An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary that addresses environmental policy, hosted by Al Gore, continues to generate educational controversy. A number of parents have objected to the film's classroom use, accusing it of being inaccurate, in spite of numerous scientists who testify to its veracity. Other critics challenge the messenger, accusing the film of partisanship. This seems peculiar. Is truth Democratic or Republican?
The Federal Way School District in Washington recently banned the film unless specific criteria were met. Teachers who want to show the movie must get the approval of the principal and the superintendent, and must ensure that a "credible, legitimate opposing view will be presented." And teachers who have already shown the film must now present an "opposing view."
This policy raises more questions than it answers. What is credible? Does every issue have an equally valid opposing view? Is there only one opposing view? Should the views of the Aryan Nations be included in discussions of the Holocaust or civil rights? Are there worksheets on the upside of slavery?
Must all materials used by a teacher pass muster from the superintendent? How long will that take? Is the superintendent competent to make every judgment? What happened to academic freedom? May teachers discuss current events or share breaking news stories with students?
The bigger picture
You're probably asking, "How did the Federal Way School Board get to this point?" The answer is that one parent, yes one, sent an e-mail message objecting to the showing of the film. Evidently some parents are emboldened to legislate for all students, rather than opting to keep their child out of an activity they find personally offensive.
What sort of educational leadership reverses policy based on a single complaint? How about telling such parents that we trust the judgment of our teachers? Why capitulate so easily?
In fact, Frosty Hardison, the objecting parent, isn't really concerned about the science of global warming. Like many zealots, Hardison has not seen the film in question, but did say: "Condoms don't belong in school, and neither does Al Gore. He's not a schoolteacher...The information that's being presented is a very cockeyed view of what the truth is .... The Bible says that in the end times everything will burn up, but that perspective isn't in the DVD." It's obvious that Hardison's motives are concerned with imposing his religious beliefs on the school system. He found an ally in the school board president, who dismissed evolution as "only a theory," that timeless canard that mangles the definition of theory for ideological gain.
I don't understand the vitriol directed toward Vice President Gore. Why do so many assume he doesn't know what he is talking about? When did decades of public service and two terms as vice president become something to be condemned rather than respected? What are the implications for our democracy when elected officials are dismissed out of hand as partisan hacks?
Where does it end?
Should any parent be able to change classroom practice with a single e-mail? If parents can opt children out of a health class because it violates their family's values, can I opt my child out of a course because I think it is a dopey waste of time? Why can't I select my child's teachers and demand a personal curriculum? Should I be able to bend the district to my wishes? Is the parental veto a sound idea?
The common school is at the center of our democracy. Educational leadership requires the assertion of expertise and a willingness to say "No!"