Tom McLaughlin

A former history teacher, Tom is a columnist who lives in Lovell, Maine. His column is published in Maine and New Hampshire newspapers and on numerous web sites. Email: tommclaughlin@fairpoint.net

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Bias in the Classroom

As a teacher who has been accused many times of conservative bias in the classroom, the stories caught my eye. Two teachers, one in Colorado and one in New Jersey, have been accused of teaching with a liberal bias during the last two weeks.

Both stories broke the same day on the Drudge Report. One teacher in Colorado, Jay Bennish, delivered a dizzying diatribe in his 10th grade world geography class that was recorded by a student using an MP3 player. The student provided the recording to a local radio talk show and it stirred up a hullaballoo. Rambling from topic to topic, Bennish claimed that capitalism was “at odds with human rights,” compared President Bush to Hitler saying there were “eerie similarities” between what Bush said in his State of the Union Address and “things that Adolph Hitler used to say,” and he claimed the United States was “probably the single most violent nation on earth.” Bennish was suspended with pay for a week pending an investigation.

The New Jersey teacher, John Kyle, taught a senior AP government class. With permission of his principal, Kyle was conducting a week-long “war crimes” trial of President Bush. Other teachers and students played roles of present and former government officials like Vice President Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld delivering different perspectives on Bush’s alleged war crimes. One “witness” is an Iraqi citizen claiming his family members were killed in a US bombing attack. Students researched their positions in preparation for the trial. Kyle’s assumption that there would be probable cause to try Bush as a war criminal seems dubious, but beyond that, his lesson plan allows for many points of view to be aired. If I taught in his school and were asked to participate, I would. Kyle’s school district has taken no action against him or his “trial.” That’s as it should be.

Anyone can listen to the MP3 recording of Bennish online. I did, and he was cranked up like a televangelist on steroids. It was obvious that Bennish believed passionately in his left-wing views. He tried to engage students, but it was mostly him. Capitalism would be a relevant theme in a world geography class in that it’s an economic system, but Bennish’s description of it was anything but balanced. Comparing Bush to Hitler and calling the US the most violent nation are questionable on their face and certainly obscure themes for a geography class. We can’t know if that 20-minute recording was representative of all Bennish’s classes, but if it was, he needs to be reigned in.

After a week-long investigation, Bennish was reinstated by school superintendent Monte Moses. “Some think Mr. Bennish should be fired. Others think he should be praised,” Moses said. “In my judgment, the answer is neither. Jay Bennish has promise as a teacher, but his practice and deportment need growth and refinement.” Fair enough. Bennish seems like a popular teacher. Several students demonstrated in his support after his suspension. Obviously an intense advocate for his views, that intensity is probably contagious in his classroom. The 28-year-old teacher promised to be more balanced in his approach to his subject.

Others students demonstrated in support of the student, Sean Allen, who recorded him. “I never wanted him fired,” Allen said. “I just wanted him to go back to teaching geography. Hopefully, he won’t be teaching the things he previously taught.”

Although Colorado’s Mr. Bennish obviously has a leftist bias, we can’t be certain about New Jersey’s Mr. Kyle, but I hope he has formed opinions about the war in Iraq. “Social studies” teachers - what we call history and geography teachers these days - should be passionate about their subjects and most of the teachers I’ve met are. If we’re thoughtful people and not robots, we’ve studied our subjects thoroughly and arrived at some conclusions about the major events in history - tentative conclusions at least. Therefore, we have biases in favor of some things and against others. We serve our students best if we disclose our biases and let them filter what we say accordingly. We’re bound to teach passionately what we believe passionately. Unless we’re talented actors, we won’t teach what we don’t believe as well. Students should be aware of that. As scholars, we must be thoroughly cognizant of arguments opposing our chosen positions and be able to articulate them competently if not compellingly.

Most complaints about me over the years have been from people who assume that I teach the same way I write, which I don’t. Nonetheless, I’ve been the subject of more than one investigation here in MSAD 72. It appears that both the Colorado and New Jersey school districts have handled their respective controversies properly and fairly. I’m happy to report that my district has handled questions about me fairly as well.

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