Teachers: stick to the facts please

Posted: Aug 25, 2005 12:00 AM

As a columnist, I often find myself, along with so many Americans, stuck in the middle on issues.

 For example, in one piece I may praise President Bush for choosing a strong Supreme Court nominee. In the next writing, I'll hit him for taking a five-week vacation (albeit a working one).

 It's not that I don't have the right or the inclination to express strong opinions -- at least not after I first report and analyze the opinions of the American public through our polling.

 It's just that I like to believe the op-ed world still has room for someone who can compliment Bill Clinton for one thing and George W. Bush for another. It's called giving credit -- or blame -- where it's due.

 I may be more comfortable with this approach because I've been fortunate to know many of those I write about either personally or professionally. It has taught me that there are always two sides (or more) to every story.

 Now if I can just pass on that open-minded philosophy to some of those who are members of a profession more important and influential than mine -- educators.

 This past week, a high school student I know (but won't name for fear of grading reprisals) was attending his first day of American history class.

 His private school teacher, doubtless bright and qualified, displayed his true colors right off by announcing that Ronald Reagan was a terrible president. His primary objection to Reagan apparently was the former president's involvement in the "Iran-Contra" arms-for-hostages deal that came to light during his second term.

 I wasn't pleased that the teacher chose to fulfill his obligation to shape the views of young people by starting the first day of instruction teaching his own personal views instead of history.

 Before the letters and e-mails start flooding in from teachers who teach as they should and don't want their profession maligned by one bad apple, let me assure everyone that I have immense respect and admiration for teachers. I can name many teachers who positively impacted my own life and to whom I owe much. And this high regard only increases as I witness the vital role teachers play in the lives of my own children.

 So rather than just scolding this one history teacher specifically about Reagan, I'll share another side of history that teachers rarely get to see.

 But first, let's start with the numbers. In February, the Gallup Organization conducted a national survey and found that -- surprise! -- Ronald Reagan is the nation's most admired former president. (None other than Bill Clinton was second.)

 If history is judging Reagan as a bad president, it must be someone else's history and not that of the American people.

 Now for a glimpse behind the scenes.

 Many times, there is more to a controversy than meets the eye. It's not a secret that by the time President Reagan was questioned about the arms-for-hostages controversy, he was showing signs of memory loss.

 Even some top Democrats who would otherwise have called for Reagan's blood held back because they genuinely believed he was confused over some of the facts surrounding Iran-Contra.

 Not long after Reagan left office, I and several others accompanied him as he delivered a speech during which he sometimes wandered off the script, forgot the punch line of a joke, and even said that long-ago presidential candidate Al Smith had actually been president.

 This incident was painful and even more so because it took place years before Reagan's problem had been clinically diagnosed as Alzheimer's.
Our anti-Reagan history teacher probably doesn't know any of this.

 All that aside, the opinionated instructor probably won't teach his students that President Reagan completely turned around an economy that suffered from double-digit interest rates. Or that his tough but artful diplomacy with the old Soviet Union set the stage for the collapse of communism. Such omissions in the classroom would be a shame.

 And just so our trusted classroom instructor will know that history is often made behind the scenes among political players who are supposedly avowed enemies, let me reveal that I personally know of many times when public foes such as Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton privately worked through issues with key phone calls and personal meetings.

 There was even hot internal debate among then-House Speaker Gingrich's political circle about whether the Republican effort to impeach Clinton was politically wise.

 I argued vehemently against it. And just to prove that we rarely hold grudges in politics, the original and biggest advocate for impeachment -- former Congressman Bob Barr -- now works in the office next to mine!

 So allow me a few words of advice to the well-meaning teacher who likes to interject his own opinions during history class: Unless you've been there, stick to the facts in the textbook. Genuine history is rarely a cut-and-dried affair or as unforgiving as harsh personal judgments.