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.