Academic freedom for teachers? Post-Bennish, it’s a tough sell

Sunday, March 19, 2006

In the era of instant celebrity and sound-bite news, Jay Bennish is the latest poster boy in the battle over what gets taught in public schools.

For those who were in Outer Mongolia last week, Bennish is the Colorado teacher who got into trouble for putting “Bush” and “Hitler” in the same sentence while lecturing his 10th grade geography class in February.

The blogosphere has had a field day. On the right, Bennish is an “unhinged teacher,” typical of the left-wing indoctrination widespread in public schools. But on the left, he’s a victim of “right-wing attack dogs” and a hero of free speech. Both sides serve up a picture of schools where teachers speak freely every day.

But here’s a reality check: Teachers in public schools have precious little academic freedom these days and, post-Bennish, they’re likely to have even less.

Much of what is taught these days comes right out of the textbook (and that’s not a good thing) — and when teachers do attempt to tackle controversial issues, they nervously look over their shoulder to see who’s watching.

Or, in this case, who’s recording. Without Bennish’s knowledge, student Sean Allen decided to tape about 20 minutes of the class to document what Allen sees as political bias in class lectures. It was the day after President Bush’s State of the Union address and Bennish responded with a stream-of-consciousness riff on all things wrong with the world — pushing the kids to question their assumptions about everything from the drug wars in Central America to capitalism to conflicts in the Middle East.

Bennish was clearly on a roll. Any number of his rapid-fire statements could have gotten him into hot water, but it was the Bush-Hitler link that triggered the most controversy. Contrary to the headlines, Bennish didn’t exactly compare Bush to Hitler — he compared some of the president’s language to language used by the Nazi leader. But for people outraged by Bennish, that’s a distinction without a difference.

Was Bennish out of bounds? Sure. No social studies teacher worth his professional salt holds forth for 20 minutes with an emotional, one-sided, off-the-cuff political speech. Bennish’s district, Cherry Creek Schools, has a sound policy on “teaching about controversial issues” that outlines the teacher’s “obligation to be as objective as possible and to present fairly the several sides of an issue.” The policy upholds a teacher’s right to express his or her own viewpoint, but warns that teachers don’t have a right to “indoctrinate students” in their views.

But Sean Allen was also out of bounds. Not only did the student secretly (and selectively) tape his teacher, but he also proceeded to give the tape to a conservative talk-show host — and the uproar began. Stunts like that get you on Fox’s Hannity and Colmes show, but the responsible way to resolve a conflict like this is to keep it local and deal directly with the people involved.

Whatever you think about what happened that day in the classroom, Jay Bennish shouldn’t be judged solely by a 20-minute snippet from a five-year teaching career, but rather by the overall pattern of how he has taught political and social issues. Sean Allen along with a few past and present students contacted by the news media charge that Bennish is routinely biased in his teaching. Others, including the more than 100 students who walked out of class to protest Bennish’s temporary suspension, contend that he exposes students to different perspectives, even when he states his own.

Late last week, Cherry Creek Superintendent Monte Moses investigated the incident and concluded that Bennish needs “growth and refinement,” but is a promising teacher. He reinstated Bennish with an admonishment to follow district policies. Even though what’s on the tape of Bennish is difficult to defend, Moses is sticking with him in the face of considerable community opposition.

Bennish is back in the classroom with a commitment to do better. But he understands that the fallout from his 20 minutes in the spotlight goes beyond his school district.

“Unfortunately this is going to have a chilling effect on teachers all across the country,” he told Denver’s Rocky Mountain News. “I think that this is certainly going to inhibit classroom discussion.”

Sad, but true. I predict that the Bennish tape will accelerate current attempts by worried administrators to limit the academic freedom of teachers — a trend that has been backed up by the courts in recent years. Just when we most need teachers who will provoke discussion, play devil’s advocate and push kids to get out of their comfort zones, the Bennish backlash is likely to muzzle teachers already nervous about tackling controversial issues.

In a fearful climate like this, academic freedom for teachers is a tough sell.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

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