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Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Next Up: The Maine Event

Maine teacher sues district over curriculum restrictions, pot pies.

There's a teacher in Maine who is alleging that his inability to teach his seventh grade social studies class about ancient Greece is an infringement of his first amendment rights. In fact, he's gone so far as to say that becuase this restriction was placed on the curriculum for religious reasons, it's a constitutional violation. I find this claim highly spurious.

There seems to be a consensus that letting individual states, districts, and even schools, choose what they teach tends to lend towards the optimal education. It allows locals to learn about their area's history, and more closely tie them to the community - it makes, for example, sense that Florida would teach about the Seminoles, and Colorado would teach about the Sioux. It just lets there be more diversity, and more relevant information. Likewise, in the US, schools tend to teach about the Mayflower and Columbus, not becuase they were necessarily the first Europeans here, but becuase the intellectual and social legacy which currently dominates the continent is primarily signified by those voyages. When we teach history to our kids, it's significant to acknowledge that it isn't so they actually have a large cross-section of knowledge from which to draw, it's part of a greater narrative about where they come from. School at the level of seventh grade is more about constructing a coherant framework of the world than it is about giving a diverse base of knowledge.

What Mr. Cole is assuming in saying that he should be able to teach these kids about all these various things is that the primary function of having history in seventh grade is to avail kids of new and interesting ideas. This is simply not the case. Most of these kids aren't really going to get any of the actual historical forces he's talking about - going over the collapse of the Eastern European economy, for example, would probably beyond the scope they're aiming for. And Greece is simply too far removed to really assimilate in the way we'd like if they don't first have a solid grounding in the here and now.

The relevant curriculum cited by the state for the grade level is one where students can "identify the sequence of major events and people in the history of Maine, the United States, and selected world civilizations." I simply fail to see how the restriction to, what he calls, "Christian civilization" doesn't meet this curriculum goal. The shape of US history, especially in Maine (nee: Massachusetts?), tends to be one which was driven by "Christian" civilizations and, to some extent, their interactions with certain non-"Christian" civilizations. And unless the "selected world civilizations" cited are Mongolia or Indonesia, the local board seems more than justified in limiting the scope of what teachers can present in social studies to England, France, Germany, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Subsaharan Africa, Australia, and to a lesser extent, Mexico, El Salvador, Cuba, Guatamala, Japan, and China. Not to mention all of American history, and the entire existance of Maine as a state. It's not as if he's being completely pinned down here.

And while his lawyer complains that, ?He can?t even teach the history of anti-Semitism (or the) history of ancient Greece,? having this sort of standard in place also means other teachers can't teach that blacks are inferior to whites, the Rwanda genocide, and the very anti-Semitism that he wants to teach the history of. Having curriculums makes the standards open to the community, while giving the teacher free reign, while leaving her quasi-accountable, makes the issue much less clear. By laying out exactly what is and is not to be taught, there is no question about what can be laid out to kids. There is no intrinsic benefit to letting individuals determine the content kids are taught, even if we might think that the methodology ought to be left up to the individual to a degree. If a teacher were in there saying that dinosaurs were actually still alive as a vast government conspiracy, I'd want him fired, too. The teacher's job is not to determine what is best for kids, that is why we have parents. Sorry for saying so, but I trust even the dumber parents to make good decisions for their kids more than I trust a dispassionate government employee with no real knowledge of the kids and their background. Mr. Cole is an employee of the state, he is there as a means to an end not chosen by himself. You do not have a first amendment right to express yourself, using your employer as the medium.

Even apart from that, religion is also hardly the only community standard which is expressed in education. All sorts of normative ethical and cultural ideas are impressed on kids through the schools. This isn't such a bad thing. Passing on the ethos of your society, handing down certain ideas, isn't in and of itself a negative. There's so much love of letting people decide for themselves what worldview they want to subscribe to, people forget that a parent bringing up a child in a dissonant and cacophonous world of contradictory messages that in the end, none of the various cultures are actually understood or adopted by the kid in question.

Look, schools have become too much a business. If communities could actually use them to give kids a sense of the identity of the place they were in, we would end up with a more diverse culture. Schools are being used to cookie-cutter homogenize* the entire youth. Everyone thinking the same is something we don't want, and diversity is the goal we're always reaching towards, yet everything which engenders diversity is seen as bad. Someone says "religion," and the world is quick to jump and talk about how schools, where kids spend a majority of their developmental years, should be sterile, with no access to any idea which isn't purely secular and factual. We want these places to be free of "value judgements," and so the result is kids who are nihilistic towards value. Everyone wants parents to give their kids some sort of values, but how? One doesn't learn their value system from being told what system to espouse. It's within the context of the world, and what we learn about it, that these sorts of values are really locked in. Schools teach this context, but they're teaching it absent the important and relevant methods by which to judge.

More cultures is a good thing. If Mr. Cole wants to accomplish the ostensible goal he's sueing for, he needs to realize that the best way to do it is allow these kids to become integrated into the framework the community has set out for them.

* = "cookie-cutter homogenize" is my new favorite phrase.

cranked out at 1:14 PM | |

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