Topic: Professions & Institutions

Politics, Ethics and Arrogance in the Classroom
(11/28/2005)

What are the duties of a teacher? As the trustee and sculptor of young and fertile minds, he or she is certainly responsible for imparting knowledge according to the teacher's established expertise, as well as discipline, values and wisdom. But does that include explaining to students how the unscrupulous, mean and venal Republican warmongers have used underhanded methods to seize power and threaten democracy?

It would seem that Bret Chenkin thinks so. He is an English and Social Studies teacher at Mount Anthony Union High School in Bennington, Vermont. He decided to impart some political wisdom in a vocabulary test, with questions like this one:

"It is frightening the way the extreme right has [balled, arrogated] aspects of the Constitution and warped them for their own agenda."

The correct answer is arrogated (balled???). And, of course, the question requires the student who wants to answer it correctly to ratify the statement, which is of the "When did you stop beating your wife?" variety, in that you must agree to the underlying premise in order to answer.

Oh, uh, Mr. Chenkin, sir? While passing along your undoubtedly astute judgement on Constitutional matters, maybe you should double-check the rules on subject-possessive pronoun agreement, as in the case of "extreme right," a singular subject, being referred to in the possessive as "their," a plural, particularly since "their," referring to the subject of the sentence, follows "them" used to refer to the object, creating ambiguity. If you're still interested in teaching English rather than political advocacy, that is.

Here's another "vocabulary question" on Chenkin's test:

"I wish Bush would be [coherent, eschewed] for once during a speech, but there are theories that his everyday diction charms the below-average mind, hence insuring him Republican votes."

The correct answer to this one, for those of you who don't know the difference between a past tense verb and an adjective (this is a high school test?) is coherent.

Oh, incidentally, Mr. Chenkin? While you're cleverly indoctrinating your students with the ever-popular "Supporters of the President are Morons" theory, you might want to also brush up on the distinction between ensure and insure, you being an English teacher and all. Just a suggestion!

Responding to criticism from parents and the school superintendant, Chenkin claims that his questions "were taken out of context." Not that he doesn't believe that President Bush is an inarticulate boob and that the evil religious right is bent on tearing up the Constitution, mind you…only that his students are well aware of his political leanings and know they are free to disagree.

Except on a graded test that requires them to complete sentences in accordance with their teacher's political views, that is!

This is unethical teaching. There is no reason why individuals of any ideological persuasion can't be excellent teachers, but they have to be able to distinguish between opening young minds and closing them. Bennington, Vermont is as liberal a U.S. locale as you can find outside of California, and Chenkin undoubted thought he was in safe territory pushing his similarly aligned views in class, as opposed to giving his class exam questions like…

"I sure wish that Jesse Jackson was as effective in addressing the real causes of economic disparity between the races as he is in [extorting, applesauce] huge contributions from major corporations to keep his organization's coffers filled."

But that would be inappropriate, right, Mr. Chenkin? Right you are. In fact, any such heavy handed political commentary in a high school class is inappropriate, an unethical use of a teacher's power, authority and influence to tilt students' perceptions of current events and national issues to one mandated conclusion. An open-ended class discussion is fine, and it is also fine for a teacher to express his or her own opinions in such a discussion as long as the opinions are responsible, rational, and framed as some of many legitimate points of view. Expressing these opinions on a test that has nothing to do with the issues involved, however, reeks of coercion, especially when studenta are required to complete a sentence that he or she might disagree with or even find offensive.

Moreover, Bret Chenkin was given the assignment to teach English and Social Studies, not contemporary U.S. politics. Judging from the quality of his test questions, it is dubious enough whether he has the requisite knowledge to teach those subjects, but there is no reason to believe that he has any more business teaching kids political theory than the school's janitor. This is arrogance merged with incompetence, equaling malfeasance. If the Scoreboard were the school board, it would be sorely tempted to give Chenkin his walking papers. If this teacher could not discern the throbbing bright red line that his vocabulary test crossed, it is hard to see how or why his judgement should be trusted in the future.

Then again, he does have a lot of company out New England way. A startling example: the venerable Boston Globe headlined this story thus:

Teacher under investigation for alleged liberalism 

Oh, that's what all the controversy was about, is it…just another witch hunt by those bad old conservatives trying to run another liberal to ground?

The teacher's "alleged liberalism" had nothing at all to do with the complaints. The problem was and is that he was using his classroom to impose personal political beliefs having neither educational value nor relevance to the subject matter he was supposed to be teaching. It is an ethical problem, not a political one. The Globe headline is graphic evidence of how difficult it is to be an "objective reporter" when one's world view is divided into "us" and "them," and anything the good "us" can do to expose and defeat the bad "them" is acceptable, reasonable, and ethical. Maybe the Globe reporters learned this from teachers like Bret Chalkin. Meanwhile, when one of the most respected newspapers in America willfully misses the point of what should be an obvious instance of educational malpractice, one can discern why the credibility of the media has fallen so far and so fast.

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