Captive Audiences, Captive Minds

JC Julia Lennon (2)
Julia Lennon and JC Bowman at Beatles Tribute

I was too young to really appreciate the British Music Invasion.  However, I became a die-hard Beatles fan in 4th grade, a tradition that I passed down to my children.  Later, I listened and enjoyed the different directions and songs of the individual members of the Beatles.  One of my favorite John Lennon tunes was Mind Games. Lennon nailed it, about how ideologues betray themselves in the clash of competing ideas.

Penny Lane has barbers with photographs, but today trends come with charts and graphs.  Pharisees today would rather stifle debate and only present one side of an issue.  These are people who would sooner ridicule someone, rather than pushing barriers or planting seeds.  In Mind Games, Lennon coined the term mind guerrillas, which was absolutely brilliant.  The mind guerrillas are alive and well. They talk a good game. Unfortunately, a few of them are in our classrooms with captive audience and captive minds.

On both the political right and the left, academic freedom is sometimes erroneously confused with complete autonomy, with thought and speech freed from all constraints. There are definitely limits, and educators have responsibilities.  Students have the freedom to form independent judgments on subjects.  In education, as in life, we must engage differences of opinion, evaluate the evidence, and then form our own individual opinions.  Students have the right to hear and assess diverse views, as long as they are age appropriate and not merely propaganda disguised as information.   American’s have debated the issue historically.  Because of this, in 1840 the Massachusetts Legislature debated the increasing government control over education.

We often see in the media egregious examples of taxpayer dollars being used in ways that seem more in line with indoctrination, rather than mere encouraging independent thought.  We suggest to teachers to be careful in their lessons, unless they are not afraid of it appearing in the local newspaper or nightly news.  In fairness, most educators never have to worry about this issue.  However, let me give you an example of one instance, paraphrased and sent to me by a well-respected classroom teacher:

A local high school was registering students to vote.  This in of itself is a positive step.  It was designed for students to get informed and vote.  However, the person promoting the event didn’t stop there.  She went on a rant about the electoral college system and she said that she thinks it is archaic.  She then proceeded to talk about medical marijuana and said that Tennessee is still Tennessee and that medical pot legalization won’t happen anytime soon. Then, she further highlighted a specific political race between a conservative and a liberal candidate.   Pointing out the virtues of the liberal candidate, and criticizing the conservative.

The teacher closed her email by saying: “I could give many more specific examples, but, again, my goal is not to get anyone in trouble, just to make sure parents aren’t entrusting their children to an institution that is going to push their beliefs in one direction only.”  She then added: “Obviously teachers are going to have diverse political opinions, even strong ones, about all types of issues. My problem is with them pushing those opinions on public school students and the one-sided nature of it.”  That is the heart of the issue, whether it is conservative or liberal.

As educators, it is often hard to keep private personal views out of our public lives—yet we should exercise restraint.  Our education system is not intended for political goals and political purposes, it is intended so that all students are equipped with the knowledge and skills to successfully embark upon their chosen path in life.  We benefit as a society when we develop children with independent critical judgment.  Martin Luther King Jr. poignantly stated: “The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.”

Chinese leader Mao Zedong wrote:  Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed.  When it came to education, Mao stressed that students should have a “correct political point of view.”  That collectivist thought sounds like indoctrination.  John Lennon had a message for that in Revolution, “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.”

Educators are entitled to their own political opinions.  However, when they are performing official duties they should remain politically neutral.  The youngest citizens of our state and nation who walk through our classroom doors each day deserve to develop their own opinions, be taught to discuss issues respectfully, and not be ridiculed for have a different political or religious belief.  There is a fine line between a teacher sharing their view, or forcing their view on students. It is not the job of the educator to force their point of view on anyone in a classroom or school.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.