« History Repeats the Old Conceits | Main | Why The Caroline Kennedy Appointment Sort Of Stinks »

December 17, 2008

Comments

If we do not appeal to our better angels, we will not respond.

The existence of a genuine and serious problem does not automatically mean that you can freely disregard any smaller injustices or cruelties you engage in in fighting it.

Not to restir recent passions, but I think this was also Hilzoy's point in denouncing Bill Ayers. It was also many people's point (certainly mine) in joining the denunciation. And let me join with Hilzoy here and agree. Mr. E's conduct was appalling.

Whatever Mr. E's skills at imparting information may have been, he was not a brilliant teacher; he was a fucking asshole. What he did was to abuse his authority over one of his students in furtherance of his own political leanings. Period.

I couldn't agree more with your summation of Mr. E's and the
Jerk's actions: wrong and doubly wrong. I also agree that it was wrong for Bush, Chaney, et al to enable and promote torture.

I agree with your broader concept that // it is always part of our jobs as adults and people who aspire to decency to find ways to confront injustice without engaging in cruelty of our own.//

The logic of such righteous behavior breaks down for me when it is applied to warfare. Warfare, to me, is the antithesis of civil, decent, respectful, righteous action designed to teach. In war, each side is necessarily misusing people. Each side is hoping it will misuse the other sides people more effectively than it misuses its own. War is a bizarro world where most of the usual rules do not apply. Yet civilized, noble minded peole have attempted to construct rules to govern warfare and make it less detestable. It is right that they should. I'm stating the obvious.

But...while a decent person would avoid war at almost all costs (maybe all costs)...

...if you find yourself in a war it is better to kill the other guy before he kills you. Period.

Logic in one reference frame is not logic in the other. One says there is no war. Another says there is war. Another says there is war but there shouldn't be. Another says there should be war but there isn't. Each judges the others actions by their own reference frame. Each person is logical in their own frame and illogical in the other. But what is truth? (I of course have my own view of what is truth).

I totally agree, Hilzoy. Thanks for a typically thoughtful post.

My dad was well known in the town I grew up in.

The sheer understatement there made me laugh out loud; I grew up in a very small town in South India, and I knew who your dad was by middle school, even though I had no desire/plans to go to college in the US.

d'd'd'dave,

So is there a specific war on that you are referring to, or are you generalizing? Or even making a pithy remark that because we have a war on drugs, war on terrorism, culture war, etc., that the side that has decided that it is a war will justify war like actions and outcomes, and the other sides of those conflicts had better respond in kind, or else?

Hilzoy, did Mr. E. actually conceive the plan Jill attributes to him? That is, did he undertake the whole exercise just to get at Crocker through his daughter? Jill implies that, but only implies it.

Your critique does not hinge on that question, of course. It does hinge on the proposition that Mr. E. could have engaged his students on apartheid in some other way -- one less cruel to young Rennie. Maybe so.

Still, I juxtapose Mr. E.'s (implied) means in my own mind not so much with torturing a helpless prisoner as with flinging shoes at a clueless president. The feelings of a man's daughter deserve way more consideration than the dignity of a man's office, to be sure. But sometimes, the only way to penetrate the bubble "policy makers" hide in is to get personal.

--TP

Beautiful post. Mr E, for all his sterling qualities, should never have shamed and excluded a thirteen-year-old girl before her classmates for her father's actions. I can remember my own trials of feeling very left-out as an adolescent, and I'm sure most others will have their own to a greater or lesser degree; but at least mine weren't created and sanctioned by a teacher. In a way, the teacher's excellence in other regards and ability to inspire must have only made this worse for the young girl, as I'm sure the kids loved and looked up to him; at least if he's been otherwise lousy his emotional hold and power to split them would have been less.

In the vast array of human interactions, Hilzoy finds it incumbent to chastise the powerless for their cruelties, petty or not, and condemn them equally in the same morally absolute terms as she condemns the cruelties of the powerful...unless I misunderstand entirely.

This viewpoint (the story above is touching) is wholly understandable, reasonable, and consistent. Nonetheless I remain troubled, agreeing in major respects, but still hanging back. It is simply not so easy.

The powerful engage in cruelty simply because they can, and because they can get away with it most of the time. Maybe that's the difference. And that is why my condemnation is not on moral autopilot or in any way "equal" (implied or otherwise) on the "assigned guilt" scale where an icy cold absolutism appears reasonable to otherwise reasonable people.

Absolutism of any kind gives me the shivvers.

bobbyp: I never meant to say they were equally bad. I do think it matters not just to e.g. condemn torture, but to figure out the habits of mind that allow people to think it's justified. (How else will we avoid it the next time around?) And one of them, I think, is: when faced with some normally bad thing X done to prevent an even worse thing Y, asking "but isn't it worth doing X to prevent Y?", without first having determined whether or not it's possible to prevent Y by some other means. Also, leaping to the conclusion that since Y is looming and X leaps to mind, the badness of Y makes X OK.

One of the (many, many) things I miss in Bush and Cheney is the kind of basic decency that would make a person say: Wait. Wait. I can't do that. That's a human being. I do not mean to suggest that what this teacher did is in any way comparably bad, but I do think a similar thing is missing here.

Fraud Guy

I am generalizing.

I guess my point is that I personally must be humble in my criticism of what this country or any other does. If I personally was in charge I would steer clear of all wars. But i'm not in charge. Various administrations and congresses borne up by the shifting sands of public opinion set the agenda and even then single administrations are rarely self-consistent across the entirety of their policies. I must be humble because the group frame of reference is not mine and may seem illogical to me. In the same way the group frame of reference is probably not the same as any individuals and therefore may seem illogical to any one individual. Ergo, it is not only I that should be humble in my criticism. Ahem.

Even if I say with all my heart that Bush was incompetent, wrong, a liar, stupid, it was an unjust war, etc...the fact will remain that he was reelected by a decent margin after he put us in the war. So, the group frame of reference, to some extent, put their stamp of approval on it. And with that frame of reference we get the logic of that frame.

I know this is tangent to your post but one could argue that the delay caused by crockers constructive engagement policy was helpful in the long term because it gave the black s. african political parties/movements time to mature. Rhodesia's exit from apartheid was more abrupt and in the longer term less beneficial to the populace than s. africas more prolonged transition.

I couldn't disagree more, actually. So a girl gets left out of one school trip? Big deal. This is wholly consistent with the principle of boycott and peaceful ostracism, and surely one of the most trivial consequences of such as strategy. So, for example, if Western governments decide to deny all visas to senior officials from some odorous murderous regime, should that policy be cancelled because it stops those officials' teenage daughters from shopping in London or New York?

In theory teachers should not bring political agendas to the classroom, I agree, but then again I think America's youth are shockingly apathetic and unengaged, so some redress is required. Secondly, this is apartheid for pete's sake! The teacher has a classroom full of the spawn of the rich and powerful, how could the guy sleep at night if he didn't take this opportunity to do a little good?

Finally, as others have pointed out, we don't know that this was all part of Mr. E's cunning plan to get to the girl's douchebag dad (who did, after all, have the option of letting her go on the trip), I'm dubious of the original account's interpretation in that respect.

I agree, it is a very troubling story. Whatever else one thinks and no matter how strongly one feels about any issue, one treats children as themselves, not as extensions of their parents. And a person such as a teacher who are in power do not exclude a child in a deliberate campaign, no matter what the reason. She did no wrong, why was she punished? Being a teenager is bad enough, without adding pressure.

Oh, I see, the children of the rich and powerful should get the benefits that accrue to them merely because of who their parents are, but must never be allowed to face any of the downside, or be exposed to just what it is that the average rich and powerful person does to become rich and powerful.

Screw that. They could have sent her to a public school in DC in the 80s if they wanted a teacher who didn't give a f*ck who her parents were.

I suppose it would be rude and crude to explain to the hypothetical child of a slave dealer how exactly their parents got the money to send them to their precious little $30,000 a year private school, too, wouldn't it?

I find myself agreeing in large part with this post and yet hanging back over various bits of sloppiness.

First, I tend to agree with your comment about why one shouldn't take the class on a field trip to protest and think your comment likening it to the problems with school prayer is spot on.

I also think the general callousness as to the incredible importance of teachers respecting the student-teacher relationship. It is not only unfair to the student to intentionally place them in the middle of a political controversy; it is also unfair to the teacher's educational mission. If you actually try to leverage a kid like that, you almost certainly ensure a major rift of distrust and antagonism from the student (and likely their peers who can sense how unfair the whole situation is). Once that rift starts, a teacher loses most all leverage they have to engage the students and challenge them in ways that might actually be productive.

However, I remain incredibly leery of attributing intent to a teacher based on the interpretation of the teacher's actions. This is especially true given that the evaluation is pretty clearly subjective and also comes well after the fact. I teach high school math and hope to add a philosophy course or two next year. I shudder to think what sort of interesting lessons might be attributed to me by my students 15 and 20 years down the line after being filtered through their own prejudices and agendas.

Final verdict on the event as reported: It is perfectly acceptable to challenge students in a way that gives them the ability to engage with difficult material (such as class debate, etc.) but doesn't set out with the purpose of intentionally wrongfooting the student for purposes completely foreign to the educational mission of the school.

Final verdict on the post: Mind-reading isn't any prettier when done second hand.

byrningman and now_what,

Unless I misunderstand, hilzoy is not criticizing Mr. E for teaching about apartheid. She is criticizing him for organizing the protest. I don't think she means, and I disagree with her if she does, that apartheid should not have been discussed in class, just that the protest itself was an attempt to use Crocker's daughter against him in a way that should be off limits.

I don't think it should be off-limits. So she missed out on a school trip, big deal. So she was forced to think about what her daddy does for a living and put her friendships with her classmates into a wider context than she was previously aware of -- I thought that was one of the purposes of education. When should her protective buddble end? Or should it never end, should we hope she goes on to marry someone like Dick Cheney and never once experiences any social awkwardness for her family's notorious day job?

I agree with all those pointing out that we really should take the original account's interpretation with a big dose of salt.

Nevertheless, in principle, I see nothing wrong here. Certainly we're not talking about some weird campaign to ostracise the student on a consistent basis because the teacher didn't like her dad's job, this doesn't seem like the movie Election. Heaven forbid daddy and his wife might face an awkward inquiry from a fellow parent at the next PTA. Heaven forbid kids think about the social and political contexts of mummy and daddy's paychecks. This child does have the option, after all, of deciding she's fine with her dad's job. This is part of growing up, and learning.

And taking kids to an anti-apartheid rally seems like a great activity, frankly. It really is scary that so many here are opposed to that, I really mean that. Maybe the average American student wouldn't see global politics through the amoral prism of their GPA if more teachers challenged them to take a stand, whatever that stand might be, at an earlier age.

Don't get me wrong, I understand the concerns about educational objectivity and ethical behaviour that prompts the concern of Hilzoy and others here in the first place. I just don't think politics is bad for children. We shouldn't keep them in bubbles to keep them away from germs, nor should we to keep them away from the great moral issues of our time.

I understand it's a fine line, but there's a sound argument why religion is out and apartheid is in, and we shouldn't run away from making that argument in fear of lawsuits based on false equivalence.

FWIW it's worth, religion in schools doesn't seem that scary to me either. I got it shoved down my throat on a daily basis, and it only produced the anti-authoritarian heretic I am today. You can't protect kids from exposure to ideas, you just have to try to inoculate them to really dumb ones, but recognise they're free to make up their own minds too.

Also, although I respectfully disagree on some points, I think this is a great post, and a great debate to have too.

After rereading the comments here, I wanted to clarify a point about the classroom environment that I kind of brushed past in my first comment.


For effective teaching to take place, the classroom must, above all, be safe. Learning is often a scary process. It requires the student to risk being wrong. In a class predicated on discussion and challenging students to grow through testing their ideas in the public sphere, it requires them to risk being publicly wrong. For a high school student, that is no small thing. I think if we are being honest with ourselves, it is no small thing for any of us.

To that end, any classroom that sets out to challenge and engage students must create a zone in which disagreement can occur free from outside influence. As best as is possible, the teacher must create an environment in which students experiment with, debate and discover ideas with the idea that it is okay to be wrong sometimes. Above all, it must be an environment which a student trust to be fair- that is, which doesn't weight the deck against them before they even enter the discussion.

This doesn't mean that we let students get away with just "expressing themselves" unchallenged. Indeed, the reason that the environment must be fair is so that a student can be pushed to develop ideas through challenge and debate. But there is a big difference between challenging a student to think through an argument or position more clearly and shutting them down by creating an environment in which they start off excluded from the conversation. The odds of a student learning (as opposed to jut being really pissed off and hurt) in such a situation is next to nothing.

Because of this, it isn't just unfair to the student to use them to leverage them against their parents, it is also incredibly ineffective. When a student begins a discussion as a prop to be wielded against a parent, they don't have a real ability to enter the discussion at all, as was made clear in the excerpt hilzoy quoted. If this was done overtly as the author suggests, the teacher has just declared the classroom to be unsafe for any student who disagrees with him. In effect, he just turned a learning environment into an "agreeing" environment where the smart behavior is to find out what teacher wants and parrot it.

It is really late at night, so I am not so sure how coherent all of this is. Still, I hope this clarifies a bit why this is such terrible pedagogy (assuming, for the sake of argument, it happened as was recalled).

In theory teachers should not bring political agendas to the classroom

I think it’s a lot more than a theory…

That should be clear if you just flip the situation around. Mr. E structures his lesson plan to be in favor of "constructive engagement" with South Africa. Mr. E takes the class to a rally at the embassy in support of SA. You, as a parent, do not agree with that political stance. You have tried to foster your beliefs in your child, who is now an ostracized 13 year old. Chances are that you would be upset by that even as just a typical parent. Now add on another layer, you are a government official in a position of power supporting policies against apartheid and it can be perceived that the entire event is an attempt to pressure you through your child.

Is it still just a theory that teachers should check their political agenda at the classroom door?

I should also note that I'm starting my career as an educator, but I'm not a parent, so I haven't yet had the experience of releasing your kids into the influential hands of some teachers with their own agendas, which I'm many here have had to deal with.

I do think in general though, that I would always err on the side of engaging ideas. I do genuinely believe that America's youth is shockingly apathetic and apolitical, and I think it might be a consequence of sterilising the educational system since the 60s or 70s, when 'liberals' (crudely speaking) got a lot of conservative bias purged from the system, and 'conservatives' (crudely speaking) got a lot of political content purged from the system too, to limit the influence of long-haired hippy teachers. My history is probably off, and not intended very seriously, but I think you see the point I am trying to make that it has been in everyone's interest for a while to starve kids of the oxygen of controversy, to all our detriment in the long run.

Not to restir recent passions, but I think this was also Hilzoy's point in denouncing Bill Ayers.

I thought Hilzoy was just joining in with the rest of the pack - she was being Mr E, regarding her political position as far more important than the human feelings Bill Ayers might have at being used by the right-wing to be a club to beat Obama with, and then being blamed by Obama's political supporters for his very existence.

Though having read the article by Jill; Did "Mr E" actually intend to put pressure on Rennie's dad through his classroom activities? This is Jill's years-later interpretation, not based (as far as I can see) on any direct admission from Mr E that this was what he planned to do.

"The existence of a genuine and serious problem does not automatically mean that you can freely disregard any smaller injustices or cruelties you engage in in fighting it.

...

Because it is always part of our jobs as adults and people who aspire to decency to find ways to confront injustice without engaging in cruelty of our own."

Yes, you actually do understand how I view taxes, and my exasperation at the liberal tendency to just assume that if you favor a cause, it's ok to obtain money by threats to pay for it.

Even if you might have found another way to pay for it if you'd bothered trying...

Good Post, Hilzoy.

As a former teacher, I'll say what Mr. E. did was grotesquely inappropriate, a breach of professional ethics. (Agreed that we cannot be absolutely certain what happened, but if the facts as reported are correct, Mr. E would seem to be either an ass or an idiot).

There seems to be a degree of point-missing going on in some of the comments criticizing hilzoy's post - for starters, the problem is not that a middle school student was 'left out of one school trip' or that 'her friendships with classmates were put in a wider context'. Nor (as mentioned aready) is there any claim that politics must be avoided in the classroom - in fact hilzoy's stand on protest field trips (which I agree with, if not without regrets) is literally a parenthetical aside, not a major criticism.

"In the vast array of human interactions, Hilzoy finds it incumbent to chastise the powerless for their cruelties, petty or not,"

If we're talking about interactions between Mr E. and Mr. Crocker (particularly. outside the role of daughter's teacher), than "powerless" is a fairly accurate characterization. But we're not; we're talking about interactions between Mr. E. and a 13 year old student, which is another matter altogether.

"Secondly, this is apartheid for pete's sake! The teacher has a classroom full of the spawn of the rich and powerful, how could the guy sleep at night if he didn't take this opportunity to do a little good?"

I think this point was addressed in the original post (not that it's wrong to bring it up, but what do you think of how it was discussed?)

"Rhodesia's exit from apartheid was more abrupt and in the longer term less beneficial to the populace than s. africas more prolonged transition."

There are, of course, other differences between the two countries' experience: for example, modern Zimbabwe was born in civil war; South Africa's exit from apartheid was fairly different.

So the rest of the class is supposed to abandon a project they are all jazzed about and that anybody can agree is a noble cause because one student has a douchebag dad? I'm pretty sure there's not one single issue on which some kid's parents have a minority POV, do they always get a veto on school trips?

I honestly don't see the problem here, so the kid stayed home. The teacher had the choice of abandoning a good project to placate one parent's dubious opinions, I don't think he can be criticised for not taking it.

I'm sure pretty much everybody here supports the idea of a boycott of apartheid South Africa, I'm sure there were many teenagers that had a few disappointments as a result of that policy too.

I disagree a bit. The first point is Jes' above. I wouldn't take a adult's memory of their childhood situation as being truly reflective of the situation.

But let us assume that the writer is correct and what she saw was a true reflection of what the teacher aimed for. In order to damn the teacher, I would really have to know exactly how the dynamic was managed and to what end. Was the aim to get the student to understand that Apartheid was wrong or was it to get the parent to realize it? The distance between those two points is immense.

It is important to realize that all industrial education is built around the notion of creating a social dynamic that they forces students to do certain things. It is how that dynamic is managed that is the question, not the simple question of whether the teacher created a dynamic that was going to create certain feelings in certain children.

If a class is required, one could simply determine what is an accurate reflection of what content or skills the student should be required to master and devise an appropriate test of that content or those skills. But, when the content or skills are not particularly clear, it becomes incumbent on the teacher to arrange the class in a way that creates some pressure on the student to learn. Obviously, there are acceptable and unacceptable ways of doing that. If I allow the students to humiliate a student because he arrives late, I should be thrown out on my ear. But if I have the students do something that is so enjoyable in the first 15 minutes of class, such that the student arriving late gets told 'geez, you missed the most interesting activity!", what is being done is the same, but that seems eminently acceptable. If I create a situation where students feel bad because they are falling behind the rest of the class because they are not doing the preparation that I am suggesting, well, that's what teachers do. If I create a situation where the class as a whole is doing something they think is enjoyable and fun and they are learning from it, I can't hold them hostage because one of the parents of the students may disagree with the point that I am trying to get across.

Now, I've had some great teachers who were terribly organized, but stumbling in the door 10 minutes late, spending 5 minutes figuring out where we are, and then launching into some discussion that had me enthralled has happened, but for those of us who don't have the gift of the gods whispering in our ear, we have to try and structure our lessons and our courses in a way that utilizes productive peer pressure. If we don't, we run the greater risk of not allowing the students to learn from each other. Or having students end up unchallenged.

It's a dangerous tightrope, and if I deliver the observation of 'what were you thinking when you did that?' at the wrong time, I'm a crappy teacher. But if I deliver that at the right moment, in the right way (and that way differs for every student) I will have hit a sweet spot that allows them to take something onboard.

I also teach martial arts, and while I structure those lessons as well, I really don't have to think 'how do I make this person learn, even if they don't want to?' I teach what I teach, and though I try to be responsive to the strengths and weaknesses of the individual students, I don't have to use pressure in quite the same way. This is why I think 'industrial education' is quite different and demands the use of social pressure. I'd argue that the purpose of 99% of schooling is socialization and a teacher who fails to understand that and come to grips with that might be a good teacher in the sense of presenting knowledge to students, but won't be a true educator, in the sense of pulling out of students what they need to know they have. This is truer the further you get down the scale. Elementary school has content that could probably be taught in a 6 week cram course at the end of the 6th year, but stretching it out over 6 years then provides the framework for a lot of other lessons about how one waits their turn, how one regards intellectual property, how one understands their work habits and how one keeps deadlines.

Now, if Mr E was actually going after the ambassador thru his daughter, that stinks, but that seems to be presuming a triple bank carom shot across two tables. In my experience, good teachers, while highly cognizant of the parents of their charge, simply don't have the mental energy and resources to think 'gee, how can I influence that student's parents by the activities I do'. That sort of extended ability is something that students often attribute to good teachers because it seems like they know everything, but in practice, it seems more an art than a science. And good teachers, while their batting average may be good, will remember their failures. There is a quote about teaching that is something like 'We should not be surprised that good teaching is such a rarity, we should be surprised that it happens at all'. When confronted with a shy, studious student, I'm not sure if there are teachers who think 'good, if I can just keep her shy, this will be great'. We often talk about teachers opening doors or broadening horizons. It's just as likely that Mr E screwed up and in trying to get Rennie to assert her independence, he overshot and ending up creating a dynamic where she was on the outside. Without going inside his head, we can't judge.

I was initially inclined to agree with hilzoy, but now I'm not so sure. I don't think a teacher should use a 13 year old to get to her dad, but on the other hand we have only the word of this blogger that this is what Mr. E. intended. All we have is the statement that upon learning her dad was Chester Crocker, he decided to engage his class in anti-apartheid activism. Supposing that is true, it does not follow that he was "using" Chester Crocker's daughter against her father--it could be that he felt it was his duty as a teacher to tell the truth about US policy. One can question whether or not privileged 13 year old children should be exposed to this, but it's not obvious to me that the answer is "no". Hilzoy's condemnation hinges on a particular interpretation of Mr. E's motives--that he thought he would "get" to Crocker via his daughter. It's just as possible he thought he had a duty as a teacher to expose the lies her father was telling her about one of the most important moral issues of the day. Also, the blogger seems to think it's a particularly poignant thing that Crocker had to explain to his daughter what he was doing, almost as though HIS feelings were of any consequence. I do feel sorry for the daughter and in Mr. E's shoes I probably wouldn't have done what he did, but I think that I would have been wrong.

Crocker, it should be noted, wasn't just a supporter of constructive engagement--like most Republicans of the time he also lionized Jonas Savimbi, a mass murderer on a par with Saddam Hussein.

So here's another moral issue--granted that a 13 year old should not be used to get at her father, if that was the intent (and I'm not convinced), at what age should children stop being shielded from the fact that their fathers support mass murderers for a living? I don't know the answer, but in all seriousness, somewhere around age 13 seems about right. But I'm open to hearing arguments for ages 14-18.


and in that case I think it would be morally wrong not to have an anti-apartheid protest because a child of one of the villains is in the classroom. We have no way of knowing what Mr. E thought he was doing--we only have the worst possible interpretation of his motives being put forward as the truth.

The real villain here is Crocker himself, who not only favored "constructive engagement", but also, along with the Republican Party in general, was a big fan of Jonas Savimbi, a mass murderer on a par with Saddam Hussein. Of course a shy, sensitive daughter of a man like that is going to be horribly embarrassed at some point--it's either that or keep her in that protective bubble people talk about above. I don't think a 13 year old should be used as a weapon against her father, and I would have felt very conflicted if I had been in Mr. E's shoes, and in fact in his shoes I might have cancelled my plans for the class to have an anti-apartheid protest because of this. But I would have been wrong.

There are two versions of my post in the previous comment--I meant to erase the last part, but you can read them both and decide which version you prefer.

byrningman: So the rest of the class is supposed to abandon a project they are all jazzed about and that anybody can agree is a noble cause because one student has a douchebag dad?

Evidently, yes.

If Mr E deliberately set up this class project simply because he wanted to get at this kid's dad, he was acting very wrongly.

But it seems bizarre to me that Jill's decided that this must have been his motivation - that a black teacher with a multi-racial class could not possibly have had any other reason to be interested in South Africa, or to want his class to be involved.

(Though it's more than possible that Jill has inside information she didn't share in the article, leading her to this conclusion - that Mr E would never have set up this series of class activities if Rennie hadn't been in his class that year.)

However: I'd agree that Rennie ought to have got more support than she got. But it's possible, as a 13-year-old, she was suffering from her own crisis of conscience - she disagreed with her father, profoundly and ethically. She could have been supported through that, and should have been, but the only way to protect her from it would have been to keep her ignorance of the situation in South Africa and her father's support for it.

(or, what Donald Johnson and liberal japonicus said)

Mr. E's motives are certainly in doubt, but his lack of sensitivity is clear. Assuming the entire class, without exception is not going to be embarassed or conflicted by participating in a protest of our government's actions is insensitive, at least.

It is, I think, a perfect parallel to prayer in school. Arguments from the right on this issue reflect a lack of sensitivity at exactly the same level.

I recognize that there are strong students who can handle it, such as Byrningman. Good for him. And the experience of being marginalized probably made him even stronger. But, there are also students in every classroom who can be crushed by such insensitivity.

So, my take is that Mr. E was wrong on motive, or wrong on sensitivity to his trust.

Oyster Tea--

I don't think a teacher in a Quaker school is in the same position as a teacher in a public school. If you send your child to a Quaker school, you should not be shocked if the students engage in anti-apartheid activities.

My sister went to a Baptist school for part of her education. There may have been students at that school whose parents objected to school prayer, but they probably should have given that issue full consideration before paying tuition.

As I should probably have made clear, I'm going on Jill's interpretation. She didn't identify Mr. E by name and attribute some motive to him; had she done so, I would have said something like: let's assume for the sake of argument that Mr. E was as she says. I probably should have said that anyways. Imagine there was a teacher, call him Mr. F, who was exactly as Jill describes; take my post as being about him.

I'm also not in the least opposed to educating kids in ways that make them uncomfortable, or to discussing political issues. I am opposed to organizing protests as a school trip, but that's not because it's political; it's because it presupposes uniformity of opinion where it might not exist, and that's not good for, in particular, teaching. (Thus the analogy to mandatory prayer: my grade school, which made us say the Lord's Prayer, plainly assumed that we were all cool with that, or ought to be. The fact that I mind that absolutely does not imply that I would mind discussing religion, which I wouldn't.)

What I mind is using class to get to a kid's father, and I mind it not because it hurts the feelings of the kid, but because it treats her as an extension of her dad, rather than as a person in her own right. -- As a teacher, I try not to hurt the feelings of my students gratuitously, but I have been known to make them uncomfortable for what I hope are good reasons, and I don't have a problem with that.

Example: years ago, I had one class that for some reason just misused words all over the place. Reading their papers, I got exasperated, and did this riff in front of the class in which I read some of the more amazing misuses, and did a deadpan attempt to figure out what could possibly be meant. (The only one I recall involved someone who had talked about the tenants of a theory, and I wondered aloud whether the student had in mind some distinction between a theory's tenants and its homeowners or landlords, and if so what that distinction might be.)

Some of the students came up afterwards and said that that was cold of me. Meh, I thought: I think naming the students would have been excessive, but they ought to stand behind what they wrote, and if even an anonymous reading of their work embarrassed them, tough. Plus, after that I warned them in advance that I would do this, and they simply stopped making this kind of mistake, which was the point: that they should think about the words they used, and when in doubt, have at least some cursory contact with a dictionary.

I did that because I was supposed to be teaching them, and this seemed to me at the time to be an effective way to get them to use language more precisely. That is: rightly or wrongly, it was aimed at a pedagogical goal, and at teaching them, not their parents or siblings or friends. It's the fact that Mr. E (or Mr. F) was aiming at Rennie's dad, not her, that's the problem for me.

Don Johnson

Point taken. My experience was in public schools.

Having taught about Apartheid was perfectly OK, but the field trip wasn't OK, whatever the teacher's motivations were or weren't vis a vis Rennie and her father.

I have several young teen students, and would NEVER do something like this, for more than one reason. For one thing, kids that age are disarmingly bright - even the duller kids that age are bright, contradictory as that may sound - and you can bet that just studying this subject caused Rennie to think about her father's job on her own. Second, the commentor who said a classroom must be a safe place is right. 'Safe' doesn't mean that the kids can't be challenged intellectually, but that they don't need their *identities* challenged in a classroom - again, that's going on already in their own heads at that age.

Something very important is often left out of these mean/ends discussions: the question of efficacy. 99.9% of the time, the only meaningful question in means/ends quandries is, do *these* ends justify *these* means. So, it matters very very much, in the real world, if the means in question actually accomplish the ends. I think that torture is simply wrong no matter what, but overriding that is the fact that it *doesn't work*. Same deal with ostricizing this kid to get to her father (assuming for the sake of argument that's what the teacher was doing): it's the wrong thing to do in the abstract, but in the vital sense it's wrong because it's not really going to affect change anyway. So, as a means/ends question, it's not very hard. The ends can't be just 'aspirational', they have to have a reasonably good chance of being satisfied. The Reagan Administration was not going to alter its policy a whit as a result of Crocker's daughter's being left out of a class project - and that would've been true even in the highly unlikely event of Crocker's having a Frank Capra Moment because of it and resigning. So, no go.

I also agree that the school shouldn't do an official Protest Trip. Unofficial is fine.

Adults routinely make a very big mistake when dealing with children, especially teens: they assume that children are as dull, mediocre, and morally slovenly as they themselves are, when it's not usually true, appearances aside. Most of the time, if you lay out the facts as best you can and just let the child make up their own mind, they do pretty well.

I found myself wondering what happened to Rennie. If this is her (and graduating from Stanford law in 93 is about right, I think), I don't know if she is a Democrat, but her husband is an aide to Harry Reid.

hilzoy:

What I mind is using class to get to a kid's father, and I mind it not because it hurts the feelings of the kid, but because it treats her as an extension of her dad, rather than as a person in her own right.

Exactly right. Treating a student as an extention of their parents rather than as an individual, even if the parents want you to do the former - even if the STUDENT wants you to - has got to be one of the worst sins a teacher can do. Or any other adult, for that matter.

Excellent post, hilzoy. I shared socratic_me's mindreading concern regarding Mr. E's motives, but your last comment cleared that up.

Two other side matters:

1) Donald Johnson is entirely correct that teachers in non-public institutions have every right to do things that teachers in public institutions cannot do. Once again, the school prayer analogy is helpful here. Obviously, teachers in religious institutions can lead children in prayer. However, this doesn't make school prayer any more pedagogically valuable an activity. It only makes it a legal one.

In the particular case at hand, I do wonder what the Quaker teaching would be. On the one hand, the Society of Friends would undoubtedly have opposed the Reagan policy of "constructive engagement." On the other hand, my understanding of Quakerism is that it puts a huge emphasis on the awakening of the individual consciousness. Using the coercive power of the teacher-student relationship (or even the peer-pressure of a classroom situation) to encourage participation in a protest during school time doesn't feel really Quaker to me.

At any rate, I share hilzoy's sense that, though clearly legal and, perhaps, sectarianly correct, making participation in a protest part of a class is bad pedagogy.

2) Would "turning" Chester Crocker have changed the Reagan administration's policies toward South Africa? There seems to be an assumption in this post that it would. I certainly don't think the ends justify the means in this case, but I think the ends are also a lot murkier than they've been presented as being.

Let's assume that Mr. E was trying to pressure Crocker through his daughter. And let's imagine a world in which it worked. Over dinner, Chester tries to explain to Rennie why "constructive engagement" is a morally defensible and politically effective policy. And it just doesn't fly. In a simple conversation with his daughter, Crocker relizes the error of his ways.

Next morning, he calls up Ronald Reagan (or George Schultz, take your pick) and says "Mr. President/Mr. Secretary, we need to change our policy on South Africa! We need to tell them that if they don't abandon apartheid, free Nelson Mandela, and begin taking serious steps toward turning the country into a multiracial democracy, they can expect all the aid to dry up!" Would Reagan or Schultz have said "wonderful idea, Chet!"...or would they have said "we expect your resignation on our desk by the end of the day."

Somehow I think the latter is much more likely than the former.

"But it seems bizarre to me that Jill's decided that this must have been his motivation - that a black teacher with a multi-racial class could not possibly have had any other reason to be interested in South Africa, or to want his class to be involved.

Was it this that was the problem? (Speaking perhaps more about this post?) To me, it seems like there are two sets of issues. First, whether or not the teacher realized that his student's father was the guy in charge of our S. African policy (it's possible he missed it, I guess, but a politically engaged Beltway private school
teacher?)

Second, assuming he did, that he devised (in Jill's interpretation) or at least continued a plan to have, as a culminating activity, the students - as a class - join a public protest against that policy.

rich people's children must be more civilized than i give them credit for.

where i grew up in coal country, USA, teacher-fomented ostracization is basically the green light to go ahead and beat the sh1t out of the ostracized. or at least it was.

Donald Johnson,

it could be that he felt it was his duty as a teacher to tell the truth about US policy. One can question whether or not privileged 13 year old children should be exposed to this, but it's not obvious to me that the answer is "no".

But he could do this without the organized protest. It is one thing to teach Crocker's daughter, and another to put her personally on the spot like this.

I don't think it would be right to use the daughter to bring Chester Crocker back to the light, but setting aside the means, I think it would have been a major embarrassment for the Reagan Administration if their man in charge of policy for southern Africa had been forced to resign because of a crisis of conscience. But the chance of that happening because of what his daughter was learning seems slight, and anyway, to repeat myself, if that was Mr. E's goal he was wrong to use a student that way.

Which is all hypothetical--we don't know his motives.

I just don't think politics is bad for children.

The end justifies the means. Who cares about the kid, her dad's a jerk. Political discussions are good for kids, therefore it doesn't matter what those discussions are, QED.

If a conservative or Christianist teacher used those exact same arguments to justify "getting to" a 13-year-old whose dad was the local ACLU staff attorney, or campaign manager for No on 8, or a Planned Parenthood board member, you'd be screaming your head off. Yet that teacher could proffer the exact arguments you are making in their defense.

What it comes down to is a teacher abusing his authority in the classroom in order to achieve a political goal. It doesn't matter what that goal is or how "privileged" the child is. It's wrong, period.

Bernard--She's put on the spot the instant the issue is raised in class if people know who her father is.

To me it again depends on the motives and also the school. If he was trying to put the daughter on the spot then he's wrong. If it is the kind of thing he might have done anyway then it's not clear to me at all. Again, this is a Quaker school, not a public school where no teacher should be allowed to inflict his or her anti-apartheid, anti-torture, anti-mass-murdering views on students whose parents might make a living praising people like Jonas Savimbi. I'm not being snarky. I don't think it would be appropriate in a public school to arrange a protest against Reagan Administration policy, no matter how monstrous. In a Quaker school, given their traditions, I can't say that. If a child went to a conservative religious school I would not be shocked if the teacher arranged an anti-abortion protest. If such things occurred, parents who object might want to send their children to a different school.

My personal take is that if it was his intention that Rennie either join the protest or be humiliated, that's a bad thing, and an abuse of power. If, on the other hand, his intention was to come up with a project that the whole class could get involved in as a matter of choice, and that Rennie's exclusion was a result of said choice (her father's, I imagine), and furthermore that if said exclusion came with no negative consequences in terms of how she was treated in class, then I have absolutely no problem at all with the outcome.

I'd tend to think there was just a wee bit of extra drama injected into this account. For one thing, I have doubts that a 13-year-old is going to be left alone in a classroom for half a day, unsupervised.

So, I'd tend to err on the side of treating what the teacher did charitably, absent information that might tend to condemn him.

now_what:

Oh, I see, the children of the rich and powerful should get the benefits that accrue to them merely because of who their parents are, but must never be allowed to face any of the downside, or be exposed to just what it is that the average rich and powerful person does to become rich and powerful.

No, it's that no one, regardless of position, should be exposed to selective injustice in the classroom. It's not the job of the teacher to shield the students in any way that's geared to their life circumstances, but neither is it the job of the teacher to strive toward some odd notion of social justice by trying to balance out the student's life advantages with some equal but opposite unpleasantness.

But maybe I misunderstood. Always and ever a possibility.

Though that said, I don't actually know if arranging protests is normal in a Quaker school. Maybe they would think it too coercive and this was exceptional.

I'm a progressive-leaning educator, and I immediately thought of one supposition, a classroom technique, that could have led to this situation... in a project-based environment, you immerse the students in the basic information of the unit, but then, as a teacher, you allow for and surf over a wave of creative suggestions from the class, regarding how they're going to synthesize the information into a tangible product. As a teacher with real-world adult experience, you often have to facilitate resources to make the projects come to fruition. The teacher is still a leader, but the ideas still belong to the students, and thereby become more meaningful.

My supposition: is it possible that the protest event was a creation of the group, or of a vocal and persuasive student? It doesn't make Jill wrong or a liar; she probably remembers the teacher's enthusiasm for the idea and his footwork in getting the field trip together.

This is plausible to me, more plausible than saying to a bunch of kids "Hey! Guess what? The final part of this unit - we're gonna go protest!" If kids of this age don't 'own' this idea in some way, it becomes a pointless chore, like anything else. Actually sounds like a great South Park episode - Mr. Garrison drags his class to protest the cancellation of America's Next Top Model, or some such.

My point is, this sort of progressivist technique is somewhat risky (see 'safe classroom post by socratic_me, very nice.) Progressive education can provide the most creatively fulfilling, eye-opening experiences, but it can also bite the teacher on the ass in the most unpredictable ways - alienating students, upsetting parents, failure of an untested process, etc. It's usually a worthwhile risk, but (on the off chance that my supposition was reality) it managed to create a negative memory, recallable 20 years later.

I understand, Hilzoy, that you're treating this as a basically hypothetical case, but given that some commentators are drawing conclusions about the actual individual (he's "a fucking asshole" or whatever), it seems worth noting that, at least upon the evidence presented, Jill's interpretation seems tenuous.

Now, maybe Mr. E said some stuff that confirmed it, or there are other reasons to think that he did this to "leverage" Rennie's dad. But with the story as given, I think that we can imagine a rather different scenario: Mr. E taught current events; he was planning to teach about South Africa. Even though one of his students' parents was inovlved in the issue, he decided not to change the lesson plan, and went through with it. He was sorry she was uncomfortable, but he didn't feel right *not* teaching about the issue just because one of the students' parents was involved in the politics.

Under this scenario, it's a lot harder for me to say that Mr. E did the wrong thing. Should he have deliberately avoided the topic, given Rennie's presence in his class? Maybe. But I wouldn't say so. And certainly this isn't treating her as a means rather than an end.

Even the protest strikes me as more complicated than you're suggesting. The prayers in school are generally set before the year, and agreement is presumed, or coerced. But from the story presented, it sounds like the idea of the protest could have developed *after* Mr. E saw that his clas *was* unanimous on this issue. The presumed unanimity could, in other words, have been not presumed but discovered. (From the story, it sounds like even Rennie agreed with them, even if she felt awkward about it.) Again, should he have nixed the idea given the awkwardness for Rennie? Maybe. But it's a far more complicated issue.

As long as we're strictly talking hypotheticals, then I find Hilzoy's comments persuasive. But given that this seems to be a real person, it seems worth noting that the underlying interpretation is far from the only one.

Jesurgislac,

A teacher leads a discussion about abortion and then has 13 year old kids attend a pro-life rally in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic. One of the girls has as a parent a high level member of NARAL.

You're totally ok with this right?

I note Donald Johnson's comment about Quaker schools, and I also note the comments of several people about the dangers of mind reading.

Even keeping those qualifications in mind, IMVHO Mr. E (or any teacher) should not be enlisting students in organized political protests.

It's one thing to introduce discussion of issues in a classroom. It's quite another to require or expect kids in your charge to be *participants* on one side or the other of a politically or socially charged question.

It's the expectation of participation, whether whole-hearted or just going through the motions, that makes this analogous to school prayer, and is why I'm also against organized, school sanctioned prayer in schools.

If kids want to pray, they can find a quiet spot and pray. They should neither be expected to, or prevented from, doing so.

If kids want to participate in a protest, they should go for it. The school should neither expect them to, nor prevent them from, doing so.

Kids look to adults for direction. What, to an adult, would not feel like coercion at all, may well feel like exactly that to a kid.

That's how it looks to me. I'm in the hilzoy/Yomtov camp.

Thanks -

I want to point out that socratic e up above has a very good point. I read that story this morning on jack and jill and was very disturbed by it, but (and apologies to the original poster there) I don't think we can take that poster's viewpoint on her teacher's real intentions as gospel. Her own account is very confused and wanders up and down the register of attributions of motives--for instance she tells us that Chester Crocker's daughter "refused" to go on the protest and that the daughter said "its because of my dad" which lots of the readers of hte post then interpreted as the *father* having forced the girl not to go to the protest. Similarly, the poster attributes to Mr. E the naive and childish notion that he can "get" at Chester Crocker through his daughter and "Force" the father to have uncomfortable discussions with his daughter although its impossible to believe that a senior teacher at Sidwell can have been under any illusion as to the hard rock immorality of the pro-apartheid regime. In other words, you'd have had to be a fool to think that Chester Crocker and the administration he served would suddenly bang themselves on the forehead and say "wow! apartheid is really wrong! lets do something about it!" as the result of one or two teary conversations with a thirteen year old child over dinner.

There is obviously nothing wrong with a private school organizing protests or other social actions for their students. My kids belong to such a school and the kids get organized and organize themselves to do lots of things that the parent body, as a whole, endorse when they send their kids to such a school. Just as some schools wouldn't be caught dead organizing a protest of a government action but think it normal for their kids to go to a sock hop or organize a ski trip.

That being said--that the Jack and Jill writer is an unreliable narrator as to the true intentions and even the actual actions of Mr. E. I would be shocked and disgusted if any teacher went out of his or her way to make a single child uncomfortable *in order to attack or distress that child's parent.* That is simply unacceptable. The child is in the care of the teacher and it is not only folly for the teacher to concern himself with the parent's out of school business but it is incredibly cruel. It treats the student, with whom the teacher has a serious trust relationship, as a means and not an end in herself. And its utterly counterproductive. I'm not advocating that no uncomfortable lessons be taught to the children of bigots. But the lesson has to be worth teaching to all the kids, equally, for its sake and for their sake regardless of the imagined position of the parents. So if its the school's practice for apartheid to be taught in a history class or a social studies or other class then it has to be taught regardless of parental discomfort. But if Mr. E was teaching it as a personal vendetta against a student and her father in a class where it was not the rightful subject matter then I think he and the school were at fault. (I've got no beef with his organizing things afterschool, or on a voluntary basis, even if his subject were chemistry or mathematics).

aimai

Given now_what's prior comments on how he treats dinner guests, and his current comments on how he treats other people's children, he must have one hell of a great social life.

A teacher leads a discussion about abortion and then has 13 year old kids attend a pro-life rally in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic. One of the girls has as a parent a high level member of NARAL.

You're totally ok with this right?

Happens most every day in Catholic schools. Permission slips, Seb, permission slips.

I'm in awe of the apartheid equals abortion argument, though.


My take on it is this: Crocker didn't really "approve" of apartheid. It was just that "constructive engagement" was a policy that most people who opposed apartheid didn't think was as "constructive" as he did. As a government official, it presented problems for him and his mission if he allowed his minor child to protest a country's policies that he was trying to influence by other means. Thus, if he had explained to his child that apartheid is indeed wrong, and protesting it would normally be okay, but in this case it wasn't, because it might interfere with what he was trying to accomplish (the same thing but through different means), then she should not have felt bad about being excluded (or she might have, but it wouldn't have necessarily been an unforgivable situation).

The question was, are YOU ok with this? Not, does it ever happen. Torture happens every day, am I to interpret your response as "I'm ok with that?"

I also don't think that in fact teachers regularly take kids to anti-abortion protests as a part of the lesson plan even at Catholic schools very often but that is a different point.

Sebastian: A teacher leads a discussion about abortion and then has 13 year old kids attend a pro-life rally in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic. One of the girls has as a parent a high level member of NARAL.

I'm fine with it, Sebastian:

If the discussion about abortion is a *real discussion*, not just an opportunity for the teacher to tell the girls how they ought to be glad to be used as incubators and abortion is Teh Evil. I came to the conclusion that forced pregnancy is always wrong when I was 15 or 16, and I'd already heard from a bunch of pro-life campaigners - including one classroom guest speaker who handed out those popular pics of "butchered fetuses". I'm absolutely fine with teenagers getting to discuss real issues, in a structured, classroom situation. (Showing "both sides" of the moral argument would probably have been useful in the South African discussion, though asking Rennie's dad along to give a presentation on why he believes it's good for the US to keep black people in South Africa subjugated and denied basic rights, would probably have been even more hurtful for Rennie.)

And if, besides attending the pro-life rally outside Planned Parenthood, the students also get to attend a meeting of Planned Parenthood volunteers and hear about the patients who got harassed by the rally even though they were going in for their regular checkup, or to collect their birth control prescription, that sounds like a balanced, informative day out.

I'm pro-choice, Sebastian. I believe people - even teenagers! - should get to be informed about the issues and make their own decisions.

I always felt sorry for the children of fundies when their parents refused to let them attend sex-ed classes. Or refused permission to go to museums with big dino bones. Or anything that challenged that parent's beliefs.

I think Jill took a bit too far. Dude was a black teacher? Who was educated and interested in the world? Heh. I seriously doubt he wanted to do anything more than *reach* the kid, not exclude her.

Maybe you guys don't remember it, but Ronald Reagan's South Africa policy was every degree of morally reprehensible. Not only for what went on in South Africa and Savimbi, but most of the other countries in Southern Africa. And I haven't even started about the whole nuclear thing...There wouldn't have been something anyone would been able to defend, and Rennie would have already felt excluded before the field trip.

Also, I support the idea of political field trips. If the class really wanted to go? Absolutely! Children and teens absolutely hate being powerless, and one of the central failures of American educational policy is the inability to teach some notion of civic behavior. If we could get out and riot and protest like the French do, we would have a much healthier democracy!

The wringing of hands in the thoughts here feels a little like SCLM doing its best to make democratics as bad as republicans, really! Civility is so much more murky than the forms of politness.


I second everything that byrningman says. I think he's absolutely right on every point. Right and wrong matter, but the larger outcomes, i.e. things on a national scale matter more than things on small scale. And I think it's awfully presumptous to assume everything is about you, or in this case to believe the account that this was a scheme on the part of Mr. E to get at this guy through his daughter.

I think that the teacher used very bad judgement.

The bad judgement came when the protest became a class activity. He had any number of options that he could have chosen that didnot have the effect of humiliating one of his students.

1. Notify the class of the protest and leave it entirely up to individual students to speak with their parents and decided to attend or not.

2. Assign the class to write letters to the editor stating their own conclusions, while making sure that the grading was on mechanics, organization, clarity and support, not on the opinion expressed.

3. Invite Mr. Corker to speak. ( I'd ask his daughter how she felt about this first).

4. Find a speaker of note other than mr. Corker to represent his prespective if Mr. Corker was not available or his daughter didn't want her dad in class.

Any how the point is I'm with hilzoy: he had no business managing his class in such a way that it had the effect of making one of his students feel that she could not in good conscience participate in a classroom activity.

BTW there are time when it is appropriate to disagree with a student or to teachsomething the student does not believe. A science teacher, for example, is under an obligation to teach eveolution, not creationism, regardless of how students feel about it. Just because a student is a Republican is no reason to pretend that Iraq had WMD's or a connection to the 911 terrorist. Nethertheless the disagreement needs to be done politely and respectfully and the student should not be put in the position of being publically ostricized or alienated.

I see a lot of comments that are basically riffs on "the end justifies the means" while pointing out how awful the Apartheid was awful. This neglects a fairly significant point that Kant made along with that ends and means discussion. People must never be treated as means. Part of their basic humanity means that they should not be treated as mere objects to be manipulated. Treating a person as a means to an end entails a total disregard for any ends they might themselves have.

Jes,

You just added a whole bunch of stipulations to Sebastian's hypothetical that have no corollary in the situation hilzoy presented. I think this is actually Seb's point. At the point they participated in a rally, it isn't clear that there is an educational mission at all. The balance that you inject into Sebastian's example is vital for it to seem fair. It's absence in the Apartheid example is telling.

"If the discussion about abortion is a *real discussion*, not just an opportunity for the teacher to tell the girls how they ought to be glad to be used as incubators and abortion is Teh Evil."

Was there a 'real' discussion about how engagement might be a more constructive policy for Cuba/South Africa than embargo?

I don't see any evidence of that.

You have to change the whole tenor of the class discussion in order to get to 'yes'. So I'll take that as a 'no'.

Socratic_me: The balance that you inject into Sebastian's example is vital for it to seem fair. It's absence in the Apartheid example is telling.

But telling of what?

Although I don't agree with pro-lifers, you could readily find people to make their case in a way suitable for a classroom discussion. Likewise, you could readily find people to make the pro-choice case. Probably there would be a range of opinions across the classroom, from pro-life to pro-choice. It would be the teacher's responsibility to hold the balance, to ensure that all the girls' opinions could be freely expressed, that the kids would learn the practice of civil debate. (This didn't happen in my school, about 25-30 years ago: we got the pro-lifer who handed out fetus pics, and at a separate session we got the doctor from the local Brooke Advisory Centre - the British equivalent of Planned Parenthood, I guess, specifically for teenagers.)

In order to have such a balanced debate on South Africa, there would need to be a contingent of students in the classroom who supported apartheid. Would you get them?

Even Rennie, from Jill's account, didn't positively think apartheid was a good thing. Did any of the kids? Ought some of them to have been forced to argue the case for apartheid in order to have a "balanced" debate?

Mr. E's motives are certainly in doubt, but his lack of sensitivity is clear.

Oh geez, there has been far, far too much concern about being sensitive to extemely powerful people's feelings. From Scooter Libby not having to do jail time because people are critizising him and that punishment enough to the fact the we must overlook torture and war crimes because their hearts were in the right place and they were just trying their best, now look at all the awful things those hippies are saying about Cheney and Rumsfeld.

Given typical criminal sentences for law breaking (have seen people do more time for sassing back to a cop than Scooter Libby) I am really unsympathetic to the idea that the powerful must endure pubic criticism and that is surely enough punishment.

I do admit the fact that it involved Crooker's kid makes some difference, but I can't disagree with now_what above that the children of wealth and priviledge, more than anyone else, should have to learn how the sausage is made.

Brilliant post, Hilzoy.

It's one thing to introduce discussion of issues in a classroom. It's quite another to require or expect kids in your charge to be *participants* on one side or the other of a politically or socially charged question.

In the general case I wholeheartedly agree with this, and regard behavior like that of Mr. E to be inappropriate and insensitive regardless of intent. And if his purpose was to lean on Crocker via his daughter then I agree that this was reprehensible, for the exact same reasons hilzoy gives.

However.

This is an expensive private school run by Quakers. Parents choose to send their children there. If you send your children to a Catholic school you might reasonably expect them to participate in pro-life activities, and be exposed to stronger arguments against abortion than in favor of choice. If you sent your child to a Jewish school you might reasonably expect them to participate in pro-Israel activities and be exposed to stronger arguments favoring the continued occupation of the occupied territories than opposing it. Etc...

So under the circumstances I don't see how being sympathetic to 13-year old Rennie Crocker requires us to also condemn Mr. E. Unless of course we have some additional insight into the question of intent. Basing intent on an adult's recollection of a childhood event strikes me as, yeah, mindreading.

Also it's not clear (at least to me) why Rennie couldn't participate in the protest. It doesn't sound as though she disagreed on merits. It sounds like her dad wouldn't sign the permission slip. Why not? Because it would be too embarrassing to have his daughter protest his actions? Because he didn't think that she should be adopting views that differed from his? Why should we absolve the parent from responsibility for having placed his daughter in this bind, when it was a bind that he might reasonably have expected her to encounter?

Sebastian: Was there a 'real' discussion about how engagement might be a more constructive policy for Cuba/South Africa than embargo?

You could have a real discussion about how outright evil such as apartheid can best be opposed by economic embargo (as it proved) but differences of political opinion, such as Communist Cuba versus capitalist US, are best opposed by engagement.

But in order to have that, you have to have a range of views across the class. Apartheid is one of those issues it's very hard to find a range of views on with idealistic teenagers... especially in a racially mixed class with a black teacher, I would guess.

No, it's that no one, regardless of position, should be exposed to selective injustice in the classroom

She was exposed to selective injustice just by being in that private classroom with its 4:1 student/faculty ratio and tuition of around 100% of the median worker's wages. The only difference is that one exposure to selective injustice benefited her, and one made her have to sulk around alone in a classroom for an afternoon. So what? I'm sure the students at DC public schools in the 80s were well aware of being exposed to "selective injustice" at an early age, why shouldn't she be? And if the "injustice" is that you can't participate in an activity because your family is carrying out racist policies to gain power and profit, where exactly is the greatest injustice being done?

...

It's quite another to require or expect kids in your charge to be *participants* on one side or the other of a politically or socially charged question

If you're a Quaker, it's a religious question. Don't send your kids to private religious schools if you don't believe in the religion being espoused and you shouldn't run into such problems.

Otherwise take the parts you like along with the parts you don't, the same as working class non-Catholics who send their kids to private Catholic schools do.

One further comment: It's worth pointing out that Constructive Engagement was a completely ineffective policy that harmed American interests in the region and globally. As FA put it at the time (I just Googled it): "Having been offered many carrots by the United States over a period of four-and-a-half years as incentives to institute meaningful reforms, the South African authorities had simply made a carrot stew and eaten it." And meaningful reform was critical: even leaving aside the human rights element, the white minority government was fragile. Worse, they had nukes. There were nuts in the white government who would have used those nukes against the black majority population. ("There's danger in a desperate man / watch yourself, I'm panicking.") Propping them up (along with Ian Smith of Zimbabwe) was almost certain to make things worth. Even if there had been a takeover by the ANC, and even if it was peaceful, would Mandela have emerged as the new leader of South Africa under this alternate history? He was in jail at the time, and a way was paved for him by the reforms that (finally) were enacted. If not he, who? Not everyone in the ANC and opposition groups was an angel (imagine a nuclear-armed, USSR-supported, Mugabe-style thugocracy .... and you start to see the problem).

I could go on and on, but Crocker's policy was equal parts stupid and immoral. None of it, however, justifies a teacher treating his daughter as a tool. (Assuming, of course, that Jill's assessment of Mr. E's motive is correct.)

And shame on Jill as well for applauding "Mr. E's" lapse.

Was there a 'real' discussion about how engagement might be a more constructive policy for Cuba/South Africa than embargo?

I think you're going too far here, Seb. You don't know that 'Constructive Engagement' wasn't cited in class; you're prejudging the argument for it as being worthwhile or lengthy. Sure, there was *an* argument for it, but that doesn't mean it was a good argument, or an in-depth one. It was. in fact, a self-dealing opinion pretending to be an argument, AFAIC. I am very tired of 'debates' which never end, because one side doesn't actually want anything resolved or decided. Abortion itself is exemplary of this.

What, to an adult, would not feel like coercion at all, may well feel like exactly that to a kid.

Very good point here, russell. I'd say that what it feels like to the kid may not be what we would call 'coercion' exactly, but rather more like taking advantage of impressionability - an adult often gives direction even when they don't explicitly mean to do so. Just a restate...

And shame on Jill as well for applauding "Mr. E's" lapse.

Hmmm, a minority student on a scholarship in a privileged white environment has warm memories about a perhaps solitary minority teacher from a time 30 years in the past and she needs to be shamed? Of course, in the drama, this is where the lawyer brings the witness to testify under oath and leaves her sobbing in the box by either
a) forcing her to recant her interpretation because it is logically inconsistent or

b)forcing her to admit that Mr E is actually an intolerant idealogue who is just using the kids to foster his dreams of power.

How this is used would depend on if the person in question is a hero or a villian.

She was exposed to selective injustice just by being in that private classroom with its 4:1 student/faculty ratio and tuition of around 100% of the median worker's wages

That's just awful. Whatever shall we do? Maybe a law ought to be passed to prevent such injustices from being perpetrated.

The ratio is more like 10:1, actually, but that's just quibbling over petty realities. I'm getting a slightly better ratio than that right now with my older kid, for a great deal less money, but again: petty realities.

I agree with socratic_me's 12:46 comment that this case nicely illustrates kant's point about not using people merely as a means to one's own ends. And I gather that hilzoy's point is that Rennie was wronged because she was used as a means of getting to her father, and not because she was made to feel ostracized.

To see this, suppose Rennie saw her situation as a golden opportunity to rebel, and she let her father have it when he refused to let her go on the trip. When she told the other kids what she said to her father, they supported her, saying 'Way to go!' and 'Stick it to him!' In this case, she would not have been ostracized, nor would she have felt isolated from her classmates. But (assuming a certain intent on the part of her teacher) she still would have been used as a means, and her teenage desire for rebellion would have been used as a tool to manipulate her. So she still would have been wronged.

On the other hand, suppose that the class never went on a trip to protest, so that Rennie never had to speak to her father about what was discussed in class. In that case, she would not have been used as a means, and so not necessarily wronged (on the kant's and, I think, hilzoy's view). This is so even if Rennie nevertheless felt isolated or ostracized because the other students were strongly opposed to her father's views.

In short, she was wronged because she was used, not (necessarily) because she felt ostracized or put on the spot. (Of course this doesn't mean that it is ok to ostracize people or put them on the spot. It just means that doing so is not always wrong.)

Once this point becomes clear, it is obvious why, for example, now_what's lack of sympathy with Rennie's feelings is beside the point: she would have been wronged even if she felt fine. (Similarly, while one might reasonably feel sympathy with hilzoy's students when they were called out for misusing words, one should not therefore judge that they were wronged.)

You could have a real discussion about how outright evil such as apartheid can best be opposed by economic embargo (as it proved) but differences of political opinion, such as Communist Cuba versus capitalist US, are best opposed by engagement.

Uh, not that I don't agree that the Cuban embargo is rank stupidity, but I think that, healthcare and hurricane warnings aside, Castro's Cuba certainly is a bit closer to the "outright evil" side of the scale than you're granting here.

I'm pro-choice, Sebastian. I believe people - even teenagers! - should get to be informed about the issues and make their own decisions.

And how are they 'making their own decisions' if the protest is planned, directed and executed by their teacher? That's what baffles me here; that many posters do not seem to understand that this is a classroom we're talking about, not a social club. High school students are not free to ignore or argue with their teacher's dictates in a way that they are with their friends, or even in the way that college students might argue with their professor.

(And, has been pointed out, this is of course a discussion assuming that Jill's interpretation is correct.)

Actually, and I know this is well off topic, but is there a really good case for an effective embargo of South Africa circa 1980 that doesn't run against all the standard arguments against the Cuban embargo being effective?

It seems that most of the modern arguments about why the Cuban embargo was so ineffective and counterproductive would argue that an embargo of South Africa (which is much better positioned to be self-sufficient than Cuba) would be counterproductive and unhelpful.

And when did the Reagan policy change? I'm sketchy on the details, but was there an effective embargo right after that? The secret talks between the NP and Mandela and the ANC began in 1986. The ANC was unbanned in early 1990. Was the Bush I policy dramatically different? Are we to believe that the weaker European embargo of South Africa was more effective than the stronger US embargo of Cuba?

The ratio is more like 10:1, actually, but that's just quibbling over petty realities.

1091 students and 250 faculty. How do you get 10:1? Even the student/classroom teacher (not faculty) ratio is 7 point something to 1.

What is it in the DC public schools?

That's just awful. Whatever shall we do?

In other words, you only seem to care about selective injustice in selected instances, which so far, only involve the injustice of poor little rich kids having to face how they got to be poor little rich kids.

Maybe I'm misreading you, in which case feel free to explain what you mean by, "That's just awful. Whatever shall we do"?

Hmmm, a minority student on a scholarship in a privileged white environment has warm memories about a perhaps solitary minority teacher from a time 30 years in the past and she needs to be shamed?

LJ, that's a wonderful rejoinder - just not to my point. Jill isn't relating here warm memories of a perhaps solitary minority teacher from a time 25 or so years in the past. She's lauding a particular act as praiseworthy when it's not praiseworthy at all -- indeed, it's downright wrong. (Assuming Jill's interpretation/memory is correct.)

We will probably nevery know what was in Mr. E's mind or what he intended. We do know what's in Jill's mind, however.

Actually, and I know this is well off topic, but is there a really good case for an effective embargo of South Africa circa 1980 that doesn't run against all the standard arguments against the Cuban embargo being effective?

The Cuban embargo is flawed because it is essentially implemented by a single state (US).* By comparison, constructive engagement required us to block a UN embargo and continue to trade with SA as if all was well. Effectively, Crocker committed us to a policy of all spoils, no rod. The policy was ended (over Reagan's veto) in the mid-80s; shortly thereafter, South Africa started to reform. With a (small) assist from GB, we were literally the only ones holding the process up.

Crocker deserves to be condemned for this idiotic policy. But that doesn't justify Mr. E treating his daughter like a pawn or Jill finding such a thing praiseworthy.

*Embargos work.... it's the as-implemented Cuban embargo that doesn't work.

How do you get 10:1?

10 students per advisor. Although the student-to-teacher ratio for the school is given as just under 7.9, that's for the whole school, and doesn't seem to match up with their stated class ratios that run up to 16:1 in some grades.

In other words, you only seem to care about selective injustice in selected instances, which so far, only involve the injustice of poor little rich kids having to face how they got to be poor little rich kids.

I don't see any injustice at all in them being rich, is all. Certainly I don't see the justice in doling out misery in some effort to balance out inequity as you see it.

Which should answer your next question, as well.

And y'know, I had just been thinking that it was a little sad how some of the previous auto bailout post discussions here were (for the most part) so predictably working out along partisan lines . . .

" He was sorry she was uncomfortable, but he didn't feel right *not* teaching about the issue just because one of the students' parents was involved in the politics. .. . Should he have deliberately avoided the topic, given Rennie's presence in his class? Maybe. But I wouldn't say so."

Again, I'm not seeing that this is the issue, either in hilzoy's post or in Jill's - as presented there, we only get an indication that things got kinda toxic (whatever the intention) in regards to the protest (how accurate long-ago perception was . . {Shrug})

Anyway, I think the real question here is whether now_what serves other people's childrens to visiting vegetarians . . .

I'm trying to refresh my really sketchy memory on the SA embargo and all I can come up with is the UN arms embargo. I would have sworn there was some sort of general trade thing but I can't find anything on it.

The Cuban embargo is flawed because it is essentially implemented by a single state (US).* . . . *Embargos work.... it's the as-implemented Cuban embargo that doesn't work.

Actually, as a general rule I don't think "embargos work" is at all true, as it depends entirely on what it is you hope to accomplish. What goal exactly is it that you think could be -- or, in any case, could have been -- achieved in Cuba via a "properly implemented" embargo? Westernization? The abandonment of Communism? A revolution in reverse? Castro ceding power?

And maybe then you can also explain how the American oil embargo against the Japanese pre-WWII "worked."

I'm trying to refresh my really sketchy memory on the SA embargo and all I can come up with is the UN arms embargo. I would have sworn there was some sort of general trade thing but I can't find anything on it.

There was an attempt for a UN, IIRC, blocked by the US in the SC.

Phil, you're way off topic here, but, for clarity: I am not endorsing any form of the Cuban embargo. The example of the Japanese embargo actually proves my point, in that even a limited US embargo drastically changed Japanese behavior (not in a positive way, mind you, but there's no denying the subsequent invasions and alliances). When I say that embargos "work," I mean a proper embargo has direct and substantial effects on the embargoee's behavior.

"I'm trying to refresh my really sketchy memory on the SA embargo and all I can come up with is the UN arms embargo. I would have sworn there was some sort of general trade thing but I can't find anything on it.

There was an attempt for a UN, IIRC, blocked by the US in the SC."

Right, so was there ever an actual effective embargo against SA?

Jill isn't relating here warm memories of a perhaps solitary minority teacher from a time 25 or so years in the past. She's lauding a particular act as praiseworthy when it's not praiseworthy at all -- indeed, it's downright wrong.

She's relating an incident in her childhood to try and give people a better idea of Sidwell is going to be like for the Obamas. She may be guilty of insufficent reflection and if I had a relationship (and that could be through a blog or whatever), I might explore that. I'd certainly try to get more information to understand the exact dynnamic. You feel that she should be shamed. When hilzoy moves this to the realm of hypothetical, I've got no problem with accepting this as wrong. When you are dealing with someone's memories, I prefer to have a lot more information before I would rush to judgement. In fact, the notion of 'shaming' pretty much precisely the social mechanism at issue here. When we construct the hypothetical, we can fully stipulate all the points. When we move it to someone's actual life, I do think that caution is in order. As someone who is pretty guarded about his personal life (and I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with this, I am simply juxtaposing it here), surely you can see the problem?

Right, so was there ever an actual effective embargo against SA?

The sports embargo, where SA was unable to compete in international sports, seemed to be a very effective form of pressure.

Ben Alpers: In the particular case at hand, I do wonder what the Quaker teaching would be. On the one hand, the Society of Friends would undoubtedly have opposed the Reagan policy of "constructive engagement." On the other hand, my understanding of Quakerism is that it puts a huge emphasis on the awakening of the individual consciousness. Using the coercive power of the teacher-student relationship (or even the peer-pressure of a classroom situation) to encourage participation in a protest during school time doesn't feel really Quaker to me.

Donald Johnson: I don't actually know if arranging protests is normal in a Quaker school.

Things may certainly have changed since the 1960s, but when I was attending a Quaker school, any and all protest of societal injustice was organized outside the classroom, with no official sanction.

It would have been considered very un-Quaker to organize something like an anti-Viet Nam war protest inside the classroom, even as a class-instigated project (which would have met with enthusiastic participation), because of Friends' beliefs about the importance of discernment about internal "leadings" and the working of the inner light.

Folks are raising a lot of interesting points here, but to my mind the basic question hilzoy raises is kind of a no-brainer.

Rennie Crocker wasn't responsible for her father's career or political point of view. She wasn't responsible for the fact that South Africa was an oppressive government. She wasn't responsible for the fact that she lived a privileged life.

There is, in fact, nothing wrong with living a privileged life, assuming it's not coming at the expense of other people. We should all be so lucky.

Rennie Crocker was a kid going to middle school.

It's great for kids to be exposed to lots of different points of view in school. It's great for teachers to get their students to engage in debate about important issues, particularly as they enter later grades and approach adulthood.

But kids should not be expected or required to participate in activities that are problematic for them as part of going to school.

I have no idea if Mr. E had any intention of sticking it to Crocker through his kid or not. If he did, that was a really wrong thing to do.

But even short of that, I don't think it's a good idea for schools to be asking kids to participate in *advocacy* for controversial issues.

And for those areas where it's unavoidable -- teaching evolution, for example -- schools should make a point of respecting the point of view of kids for whom the content is problematic.

It's one thing to discuss apartheid in class. It's another to expect kids to participate in a demonstration against it.

In this particular example, I note that Sidwell is a Quaker school, and that the Quakers have a very long history of political and social activism, so perhaps Mr. E was doing nothing more than what was the norm for Sidwell. Certainly in other contexts, however, I'd say it was inappropriate.

Leave the kids alone. They have enough on their plate without getting recruited into everybody else's agendas.

Thanks -

Great post about what constitutes a good learning environment, socratic_me.

Re: "Indeed, the reason that the environment must be fair is so that a student can be pushed to develop ideas through challenge and debate."

As a small exmaple, I am helping my fourth-grade son right now with his homework on the American Revolution. He knew the answer to who deserted the colonial cause -- after he asked me what the word "deserted" meant. Then I made some mention about, growing up as a kid, you never wanted to be called a Benedict Arnold. As usual, he one-upped me and told me in class he told the teacher that while we consider Arnold a traitor, the British must have felt he was a hero; just as, he noted, in the eyes of the British, George Washington was a Benedict Arnold.

Having never thought that way at his age it made me see what a much more free-thinking environment he learns in than I did -- that and I thank God he is in a charter school.

---

Hilzoy: Seeing how you are a college professor -- and seeing how you read your students' mistakes without attribution -- I must say they seem way too sensitive and, in the end, are better for what you did.

It seems that this spelling problem is a product of laziness and is rooted at the elementary level: At Danny's parent-teacher conference last week, I told his teacher I was aghast at what a horrible speller he is for such a smart boy. This otherwise terrific young teacher said something about how it's acceptable nowadays as long as the word "looks right," what with spellcheck and all. Spellcheck.

---

Jes: When we were in school, I don't think we ever were properly informed about birth control, much less abortion. I hope it is better today. But Sebastian's example of the teacher taking her students to a pro-life rally strikes me as forced advocacy and something I'd think would get the teacher fired. I think Seb's example was used 13- and 14-year-olds, who, obviously, are old enough to have sex -- not old enough, I wonder, to have a fully formed opinion on abortion. (Which isn't to say I would be against a 13- or 14-year-old girl having an abortion.)

I should clarify that there were frequent protests against the Viet Nam war organized out of the nearby Friends Meeting, and those who joined those nearly weekly vigils of their own volition found senior members of the faculty and administration among the silent, prayerful protesters.

But we found our own way there; there was no recruitment by those same faculty and administrators.

I have been reading this thread all day at work wanting to make a comment, but my computer at work doesn't let me post comments. So, I come home and many of my comments are already stated.

Basically, as usual, I agree with russell's recent comment and want to give a little story.

My son teaches American History at a private Catholic College Prep HS in Chicago, Obviously, a lot of discussions in his classes this fall revolved around the election. FWIW, he was an Obama supporter. However, several of his students come from rather wealthy families and some of them were quite upfront about their negative feelings about Obama.

He challenged them, not by telling them they were wrong, but by asking them to come to class with actual evidence supporting some of their views. He then critiqued the evidence they produced, whether it be by talking about the source of the evidence, or the interpretation of what they had read or heard.

His point was not to get them to change their opinions, but to make them learn to think and assess information they received with a critical eye. He did the same thing for some of the loudest Obama supporters.

The telling point came when after the election he was told by some students that they knew he supported Obama, by others that they knew he supported McCain and by others that they didn't have any idea who he supported.

I know I am biased, but I think this is a mark of a good teacher, to get students to think critically without interjecting him/herself too much into the process.

Additionally, although a Catholic school which does have daily Mass and which prays for the unborn, they do not promote pro-life activities in the community, but leave those activities up to the individual students through their social activities which may or may not have school sponsorship or through their own churches.

john miller: You should be biased. Your son is the kind of teacher I'd want mine to have. Too many kids seem to support a candidate because it's who their parents support or because "it's cool." (My son was always upset at me that I was pulling for Hillary over Obama in the primaries.)

Phil, you're way off topic here, but, for clarity: I am not endorsing any form of the Cuban embargo.

1. I'm not off topic - you brought it up. Don't bring things up if you don't want people to talk about them. Besides, Gary Farber is the official Thread Cop, not you.

2. I didn't ask whether or not you endorsed any form of Cuban embargo. I asked what "work" you think would have been done by a properly-implemented one.

In 1986, the UN Security Council finally recommended to the member states of the United Nations that they “prohibit the export to South Africa of items which they have reason to believe are destined for the military and/or police forces of South Africa”.

I was 19 then, and to my recollection, the voluntary consumer boycott of South African produce and businesses had been going on for at least five or six years. - And of course continued till 1990 (or 1994, depending what a purist you were). It still feels like current events to me - but I suppose to many people reading this, it's history.

I recall specifically that Barclays Bank disinvested in South Africa in the 1980s because it had become clear to them that they were losing business as a result.

Rennie was doomed to an uncomfortable classroom experience from the moment apartheid was raised as an issue in that class. According to Jill, the students were thrilled to participate in a class protest.

If Mr. E planned to make Rennie uncomfortable, then he was abusing his authority. If that was not his intent then I don't necessarily think there was a problem. His approach may not fit a particular model of what a good teacher should be like (someone who keeps his opinions to himself) , but then maybe not every good teacher has to fit that model. A teacher should be respectful to the students who disagree with him, but I'd need further information before I could conclude that Mr. E was disrespectful to Rennie.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Blog powered by Typepad