Phi Beta Cons

O Captain? My Captain?

I blame Robin Williams. At least in part. One of the enduring models of the teaching profession is the teacher as life-changer: the person who goes far beyond merely teaching a subject to open a student’s eyes to the wider world — to help them see reality in a different way. Arguably, the most memorable model of this approach in my lifetime has been Professor John Keating (played by Mork) in Dead Poets Society. In the stirring final scene, Keating is led out of the classroom by the school headmaster as students jump on their desks and shout out the opening line of Walt Whitman’s poem, “O Captain! My Captain!”

While great teachers can change lives (I am enormously grateful for the influence of many teachers in my own life), this model of teacher as guru has unfortunately led to abuse and to banal ideological propaganda. Teachers mistake indoctrination for influence and believe that if they can cause their students to “wake up” to problems with the environment, the war, immigration, etc., then they are following in Keating’s oh-so-dramatic footsteps. After all, what is more meaningful? Teaching a body of knowledge or transforming a student’s entire outlook on life?
This teaching model was dealt a body blow this week by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. In Mayer v. Monroe County Community School Corporation, the Court rejected a lawsuit brought by a teacher who voiced objections to the Iraq War during the current events section of her class. In so doing, the Court said that the teacher, when conducting her class does not — in essence — have any independent right to free speech. She is hired to communicate the school board’s message, not her own. As Judge Easterbrook wrote:
“This is so in part because the school system does not “regulate” teachers’ speech as much as it hires that speech. Expression is a teacher’s stock in trade, the commodity she sells to her employer in exchange for a salary. A teacher hired to lead a social-studies class can’t use it as a platform for a revisionist perspective that Benedict Arnold wasn’t really a traitor, when the approved program calls him one; a high-school teacher hired to explicate Moby-Dick in a literature class can’t use Cry, The Beloved Country instead, even if Paton’s book better suits the instructor’s style and point of view; a math teacher can’t decide that calculus is more important than trigonometry and decide to let Hipparchus and Ptolemy slide in favor of Newton and Leibniz.”
While this case did not decide whether this principle applies to university professors, there was little comfort in Easterbrook’s opinion for the notion that university professors are fundamentally different in this regard from high school teachers. The fact remains that — from a legal perspective — the academic freedom of the institution almost certainly trumps the academic freedom of any given individual employee. Why? One reason — ironically enough — is that the court sees public institutions as more accountable than (tenured) individual teachers:
“Majority rule about what subjects and viewpoints will be expressed in the classroom has the potential to turn into indoctrination; elected school boards are tempted to support majority positions about religious or patriotic subjects especially. But if indoctrination is likely, the power should be reposed in someone the people can vote out of office, rather than tenured teachers. At least the board’s views can be debated openly, and the people may choose to elect persons committed to neutrality on contentious issues.”
On the one hand, I am pleased that teachers do not have a free hand to use my tax dollars to advance their own idiosyncratic viewpoints. On the other hand, if teaching really becomes seen as “speech for hire,” then we will lose something intangibly valuable within the profession. As much as I abhor indoctrination, I know that teaching is not the same thing as making widgets. And young minds can be molded in positive ways that go beyond the defined curriculum. As always, it is a shame when the abuses of a few lead to legal doctrines that constrain the many.
While the long-term impact of this case remains to be seen. One thing is certain: John Keating would not approve.