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.
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