Jay Bennish and the Rights of Students and Teachers
Jay Bennish, the Colorado high school who was suspended after a student taped him comparing President Bush to Adolf Hitler in a classroom discussion, is planning a federal lawsuit to get his job back. Katherine Blake reports for Denver’s CBS4:
The high school geography teacher placed on paid leave for comments he made during a class lecture about President Bush plans to file a lawsuit Friday to get back to work. Jay Bennish’s comments were recorded by a student who said he tapes lectures to help with notes.
“Now I’m not saying that Bush and Hitler are exactly the same, obviously they’re not, OK,” Jay Bennish was heard saying on a recording of his class lecture on the day after Bush’s State of the Union Address. “But there are eerie similarities to the tones that they use.”
Bennish’s lawyer said the teacher’s goal is to provoke students to think for themselves. The attorney said Bennish sees himself as a patriotic American and just wants to get back to teaching. “He’s terribly upset about the fact that he can’t teach right now,” David Lane, Bennish’s attorney said Thursday night. “He’s so upset that I am now his lawyer and we are going to Federal court tomorrow.” Lane argued that the Cherry Creek School District has no right to place Bennish on paid administrative leave from Overland High School. “No action should be taken against someone who is exercising their rights under the First Amendment,” Lane said.
Sean Allen, the student who recorded the lecture, brought Bennish’s comments to the attention of an online columnist and radio talk show hosts. “He is not teacher geography,” Allen said during a radio talk show on Wednesday evening. “About 80 percent of the time, he’s teaching his biased political opinions and giving them to our class as a fact.”
Allen didn’t attend class Thursday after getting negative feedback to his actions from fellow students. At the school Thursday, dozens of students walked out in support of Bennish. Other students said they thought Allen did the right thing and that Bennish should “teach, not preach.”
That’s the sad thing: Allen is the one being harassed rather than the teacher. CBS4 on yesterday’s walkout:
Hundreds of students at Overland High School walked out of class Thursday morning in support and protest of a teacher who was at the center of a controversy over comments he made about President Bush during a geography class.
The students left class for about an hour and lined the streets near the school Thursday morning. Many students said they were frustrated and angry about how Bennish had been criticized on talk radio. “I think he inspires so many students and he’s a great teacher,” one student said during the rally. “I mean he makes people do there work and he makes people care about things.” “It’s not about missing a day of school but rather our future,” said Stephanie Edge, a student in support of Bennish. “I don’t think that education should be censored.”
While I applaud teachers’ efforts to “get students to think,” a classroom–especially a geography classroom, let alone at the high school level–is not a forum for foisting one’s political view on a captive audience. This goes well beyond academic freedom, which presumes that an instructor is a subject matter expert expressing his possibly controversial views on that subject.
The public has a clear interest in making certain that schools perform their desired function. Shouldn’t we pass laws allowing public school students the right to record any classroom session paid for with public funds?
The MP3 revolution is upon us. iPods are ubiquitous. For as little as fifteen bucks a tiny device clicks in and turns the iPod into a digital recorder. Suitable for uploading to the web by any kid in America.
Think of the historic opportunity we have to improve education by decentralized monitoring of classroom conduct. I am certain sanctimonious arguments are made to respect the privacy and intimacy of he teacher-student bond. The learning process depends on trust. Laymen just don’t understand the complexities.
Spare me. These are public employees, union members more than independent professionals, and they are hired to teach geography not spew political hyperbole. We need to monitor them. They shouldn’t say anything in the classroom on our dime that they aren’t willing to see heard on the internet.
While students should not be subject to the Bennishes of the world, this goes way too far, in my judgment. The chilling effect on teachers would be simply palpable. They should not have every sentence, every joke, every off-the-cuff remark subjected to worldwide scrutiny. This would be more outrageous than the occasional venomous lecture from an enthusiastic but out-of-control teacher.
Indeed, while I disagree with the students shunning Allen for bringing this incident to light, I would much have preferred that he took the tape and his concerns to his principal or his parents rather than to the media. My strong guess is that, even in a relatively liberal community, the principal or the school board would have dealt with this one appropriately.
As to what is appropriate in this case, I don’t have all the facts. CBS4 is holding a poll asking “Should teacher Jay Bennish be fired for comments he made about President Bush?” If this is the first time he has been admonished about using the classroom as a bully pulpit, I would say No. It may indeed be the case that, aside from this, “he inspires so many students and he’s a great teacher.” If so, he should be given another shot at his job, albeit with better direction as to his role and some appropriate monitoring.
Update: Done properly, a comparison of Bush to Hitler might indeed be instructive. At the college level–which is admittedly a different enviroment with different strictures–I often played Devil’s Advocate on controversial issues. It can be an effective teaching tool. I often used, “Were the Sons of Liberty terrorists?” as a discussion topic in American government, for example.
As to students recording classroom material and the “public employee” argument, I simply disagree. I did not allow it when I was teaching, for a variety of reasons. Mostly, I wanted to have frank class discussion and getting students to participate in a give-and-take is difficult. The added pressure of knowing they are being recorded is unhelpful in that regard.
Update 2: To the extent it even applies to high school teachers, who tend not to have genuine expertise in a subject matter, this definition of Academic Freedom from the American Association of University Professors (gleaned from a long ago post) might be useful in this discussion:
1. Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.
2. Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.
3. College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.
Clearly, Bennish was operating far outside these bounds.
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