What Our Students Can “Opt Out” Of and What they Can’t

The public school perpetuation of Baracknaphobia and Reaganphilia

Today, public schools televised the Presidential back to school speech. Granted, there was less paranoia and right wing balderdash than there was the first time, but paranoia doesn’t die so easily. A few days ago, all students in the district received “opt-out” forms to bring home to their parents. If the parent did not want their child to see the President’s speech, they could sign the form and the child would be sent to an alternative room during the televised event. This must have been a significant expense in paper, toner and man-hours considering that the vast majority of the forms were not returned. In fact, I’ll wager that about half of the forms never made it home for the parents to see. Mind you, there are still students in my school who do not have the required textbooks for their courses due to budget austerity, but the school system spared no expense in printing forms that stigmatize the President of the United States.

Yes, it is stigmatizing. This isn’t just a matter of, “parents have a right to say what their children are exposed to in school.” They don’t. This is the President of the United States speaking to students and encouraging them to stay in school, study and work hard. Sending an opt-out form home insinuates that there might be something wrong with what Obama has to say, that the President of the United States may be a bad influence on students. After all, what other activities are students allowed to “opt out” of? Movies with too mature a rating. Curriculum that may contain “inappropriate,” graphic or controversial content. And Obama speeches. If there’s a possibility that a video shown in class might contain some nudity, or abusive language, parents are allowed to opt their children out of participating. I remember when I was in eleventh grade many of my classmates opted out of seeing the childbirth film in Anatomy and Physiology class. So a speech by the President of the United States, by inference, shares a distinction with inappropriate content, nudity, foul language, controversy and graphic imagery. What do you suppose this policy communicates to students?

From the reaction of my own students, I can report one message that they are receiving, whether this is the intent of policy-makers or not, a black president is not subject to the same level of respect as anyone else. In a school with over seventy percent minority enrollment, that such a policy is interpreted through the lens of race is no surprise. When I was passing around the “opt out” forms, many of my students, not quite half, were quite vocal that this was “racism.” Many more demonstrated that they agreed with this observation. I know of no students defending the “opt out” policy (which does not mean that the policy was universally disdained by the class). There was a broad consensus among my class that this policy would not be in place for a white president. Again, this might not be the intent of the policy-makers (though I’m sure it plays at least a small role in the “opt out” decision), but many students, especially students of color, understand this policy in terms of race.

Policies communicate the biases of the policy makers, if not in what is written, then in what is read between the lines. In this case many minority students are reading a confirmation of the larger societal discourse on race and ethnicity. By high school, racial inequality is clear to those living under its weight—a weight most policy makers do not understand. The opt-out policy exacerbates a tenuous relationship between a community and its minority children and young adults. After all, if President Obama is not due simple respect, if there’s an option to shut one’s ears to what the President of the United States has to say due to the color of his skin, how much respect can students who are “brown like…” Obama expect? Might the school system simply opt-out of its obligations regarding minority students? There is plenty of evidence that many school systems do just that. Under these circumstances, why shouldn’t students of color similarly opt-out themselves?

Meanwhile my department head received a curriculum package on Ronald Reagan, for use in social studies classrooms, from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. This organization is “dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Ronald Reagan’s legacy of inspired freedom.” That’s nice. Apparently there is no curriculum dedicated to Reagan’s legacy of death squads in central America or support of Muslim extremists in Afghanistan, or his legacy of slashing funds to education and a whole host of other nasty things. If only we could all have our own foundations dedicated to remembering the nice stuff about us. Certainly, this curriculum is slanted toward a particular position, political persuasion or ideology. Such bias on the part of President Obama, however, is offered as the justification for protesting, censoring or at the very least allowing our students to opt out of hearing his speech.

One of the reading teachers is requiring her students to read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. She received a free class set of this far right novel/tract from the Ayn Rand Institute. According to the institute’s website, “…we estimate that more than five million young people will be introduced to Ayn Rand’s books and ideas over the next few years as a direct result of this program.” Yet this is not considered “indoctrination” as is the accusation leveled at Obama’s back to school speech.

Conspicuously, there is no “opt-out” form for the Reagan curriculum. Imagine that. Had I or any other social studies teacher in my school decided to present this curriculum to our students, parents would not have had the opportunity to opt their children out. Nor is there an “opt-out” for Atlas Shrugged. And there shouldn’t be. This is true for any curriculum presented in schools. If every parent opted their children out of every class or lesson that they found objectionable schools might end up in an existential crisis. Imagine a school in which teachers had to design alternative classwork for every child presenting an opt-out form. Don’t want your child learning about evolution, or global climate change, or the Crusades, simply present an opt-out. Fortunately, parents do not have this kind of influence, though I know many who would like to.

I require my students to read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States as a supplemental reading in my US History class. Like the Atlas Shrugged students, they do not have the opportunity to “opt out.” The media specialist (librarian) expressed her dismay that this book was “biased.” Of course, it’s biased. Atlas Shrugged is biased. The Reagan Curriculum is biased. Obama’s speech is biased. Bias is a part of life and should be a part of our curriculum. A balanced curriculum is best served when teachers with diverse backgrounds and belief systems have academic freedom and training for incorporating multiple perspectives in the classroom. There’s nothing wrong with reading Atlas Shrugged, or People’s History, or being exposed to the Reagan curriculum, or listening to Obama’s speech. So long as the data itself is accurate (I’m sure the Reagan Presidential Foundation isn’t lying in its curriculum, but rather emphasizing the positive while downplaying the negative) and ethical standards for presenting material followed, a skillful and diverse teaching staff should be able to mitigate any effects of bias and encourage personal growth among its students. The goal is not and should not be to purge the classroom of any material that may present a certain point of view or, god forbid, offend a student or parent. The goal is to create an enriching, engaging and stimulating learning environment in which students have access to multiple ideas and perspectives.

The policy response to Obama’s speech directly contradicts this goal. Instead of enrichment, engagement and stimulation, this policy is part of a larger, concerted and dedicated effort by the political right to ensure that only one ideology and its pre-selected ideas is accessible to the people and legitimized by our institutions. All other ideas and perspectives, especially those ideas that directly challenge those of the far right, must be silenced, delegitimized and marginalized. It’s an outright attempt to create a monopoly in the marketplace of ideas. This is done by screaming “bias!” “Indoctrination!” “Politicking in the classroom!” The far right machine cries “offensive!” “Obscene!” or worst of all, “Politically Correct!” any materials that challenges its ideological stranglehold.

Teachers, regardless of political persuasion, must be on the front lines of this battle. Whether we are liberal or conservative of moderate or any combination thereof, we as teachers must recognize that we cannot cultivate the fertile mind of youth in sterile soil. Diversity, debate, experimentation, tolerance and freedom are the grist of the great works of the mind. As teachers, we must strive to protect this environment for our students.

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