Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The law and the classroom

Yes, indeed, I saw and was disturbed by the article in the Chronicle yesterday about the primary school teacher in Indiana who was dismissed from her position for telling her students, when asked, that when she passed a protester carrying a sign saying "Honk for peace" that she did so.

I found it hard to buy that this could really be the whole reason for her dismissal, but according to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, "we must accept Mayer’s version of events—which is that she answered a pupil’s question about whether she participated in political demonstrations by saying that, when she passed a demonstration against this nation’s military operations in Iraq and saw a placard saying “Honk for Peace”, she honked her car’s horn to show support for the demonstrators. Some parents complained, and the school’s principal told all teachers not to take sides in any political controversy. Mayer believes that this incident led the school system to dismiss her; we must assume that this is so."

You have got to be kidding me.

The ruling goes on to say that this is like another case in which a creationist wanted to teach creationism alongside evolution in the classroom. OK, something to note, here: that was a matter of science; this was CURRENT EVENTS! And it seems to me that part of current events is analyzing and holding an informed opinion about said events! Am I crazy for thinking this?

A far better argument from the ruling is this one: "Children who attend school because they must ought not be subject to teachers’ idiosyncratic perspectives." But here's the thing: people are idiosyncratic; they just are. If we really want to keep all our children safe from idiosyncratic perspectives, we shouldn't let them meet other people at all.

The court's decision also says: "Expression is a teacher’s stock in trade, the commodity she sells to her employer in exchange for a salary. A teacher hired to lead a social-studies class can’t use it as a platform for a revisionist perspective that Benedict Arnold wasn’t really a traitor, when the approved program calls him one; a high-school teacher hired to explicate Moby-Dick in a literature class can’t use Cry, The Beloved Country instead, even if Paton’s book better suits the instructor’s style and point of view; a math teacher can’t decide that calculus is more important than trigonometry and decide to let Hipparchus and Ptolemy slide in favor of Newton and Leibniz."

This sounds like a terrific topic for a high school debate: "Expression is a commodity the teacher sells to her employer in exchange for a salary." If it is, then "freedom of expression" is meaningless in the classroom. However, if the teacher is selling something else--such as the ability to impart information and create an environment in which students can attain certain levels of mastery and competence (which seems more reasonable to me), then what is the level of freedom for expression for a teacher?

Surely there is some difference between answering a student's question honestly from a personal perspective and wishing to add one's belief to the curriculum. I cannot believe that this opinion will do teaching any good.

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