May 25, 2019

The Latest Schoolhouse Absurdity

Old Schoolhouse near Leadville, Colorado

I recently wrote, “Contemporary discussion of social issues is filled with overgeneralization, oversimplification, selective reporting of facts, and appeals to emotion,” all of which lead to ill-considered judgments. The solution, I suggested, is to teach critical thinking in the schools, but unfortunately “many teachers have not learned how to teach [it], and those that have are often prevented from doing so by Political Correctness.”

Even as that essay was being published, a situation was unfolding that underscored my remark about Political Correctness.

The Context: On March 14, all around the U.S., thousands of students left their classes and joined marches protesting gun violence. The protests were reportedly organized by Youth Empower, a “left-wing group that [had] staged two national protests against President Trump.” Few schools objected to students’ leaving school to participate. Some, in fact, supported the choice.

The Situation: Before the protests took place, Julianne Benzel, a history teacher at Rocklin high school in California, had her students discuss the wisdom of allowing students to leave school for a political demonstration without penalty. In the course of the discussion, she asked whether granting permission for one demonstration would open the door to permission for other demonstrations—for example, a protest against abortion. She asked, would fairness require equal treatment in both cases? Benzel found the subsequent discussion meaningful for students.

The school’s administrators disagreed. Their response was to put Benzel on unpaid leave for two days because, they said, some parents and students complained about the classroom discussion. (Benzel said she knows of a total of three complaints, two by students and one by a parent.) It is not completely clear whether the individuals were complaining about the hypothetical mention of abortion, or about Benzel’s having students discuss the school’s decision about the march, or both.

Let’s consider what happened more closely.

What is Benzel paid to teach? History.

What do historians do? They analyze significant events, either from the past (MLK’s Selma to Montgomery march) or in the present (the anti-gun protest march). More specifically, they identify the historical contexts and the intended/actual consequences and then draw logical conclusions—notably whether the past event did more good than harm or whether the present event is likely to do so.

What was Benzel doing in class that day? Teaching history, and doing so on a higher plane than the all-too-common approach of having students memorize names and dates. She was instead creating for her students an experience in historical inquiry. And in the process, she was . . . GASP . . . guiding them to think critically.

The Benzel case may be summed up as follows: The school pays her to teach history. She seizes an opportunity to teach history in the most creative and meaningful way, through a lesson in critical thinking. For this the administration punishes her! (It is a good bet that the administration is fond of telling the community how much it emphasizes critical thinking. How ironic.)

What does this suggest about Benzel’s school administrators?

They seem to be so infected by Political Correctness that they can’t distinguish between a legitimate complaint and a frivolous, baseless one, so they treat every passing impression of one or more, often ignorant, complainers as proof that an offense has occurred and the perpetrator must be punished.

They seem unable to differentiate among (a) teaching students HOW to think (a desirable activity), (b) stuffing their minds full of facts (an ineffective activity), and (c) propagandizing them with the teacher’s social or political agenda (an unethical activity).

Or perhaps they can differentiate all too well and are comfortable with b and c, but frightened to death of a. Mindstuffing, after all, has been the standard operating procedure in most schools for a century despite the warnings of Edwards Deming and the efforts of the Critical Thinking Movement. And propagandizing, though more recent than mindstuffing, is not only tolerated but in many cases, approved. 

Imagine, if you will, that Ms Benzel had not led her class in a thoughtful analysis of the scheduled march but instead said, “Have a nice protest,” or took half of the history period praising the march as a example of virtuous resistance against the tyranny of the NRA, perhaps topping off her remarks by demonizing President Trump. Such a scenario is not outlandish. These days many teachers use the classroom as a platform for their political views as well as for teaching.

How would the administration have responded if Ms Benzel had taken that approach? They may not have honored her at a school assembly—that would have been a little too obvious. More likely, they would have quietly praised her. But one thing is certain: they would not have suspended her without pay. That Ms Benzel was suspended for encouraging students to think critically speaks volumes about what today passes for administrative “leadership.”

Copyright © 2018 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero