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'Don't Offend': Our High-Level Policy of Cowardice

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"Morally dangerous places for children.'' The striking phrase seemed to hang in the air, resonating with complexity. Is that what our public schools have become, the Boston University professor of education Kevin Ryan was asking me? I had been traveling around the country visiting schools ... searching for values ... and I had ended up on Professor Ryan's doorstep. Not by mistake, of course, for he's been thinking about the issues of character and values for many years, and he's an old friend as well.

"What does that mean, morally dangerous?'' I asked. His answer, in my shorthand, is that schools have bent over backward in their efforts not to offend anyone about anything. To make themselves inoffensive and studiously neutral, they have all but "cleansed'' the curriculum of anything even vaguely resembling religious or ethical content.

The result is an ahistorical, boring, misleading, and--in Mr. Ryan's view--morally dangerous experience for children.

Let me go back to my own journey. It began in a small town in Pennsylvania, where the school district is torn apart in a battle over values. You may have read about it, or seen its story in news bites on the evening news. It's always presented as a battle between the religious right, on one side, and the "values clarification'' lefties on the other--with schools, students, and teachers suffering in the middle.

In fact, it's not hard to find right-wing zealots who know what's best for all of us, when it comes to values. They have taken over the spotlight and the leadership roles. "It's fine for children to discuss 'Romeo and Juliet,' because that's history [sic],'' a school board member told me, "but I hope the teacher will tell the students that, today, abstinence is better.'' Or there was the parent who said to me, "These children were given to me by God, and I will raise them.''

The "lefties'' are very much in evidence, too, arguing that children need to develop their own values because so many parents aren't up to the job.

The zealots on the right succeeded in drafting a "Parents' Bill of Rights,'' which (had it passed) would have given parents in that small town the right to withdraw their children from any class or class discussion they found potentially offensive. The proposal was eventually tabled (and the school board member who pushed for it was subsequently defeated in his re-election bid), but it's had a chilling effect nonetheless. One high school student says her teacher wouldn't allow the class to discuss racial prejudice when they were reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Another student claims her teacher cut off a discussion about AIDS, saying that parents might be upset.

Or consider this conversation I had with a teacher in the high school:

MERROW: Suppose a kid wants to talk to you about feeling one way and his parents feeling another?

TEACHER: My only reaction is: "You're living in your parents' house.''

MERROW: Let me push you further: Suppose the kid has a value that you personally admire--tolerance for people of another religion--and he comes to you and says, "Sir, my parents are really anti-Semitic, or anti-Amish. I don't think that's right but I don't know what to do.''

TEACHER: These are their parents' views.

MERROW: What do you say to the kid, though, when he asks, "How can I love my mother and my father when they have so much hate for the Amish or the Jews?''

TEACHER: I can't comment, I don't know.

MERROW: What would you say?

TEACHER: I'd say, "They're your parents. When you're with your parents you better do as your parents say. When you leave home then you make your own decisions.''

MERROW: So you really avoid all these issues.

TEACHER: I won't say I always succeed, but I try to.

MERROW: You're teaching a value lesson right there.

TEACHER: True.

MERROW: Is that a kind of, I don't want to say cowardice, that's too harsh, but I mean ...

TEACHER: I don't call it cowardice, but in this day and age I have to be very, very careful, because I could be sued. A parent could take me to task on this. I try not to interfere with what the parent is trying to pass on to their children, and I don't find that cowardly at all.

To me, that's "morally dangerous'' education at its worst. Fear of ideas, fear of conflict, and blind obedience are a heck of a lesson to teach students--but I don't blame the teacher. He's behaving sensibly, sad to say, given the inflamed passions. In that community, the rotting away probably started at the top; it began earlier, and it took years. That is, the schools didn't become a battleground overnight; it took years of what I'll call a high-level policy of cowardice, before they became a battleground.

In another district, this one in Indiana, a middle school principal literally begged me not to pursue the story of efforts to ban "Reading for Real,'' a literature-based reading program. "These people are on a crusade,'' he said, "and they're crazy. I'm afraid they'll get me, and I'll lose my job.'' It's the religious right again, crusading against a number of Caldecott and Newbery Award-winning books that teachers have the option of assigning. Here, too, there's cowardice, but not on the part of that principal. It's policy, you see.

"Don't offend,'' the policy of cowardice, has most often meant removing religious content from the curriculum on the spurious grounds of keeping church and state separate. How thorough is the cleansing? How about school calendars which label the school break for Christmas and New Year's "Winter Vacation,'' because the word Christmas has religious connotations? Or the students who, asked to explain the origin of Thanksgiving, parrot back what they've been taught: The first Thanksgiving was the Pilgrims' way of thanking the Indians for giving them corn. They know this for a fact because their teachers did not tell them that the Pilgrims were thanking their God--and trying to convert the "heathen'' Indians in the process.

Where are the school boards and educators willing to say, "Religion is very much a part of our history, and we must teach our history. Religious values are central to our story, and we must tell our story''?

Instead, we have leadership which backs down, which seeks to carve out a middle ground--no matter what the competing positions--as if truth were always in the middle.

Go back to that town in Indiana, where right-wing zealots are objecting to children reading real literature. Did the leaders defend the books as nationally recognized works of literature? Did they insist that the protesters read the books themselves before objecting? Did they explain the wide variety of titles and ways in which schools and teachers can pick and choose? No, no, and no. Sadly but predictably, the leadership caved in. "We will read all the books, and we will strike from the list any book that contains even one offensive word,'' the superintendent announced to the protesters.

It's a safe bet that, having tasted blood, the zealots will soon be hungry again--and that schools, teachers, and children will be the poorer for it.

Schools shouldn't be battlegrounds over values. In fact, they should be the meeting ground, the common ground. Schools should be helping parents raise children with strong, positive values. This can and does happen where educators and school boards are doing their jobs. In Morristown, N.J., the high school trains selected seniors to help incoming freshmen adjust. Much of what they do involves values. One period a week for the entire year, small classes of 9th graders have the opportunity to discuss whatever tough issues are on their minds. Abortion, premarital sex, peer pressure to drink--those topics came up in the classes I visited. "Why are you doing this in school?'' I asked one of the teachers. "Doesn't this belong at home?'' Her answer: "Most parents are happy we do this. When we demonstrated what we do at parents' night, parents were pleased. I think in the society we live in today parents want as much help as possible.''

Is that teacher right? Do parents want as much help as possible? I'd say we do, but we don't want to be undermined and we don't want to be excluded. That high school wasn't just "winging it'' when it created a program to train seniors in leadership. It marshaled community support, and itis always working to maintain and increase that support. Values are serious business, and the seniors who "teach'' the freshmen are themselves in class studying and discussing leadership four periods a week.

Notice I haven't asked, "Should schools teach values?'' That's not the right question. Instead, let's recognize that values rub off. They're copied and picked up and tested. They're "caught, not taught.''

But schools have to strive to be "ethical communities,'' in the words of a New Hampshire high school principal: "We have to know what we believe in, and we have to live by our beliefs. Values are in the details, in the way we run our schools and our lives. Of course church and state are separate, and they should be. But that shouldn't stop us from being forthright about our ethical beliefs.''

Most people in most communities want the schools on their side in the effort to raise children of strong character. The current educational posture--retreat from controversy--offends nearly everyone. What's more, it is driving people of all faiths, of little faith, and of no faith away from public schools. Where are the leaders who will restore religion to its rightful place in the teaching of our history--and at the same time stand up to the extremists who would impose their values on all our children?

Older students recognize the "retreat from controversy'' approach to education for what it is, and hold it in contempt. Here's what four high school students in one class told me:

  • "In school we're not allowed to say certain things. The school board is kind of trying to keep us in a cage or something like that. They're trying to block us off from the real world.''
  • "We were reading To Kill a Mockingbird and we were talking about the prejudice against black people, and the teacher said, 'Well, I really don't think we should go into this much.' So it's kind of like she touched on it, about how people are prejudiced, but she didn't want to go into the feelings about it and everything. It was like she was afraid that if it went home that we talked about prejudice in front of the class that somehow it was going to hurt her or something.'''
  • "We weren't allowed to talk about race or racial things. I mean, how are you supposed to teach, like, black heritage if you can't talk about blacks? I mean, I just don't think that's right.''
  • "For my book report, I picked a book about a little girl who had AIDS. And my English teacher stopped me in the middle of my report and told me that I couldn't talk about that because it wasn't appropriate for English class. But that was the assignment that I got--to pick a non-fiction book, read it, and give a report to that class and tell them what it was about. What kind of education is that?''

"What kind of education is that?'' Everyone who cares about learning ought to answer her question. "Not good enough'' is my answer, not for my children or anyone else's. Children who are taught to be afraid of ideas grow up into ignorant, easily led adults.

Can public schools be the meeting ground, not the battleground, in the search for values? To this observer anyway, the answer is self-evident: They have to be--or they won't survive.

John Merrow is the host and executive editor of "The Merrow Report,'' seen nationally on most public-television stations.

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