Shocking Kids to Justice

Is it a good idea? For decades now, progressive teachers have sought to shock children into recognizing their traditional prejudices. Recently, a Kansas teacher ignited some controversy by showing a provocative video. His goal was to shock kids out of their anti-gay mindsets. They are not easy questions: Should teachers intentionally shock and provoke their students in order to make them better people?  It’s easy to see such teachers as heroes when we agree with their goals, but what about when we disagree?

But first, the latest: according to ThinkProgress, Tom Leahy is fighting for his job. Leahy, a high-school teacher from Conway Springs, Kansas, was disturbed by the anti-gay murmurings he noticed among his students. To help show his kids the light, Leahy showed them a short film, “Love Is All You Need.”

The film depicts a world in which heterosexual kids are bullied for their sexuality. One heterosexual girl ends up killing herself.

Outraged parents demanded Leahy’s ouster and the school district complied. At first, Leahy agreed to go, but after an outpouring of support he’s back in his classroom.

I think I would like Tom Leahy. He sounds like an engaged and caring teacher. I, too, was saddened and concerned in my high-school classroom by the nonchalance with which some kids made anti-gay statements. Like Leahy, I hastened to intervene to let kids know that such hateful attitudes, such targeted hostility was not okay.

But is it a good idea to shock kids into enlightenment?

The tactic has a long history. SAGLRROILYBYGTH have probably heard the story of Jane Elliott. In 1968, the story goes, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Elliott began an anti-racism activity with her third-graders in Iowa.

Kids with blue eyes were given extra benefits. Kids with brown eyes had to wear fabric collars. Hostility quickly erupted between the two made-up groups of kids. Elliott didn’t let the two groups play together or drink from the same water fountains. She explained that collar-free kids tended to be smarter and better behaved. The next day, she reversed the set-up. Now blue-eyed kids wore the collars and suffered the consequences.

The point was to let white kids experience discrimination, to let them “[walk] in a colored child’s moccasins for a day.”

Are such shock tactics a good idea?

Sometimes, social justice is going to seem shocking. When the US Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that schools could no longer be segregated by race, nothing much changed, because no one in power was willing to ram such shocking change through the system.

Nevertheless, I think we need to remember to give such tactics the smell test. Even after forty-five years, Jane Elliott’s tactics seem harsh and unnecessarily cruel. Her taunting of her third-graders just doesn’t seem right, no matter how noble the goal.

Does Tom Leahy’s activism rise to the same level? It doesn’t seem that way to this reporter. As a former high-school teacher, I found the video he showed to be provocative, but not intentionally cruel to viewers. As far as I know, Leahy did not insult his students or belittle them in public to make his point. He merely showed a thought-provoking video.

What would I say, though, if a teacher pushed kids in directions with which I didn’t agree?  What if a teacher in a public school wanted to lead her kids in prayer?  Or what if a teacher showed a gruesome and intentionally provocative anti-abortion film?

I’m not confident that I would find such teacher activism brave and morally heroic.

Should we shock our students? Every day.

But we need to be very careful about our self-righteousness.  We must remember that our students are in class to be loved, not to be “fixed.”  This has to be true even in cases in which we agree with the moral activism of our teachers.

So how do we know when teachers are engaging in proper thought-provocation, and when they are being moral bullies?

We need to let students know that we are on their side, that we care about them as people even if we want to upset them a little with mind-blowing ideas.

Demonstrating our moral superiority by belittling kids can never be the proper path to a more just society.