Free discussion in our schools

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Now that Jay Bennish, the 10th grade geography teacher at Overland High School in Colorado has re-affirmed our, or at least his, right to free speech in the First Amendment, perhaps it is time to stand back and take a deep breath, separate from the flames of contention it combusted on the National scene, and assess just what “free speech” means in our public schools.

I am certain most of you have heard of this controversy involving a sophomore student who tape recorded one of the lectures from his geography teacher (Bennish) which revealed that teacher’s obvious prejudice against President Bush and his policies during class.

To be more specific, Bennish said in his diatribe-disguised-as-lecture that Bush’s State of the Union Address shared “some eerie similarities” with speeches delivered by Hitler.

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Immediately, a furor erupted because of the fact that this Nation is at war and that the use of Hitler’s name in any context is always associated with a despotism this world never wants to suffer, let alone tolerate, again in its history.

Comparing our President with one of history’s most egregiously heinous dictators does more than border on hyperbole – it invites an onslaught of criticism and invective which threatens our precious right of free speech.

And so it did.

The teacher was suspended while an investigation ensued, and the student who recorded the teacher’s pontification was shunned by many fellow students and eventually transferred to another school.

Apparently the teacher’s popularity with other students was far too overwhelming for the student who made the recording, and peer pressure is a very real, if adolescently temporary, fact of human development.

Now, however, with the student gone and the teacher re-instated, the teacher has been invited to interviews on the national networks in their obvious race to “out-protect” each other on the First Amendment.

But the real question, it seems to me, is how to balance our absolute need to develop clear, critical thinking with mature dialogue immersed in respect for opposing views.

And as much as I respect Bennish’s attempt to create an academic atmosphere in which ideas possess the malleability of an open intellectual environment, I think he missed the point of the limited grasp that his sophomores will hopefully develop later.

Then, again, perhaps this cataclysmic entrance into the world of ideas on a national, even international, level has ushered them into it sooner than most of them thought it might happen.

The problem of free speech has entranced and challenged us ever since our Nation announced it as one of its primordial philosophical principles.

Still, it makes no sense to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, as our Courts have determined.

So, just what do we do with a young, obviously idealistic teacher imbued with the burning desire to make students “think” on their own? Do tell him go ahead and shout “Fire” in the proverbial theater just to make a point?

Do we tell him to try to impress those students with his “openness” of thought by denigrating the very country which permits that freedom to speak in almost any venue?

In short, just what guidelines do we as educators put in place which will allow both a free exchange of ideas and a reinforcement of the venerability of the country whose system has been built on such an exchange of ideas?

Of course, the teacher adds the caveat that this is “just my idea” and that “anyone wishing to express an opposing view” has the right to do so.

Seriously, now, folks, just how many high school students are willing to present an opposition to a popular teacher?

Perhaps that is the simple reason that this student recorded Bennish – he did not feel that he could truly oppose his teacher.

And this is where the pedagogist’s skills come into play.

The focus, it seems to me, is not so much the loud trumpeting of “free speech” as it is “free discussion” for our students.

Furthermore, does the teacher truly nurture and engender an atmosphere in which students really feel that there is a freedom of discussion?

It takes a very special kind of educator to do this – and it is the designation of “pedagogist” to which I attach this ability.

Say what they will, high school students feel that they are really not yet in an environment which encourages them to go ahead and “express” their ideas, no matter how off the wall or out of the mainstream they may be.

Hence, when one of their teachers compares an American President to Hitler, it sends conflicting signals to students.

Good heavens, they are already bereft of any real knowledge of history, as is evidenced by test scores, and to confuse the horrors perpetrated by Hitler with the pledges for freedom by an American President only confounds the issue.

Misuse of our freedom of speech does as much to limit it as the actions of the thieves of Enron do to our faith in capitalism.

We can tolerate neither and succeed.

In our schools, free speech needs to be developed in the laboratory of free discussion, and not held hostage to the ideologies of any teacher who may have an axe to grind.

And our students must be shown that there is a difference – and that difference is what has kept America truly free.

-Dr. Arthur Ogden is the Campus Director for Alabama Southern’s Demopolis Campus and holds all his degrees in philosophy.

He can be reached at