By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
It seems as if Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh get a phone call once a week from a student somewhere around the country with a story about how his or her teacher promotes liberal causes in the classroom — everything from the discussions they initiate to the books they assign to the way they grade students’ research papers that take a conservative position.
There are many indications that parents have learned how to complain effectively to school administrators and school boards about the more egregious cases of bias.
Unfortunately, parents with conservative and traditional views about politics and morality will have to be alert for a new form of left-wing activism in our schools.
Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights released a statement to the press on July 18 in protest over the selective “firewall blocking” of websites on the school computers at Nonnewaug High School in Connecticut. Donohue’s complaint was that the Vatican’s website was blocked, along with the websites of the National Right to Life Committee and christianity.com.
If you are wondering if this may be an effort by the school to filter out all websites with a partisan point of view, Donohue notes that islam-guide.com and Planned Parenthood’s web pages were available at the school.
Spencer Case looked into the situation in the online edition of National Review on July 17, reporting that Andrew Lampart, a senior at the school, was told by Jody Ian Goeler, the superintendent of schools, that it was necessary to block certain websites in order to “prevent hate-speech from leaching into the school.” Donohue e-mailed Goeler asking him to give examples of hate speech “found on the Vatican’s website.” Donohue got no answer. Lampart took his complaint to the Board of Education and was told that his concerns “merit a probe.”
The results of the probe? No one at the school was able to provide a rationale for why some websites were blocked and others permitted. So the school decided on June 23 to block all sites “dealing with abortion, politics, or religion” until an “even-handed filter policy can be devised.”
Is that good news? Donohue does not think so, not entirely. “I’m glad that they’re going to take a look at the Internet policy. But that suggests that this is a technological problem. There’s not a technological problem, there’s a human problem. Somebody turned the switch” to selectively block conservative sites on the school’s computers. “These things are not flukes. This is by design, this is all calculated.”
Donohue believes the school district’s parents and taxpayers deserve to know who it is in the school who harbors this animus against conservatives and Christians, and that they be reprimanded in some way to ensure that they do not permit their personal biases to affect their behavior in the future.
Donohue’s point is sound. You can bet that if there had been someone at the school deliberately blocking access to the NAACP’s, B’nai B’rith’s and the National Organization for Women’s websites, the issue would not be dismissed as a technological oversight. An effort would be made to discover who it was on the school district’s payroll who harbored these politically incorrect predispositions, and to do whatever was necessary, in Superintendent Goeler’s words, to “prevent hate-speech from leaching into the school” with them as the conduit.
Another school superintendent was in the news in recent weeks, Brenda Hodges the superintendent in charge of the Mansfield Massachusetts public schools. Hodges resigned, according to the Boston Globe, when it was discovered that she had plagiarized a portion of her speech at a commencement ceremony. In her June 8 speech, Hodges quoted without attribution portions of a speech Admiral William H. McRaven delivered at the University of Texas, specifically McRaven’s comment that “if every one of you changed the lives of just 10 people, and each one of those folks changed the lives of another 10 people, just 10, then in five generations, 125 years, the class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 800 million people.”
Hodges’ comments were just slightly different. She said in her speech, “If every one of you changed the lives of just five people, just five, then in five generations, 125 years, the class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 400 million people.”
Hodges’ defense? She said her comments were a “common speech template” and that she had come across them not in McCraven’s speech but in news accounts of “certain key phrases that appear in many commencement addresses in different parts of the country.”
Is Hodges telling the truth? Who knows? We can’t read her mind. But it is not an implausible defense. There is plagiarism and there is plagiarism. It strikes me that there are phrases, figures of speech, wisecracks — originally made by someone at a specific moment in time — that become so embedded in the everyday language of our lives that we should be free to repeat them without tracking down the instant they first appeared in print.
So should students in our schools when they write their research papers. Teachers and parents would do well to help them understand where to draw the line in this matter.
I’ll use myself as an example. I find myself using currently in vogue expressions, such as “Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” “Speaking truth to power,” and “All the low-hanging fruit has been picked” — without acknowledging who coined them. I don’t know who coined them. And I don’t think I should have to find out.
I also will make references to Hillary Clinton’s success in the cattle futures market, Jesse Ventura’s predilection for believing conspiracy theories, Chuck Schumer’s fondness for press conferences on obscure issues that he believes will enhance his image, and President Obama’s downplaying of his association with former Weather Underground bomber William Ayers — without providing my readers with the sources of my information on these topics.
Once again, I don’t know where I first learned about these things, any more than I know where I first learned that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. I proceed as if my references are common knowledge among informed Americans, and that specific citations are unnecessary when using them.
I hold no brief for Superintendent Hodges, but if she is telling the truth about her belief that what she said was part of a “common speech template,” something along the lines of Edmund Burke’s warning that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,” she has a point, and deserves some slack. I think we all would agree that a speaker should not be obliged to mention Burke when using these words, or to refer to Genesis when writing, “I am not my brother’s keeper.” Or to call his audience’s attention to Shakespeare as the source of the observation about life being a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.”
There is room for common sense in this matter, for making judgments about whether a speaker or a writer — or a tenth-grade student writing a term paper — is deliberately seeking to take credit for someone else’s words for personal gain, or merely adding some color to his or her comments by including familiar phrases that have become part of the vernacular.
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Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about this and other educational issues. The e-mail address for First Teachers is firstname.lastname@example.org, and the mailing address is P.O. Box 15, Wallingford CT 06492.