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An Overboard Reaction to a Teacher Going Overboard

Found via Little Green Footballs, a school district in Colorado is investigating what one student has called "left-wing political rants" given by a high-school geography teacher.

Sean Allen frequently recorded his teachers to back up his notes. Allen recorded Jay Bennish, his 10th grade World Geography teacher, making comments about President Bush's State of the Union Address.

Allen's father claims the comments made in the recording are biased and inappropriate for a geography class.

"I'm not saying Bush and Hitler are exactly the same, obviously they're not. OK? But there are some eerie similarities to the tones that they use," says Bennish in his critique of U.S. economic and foreign policy.

Towards the end of the class, Bennish goes on to say, "I'm not in anyway implying that you should agree with me, I don't even know if I'm necessarily taking a position. But what I'm trying to get you to do is to think about these issues more in depth and not to just take things from the surface."


—"High school teacher's comments investigated by district", 9News.com
As a result of the investigation, Bennish has been placed on academic leave. If you listen to the MP3, it's obvious that the teacher is upset with the current administration, and it's obvious that he's coming from the left side of the political spectrum. Now, I'm staunchly against a teacher using the classroom as a forum to preach to a captive audience, but I also believe that education's number one goal is to promote critical thinking. It's not to accumulate knowledge, or to engineer productive citizens, or to help kids find jobs when they graduate, but to make their lives better overall by giving them tools with which they can evaluate information for themselves and form their own opinions.

This means that while it's important for a teacher to be critical of the subject he teaches (and geopolitics is precisely the sort of subject where students should be introduced to the ideas that shape government policy), he must also be careful not to argue to forcefully or too often on one side of the argument. Having listened to the teacher's comments, I think that while he had indeed taken some controversial positions on these topics, his goal was to encourage critical thinking, not to promote some sort of leftist agenda.

As such, I think that the reaction of the right-wing portion of the blogosphere to this issue is unwarranted. One pundit implied that simply including The Communist Manifesto in a high school curriculum is somehow dangerous. Like it or not, the book has changed the course of world history. It's an important work of political philosophy, and so it deserves scholarly attention. Perhaps the writer lacks the intellectual sophistication to distinguish between evaluating and endorsing a political position.

Certainly, I find Bennish's comparisons between Bush and Hitler unwarranted and even misleading. Certainly, he is cherry-picking facts based on a personal political bias. He should at the very least be warned to keep his discussions more neutral. But why is it not acceptable to question the rhetoric being used to justify war? Why is it not acceptable to ask the question, "Why is it okay for the United States to do things but not okay for other nations to do the same things?" Why is it not acceptable to question whether capitalism is fundamentally at odds with human rights? Properly framed, without crossing the line between the personal and the professional, these questions promote the core skills that we are trying to teach.

Comments on An Overboard Reaction to a Teacher Going Overboard
  Comment from Blogger the sparrow at Friday, March 03, 2006 12:12:00 PM
So let me get this straight...we no longer have the right, let alone the responsibility, to question our government and our president?! Yes, the teacher has strong leftist opinions and shared them in a classroom, but he also encouraged students to have opinions of their own. Maybe if people thought a little more, we wouldn't have G.W. now. Alas...

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