A Tale of Two Videos: Advocacy and Censorship
A teacher gets a free video on science, and likes it. She thinks it fits in with the lesson plan and curriculum guidelines. Should she be allowed to show parts of it in the classroom? At what point should the government step in and say the material is inappropriate, or even ban it outright, if it is considered politically incorrect? In a day when a multitude of interested parties of all kinds seek to influence the education of the young, how can schools wade the quagmires between the free market of ideas and censorship? When do guidelines for quality education become indoctrination into the beliefs of the party in power? The complexity of these issues can be seen in two recent, but very different, cases.
- An Inconvenient Gift: Should an advocate be allowed to Gore the teacher’s oxygen? Laurie David, producer of Al Gore’s popular documentary about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, thought it would be a charitable idea to supply 50,000 DVDs of the movie to the National Science Teacher’s Association, presumably to leverage them as a distributor to its members. After all, Ms David (the wife of comedian Larry David) probably thought in all seriousness that global warming is a hot topic for science education classes. She undoubtedly expected that science teachers would be eager to share some of the material from this popular film in class. When she got a chilly reception to her offer, she accused the NSTA of being in cahoots with ExxonMobil and other oil interests, remarking that she found it shocking that the NSTA would have ties to a company “that has spent millions misinforming the public about global warming.”
The NSTA has received $6 million from oil and gas interests over the last decade to support science education, but this represents only 3.7% of their budget and came with no strings attached, reported Jeffrey Mervis for Science Now. Gore himself “threw gasoline on the fire by telling [Jay] Leno, incorrectly, that ExxonMobil has a seat on NSTA’s board.” The NSTA’s executive director responded that they don’t do mass distributions for anybody or send unsolicited material. Laurie David was not interested in buying the NSTA’s mailing list and doing the distribution on their own. “David says NSTA’s imprimatur was essential” to the plan, the article states. On her website, she has posted letters from teachers angry over the NSTA’s position.
- Gift Horse or Trojan Horse: Whether you find this next gift idea a blessing or a curse depends on which side of the evolution debate you’re on. In September, a group calling itself Truth in Science sent free “resource packs” to all the secondary schools in Britain with DVDs of the intelligent design documentary Unlocking the Mystery of Life, and its adaptation for schools Where Does the Evidence Lead?, along with a teacher’s manual. Though about 59 schools have decided to incorporate the material in their lessons, this free gift was unwelcome in some quarters. The Guardian reported that the matter was debated in Parliament, and the government may be telling schools it is “inappropriate” material for the classroom; indeed, reporter James Randerson termed it a “ban” on use of this “creationist” material. Truth in Science quickly tried to counter the claim that the ministers’ action constitutes a ban. On Friday, however, Truth in Science reported growing political pressure “as Members of Parliament and Government ministers seek to discourage science teachers from using our resource packs,” some calling for a “restriction” and others a “directive” against their use. The front page of this organization has links to news on this developing story. Evolution News, Post-Darwinist and Uncommon Descent have posted reactions.
Nobody seems to be asking the students what they think – or the parents who pay the taxes, for that matter.
What should schools do in such situations? A computer technician from Michigan wrote in with his response:
It actually is a pretty simple solution… only teach provable, observable fact in schools, not opinion. For instance, you can study all the details about an organism… what it does, its habitat, its gestation period, its predators and its prey. But you can leave out the atheist opinion that it evolved from inanimate matter. Since evolution has absolutely nothing to do with any scientific advancement or discovery that has ever taken place, and is really just the origins theory for atheism, what is the benefit of teaching it in schools? Let students form their own opinions based on the actual, observable facts.
Good thoughts. Principals, administrators, parents and teachers: try freedom. We get so paranoid about things teachers are supposed to say or not say, about guidelines and political correctness. We worry so much about what high school students might hear. What is needed is honesty and the ability to think. High school students can be pretty savvy at figuring out what is sensible and what isn’t when they are allowed to hear two sides of a dispute. They get bored when being spoon-fed official textbook dogma without an opportunity for the teacher to engage the students in lively discussions about evidence and truthfulness. And teachers should be allowed to think for themselves when getting materials like the Truth in Science videos. They can judge whether such materials are appropriate without Parliament telling them.
Nobody wants schools to become pulpits for cults and weird beliefs, but guess what: they already are. Political correctness, tolerance, relativism, diversity and gay rights are the norm, while the old-fashioned values of patriotism, hard work and responsibility are mocked. Are the Darwin-only-Darwin-only DODOs making things better? In many schools it could hardly get worse.
A return to the basic 3 Rs and a well-rounded, liberal-arts education, combined with emphasis on discernment and understanding instead of rote retention will screen out much of the harmful or useless material that goes around. Teachers receiving unsolicited material shouldn’t be on the job if they can’t tell what has value and what doesn’t. Students know when teachers are really helping them think and which are just pushing their own opinions. Most of us as students had good teachers and bad teachers. The bad teachers often served as examples and stimulated further examination of our beliefs and assumptions. Parents need to be involved, knowing what is being taught and voicing support or opposition as needed. There need to be standards and limits, to be sure, on acceptable behavior and use of the classroom for legitimate purposes. In general, though, let the free marketplace of ideas do its work. The only mind at risk is an empty one.