Time To Take A Deep Breath: It’s OK To Criticize The President But Ranting Isn’t Teaching

Bush bashing is rampant in the high schools! This case in Colorado got some attention and now everyone is looking at this one in New Jersey. In both cases teachers taught/said controversial things about President Bush. The Lefty bloggy storyline basically goes like this: Say something critical of Bush, get in big trouble because we live in an Orwellian dystopia under the Bush Administration. The Righty bloggy storyline basically goes like this: More evidence that liberals are traitors and have ruined the public schools.

But as these things usually do, this is taking on a life of its own divorced from the more basic issues:

What the Colorado teacher did was pretty ridiculous, listen to the audio yourself. It’s not a lesson or even a lecture, it’s a wild rant and it’s inappropriate for a public elementary and secondary school.

The New Jersey case, however, is a lot different.

There, a teacher in an AP government class was holding a mock trial arguing both sides about whether President Bush was guilty of war crimes because of the events of the past few years. It was a lesson for students, not a rant at them. A mock trial is a great way to engage kids in thinking about a question from multiple perspectives (and there is no evidence that arguing multiple perspectives wasn’t the point of the lesson or was not, in fact, happening) and to use contemporaneous events to get students to think critically about larger issues. Remember, these are advanced students taking a college level course and no one, especially not the president, is above having their public actions and policies debated. The timing is unfortunate though because the New Jersey teacher is getting unfairly painted with the Colorado brush and the back and forth it has kicked up. It looks though like cooler heads may prevail there on the ground, though not necessarily on talk radio and around the blogs.

On the larger issue of “academic freedom” for elementary and secondary teachers, it’s pretty much a non-issue. The federal courts have been clear on the point and have upheld adverse employment actions against teachers terminated for expressing their own views contrary to the guidance/regulations of their local boards of education (in fact, it’s not even an unfettered right at public colleges and universities either).

In the public schools Liberals should be cautious about jumping on the academic freedom bandwagon anyway. While it might sound like a great idea to let people like this clown in Colorado rant and rave about the President, the reason he can’t do it and expect legal protection is the same reason school boards can prohibit things like Intelligent Design: Local school boards get a say in what gets taught. In fact, most of the “academic freedom” cases at the elementary and secondary level deal with various kinds of religious proselytizing. So, jumping up and down about absolute academic freedom in our public schools is actually a dopey idea and at odds with more fundamental liberal principles like not putting kids in the position of being indoctrinated in the public sector.

Update: Leo Casey weighs-in here. Long but worth reading all the way through.

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