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Commentary: Is it really about education?

I began my career in education in 1957 at The Webb School in Bell Buckle, Tenn.  The school had been established in 1870 and had some very old volumes in its library.  One history book’s opening line of chapter one was,  “4004 B. C. - the creation of the world.”  It had been published right after the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial.  And the state law, which the trial challenged, was still on the books in 1957.  It was not repealed until the late 1960s after two student  teachers in Memphis threatened to challenge it in court -- again.
 
At this same time, I met a man who had worked in the 1940s for the State Department of Education.  His job was to visit schools to evaluate their compliance with the state laws and regulations.   There were many one-room schools  in rural areas of the state.  He related a visit to one of these in the Eastern mountains.  This school served one community, which was composed of one fundamentalist religious sect.  One of their beliefs was that the earth was square, based on the passage in scripture that mentions the “four corners of the Earth.”  
 
He said it was a real experience to sit in the geography class and listen to the teacher talk about the “square Earth” with a globe (which every elementary classroom was required to have) sitting on her desk.
 
My question:  Is there anyone today with one scintilla of educational understanding who believes that we should go back to Bishop Ussher’s 4004 B. C. date or a square earth?  Apparently, there are some who think so.
 
There is a bill currently wending its way through our state legislature that would mandate what is taught in social studies and history classes.  One of its aims is to leave students with certain beliefs and views one of which is that the wording of the U. S. Constitution leaves no room for interpretation --the legal theory of strict constructionism.  This proposed bill is not education; it is indoctrination.  Here’s why.
 
From the very beginning of our Republic, the debate was joined between strict constructionists and loose constructionists over just how our Constitution was to be interpreted.  That debate has gone on for over 200 years, sometimes with our leaders and the courts leaning in one direction--sometimes in the other.  For example, Jefferson was a brilliant and complicated man who probably leaned more toward the strict constructionist view.  The Constitution did not give him explicit authority to purchase territory. 
 
 However, in 1803 when Napoleon needed money and offered to sell the Louisiana Territory--all the western lands drained by the Mississippi River system,--it was too good of  a bargain  to pass up.  I wonder how this bill’s sponsor would propose  teaching  this contradiction.
 
What our students need to learn is that there is more than one position on the issue, the arguments on all sides, and the results down through our history.  They do NOT need to be taught which view is “correct.”  If we start down this slope,  what lies at the bottom are large fires of burning books with swastika flags in the background.
 
This proposed bill also deletes  a current guideline that encourages teaching about minority groups and their contribution  to our history.  Can this be good?  Our students are going out to live in a very diverse country.  Can any educated person just ignore large segments of our population and their accomplishments?
 
One of our local legislators who supports this bill has filed one of his own which aims to ensure that our state’s textbooks are “free from biases” and that  they “reflect the values of Tennessee citizens.”  First of all, I’d like to know who is going to determine what our (my) values are?  I suspect it’s the ones writing these bills and, after seeing some of their thought processes, I’m not willing to give them this authority. 
 
As for ensuring that our textbooks be without bias, I have some news for that legislator.  There is no textbook published that does not contain  some bias because no text can include “everything.”  What is put in or left out or emphasized or de-emphasized is the authors’ understanding of what the course should include.  This always leaves room for the nit-pickers who want more Cubism and less Old Masters in an art text.  And an AP text asking students to examine an event or action  from different positions (in other words, to THINK) does not constitute bias as some claimed in our county last year.
 
No.  What we do not need is “more legislative oversight of our textbook selection process” as one lawmaker stated.  We do not need for ideologues from either end of the political spectrum to get in control of the content of our textbooks.  If  this happens, can a future of book banning, or book burning, litigation , and “monkey trials” be far behind?  The struggles to control the minds of others never seems to end.  Maybe 1984 is not so far off.
 
Dr. Lucas G. (Luke) Boyd is the retired principal of Battle Ground Academy. He lives in Franklin and may be contacted at coondogspress@bellsouth.net.
 
 

Posted on: 2/20/2014

 
 

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