Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Schools Of No Thought

"Parents aren't interested in justice; they want QUIET!" - Bill Cosby

An unattributed editorial a few months ago in USA Today stated that American schools are failing when it comes to providing a free speech environment for their students. Cited were various instances of school paper and yearbook content being censored by school administrators.

According to the editorial, the reason for this censorship is that, “When those in power find free speech uncomfortable, they're tempted to squash it.” This hits the nail on the head. But, the factors contributing to this discomfort typically go overlooked.

Schools (pre-college) are an ideal environment for those who like to call the shots. Minors basically have no rights, so school is the one place where the authoritarian and the ideologue can really thrive. It's a great place to impose one's worldview on a captive audience. Once young people are "out in the world," they have to be dealt with as adults and private citizens, not as subjects. A window of a few years is all the control freaks in charge have, and some of them mean to make the most of it.

One of the most extreme and high profile examples of this came when Louisiana instituted a law requiring students to refer to adults as “ma’am” and “sir,” respectively. Does an effort to reinforce adults’ self-esteem (by reassuring them that they're in control) really belong in a law book? That's what this issue was about.

My high school principal made no secret she was a patriotic, consternative, Christian Republicant, and wanted us all to be the same. This was clearly reflected in the kinds of guest speakers she invited to the school, including people who invited us to accept Christ as our personal saviors. This was a public school, mind you. (Had I been more socially aware I would've given the ACLU a call.)

At the same time, she saw that a line about “men raising flags when they can’t get anything else up” was excised from the school’s production of Pippin because she wasn’t “comfortable” with it.

Some schools are surely breathing a sigh of relief now that the Supreme Court has tossed out the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” suit, where a student who held up a banner with those infamous words and was subsequently suspended for two weeks sued his school. Free expression is a part of free thought, which pre-college educational institutions rarely encourage; truth be told, they actively discourage it. It threatens their control over the kids, as they see it. It’s "disruptive." It’s "inappropriate."

Just recently a Connecticut high school stage production about the war in Iraq was banned by that school over concerns of plagiarism and one-sided storytelling. The show consisted mainly of student actors reading the words of real people who've been directly involved in the war, some of whom are now deceased.

The school's reasoning for the ban is highly dubious; I imagine the real reasons were fear of controversy, fear of offending some, and, I honestly believe this, fear of giving students a taste of freedom that they might want to enjoy even more of in the future. Shaming the kids' own alma mater, an off-Broadway theatre has agreed to stage the production, which has since received positive reviews.

You don’t get a captive audience of young people after high school, unless it’s a private college. You know, the kind that tell young adults what they may wear, how they may wear their hair, and who they may date (if at all). Or, of course, the military. But this is an "academic" discussion.

There is a notion shared by many adults that free speech is for adults only. In the movie Dead Poet’s Society, when an administrator is asked by Robin Williams’ character about youth being free to speak their minds, the former responds, “At these kids’ age? Never.” Apparently, the way to prepare someone for life as a free-thinking adult is to deny them that right as a kid.

I may be the only adult in this country who believes that teenagers should be allowed at least one outlet for unfiltered expression. Not the right to threaten or harass anyone, but if they feel something sucks (homework, standardized testing, graduation requirements, disco, etc.), having the ability to say so without being censored or punished.

I understand the need to exercise some control over student publications, plays, etc. I also know that kids can be real smartasses sometimes. But I recognize the value of allowing them to express themselves. I think being given the chance to vent is both healthy and important (it would've help me; instead, I simply stored up my anger and frustration with the way things were and later turned to blogging... haha!), while some adults see this as encouraging rebellion. Or simply, as in the case of the Connecticut high school or my own high school principal, going against their personal consternative values.

Notice I don't go much into the First Amendment here; I think reason, common sense and common courtesy are what should drive students' free expression. Constitutional protection should just be the reassuring icing on the cake.

Some readers have suggested I should go into politics, and I appreciate that. But I think my best role in society (which would no doubt view me as a gadfly) would be that of "youth advocate." It's what I've always been.


she said...

bogs i used to teach art ed at georgia state university. one of my classes was to observe student teachers in art do their thing in the host school for their student teaching. and i can tell you, there is a certain percentage of people who want to teach so they can boss kids around.

one sememster i declined to recommend a student for the degree completion on the grounds that they were a controlling anal megalomaniac.

not surprisingly the student threatened sue, and that was my last sememster teaching.

somewhere i georgia, there is a prison warden in a school masquerading as an art teacher.

good post.

Pete Bogs said...

she - yikes! that sounds like a frivolous suit... I can understand why you left... sad...

I just think respect needs to go both ways in life... ageism is a real "ism," and it bothers me the way others do...

she said...

my contract was not renewed. subtext: "don't be messin' with our revenue girl"

Pete Bogs said...

she - I think you learned your lesson: "Don't be whistleblowing on our psycho students!"

LeftLeaningLady said...

I have an 18 year old son who just graduated high school. It has been a constant struggle raising him to be respectful and yet always be true to himself, his beliefs and to always feel he has the right to speak his mind. It would have been easier had my ex not been a right wing gun toting nutjob. (He toted the gun legally and may be coming to "protect and serve" in a neighborhood near you, Pete). My son is not a trouble maker, he was universally adored as wonderful by his teachers, because I like to think he knows when to fight the good fight.

He was recently questioned by the police because he was SWINGING at a park with some friends. Ok, it was 11:30 at night, but he was 17 and curfew was 1. I was very proud when he pretty much told the cop to stop hassling them, and either take them in or leave them alone that he knew his rights and the cop was infringing on them. Ok, so he is 18 & not quite that eloquent, but he did well. His father almost had a coronary! "Don't question the cops" he said, do you see why I am divorced?

We can't teach children to be good citizens if we don't respect the fact that they have a brain. And if they don't learn to question authority at a young age, they vote repulican when they get older!

Excellant post!

Pete Bogs said...

"And if they don't learn to question authority at a young age, they vote repulican when they get older!"

that's even better than my post! thanks for giving me a smile! I'm sure your son has turned out well with you as his guide...

she said...

well....sometimes the choice is like deciding if you would prefer to drown to death or burn.

Jack K. said...

That's why I enjoy teaching adults. It is amazing how some of them respond to the possibility of being able to think for themselves.

As for outlets for free thinking by today's youth, I have been told that and are replete with such outlandish behavior.

BTW, is there anything to the notion that you command respect not demand it?

My dear mother always required my brother and I to always say sir and ma'am. To this day I use those words toward everyone regardless of their age. Lately I have been questioning my sincerity. Hmmmm.

Great post. Kids deserve the opportunity to test limits in behaviors, words and ideas. Too bad there are too many who believe that their own approach to the world is the best. That includes me.

Respect yourself and you will respect others. Who knows, it just might be reciprocated.

And I was only going to comment not write a post. Oh, well. giggle.

controlling anal megalomaniac I love this. She, I'm glad you still call them the way you see them.

Pete Bogs said...

"As for outlets for free thinking by today's youth, I have been told that and are replete with such outlandish behavior."

true, but they've also been punished for some of what they've said on there, from stories I've read... schools believe their jurisdictions extends past the school gates, outside school hours, and into the virtual realm... some of that harassment and abuse of kids by other kids has unfortunately happened there...

still, those sites (the internet in general) are a good place to create a free speech zone... take this site, for example...

Bird said...

sigh. sigh. and sigh.

so many arrive in my classroom unable to think, question, or speak their minds - because they are not quite sure they have a mind or an opinion.

and often when they do have an opinion, it's unsupported and/or unexamined - they are just mouthing what they've been taught.

i have my own bias and i am sure it is quite evident in my classes, but when a student starts to echo my stance - i question their thinking. they gotta back themselves up. surprise, surprise - i've had students tell me they think such and such because i do and since i teach at a university, i must be right.


Pete Bogs said...

bird - yes, college is different... but there's no free thought before college, that I can discern... and even some colleges (my nephew goes to one such college...)

Infinitesimal said...

good post (again)

as for mayspace, do you recall the TEACHER who had a myspace page where just her photo was displayed (a private page just displays the photo)
and in the photo, she was dressed like a pirate for a costume party, and was holding a beverage that could have been a tumbler of beer....

she was fired for that myspace page.

did you hear about that one? it was recent.

I would have gone into teaching, except for the co-workers, like She's former student.

I would have been run out of town for my wild high-falluting ideals.

thanks for teaching me how to spell "plagiarize" too, a'preach'

Pete Bogs said...

infini - I did indeed hear about that... and it was outrageous... but teachers can fight their own battles - my concern is the kids... lol