Monday, January 20, 2014

MLK and the ICCSD

The school district here made a well-intentioned but poorly vetted decision to hold school on Martin Luther King Day this year, on the theory that the holiday would be more meaningful for kids if it were accompanied by a day of school programming on King. The many people who protested the decision at last month’s school board meetings made more good arguments than I can repeat here. It seems a particularly bad idea to single out MLK Day, of all holidays, for different treatment, especially in a way that makes it seem like, well, not a holiday. Nobody asks whether Labor Day or Memorial Day might be more educational if the kids went to school.

Many parents explained that they would prefer their children to spend the day in the company of family or at community- or church-sponsored activities. I don’t blame people for wondering whether the school district’s celebration of the day might be less than ideal. Of all holidays, Martin Luther King Day seems like a particularly bad fit for school.

One problem for the school district is that King stood for something: that there was political, philosophical, and religious content to his message. Fifty years later, there is still great disagreement in America about what racial justice means and entails. The school district can’t (and shouldn’t) tell kids what opinions to hold on politically charged issues. As a result, the district is likely to confine its celebration of King to his role in history fifty years ago, rather than to his relevance today, or to limit itself to high-level generalities (civil rights are important; all people are equal under the law) or to some vague notion of “service.” A public school is also poorly situated to discuss the role of Christianity in King’s life, which would be central to any understanding of him. In other words, any school celebration of King is likely to be impaired by institutional constraints.

It doesn’t help that schools are particularly authoritarian institutions, while King’s mission required him to confront authority at every turn. It would be easier for the district to teach about King if it had a history (on the other 179 school days) of emphasizing the importance of individual conscience rather than reflexive obedience to authority, and of welcoming dissent and criticism rather than trying to quash it. It also doesn’t help that the district has been accused of disciplining minority kids, and referring them to special education, at disproportionate rates. At the same meeting at which the board discussed MLK Day, it discussed its plan to require IDs and background checks of parents who want to enter their kids’ schools. (After a lot of people objected, the board decided to revisit the plan at a future meeting, but the central administration is apparently still pushing for it.) It’s hard not to conclude: School district, teach thyself.

So many people want to see our schools as agents for transforming society that it’s easy to forget that the school system is a creature of society and likely to embody as many of its faults as its virtues. An enormous, bureaucratic, political institution is much more apt to reproduce the status quo than to transform it. Trying to urge humane values on school officials is a worthwhile effort, and I certainly don’t think it’s futile. But the state will probably never be the ideal candidate for teaching kids about political protest, civil disobedience, or the rights of the individual against the state; the conflict of interest is too great, and the likelihood of mixed messages high. That’s another good reason not to make kids spend Martin Luther King Day in school.


Karen W said...

Chris, great post. I just wanted to add that I was in Arizona for much of the drama over whether the state would or would not recognize MLK Day as a holiday.

My sense of the debate in Arizona is this: there are days considered so important that days off are required (see Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Memorial Day, Labor Day), and days of lesser importance that are noted on the calendar and celebrated at school (Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day). MLK Day proponents in Arizona felt that it was important to fight for that highest level of recognition--the recognition that the day is so important that regular activities should be suspended for the day.

I think it may help to understand some of the unhappiness if the decision to hold school is looked at in that light--it may feel like a demotion rather than an elevation of the day to some members of the community--even if the special activities at school are otherwise unobjectionable.

Mary Murphy said...

Excellent post.

Chris said...

Thanks, Karen and Mary. Those are good points, Karen. I also think there's a strange inclination to police whether people are celebrating MLK Day appropriately, which you just don't see with other holidays, and that the district should probably have foreseen that that would not necessarily be seen as a positive thing.

Chris said...

By the way, here is a description of some of the in-school activities here on MLK Day.

Alpha Centauri said...

Making kids go to school on MLK and forcing them to watch 6 hours of patriotic programs and things that are completely unrelated to the day itself will just spark rebellion against the day.