Unlearning liberty: children in democratic limbo

Monday, June 7, 1999

The concept of freedom is becoming largely academic in the nation’s schools.

Our students have always been “sort-of citizens” when it came to their constitutional rights, but school officials, teachers, and even parents are developing zero tolerance for individuality, creativity, eccentricity, uniqueness, mind-stretching. That means there’s little room in the classroom for anything even mildly resembling freedom of thought, inquiry or conscience.

That’s especially true when it comes to the First Amendment. Administrators don’t trust it, teachers don’t teach it, and students don’t get it.

Our kids are learning early on that school is not a place for education but a battlefield for contending agendas — from the left, right and middle. They are learning that the adults who run their lives are more than willing to exploit anomalous tragedies such as those at Littleton and other schools to convert education into indoctrination.

Our obsession with order and security in the schools masks the reality that children without rights are children without a stake in their own or society’s well-being.

Despite that reality, elected and self-appointed leaders from the White House to the statehouse to the schoolhouse compete to see who can best suppress the natural curiosity and enthusiasm of our future leaders. As a result, our children are being subjected to punishment for the most innocuous of statements, actions or apparel.

In Prince William County, Va., the school board seriously considered a ban on any “dress, appearance or personal hygiene” that principals might interpret as disruptive; the board “compromised” by settling on a ban on bulky clothes. At another Virginia school, a student was suspended for having blue hair. And officials at Alameda High School in Colorado wouldn’t allow graduates to wear ribbons on their gowns to recognize the families of the victims at nearby Columbine High School.

Then there was the incident at the graduation ceremony in Calvert County, Md., two weeks ago. A young man who had somehow learned about constitutional rights and the separation of church and state maturely and quietly negotiated with school officials to have a moment of silence substituted for the traditional graduation prayer. But when that moment of silence came, instead of using it according to their own beliefs and customs, some in the audience began to pray aloud.

Rather than endure this assault on his beliefs, the young man quietly left the auditorium in protest. However, when he tried to return for the remainder of the graduation ceremony, he was constrained by police, and then excluded from a graduation party he had paid to attend.

To many, the actions of the members of that crowd were not very Christian. They hijacked a public event in a public place to impose their wishes on all others. It seemed to be less an act of witness, humility or tolerance and more an act of pride and punishment. As for the public and school officials, their failure to defend and protect the interests of the young graduate was more in the manner of a schoolyard bully than of principled mentors.

Those are just a few of the ways we are teaching the wrong lessons to the next generation of this nation’s leaders.

The First Amendment rights of teachers, too, have been caught up in this constitutional churn. In the last year alone, the courts have turned back three different opportunities to remedy the punishment of teachers who tried to make a difference for their students.

Cissy Lacks was fired from her job as an English teacher in a St. Louis suburban school for allowing her students to use street language in their writing assignments. In North Carolina, teacher Margaret Boring lost her job for allowing her students to perform a controversial play that won awards at a state competition and scholarships for the student actors. In Colorado, Al Wilder was fired for allowing his students to watch the Bernardo Bertolucci movie classic, “1900,” without first getting his principal’s permission.

All three teachers lost long court battles for reinstatement. When the Colorado Supreme Court justice rejected a district court ruling upholding Wilder’s First Amendment rights, Justice Gregory Hobbs Jr., a former teacher, dissented, writing: “When we strip teachers of their professional judgment, we forfeit the educational vitality we prize. When we quell controversy for the sake of congeniality, we deprive democracy of its mentors.”

While the rights of students and teachers bear the brunt of the attacks, assaults also continue against school libraries, school newspapers and yearbooks, school bands and plays, student Web pages, and a whole range of other expressive activities.

College students and teachers suffer the same sort of outrages. Rationalizations that are merely ridiculous in elementary and high school venues are even more strained in higher education. Even so, college officials are adept at circumventing the First Amendment when it gets in the way of direct suppression of student rights.

Noting in a College Media Review article that dozens of advisers have been punished for defending student journalists, Bonnie Thrasher wrote: “Administrators seem to use firing or demoting the adviser as a way to punish the student newspaper for reporting information that casts the administrator or campus in a poor light.”

One would think that those in charge of the nation’s schools would be the most likely to create and defend an environment that nurtures critical thinking, enthusiasm for learning and the spark of creativity. But all too often these days, one would be wrong.

If this authoritarian, majoritarian approach in our schools is not challenged and halted, the price we will pay for docility and conformity is ignorance and resentment. We owe our children better than that. We’ve handed them a world in a mess. Are we going to deprive them of their future, too? In our panic to protect them (and our own interests) now, will we leave them uniquely vulnerable when they become adults?

There is no doubt that making our children behave like sheep would make life easier, but it also would make life bleaker. Our children are far more endangered by a loss of individual liberties than by any supposed threat that our irrational fears have projected onto what they hear, read, see and say.

When it comes to education, expression simply cannot be separated from learning and responsibility cannot be separated from rights. Forbidding our students and their teachers from speaking in a meaningful manner, or punishing them when they do, makes a mockery of the educational process.

Under such circumstances, what our children learn is that panic reigns, majority rules, and might trumps rights. What our children are witnessing day in and day out in the classrooms and hallways of our schools is an abdication by parents, teachers and administrators who should be setting an example of dedication to constitutional principle, commitment to the dignity of the individual, and, yes, a patient deference to the different.

No textbook has yet been written or lesson plan crafted that teaches as well as example. In the presence of that unalterable truth, we are failing our children miserably.

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