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The Democratic Educator’s Vocation: Teaching How To Think, Not What To Think

A young Social Studies educator at Overland High School in Aurora, Colorado, Jay Bennish, was suspended from his teaching position last week. This action came after excerpts from a surreptitiously recorded twenty minute segment of his geography class were played on a local ‘shock jock’ radio station, and then published on the Internet. The recording captured what was, in essence, an extended lecture on current political controversies.

In his lecture, Bennish declared the Iraqi war illegal and America the most violent nation in the world, and proclaimed that terrorism is in the eye of the beholder, especially with respect to the Israeli state. He compared George Bush to Hitler, suggested that capitalism was the source of much of what was going wrong in the world and argued that foreign nations would have the right to bomb U.S. tobacco fields because of the damage American cigarettes do to their nation’s health. At one point, he suggested that the events of 9/11 could be seen as defensive measures by Al Qaeda against attacks by American imperialism. At the conclusion of the recording, Bennish said, “I’m not in anyway implying that you should agree with me, I don’t even know if I’m necessarily taking a position. But what I’m trying to get you to do is to think about these issues more in depth and not to just take things from the surface.”
Over the last week, the story of Bennish’s lecture has spread like wildfire across far right radio and television talk shows, from Rush Limbaugh to Hannity and Colmes, and far right Internet sites, such as David Horowitz’s Frontpage Magazine. Like a plague of locusts, calls for the immediate firing of Jay Bennish descended in a great horde upon the Aurora, Colorado landscape. Although they said they had not yet made a decision to discipline Bennish, pending a full investigation, Cherry Creek school district officials preemptively suspended him, and told the Rocky Mountain Times that “it seems evident that a breach of district policy occurred regarding the balanced presentation of sensitive material” had taken place in Bennish’s class. In a state with a modified ‘right to work’ law, Bennish chose to not be a member of the Colorado Education Association, which represents the public school teachers in Aurora, so he will not have union representation. He has hired David Lane, a lawyer who also is defending infamous University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill, and Lane is arguing that Bennish’s classrooms statements are protected First Amendment speech. Lane has made a point of the fact that Bennish is neither a Democrat nor a union member.
In response to the suspension of Bennish, approximately 100 of his students organized a walkout. “I think [Bennish] inspires many students and is a great teacher,” one student told a local television station. He has also garnered support on the left side of blogosphere, as seen in these posts by Richard Myers on the widely read TPMCafe and Michael Yates on the Monthly Review blog.
But the Bennish case is far more complicated than the simple white hat, black hat morality tales of Myers and Yates. Yes, Bennish must have his due process rights protected, and if it is found, after a full and proper investigation, that his class lecture was a violation of district policy, and more importantly, part of a pattern of departures from good teaching practice, the penalty that is levied should be commensurate with a first time finding of this nature. Suspension, let alone dismissal, seems disproportionate, especially when it is enacted prior to the actual investigation in a jurisprudence of ‘punishment before trial.’ A letter in the file, with specific instructions on appropriate pedagogy and on the handling of controversial issues in the classroom, would be more fitting. And yes, it is apparent that the furor around the Bennish case and his preemptive suspension is having a chilling effect on the willingness of Colorado teachers to address controversial issues in the classroom – as the Limbaughs, the Hannitys, the Colmes and the Horowitzes intend.
But it remains the case that there are quite troubling aspects of the Bennish case. The problem is not Bennish’s politics in themselves, although it is my view, as someone from the democratic left, that a number of the views Bennish expressed in his lecture are specimens of the sort of conspiracy theorizing the distinguished historian Richard Hofstadter described as the “paranoid style” in American politics. Nonetheless, the guiding principle here should be the civil libertarian logic that an educator should not be judged on his or her personal views, however unpopular, irrational or even obnoxious those views might be, but on his or her classroom performance.
Just like a teacher’s religious beliefs, a teacher’s politics should not be an issue, because a teacher should not be proselytizing in the classroom: education is not indoctrination, and knowledge is not acquired via propaganda. If it is the case that a teacher should not be presenting a one-sided lecture on the truth of creationism or a one-sided lecture in support of the war in Iraq, then it must also be the case that a teacher should not be delivering a one-sided lecture on the evils of religious fundamentalism or a one sided lecture condemning all of American foreign policy. This is precisely what separates us from the Limbaughs, the Hannitys, the Colmes, and the Horowitzes, as well as from their equivalents on the far left. They all have no objection to one sided harangues; indeed, they thrive on them – so long as the views being presented are their own.
So the problems lie in Bennish’s actual classroom performance, for at least the twenty minutes we are able to hear it on that recording. [One of the reasons why an actual investigation is required in the Bennish case is that is unclear how representative this twenty minutes, which was selected by a student with a rather obvious agenda, is of the entire teaching period, much less of Bennish’s geography instruction more generally. For purposes of discussing the public debate around the Bennish case, however, we do not need to reach a conclusion on that question.] What is problematic in that performance?
In a tradition that can trace its roots to Socrates, pedagogically sound teaching focuses on questions and on dialogue, not on answers and on lectures – learning takes place in a process of inquiry. Through carefully crafted questions, the student is challenged to think through the issues under discussion, and to develop and express their own reasoned opinions, with supporting evidence, on the subject. An accomplished teacher is a mentor, guiding his or her students through the development of the tools and the habits of reflective thought. In a phrase, a good education teaches students how to think, not what to think. There is precious little evidence of this approach in the twenty minute recording of Bennish’s class.
Take the issue of the legality of the Iraq War. Rather than issuing ex cathedra pronouncements on the subject, as Bennish did, or avoiding it altogether as “too controversial,” a Social Studies teacher should be guiding students through an examination of the analytical framework for deciding such a question, one way or another. Students should grapple with ‘just war’ theory, and the conditions it lays down for a war to be just, should scrutinize the main tenets of the body of international law that was built on the foundation of just war theory and out of the experience of World War II [the Nuremburg and Tokyo Trials], and should study the institutional apparatuses, especially in the United Nations, that were developed in the latter half of the twentieth century to provide legal mechanisms for resolving international disputes. With this knowledge in place [and there is nothing there that can not be translated into terms readily understandable by the high school students in Bennish’s class], and with an examination of the events leading up to the Iraq War, students will be able to develop their own thoughtful, reasoned views on the legality of the Iraq War.
None of the above approach is inconsistent with a teacher holding strongly felt views on the question, and even expressing those views, along with others, in the classroom. But it does require that the teacher embrace what one might call the first tenet of a democratic civic faith – that, when provided with the full information and the tools of logical analysis and rational reflection, the great mass of students [and people] will reach the correct conclusion. This is so because democratic politics rests, in the final analysis, upon democratic education, and because the practice of sound pedagogy is not all that different than the practice of democratic politics. Indeed, one can say that the resort to lecturing, proselytizing and indoctrination which defines both poor pedagogy and authoritarian politics is symptomatic of a lack of confidence in the intrinsic persuasive power of one’s political beliefs. For what else can explain the sentiment that it is necessary to direct students to the “politically correct conclusion,” rather than simply empower them with the tools to find that conclusion on their own? Unfortunately, the impression one gets from listening to twenty minutes of Jay Bennish’s class is that he is far more comfortable with the former sentiment, and its compulsion to tell students what to think, than the latter view, and its imperative to teach students how to think.

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6 Comments:

  • 1 jazmine
    · Mar 6, 2006 at 7:58 pm

    Is there a movement going around to record teachers? There was a group trying to tape record UCLA courses a few months ago and now there’s this. As a social studies teacher, I agree with your point of view on teaching controversial subject, I’m just not sure it’s possible to get the nuisance across to right wing shock jocks.

  • 2 redhog
    · Mar 6, 2006 at 8:29 pm

    Leo Casey is a brilliant essayist whose insights must not be ignored by thinking people of good will. I am unfamiliar with the case he describes, except for an unsubstantiated rumor that the teacher has expressed vehement anti-Israel remarks that, if they were indeed voiced, could be reasonably viewed as coded anti-semitism. If and only if this is so, then I would favor the severest restrictive actions being imposed upon the guy.

  • 3 Michael Hirsch
    · Mar 7, 2006 at 1:38 pm

    I have to disagree with my friend Leo Casey on this one. As sensible and refreshing as much of his argument is, he’s ignoring context. The attack on Bennish is a witchhunt, and it doesn’t help in the midst of mass paranoia to call for due process and a fair witchtrial. The only decent stance one can take is to confound the hunters and call off the hunt.

    Leo is at his best in laying out a model for appropriate classroom behavior. Indeed, teaching “how” to think always trumps “what” to think, and he’s right to raise it as a consideration in a discussion that so far looks only at academic freedom. But it’s one consideration. Teachers also have the right to make mistakes, and an undue fear of not living up to Leo’s model and of succombing to the sin of indoctrination can be enough to send once-engaging and creative educators fleeing back to teach to the test. Routinism is as great a danger as is indoctrination. We can’t be teaching “what” to think–among other things it doesn’t work, except among the most sheep-like–but we can’t be teaching “how to sleep” either.

  • 4 xkaydet65
    · Mar 8, 2006 at 6:04 pm

    The issue is prosletyzing versus inquiry. When I do the run up to the Civil War and after reviewing as many primary documents, geographic realities, and economic needs, if I don’t have at least a half dozen kids ask ” Didn’t the South have a case?” then I’ve been far too one sided.

    As probably the lone conservative in the UFT I am acutely conscious of my responsibility to insure that the kids can never identify my politics by my pedagogy. Mr. Bennish should have taken the same tack, and were he my daughter’s teacher, he’d be ducking a lot more than a board hearing.

  • 5 mklonsky
    · Mar 10, 2006 at 7:02 pm

    Is anyone else stunned by a union leader and self-described member of the “democratic left” taking such a position? I wonder if Leo, or any teacher would want to be evaluated or sanctioned on the basis of a 20-minute, secretly-taped record of a single class presentation?

  • 6 Persam1197
    · Mar 10, 2006 at 7:15 pm

    As a student, it was always obvious what the political bent of my teachers were. I doubt any of us are such great actors that we can totally divorce ourselves from our beliefs. What we should be teaching our kids is how to differentiate between proven fact and opinion. I found it refreshing to hear my teachers speak honestly, even if I was in total disagreement. Hearing multiple points of views ranging from progressive to conservative helped me understand the world we live in.

    As long as we are honest about what we’re saying, I say no problem. Our students are a whole lot sharper than we give them credit. Be who you are; just don’t offer your opinions as gospel.