No Controversy Allowed! On Getting Kicked Out of a Middle School

For twenty-five years I've been a humane educator, someone who teaches about the interconnected issues of human rights, environmental preservation, and animal protection and encourages positive choicemaking and changemaking for a better world. These days, through my work at the Institute for Humane Education, I train others to be humane educators who can integrate critical global issues into their curricula and teaching, but periodically I still visit schools and give talks or teach classes.

For twenty-five years I've been a humane educator, someone who teaches about the interconnected issues of human rights, environmental preservation, and animal protection and encourages positive choicemaking and changemaking for a better world. These days, through my work at the Institute for Humane Education, I train others to be humane educators who can integrate critical global issues into their curricula and teaching, but periodically I still visit schools and give talks or teach classes.

I was invited to give presentations at two middle school assembly programs in New Hampshire, followed by an evening community talk, based on my book, Most Good, Least Harm, which explores ways in which we can each make choices in our lives that do the most good and the least harm to ourselves, other people, other species, and the environment. I was a little worried about maintaining the interest of one hundred and fifty 6-8th graders in a hot gym for the two hours I was scheduled to speak, but I was not worried about my subject matter. I've taught thousands of middle schoolers, and I'm pretty good at making sure my talks are age-appropriate, relevant, and interesting.

So I was relieved when I was able to keep the kids' interest for the duration and make the talk lively while still being able to maintain some proverbial order. I thought it went well. So did the teacher who'd invited me who was thrilled by the response of the enthusiastic and fully engaged students. Imagine our surprise when ten minutes after the presentation we found out that the second one was canceled. The principal - who'd come in a few times during my presentation but wasn't able to attend the entire talk - felt it was too political and called ahead to stop me from speaking at any other school that day.

I asked to speak to him to find out what aspects of my talk he thought were too political. He could barely make eye contact with me. He was so anxious and upset. He told me that there were some words I used that were political, such as "war," "healthcare" and "illegal immigrants." While he admitted that I didn't discuss current wars and the politics of them; health care reform or the various opinions about it, or the debates over how to handle illegal immigration, the very mention of these words was, he felt, too political. He worried that the kids would go home and share things from the assembly (whether accurately relayed or not) that would anger some parents.

It's worth sharing the context of these so-called "political" words. I had begun the presentation by asking the students what they thought were the biggest problems in the world. One boy said "war." I agreed with him that this was, indeed, a problem, and commented that we hadn't yet learned to solve our conflicts without violence. The words "healthcare" and "illegal immigrants" came up in the context of a critical thinking exercise in which we analyzed the true price of two everyday items, a conventional cotton T-shirt and a fast food cheeseburger. I'd asked the students what the positive and negative effects were of these items on ourselves as consumers, on other people, on animals, and on the environment. I also asked what systems were in place that perpetuated these items; what alternatives might do more good and less harm, and what systems would need to change to make such alternatives ubiquitous. "Healthcare" came up because of the high healthcare costs associated with unhealthy diets, and "illegal immigrants" came up because so many are employed in slaughterhouses, considered the most dangerous work in the U.S. (Frankly, the points I made could just as easily come out of the mouth of a tea party activist angry that "illegals" were taking citizens' jobs and then being treated for their injuries in expensive emergency rooms where they were unlikely to be able to pay the bills, resulting in a tax burden on Americans. But I digress.)

The main points of my talk had nothing to do with these "political" words. The take-home message included four key points:

1. Make connections about your choices and their effects

2. Model your message [a quote from Mahatma Gandhi] and work to change systems you don't believe are right or good

3. Take responsibility for your actions

4. Pursue joy by helping others

The principal, softening a bit during our thirty minute discussion, said he appreciated the value of this message, but he was visibly terrified of the backlash he might receive. He also warned me that I could expect enraged parents at my community talk that night, and he said he was worried about me (I was not worried).

I recommended that he talk to each class and assess what they learned from my talk, so he spent the afternoon visiting each classroom to ascertain what the students took away from the presentation (and perhaps to undo any damage I had caused while having some base to cover himself if he got angry phone calls the next day). I was happy to hear that each class was able to accurately articulate the key points above.

No angry parents came to my community talk later that evening, just eager and enthusiastic ones thankful for the opportunity their children had had to think about the consequences of their lives and choices and their capacities to take responsibility for making a positive difference in the world. And no parents called the principal in the ensuing days to complain.

Was my talk political? Only if by political we mean that it ultimately had relevance to governance. It was certainly not partisan, and it's preposterous (and worrisome) to suggest that words like "war," "healthcare," and "illegal immigrants" cannot be uttered in schools. What that implies about the learning that is permitted in school is frighteningly 1984-esque.

Was my talk controversial? It shouldn't have been, but even if some thought it was, we should welcome controversial topics in school. What better place to grapple with differing ideas? If students cannot uncover and discover truths in school and explore systems in an effort to become not only better educated about the realities behind our choices but also gain the power to be conscientious choicemakers and future changemakers through their careers and professions, then what are we hoping to achieve through schooling? Questioning, thinking critically, assessing systems to ensure they are just and humane are deeply American values, built into this country's DNA. Only in a totalitarian state would my talk have been too dangerous; it certainly shouldn't have elicited fear in the U.S.

I do not blame this principal, though. He faces stresses and challenges in his job that I not only don't know about, but can only imagine make his work as an educational leader difficult. We live in an educational climate that is terrified of controversy, making schooling blander with each passing year, and depriving our children of the critical and creative thinking skills they need to face a challenging and uncertain future. Despite all the evidence that shows that discussing controversial issues in school leads to greater educational achievement, skill, and learning, we shy away from the issues that may be most important and relevant to our children's future.

Getting kicked out of a middle school raises a fundamental question, perhaps the most important question we can be asking at this point in history: What is schooling for? The prevailing view is that schooling's purpose is essentially to provide students with verbal, mathematical, and scientific literacy so that they can find jobs and compete in the global economy. But in the face of grave global challenges, from climate change and species extinction to a growing population that lacks access to clean water and food to inequities and conflicts to a looming energy crisis to institutionalized cruelty and brutality toward both people and animals, it's myopic to cling to such a meager educational goal as the ability to compete in the global economy.

It's my belief that the purpose of schooling ought to be to provide all students with the knowledge, tools, and motivation to be solutionaries for a restored, healthy, and just world, and this is why I'm a humane educator. I believe our students need to be critical and creative thinkers who can solve global challenges with innovation, common sense, and a humane ethic. An inability to assess information critically and creatively, especially in an Internet age of massive information and misinformation, leads to an inability to participate honestly and realistically in a democracy and within complex systems.

Yes, such education would mean that students might question their parents' beliefs. Yes, it means they might question their teachers. Yes, it means they might question entrenched institutions and systems, including economic, agricultural, energy, transportation, production, defense, and political systems. For some this is very dangerous. I, however, believe we should wholeheartedly welcome such questioning. Perhaps our children might then discover ways to ensure that these systems are just, peaceful, restorative, healthy, and humane for all.

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