Friday, March 3, 2006

World Geography?


it ain't what it used to be...

This might be revealing my age, but when I took geography, I was taught geography. When I finished, I knew where things were. I could look at a map and know what and where I was looking at.

Independent of that, I had some pre-conceived notions about various nations and political systems around the world, opinions that have ebbed and flowed a tad as I've aged and gained a bit of life experience, wisdom and cynicism. My personal opinions have had some shaping from outside influences, no doubt there; but little came during academic instruction from my junior high/high school geography teachers. Or history teachers. Or English teachers (one outstanding one in particular). Or Science/Math teachers. Gym/sports coaches. Counselors. Not even the study hall monitor.

Other than to study hard and learn well, that is.

What I got from most of them was a base foundation of knowledge, suitable on which to build upon; what I erected upon that foundation was mine to build. They gave me the tools, and the rest was up to me.

I'm sure they all had opinions, political and otherwise. A couple-three did discuss a few such opinions with me, but not in front of the class, nor during the class. During class, they stuck to the class curriculum. As it was, many were demanding-enough taskmasters with the curriculum itself. The tests weren't cakewalks, and they were college-preparatory.

For the most part, my teachers were professional, dedicated educators, and they took the job of educating their students seriously. Thus, I got a reasoned, rational, sound education in the public school system. True, I graduated in 1975, before the abominable nonsense of outcome-based education began diluting the public education system in so many places; and I'd get plenty of exposure to the more liberal educrats during my college years. But by and large, my educational basics were set well before some of the progressive dilution of educational standards kicked in.

Nowadays, public education gets a bad rap in a lot of locations. In some, the bad rap is well deserved. In others, it isn't. But even in good public education systems -- as in so much of life -- there are exceptions to every rule. In one such case, geography just ain't what it used to be. Particularly to one teacher in the well-regarded Cherry Creek school system, specifically at Overland High School (Aurora, CO): Jay Bennish.

Mr. Bennish has been at Overland High since 2000, instructing in both history and geography. Like all of his peers, he is educated. Like all of his peers, he keeps an eye on world and current affairs. Like all of his peers, he has opinions on much of what he sees, hears, and interprets about the world around him.

Unlike many of his peers, he apparently likes to impress upon his students those opinions. Apparently one-sided opinions that some students and their parents find objectionable, and of dubious relevance in a world geography class.

Recently -- in the wake of President Bush's 2006 State of the Union address -- Mr. Bennish felt it necessary to spend 21 minutes of a 45 minute world geography class, analyzing the President's speech in a most critical, anti-Bush manner. Among his many opinions (almost all of which are fact-void if not deliberately dishonest): he made a not-so-subtle but idiotic Hitler/Bush comparison (and the reason I added a Goebbels graphic); he decried the US as the world's leading terrorist; he claimed that Bush threatened the planet; that the US gave tanks, guns and aircraft to both sides in the Iran-Iraq War, so that neither side could win and the US could keep the region destabilized; that the CIA seeks to kill innocent civilians; that the US didn't really want peace in the Middle East; that capitalism is contrary to human rights; that the terrorists didn't see civilians in the World Trade Center: they saw a military target, because the CIA and FBI had offices there. And that we should understand where they -- the terrorists -- were coming from in their hatred of America.

One student -- Sean Allen, a sophomore -- recorded those 21 minutes. Which he later played for his father.

To the incredulous father, what he heard on the recording went over like a fart in a divers' suit. A complaint was made to the school administration; when it didn't seem that the administrators were taking the matter very seriously, Mr. Allen took the tape to a local radio talk show host, who made a point of playing it for his audience, and seeking comment from the father, the student, the administration and Mr. Bennish.

The administration was not pleased, either by the unwelcome and negative media attention or what seemed to be (at least on the tape) a clear violation of curriculum standards that all school district instructors are expected to teach by.

As for Mr. Bennish, he isn't talking (for now).

The controversy quickly went national. The school district is investigating. Students, parents, teachers, pundits and the public at large on both sides of the issue are debating. At times, constructively. At times, with inane insults and pejorative drivel.

Everyone involved (the student, the teacher) claim to be receiving death threats.

Speaking for me, I debated posting this entry: as a childless bachelor, I don't have a direct dog in this fight. I don't live in the Cherry Creek school district. I don't know a single person attending/working at Overland High School.

There is a First Amendment, and everyone's entitled to their own opinions. True enough.

But even the First Amendment has limits, including where and how some more controversial opinions are expressed.

In this constitutional republic of ours, we have freedom of expression. We also have a personal and societal responsibility for how we exercise that freedom of expression. EACH AND EVERY ONE OF US. Where self-control is not enough, we have laws that regulate aspects of that freedom of expression. Some regard conduct of the individual in a public venue. For example, you can't yell "FIRE!" in a crowded theater when there isn't a fire. You can't yell racial epithets at another person of a different nationality/skin color in public, and so on.

Employers -- public and private sector -- have standards of conduct as well: what you can and can't do or say as an employee of an institution.

Mr. Bennish had standards he is required to maintain as a teacher of the Cherry Creek school district. The following is a quote from a Cherry Creek School District No. 5 regulation document, regarding "Teaching about Controversial/Sensitive Issues":

1. Good teaching of subjects involving controversial issues requires particular skill and so far as possible only teachers of superior training and experience will be assigned subjects in which a large body of material deals with such issues.
2. The approach of the teacher to controversial topics must be impartial and objective.

The comments he made that I related above, appear neither impartial nor objective. And not curriculum relevant in the context they are made.

At the same time, I took the time to listen to the entire tape (the whole 19 mg audio file is available for download at; one oft-repeated allegation during the debate is that Bennish did not allow for dissenting comments during his diatribe. That is clearly not true in this specific case, as the student making the recording did venture dissenting questions several times, and was allowed to pose his questions by Bennish; at one point, Bennish even commended the student for the questions posed.

Was the teacher wrong in what he did? Yes. Should the school district hold him accountable for violating school policy in this case, and perhaps on other occasions as has been claimed by other students and teachers, which the school district was allegedly aware of? Yes. Should he be fired for his conduct?

Depends; established precedent in the school district with similar such matters should be the guide on this question. My guess is that he won't be fired; certainly if Mr. Bennish chooses to continue to ignore school policy, and continue his policy-violating conduct in the future, termination of his employment agreement will be wholly supportable.

Likewise, if another instructor is pushing controversial conservative opinions, there should be no difference in the outcome as regards discipline for violation of a clearly defined school district policy.

It is my opinion -- one I suspect is widely shared -- students in public K-12 education deserve the same balanced educational foundation upon which to build that I was afforded. Students and parents -- and the taxpayers -- should hold teachers and administrators to account when and where this is plainly and demonstrably not the case.

This concludes this personal opinion. We shall return you to your regularly expected hooha next entry.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Children, even high school students cannot learn how to fairly assess a situation unless they are given both sides to each argument. Teachers (no matter how horribly liberal they all appear to be) must take this responsibility seriously. I cannot think fo one single circumstance where it should be allowable for a teacher to push his/her own personal agenda.

03 March, 2006 08:41  
Blogger Karen said...

Everyone is entitled to their opinions but perhaps the classroom wasn't the place for his opinion, unless he made it into a discussion and asked students how they felt about the speech. He should have asked different view points to teach the kids how to be mature about different opinions, agree to disagree, if you will. There are two sides to every story, perhaps he had his reasons for telling the class what he did. If it didn't relate to the lesson he should not have brought it into the classroom but saved it for the teacher's lounge.

03 March, 2006 18:16  

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