I know I’m not quick on the uptake, but usually I can follow the standard culture-war scripts. This story, though, has me confused. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what people didn’t like about this teacher’s activity. Or, to be more precise, I think I might get it, but I’m puzzled by the weird vagueness of this case.
Most intriguing, this seems to be more proof that our schools work with a hair-trigger sensitivity to lowest-common-denominator protests. Protestors don’t even need to explain their reasons, they only need to announce their stance as protestors.
Here’s what we know: According to Kristine Phillips in WaPo, a middle-school teacher in Hernando County, Florida, was fired after asking her students to complete a survey assignment. The questions asked students to rate their comfort level when encountering different types of people. How would you feel if a group of African American men walked toward you on the street? How about if a “Fundamentalist Christian” was your lab partner? What would you think if someone of your same sex asked you to dance?
Now, I can think of a couple of reasons why different sorts of people would object to these sorts of questions for middle-school students. But no one involved seems willing to go beyond a vague and vacuous condemnation. It leads us to three tough questions:
- Why don’t they like this assignment?
- Why are they being so vague about it? And
- Do schools always ban first and ask questions later?
For example, one school district spokesperson explained, “In no way does this assignment meet the standards of appropriate instructional material.”
Why not? Does the school district object to the use of racial and ethnic and cultural stereotypes? Or does the district think students should not be asked to think about their reactions to homosexuality? Christianity? …what?
We can get a little better idea of the objections from one parent’s complaint:
How comfy are you if you see a group of black men walking to you on the street? That’s completely inappropriate. In no world, whatsoever, is that okay to question a child on.
She seemed most ticked about the use of racial stereotypes. And I get that. But I would also think that some conservative religious groups would be offended by the idea that their twelve-year-old sons and daughters would be asked to think about their own potential homosexuality.
So is it the generally “adult” material of the survey, including ideas about racism, gender, sexuality, and religion, that have parents and administrators spooked? Or is it more specifically the use of racial stereotypes?
We can’t help but notice, either, that both complainers used the word “appropriate” in their comments. Materials in middle-school, we might conclude, must remain appropriate. But to whom?
Here’s the thing that really has me intrigued. Time and again, in all sorts of schools from kindergarten through graduate school, teachers and administrators race to box out anything that anyone might accuse of “inappropriateness.” In this case, we hear from a few of the people involved who don’t feel any need to explain why they thought something was inappropriate. The accusation is enough.