Propaganda in the classroom
There's been an awful lot of discussion in the newsroom and the community about the Knox County Republicans and their ill-fated visit to King Middle School in Portland.
If you don't know already, the state Republican Party issued an apology May 11 for the actions of the Knox County delegation. Members of said delegation found themselves in a classroom festooned with posters bashing everything they believed. Someone among them may have taken a "labor poster" from the classroom of eighth-grade social studies teacher Paul Clifford.
Clifford is disappointed, the state GOP is apologetic, and Democrats and media folks everywhere are grinning ear-to-ear as they express pained outrage over this "reprehensible" act.
It's clear that the Knox County Republicans handled their outrage the wrong way. Everyone in the press has already jumped into the nearest phone booth, ripped off their street clothes and come out wearing their Captain Obvious super hero uniforms to proclaim that even the 10 Commandments (which should never be invoked in any other circumstances) state "Thou shall not steal!" In addition, these Republicans played right into their enemies' hands.
Be that as it may, their outrage was justified. It is clear that this teacher and this school have a political agenda in the classroom. As a parent, sending my 9-year-old son to school every day, I'm more interested in what's going on inside public school classrooms. What has Clifford been teaching that makes his students universally create posters like this?
The pictures that I've seen are your typical left-wing protest posters and most seem to be leftovers from the Bush era. They criticize former President George Bush II and his adventure in Iraq. Concerns are expressed about American immigration policies. The only really disturbing aspect is that some tend to depict our military and its soldiers as killers of innocents. Innocents have certainly died in every war in the history of the world, but I don't think our soldiers fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan joined the military because they wanted to hurt innocent people. The rhetoric reminds me a bit of the scene in "Forrest Gump" when Jenny's abusive boyfriend sees Gump in uniform and asks, "Who's the baby killer?"
Conservatives are concerned that our schools have begun a campaign of liberal propaganda aimed at indoctrinating the next generation. This is partly responsible for the decision by many conservative and Christian parents to home school their children.
I would argue it's not an eighth-grade social studies teacher's job to preach either left or right-wing propaganda. If it were an art class, maybe the collages would make sense, but I really question how much these students are learning from making protest posters when they should be learning about the history of this nation, this state and how our government works.
As I look back, I cannot remember my teachers pushing political views on me back in junior high school and high school. They talked about history. I remember my eighth-grade social studies teacher sharing stories about his experiences in Vietnam and kicking a kid out of the classroom for making the hand motions of a violin playing. However, I don't remember that teacher concluding by saying, "Vote Democrat or Republican to avoid another Vietnam." In high school, I had a very entertaining, funny history teacher who's only real political statement was to make fun of southerners for losing the Civil War.
Another remarkable difference between what's going on in the Portland classroom and my educational experience is the tone. Looking at the posters in that Portland classroom, we get the sense that all hope is lost. The future is grim. The innocents are dying, the environment is poisoned, capitalism is a failure, anyone trying to earn a buck is out to get you and so on.
I was taught, you can be anything you want to be and do anything if you're willing to work hard enough for it. I don't think we should bury our heads in the sand about what's wrong with our nation and world, but the best first step to solving problems is to believe they can be solved. There's a danger to poisoning young people with negative energy, when it's optimism and hope that drive success and innovation. "Yes we can!" is a better slogan for your poster.
One of the teacher's own students wrote an e-mail to the Portland Press Herald saying point-blank, "I am not being brainwashed in his class under any circumstances. I am being told that I have a right to my own opinion."
Well, everyone in this country wants a right to their own opinion. It's also granting the right to others to express their differing views that's tricky.
It's important that if a kid comes into that classroom with a different point of view, they are not graded down for it, and more importantly they do not have their beliefs belittled or their parents disparaged. That would be over the line.
Clifford told The Herald Gazette that if a student in his class wanted to defend the government, the project would have been displayed with the others. My hope is that also means that if they were, for example, a bit more conservative, they would not be subjected to a campaign to change their beliefs and views.
This teacher and some of my colleagues have also argued that Portland and the King Middle School neighborhood in particular are heavily Democratic.
Isn't that the exact opposite of the argument we usually hear? Don't we usually hear that if even one kid has to come to school and hear an offensive Pledge of Allegiance or "Merry Christmas," they are being discriminated against? If even one person is bothered by a cross memorial in the desert, it has to be covered in plywood?
Besides, I do not buy for a minute that the entire school population reflects only one political viewpoint. I've never seen complete political unity in any population in my life.
Which leads me to another question: What do you think would have happened if that teacher had talked about conservative religious views in class? What happens when a coach leads his kids in prayer before a game? Do their feet even touch the floor on the way out the door?
Aren't those just cases of people expressing themselves? One group is told, "Free speech protects your rights to say whatever you want," but another is told, "leave your personal beliefs at the door, they have no place here. They're offensive."
I'm not advocating some program of prayer in school or a requirement that students accept some religious views in school. I'm satisfied that parents can teach their kids their value systems at home.
My point is that trying to convince students to adopt a particular political ideology probably shouldn't be part of the school experience either, and it's certainly unfair to say only one viewpoint can be expressed.
This is also the middle school that made headlines a few years ago for providing birth control in its health center, because as we all know 13- and 14-year-olds are not capable of making good choices so we have to plan for their bad ones. Not only that, but their parents have no right to a say or even notification in these matters.
Perhaps someone running this school should be reminded that it is a public school funded by taxpayers, and it's not right that some parents would be very uncomfortable sending their children there.
The smug, self-righteous rhetoric tends to go both ways with the parties. Each claims the other is so much worse.
When one's political opponents break the rules to make a point, we're told they should have gone through the proper channels and handled this like sophisticated educated adults. When one's own side breaks the rules, it's more like Robin Hood stealing to give to the poor. It's heroic civil disobedience.
I don't agree with either political party on every point of their platform. Both have good qualities and ideas and both have bad. But I understand getting annoyed when you see impressionable kids being told only one side of the story.
When the Republicans played that prank in the classroom, they should have left the teacher's beloved poster on his desk.
But they were right to speak up and let their side be heard.