by J.D. Tuccille
January 27, 2004

Schoolrooms as Political Battlefields

Gary Cole, a public school teacher in Presque Isle, Maine, is suing school officials to overturn a ban on teaching seventh-grade students about non-Christian civilizations. He claims that kids are denied lessons about Japan, China and ancient Greece to avoid offending a small group of intolerant religious fundamentalists who donŐt want children learning about life outside Christendom.

The story sounds like a regional oddity, but people elsewhere shouldnŐt feel too smug; Maine isn't the only place where classrooms have become vehicles for ideology. The problem is an old one--and it points to the danger inherent in letting governments dominate education.

In September 2003, the Albert Shanker Institute, named after the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, warned that, to the extent that American public school students learn about their history at all, "In too many instances, AmericaŐs sins, slights, and shortcomings have become not just a piece of the story, but its essence. É Such an interpretation is distorted, harmful to students, and strongly counter to the opinions of parents."

Not surprisingly, authoritarian governments habitually laden lessons with officially sanctioned ideas; under suspicion as a breeding ground for terrorists, Saudi Arabia faces international pressure to remove anti-Semitic and anti-western propaganda from school textbooks. But even in democratic countries, the temptation to short-circuit debate with adults by force-feeding--or denying--them ideas when theyŐre still children is too great for politicians and activists to resist.

In 1925, John T. Scopes was brought to trial for introducing his students to the theory of evolution. As famous as that case became, it settled little; high-profile battles between evolutionists and creationists in Kansas and Ohio made headlines in recent years, with the victors deciding which ideas are taught to all public school children under their control.

No lesson is too trivial to become a political football. In 1997, New York State ordered public school teachers to treat the Irish potato famine of the 1840s as an act of genocide by the British. Historians debate the causes of the famine, but Empire State politicians know that only one interpretation stirs the passions of Irish-American voters.

It's no surprise that people compete to have their ideas taught in the public schools. Despite the growing popularity of homeschooling, vouchers and other schooling alternatives, most American children learn in classrooms supported by their parentsŐ tax dollars. After paying those taxes, few families can afford alternative schools, so determined parents fight to mold government institutions to resemble the schools they would pick if they had the resources, and they are assisted by political groups interested in shaping public debate. Nobody wants hateful ideas and propaganda force-fed to their children, but people donŐt always agree on which ideas are hateful and which information is false. As a result, lessons are often crafted to please, or avoid offending, those with the most political clout.

In her book about the politicization of school textbooks, "The Language Police," Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education, writes, "For censors on both the right and the left, reading is a means of role modeling and behavior modification. Neither wants children and adolescents to encounter books, textbooks, or videos that challenge their vision of what was or what might be, or that depict a reality contrary to that vision."

Bad as bloodless, inoffensive lessons are, itŐs worse when lessons are deliberately crafted to shape political debates once todayŐs students become tomorrowŐs voters.

"[W]e are experiencing an attempt, successful so far, to reimpose the strong-state, strong social class attitudes of England and Germany on the United States," warns John Taylor Gatto, the 1990 New York State Teacher of the Year in his 2001 book, "The Underground History of American Education." He continues, "And in this counter-revolution the state churches of England and Germany have been replaced by the secular church of forced government schooling."

You donŐt have to share GattoŐs belief that schools have been deliberately corrupted to recognize that educating children is an awesome responsibility, and a potentially dangerous one if teachers distort information to guide their charges to one view of the world or another. Left to their devices, parents may pass narrow or false ideas to their children, but different parents favor different values and perspectives, none of which go unchallenged in a diverse society.

But when governments assume responsibility for educating most or all children, they create an irresistible target for people interested in molding entire generations. That role may be filled by officials acting on behalf of the state, or by motivated groups of activists who gain power to hire teachers and purchase textbooks.

If parents continue to surrender responsibility for their childrenŐs education to politicians and ideologues, Gary ColeŐs lawsuit will end up as a footnote in the history of politicized schooling.

Ah well, and so much for the power of argument. So back you go to
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Copyright (c) 2003 Jerome D. (Il Tooch) Tuccille. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Il Tooch is prohibited. Mess with me and I’ll use your polished skull as a beer mug.