Uncomfortable People

The removal of Jon Greenberg from his teaching position in a Seattle High School is disturbing for a number of reasons. Apparently, Mr. Greenberg taught a course called “Citizenship and Justice” that employed what is called the “courageous conversations” teaching method that encouraged honest confrontations among students about their personal experiences of racial discrimination and injustice. The course had been taught successfully for ten years but recently a student complained to her parents that the course made her feel uncomfortable because Greenberg “created an intimidating educational environment.” Her parents complained to the school board who removed Mr. Greenberg from his position and moved him elsewhere. The story contains a brief, but telling, comment by another teacher in the same school system who suggests that the move will have ramifications:

Teachers at the Center School are concerned that the school board’s disapproval of the Courageous Conversations engagement tactics will have a chilling effect throughout the school district.

Doug Edelstein, a teacher at another Seattle public high school says he worries how it will affect discussions about other controversial topics.

“That it will create a chilling effect is an understatement,” Edelstein told The Seattle Times. “Student discomfort will become the arbiter of curriculum.”

There can be little doubt that the decision by the school board will have a “chilling effect” on the teaching of controversial subjects throughout the Seattle school system — if not beyond. Whenever a teacher is told that he or she must steer away from certain subjects, or teach the subject differently — by an administrator or the administrator’s superiors — the results will invariably be felt throughout the system. It is not simply a matter of academic freedom, which is a value recently honored more in the breach than in the observance. It is a matter of an open system that is designed to help students think for themselves as opposed to a system in which students are simply taught what to think and when to think it. In a word, it is the difference between a system that focuses on education, properly conceived, and education reduced to training. The people in Seattle should be disturbed by the fact that their school board seems to want their schools to turn out robots rather than thinking adults.

But there is a feature of this story that disturbs me even more: it is the notion that a student can complain to her parents and the result is that the entire weight of the Seattle school bureaucracy is brought down on the shoulders of a man who is, from all reports, a stellar teacher of young people. As Edelstein said, “Student discomfort will become the arbiter of curriculum.” No doubt. No one individual should have that sort of power. And those who call for more involvement in the schools by the parents might do well to think about the involvement of this student’s parents in this particular course. It’s not that unusual for the parents to side with the administration against the teacher (and vice versa) when they think their child has been mistreated.

Academic freedom is a precious and absolutely necessary value to defend in our schools at all levels. Teachers must not be told what to teach, though if what they teach turns out to be offensive there must be a way for the student to withdraw from that course without penalty if he or she is made to feel “uncomfortable.” But the truth often makes people feel “uncomfortable,” and we must be wary of those who want people fired or silenced simply because they make us feel uncomfortable. Our problem is, on the whole, we are much too comfortable and as Arnold Toynbee said years ago, humans cease to think when that is the case.


14 thoughts on “Uncomfortable People

  1. I, too, am a former high school teacher. Should the instructor removal ramifications indeed have long-term and far-reaching effects, I am saddened and concerned for the generations of students who may not have the opportunity to experience “controversy” or experience independent stand-your-ground thinking guided by experienced and capable instructors. Will, then, this new generation think that life in the fullest sense is always “comfortable?”
    As always I thank you.

  2. Another case of “helicopter parents” destroying their children’s and their teachers futures. And the political sensitivity, and fear, of school board’s in reacting to one parents complaint is ridiculous. In this case, it is the school board that has gone overboard.

  3. Great post! I agree wholeheartedly. Doesn’t being “uncomfortable” stretch us and our minds? It seems that is what education should be, but I’ve seen this attitude and it is real, but oh so troubling.

  4. I guess moving the student to another class was too much to ask? Or, God forbid we invite the parents in to discuss what he is trying to accomplish and then, if they object, the school could move the student. Where will this stop? We already have creationsim being taught as science in Texas and LA. We have parents worried about the core curriculum as we may teach the kids to think and they may even disagree with what their parents believe. We need some principals with principle to not cowtow to every parents’ whim. I would hope the other parents would get a petitiion and say we approve of these methods. We always viewed the teachers as our partner in guiding our child.Thanks for sharing. By the way, Hugh, I will be out for several days on a vacation, so I will catch up on your posts when I return. I am going to all places – a high school reunion. Take care, BTG

  5. Was it truly just one student complaining? It’s hard to imagine that the people involved (parents, teacher, administrators and student) couldn’t reach a satisfactory agreement. Moving people around -student or teacher- is a drastic action that suggests no other option will work. Sad story. Glad you brought to our attention.

    • The source I read indicated it was just one student. It did seem a bit drastic. I dare say there may be more to it…But this sort of rush to judgment is not all that unusual, unfortunately.


  6. There is indeed a great deal more to this issue, none of which, in compliance with district personnel policies, can or should be discussed in a public forum. The process from initial complaint to Mr. Greenberg’s reassignment was long and thorough, including conversation between the teacher and the parents involved. I do not believe the district ‘jumped to knee jerk conclusions’ as these posts imply. The curriculum in question is a good one, which the parents involved in the complaint fully support. In an open and questioning society, it is essential that we question undocumented sources of information before we jump to the same kinds of ‘knee jerk’ conclusions we’re accusing others of reaching. Just because it’s on the ‘Internet’ doesn’t mean it’s true. Be careful of what you hear and believe..

    • I didn’t mean to imply that there were any “knee jerk” conclusions here. I certainly didn’t draw any. In fact, this is your interpretation of my blog — a matter of your perception. And that was my point. What happened to Mr. Greenberg is less important in many ways than the perception of what happened to Mr. Greenberg. But you final point is well taken: be careful of what you hear and believe.

      • Point taken, Mr. Curtler. However, unless you have reviewed transcripts and records of the complaint and all procedures that followed it, you might want to measure your judgments about a student’s “discomfort” and its impact. If you have had full access to all these private personnel records, that is an entirely different issue.

      • As I re-read my post it seems to me that I am being quite “measured.” I carefully qualify my statements in order to point to larger issues rather than focus attention on the case in hand about which, admittedly, we know only what the newspapers tell us.

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