A brave stand for traditional conservative values? Or a petty dictator afraid of a changing world?
The recent decision of a high-school principal in Connecticut to ban the musical Rent will be called both of these things. But there’s a better and simpler accusation: The principal is acting out of predictable culture-war cowardice.
As reported by the New York Times, Marc Guarino of Trumbull High School in Trumbull, Connecticut suddenly announced that the school’s drama club would not be allowed to put on a showing of Rent. The popular musical deals with themes of drug use, HIV, and homosexuality. To be sure, this is a cleaned-up high-school version, with the profanity removed and one sexually explicit song taken out. But Principal Guarino still thought it was too racy for his school.
He’s not the only one to do so. The play has been yanked from other high schools around the nation.
Predictably, administrators like Guarino have been accused of homophobia and head-in-the-sand obscurantism. The world is changing, critics charge, and young people need to be aware of real-world issues like those presented by the musical.
So far, Guarino’s not talking. So his decision might really be due to a belief that young people need to be protected from the world of singing, dancing, drug-using sex-havers.
But there’s a depressingly obvious explanation that is much more likely. Guarino and the Trumbull school board are probably simply offering a public-school administrator’s knee-jerk response to anything that might raise the tiniest hint of controversy. More than bad test scores, more than teen hijinx, school administrators fear becoming the center of a fight. Because savvy administrators know that they will be the losers.
In my new book (coming soon to a bookstore near you!), I look at the most famous school controversies of the twentieth century. In case after case, no matter what the fight is about, administrators lose. In 1950, Pasadena’s superintendent got blamed for changing educational patterns. In 1974, Charleston, West Virginia’s superintendent got blamed for new textbooks.
When a culture-war fight breaks out in schools, no matter what the topic, school administrators are the first casualty.
As a result, principals and other administrators develop keep political antennae. If any book, teacher, or musical threatens to introduce a whiff of controversy into their schools or districts, most administrators ban it outright. They want to stop any fight before it starts.
The response to Rent by Susan Collins, a school superintendent in West Virginia, demonstrates this reflexive culture-war caution. A few years ago, she described her feeling to the New York Times. “Our high school shows,” she explained,
are so important to our community — we have alumni who come back, we bus in children for them — and I didn’t see ‘Rent’ working here. . . . But look, I know we can’t stick our heads in the sand, I know drugs are out there, I know children are having babies at 12, I know teens are having sex and always must have safe sex. But I don’t know if we need ‘Rent.’
When a drama-club teacher proposed the show for Collins’ district, it only took her one viewing of the DVD to make a quick decision: No way. She worried that her “back in the woods” community would not take kindly to this sort of on-stage sexiness.
She wasn’t against it. But she wasn’t willing to stand up and shove it in the face of her community, either.
More than culture warriors, public school administrators often take this role of culture-war avoiders.
Though their book got the most attention for its survey of evolution education, political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer made a broader point about schooling and culture wars. Teachers, they argued, are best understood as “street-level bureaucrats.” In teaching controversial issues, teachers tend to reflect the middle-of-the-road values of their communities.
The bland CYA politics of principals like Trumbull’s Guarino reflect this same sort of deliberate centrism. Is Rent bad for kids? Conservatives might say yes; progressives might say no.
But school controversy on any sort of culture-war issue is definitely bad for the career of any public-school administrator.