Colorado high-school sophomore Sean Allen couldn't convince his
father that his geography teacher was as over-the-top as he contended. So
Allen taped one of his teacher's rants on his MP3 player. Too bad for Jay
Bennish: His 20-minute lecture ended up on talk radio.
As aired on Mike Rosen's show, Bennish said Bush talks like
Hitler: "I'm not saying that Bush and Hitler are exactly the same," but that
the two share "eerie similarities." Peruvians and Iranians arguably have "a
right to bomb North Carolina" because the state grows tobacco. On Sept. 11,
2001, al-Qaida operatives were "attacking legitimate targets, people who
have blood on their hands, as far as they're concerned." Oh, and capitalism
violates "human rights."
The Cherry Creek School District placed Bennish on paid
administrative leave as it investigates whether the teacher failed to
provide a balanced look at the issues. They won't find balance. I listened
to the rant, and what I heard was a semi-educated self-impressed petty
tyrant using the classroom as a soapbox, secure in the knowledge that a
bunch of teenagers couldn't out-argue him. Still, I hope the district allows
Bennish to return to the classroom.
(District spokesperson Tustin Amole expects an announcement on
Bennish's fate today or Wednesday.) The school district policy sounds
reasonable. The school board recognizes, "Each teacher has the right and the
obligation to teach about controversial issues." The district also notes the
teacher's obligation to present various views on issues. And, "Although he
has the right to express his own viewpoints, he does not have the right to
indoctrinate students to his views."
The problem is, there is no good way to enforce that policy. The
line between passionate argument and indoctrination is a thin divide. When I
was a kid, some of my best teachers were highly opinionated. They didn't
necessarily provide balance when they talked about literature or history,
but they did provide passion, and that fired up their students.
In an age when many teens mainly are absorbed with going to the
mall and text messaging, it's better to have a teacher who instills
passion — Amole tells me Bennish is a "passionate" teacher — than a
teacher who provokes yawns. Do I see this episode as a typical educrat
romp — with a liberal teacher forcing his ideology down the throats of
students, willing or not? Yes, but any rule used to silence Bennish can and
will be used against another teacher who is actually informative. It can and
will be used against conservative teachers.
So let Bennish back in the classroom. Even Allen's parents don't
want to see the teacher fired. They want the district to admonish Bennish,
and they want Bennish to learn a lesson.
Perhaps in time, Bennish will grow into a teacher who
appreciates geography — and social studies, which he also teaches — to the
extent that he can get excited about topics, even if they don't readily pass
through his heavy filter of America-hating.
In the meantime, he's likely to educate a small army of future
conservatives. A few years ago, I heard from a teacher whose class was
reading Sophocles' "Antigone." He had assigned his students to write about
how the play's characters — and my columns — dealt in "false dichotomies."
I was enraged. First, my column is not in the league of
Sophocles. More important to me: It was clear this teacher did not
appreciate or understand a jewel of Western literature — if he did, he
would have stuck to the play. False dichotomies? Please. That's academese
for: I don't understand it.
Well, at least it beats being compared to Hitler.