the school district is entitled to act against him. Based solely on that recording, I’d say putting him on leave was excessive—especially if there’s no evidence that ideology affected the students’ grades. Just tell him to tone down or stop the “rants,” and drop in on him a little more to see that he obeys. Hopefully bygones will be bygones.

As for the kids who walked out? Guantanamo Bay.