Friday, March 17, 2006

Free Speech in the Classroom

This country is acquiring some absurd standards regarding what a teacher can and cannot say in a public school classroom.

• In Indiana, a teacher was fired for answering a student’s question regarding whether she honked for peace.

• In Colorado, a teacher was put on paid leave and told that her contract would not be renewed because she showed her students a film clip (that she got from the local school library) of a sock-puppet version of the opera Faust.

• Also in Colorado, a high school teacher was put on leave for comparing Bush’s State of the Union speech to the speeches of Hitler.

The Use of Selective Evidence

The last article was the first in this set to catch my interest because of the way I used to teach ethics in college. This story came after the parents of a student who recorded a class lecture sent the recording to a right-wing radio station. That radio station then played selected pieces of the lecture in order to incite violence (including death threats) against that teacher and, presumably, any who would dare say anything that was not pro-Bush or pro-Administration.

I would put an argument on the board – an argument for or against a particular position, and then I would defend that argument from whatever objections the students would raise.

For example, if we were discussing abortion I would write on the board:

(P1) It is wrong to kill an innocent person

(P2) A fetus is an innocent person

(C1) Therefore, it is wrong to kill a fetus.

(P3) To abort a fetus is to kill a fetus

(C2) Therefore, it is wrong to abort a fetus

In another example, I would assert regarding homosexuality:

(P1) That something is unnatural, then it is immoral.

(P2) Homosexuality is unnatural.

(C1) Therefore, homosexuality is immoral.

I would tell my students that a sound argument is one that contains a valid argument form (after spending a few days discussing valid argument forms), and true premises. I would also tell them that if they wanted to defeat an argument they needed to prove either that the argument had an invalid form (e.g., by disproof by counter-example) or that one of its premises were false. It was not legitimate to criticize an argument by saying that its conclusion was false while saying nothing about the truth of the premises or the validity of the argument form.

This was my way of inciting the students to participate in class. In each class, there would always be somebody who disagreed with the conclusion that I put on the board. Telling those students that they had to come up with a reason to reject the truth of a premise or the validity of an argument – or they would be forced to accept the conclusion – was enough to get somebody to give the exercise a try.

I would shoot down any criticism any student made against either of these arguments, forcing the student to consider all of the implications of what they were saying.

If the students gave up, then I would offer criticism of the argument. I would give reasons to believe that “A fetus is an innocent person” is false, or why “If something is unnatural, then it is immoral” is false.

One of the things that I told my students that, in any issue that is actually a matter of substantive debate in a society, if they can’t imagine an intelligent person holding the view they reject, then they do not understand the issue.

The point being, anybody who taped one of my lectures would easily be able to find 20 minutes in which I vigorously defended a position that they hated. Any right-wing or left-wing radio talk show host who wanted to incite hatred and violence against me would be able to do so. Since that radio show host would have the only copy of the recording, and would almost certainly refuse to play the rest of the tape, I would have no defense. Certainly, his audience would not be inclined to believe my claim that the rest of the lecture was balanced.

The radio show host in this case is a liar, and deserves our harshest condemnation. Those who would not condemn such a person are those who embrace deception and hate-mongering as positive cultural values. They are people who are contributing to the degradation of our society by promoting hate grounded on lies and making that a part of what it means to be an American.


But, what if it was not balanced?

There are people who still believe that the world is flat. Is a teacher required to refrain from making claims about the world being round?

There are people who still believe that diseases come from alienation from God; is a teacher required to refrain from telling students that diseases are caused by bacteria and viruses?

Are teachers required to tell their students that trees both do and do not contain spirits that are killed with each tree that is cut down, that people both are and are not being abducted by aliens, and that Kennedy’s murder both was and was not the result of a conspiracy?

There is nothing that a teacher can say in a classroom where there is not at least one person who disagrees with it.

Education is the task of task of telling students that, of all of the things they could believe, some of them are true, and some of them are false. Telling students that everything is true and everything is false is the antithesis of education. If I were looking for a way to subvert a nation by undermining its intelligence, instituting a doctrine where each teacher has to present a ‘balanced’ view of every issue – telling students at the same time that everything is true and everything is false – sounds like a good way to start.

Critical Analysis

Here is another option.

Let’s say that we have parents tell their children that the world is filled with a lot of different types of people with a lot of different beliefs. Part of what it means to be a living human being is to acquire the skill of listening to different people presenting different pieces of evidence and then, from that evidence, draw one’s own conclusion.

The counter to a teacher giving an anti-Bush rant in a social-science class is the teacher in the next classroom who approves of Bush. The way to counter the teacher who says that diseases are caused by bacteria and virus and can often be cured through the use of antibiotics is to make sure that we do not censor the person who says that disease is caused by alienation from God and cured by prayer.


An effective way to test a moral principle would be to apply it to others who may use it in ways that one would not normally approve of.

For example, let me apply what I have said here to a teacher talking about God. If a teacher stood in front of my hypothetical child’s classroom and said that he believed in God, I would have no reason to protest. My hypothetical child is going to spend his whole life interacting with people who believe in God. Interacting with a teacher who believes in God would be useful experience for when he gets out in the real world.

The same would be true if that teacher explained why he believed in God. When my child came home with questions, I would answer them. I had better have answers for those questions or my own belief that God does not exist would be subject to question.

I think that this is one of the reasons why some parents cry fowl every time a teacher actually tries to teach. Their own opinions are built on such a flimsy foundation that they would not be able to defend them, even to their children. To save themselves the embarrassment of having to try, they insist that the schools prevent their children from becoming more intelligent than they are. Their worst enemy is the teacher who actually tries to teach.

If my child were to answer the question, “Does God exist?” on a test by saying ‘No’, and have the teacher mark that question as wrong, then that teacher (and that school) and I are going to have words. If that school were to discipline my child for saying that God does not exist, then that school and I will meet in court. Of course, I cannot assert that I have a moral basis for filing a lawsuit, unless I acknowledge that the parent whose child is disciplined for saying “God exists” also has a moral basis for filing a lawsuit.

If the teacher were to walk into class each day and begin each class with a ritual where she says, “All of you who believe in God stand up and repeat after me. Any who do not believe in God are anti-American, and are as evil as those who would promote rebellion, tyranny, and injustice,” then that teacher deserves the harshest condemnation – as well as the legislature that made the Pledge of Allegiance a required part of every school day.

If a teacher posts a sign on the wall that says, “We who trust in God are the only decent Americans,” I hold that there would be moral grounds for complaint.

My question is: Did this teacher discipline or degrade my child for holding a contrary opinion, or ridicule, denigrate, and humiliate him in front of his classmates? Such a teacher would deserve condemnation.

Expressing a view does not constitute punishing, degrading, ridiculing, or denigrating those who have another opinion.

Indeed, this would be another important lesson for children to learn in school – exactly how to treat those who have different views with dignity and respect.


Ed Darrell said...

I listened to the tape of the guy who "compared Bush to Hitler." It seemed to me he's been unfairly framed -- and that's on the basis of the stuff the radio broadcast. If they broadcast the entire tape, I suspect they'd get a harangue from the teacher about kids who don't want to study, and they'd see a teacher provoking the kids to think.

And ultimately, isn't that his sin? He's trying to get the kids interested in learning.

Imagine how dangerous that must seem to some people! Kids loving learning!

Alonzo Fyfe said...

It is extremely frightening for many parents to have children who love to learn.

They may learn just how little the parent knows and how pooly founded their opinions are.

Many parents put far more value in their children accepting the same fictions that they (the parents) accept, then in raising children who learn how to tell the difference between fact and fiction.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Note: If anybody can point me to a copy of the original recording, and a copy of the radio show (so that I could determine the extent of selective editing), I would be appreciative.