Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cure or symptom?

The other day I wrote about a survey that found that thirty-six percent of high school students felt that newspapers should not be allowed to publish a story without first getting government approval. Follow-up studies in subsequent years confirmed that finding.

The foundation that sponsored the surveys asked Joel Martin, a school administrator with twenty years of experience, to comment on the results. He wrote:

One positive finding is that more First Amendment courses are now being offered in high schools. A continued effort must exist to patiently make progress. The charge will continue to be lead [sic] by organizations and entities with specific financial backing and clear mission statements.

. . .

Curriculum adjustments to focus on the First Amendment issues of free expression need to be explored. The idea of incorporating this topic into increased curricular areas must be studied. The government or civics teacher late in a student’s educational career may struggle, despite a genuine effort, to do justice to the subject of the Constitution and First Amendment.

Courses and/or curriculum at lower grades addressing these issues may be prudent. Schools need to consider developing new course offerings aimed specifically at First Amendment rights issues.

I nominate Mr. Martin as the voice of contemporary American schooling. His heart is in the right place, but he is completely unaware of the contradiction between his ends and his means. Genuinely concerned about issues affecting freedom and human dignity, he can respond only in terms of a system that sees kids as passive recipients of information and proposes to solve every problem by adding more class hours or required courses. (One imagines teachers drilling the kids to prep them for the Iowa Test of Basic Freedoms.) Faced with students who have a low regard for freedom, Mr. Martin can think of one response: We need to do a better job of telling these students what to think!

(Notice, for example, one type of fudging that appears in almost all the commentary I have read on this survey. Granted, many of the survey questions revealed actual ignorance about the content and effect of the First Amendment. But some of the most disturbing findings, such as the ones I cited, were about students’ opinions, not about their knowledge of facts. Shall we instruct them that their opinions are wrong? The idea that there might be a distinction between informing kids about facts and altering kids’ opinions -- that is, between education and indoctrination -- seems never to occur to these commentators.)

Of course, lack of instruction is not the only possible explanation for the survey’s findings. The idea that an individual might have rights that trump those of the authorities could not be more foreign in our schools. Many kids perceive, accurately, that they are not allowed to voice, or even form, critical opinions about the institution that governs a large chunk of their waking hours. Even the idea that kids might have some say in what they learn about, or in how they spend their time, is now seen as a flaky Sixties-era relic that has no place in the Era of Accountability and Standardization. Now more than ever, school is the place that tells you what to do. The good student is the one who is quiet and follows instructions. To openly criticize the authority figures -- the activity at the heart of the First Amendment -- is, for most kids, unthinkable.

When that message is transmitted every day for thirteen years, devoting a few more semester-hours to the Constitution is like fighting a flood with a thimble. Maybe instead of instructing the kids about the value of this alien thing called freedom, we might try giving them some.

..How can I comment?