Saturday, November 10, 2007
Cultivating Controversy I
"Thou shalt not offend"
In some school districts this would seem to be the eleventh commandment. School boards have a diverse clientele to keep happy, so avoiding controversy seems to be a way to "give the people what they want." So a district may offer a curriculum that is said to be "academically rigorous" but one that also fails to address controversial issues or questions in a vigorous way. Sometimes topics are not discussed out of ignorance. More often though, the strategy of "avoidance" is employed by either banning certain discussions or, more commonly, simply avoiding speaking their names. These issues and subjects (a la The Village) become "those we don't speak of."
Those we don't speak of
God, human nature, death, marriage, sex (unless it is about plumbing or avoiding -- physical and physical alone! -- consequences), politics, and, my personal favorite, the tasks of education. All of these "get discussed" on various occasions but they are generally avoided. They are not "part of the curriculum" as a whole. Put another way, most education is broad, shallow and lukewarm.
Cause and effect
Another word for lukewarm is mediocre. Subtract controversy from education and not much is left. In fact, if you curtail discussions of religion and/or politics, what is left? Sports? (How odd that there are more cases of parental violence over their children's sporting events: parents killing each other or coaches or referees!). I don't know of one can "scientifically" correlate "controversy avoidance" and "functional idiocy" (by a functional idiot I mean the high school graduate whose human aspirations don't go beyond sex, drugs and/or video games), but it would seem there is a connection. After all, if one asks stupid or vague questions, one can expect sub-standard answers.
Not asking the questions
Recently I overheard an administrator tell her teachers that because Christmas was coming up, they should avoid telling students their religious views. What was interesting to me was not only what was said, but what was left unsaid. She is surely on shaky constitutional ground to suggest that teachers lose all "free exercise" protections of the 1st Amendment when they enter the classroom, and that this personal (if temporary!) agnosticism is (somehow) necessary to ensure a non-establishment of religion at the school. What her comments suggested was that religion is off-limits: don't share your views. This tactic of soft intimidation might work on young educators, but anyone who has read even a few Supreme Court cases on religion in the schools can tell you that while the public school cannot be a place of "proselytizing," religious views are not forbidden, nor is the discussion of real existing religions. If a discussion leads to the Gulf War and Christianity and Islam and a student asks, "Miss, what do you believe?" -- must you whip out a roll of duct tape to ensure your "religious ideas" don't seep out? By no means. It is wholly constitutional to tell students what you think or to refuse to tell them. If it weren't, why draw the line at religion? Why not avoid sex, marriage, politics? In short, the teacher would become a mere appendage of the (wholly) secular State, whose metaphysical views were masked by a claim of "religious neutrality." Thank God it hasn't come to that.
But the cumulative effect of administrative over-reactions and/or muddled thinking seem to have led to a regime of "don't ask, don't tell" when it comes to controversial questions. Another generation raised without being challenged to look at all aspects of life. Another generation offered inadequate answers to the yearning of their hearts. If students don't engage in meaningful questions in a civil and curious way early in life, how will they face life as adults? Just like the majority of Americans: plugged into TV and satisfied to rely on the secondhand opinion of the "experts."
The mystery of the incurious
A question for another time is, Why are so many so-called educators seemingly satisfied to not help their students ask deep and meaningful questions about life?