Teaching freedom where it doesn’t exist

Monday, November 8, 1999

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Thirty-seven elementary and secondary teachers from Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee gathered at the First Amendment Center this past weekend for a conference designed to give them materials and training to better teach their students about the First Amendment.

Some would regard the effort as quixotic. Finding ways to teach freedom in an environment that offers little is a real challenge.

For all intents and purposes, the nation’s schools are in educational lockdown. In the eyes of the public, the government and the courts, the nation’s schools are in the same category as prisons and the military. In other words, safety, discipline and uniformity trump all educational goals, including the teaching of civics.

Teachers, as well as students, check their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door.

Parental fears, administrative dictates, curriculum demands and state-imposed standards crowd out the sort of lessons that prepare young people to fully function as informed citizens in the real world.

During breaks and at dinner at this weekend’s conference, every teacher seemed to have a sad tale to tell about how young minds and exuberant expectations were not just stifled but punished. Some of their stories:

  • Students expelled — or even arrested — for successfully responding to class assignments.
  • Candid answers in class discussions resulting in a trip to the principal’s office, then home.
  • Students suspended for openly wearing religious symbols or T-shirts with political slogans.
  • Outside agitation for prayer in school and the teaching of creationism distracting teachers from the overall educational mission.
  • Pages literally torn out of textbooks by officials fearing what students might see in them.
  • Student newspapers routinely being censored and shut down.
  • Students getting punished for material they post on their own Web pages at home.

The teachers who came to the conference were looking for answers to important questions:

  • How do you model First Amendment freedoms in an environment that most often puts discipline before learning and zero tolerance before rights?
  • How do you teach young people democracy and liberty by immersing them in an autocracy ruled by fear?
  • How do you coax from your principal the latitude you need to teach the Bill of Rights, the core contract between citizens and government, when the principal is being told by the school board and parents to keep things simple, cheap and uncontroversial?

The answers to those questions won’t come easy because as a society we have come to a point where we fear our children more than we fear for them. We have no confidence in their common sense, in their resilience, in their innate goodness or in the values and standards we gave them in our homes.

Rather than trust and celebrate the possibilities our children represent, we dwell on the dangers we imagine for them. Rather than support the teachers who might spark fire in their imaginations and aspirations, we let fears and suppositions snuff out the light of real learning.

What do we expect to happen to our democratic vision when political opportunists and demagogic activists successfully change the image of the institutions of learning like schools and our libraries into the evil enemy of our children and our values?

About those values: Can’t we see how we are perverting them by not allowing our children to become individuals themselves? Why do we insist that our children become clones of ourselves and their lessons a rote recitation of no more than we know ourselves?

Still, despite all the hurdles, these 37 teachers came to the conference anyway. They even sacrificed to do so, paying substitutes from their own salaries and using personal days, as well as driving long distances. But they joined enthusiastically in the exercises, listened raptly to the speakers and presenters, and spoke with genuine concern about the needs of their students.

They were there to learn, to gather material, and to return to their schools prepared to do even a better job of imparting to students an understanding of the fundamental freedoms that ensure the future of this society. And to help give a voice to students who are increasingly being silenced.

Watching them and listening to them, one could not help believing that our children are in good hands. And if these teachers are allowed to do what they are paid to do, when their students leave the classroom, First Amendment freedoms will be in good hands.

Paul McMasters may be contacted at pmcmasters@freedomforum.org.