The Thinker

The news recently has been filled with stories about educators making poor decisions: a Riverside High School cheerleading coach in hot water for allowing pictures of topless cheerleaders in a hot tub to be taken and a choir director at Paradise High School in Phoenix, Arizona facing the music for taking her students to Hooter’s for lunch.  (Bad puns, of course, intended.)

While titillating, the poor decisions highlighted in these stories pale in comparison to a poor decision made by the administration of Swanson Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, last week.  As part of a model United Nations debate, some students were assigned to argue in support of Afghanistan’s Taliban before administrators stepped in to stop the assignment after a few parents became angry.

Is the purpose of education to indoctrinate students or to teach them to think?  While I believe in providing students with a common cultural foundation as part of their education a la E.D. Hirsch, Jr., I do not believe that should be taken as an excuse not to teach students to think critically and to attempt to understand others’ points of view, especially given that our country is at war in two countries in which a lot of people think quite differently than we.

Is there no valid argument to support the Taliban position?  Only a non-thinking person would say so.

  • Argument No. 1: Afghanistan is a sovereign nation, and the United States should respect its sovereignty absent a serious and immediate threat from the government of that country.  At the time of its invasion, Afghanistan did not pose a serious threat to the United States, and thus its sovereignty should have been respected.
  • Argument No. 2: The Taliban should not be held any more responsible for the actions of Osama Bin Laden than should the United States government’s puppet Karzai regime, which has not been able to reign in Osama Bin Laden or his network.
  • Argument No. 3: The Taliban could be no worse than the current Karzai regime, which does everything from steal elections to kill family members with which it is feuding.
  • Argument No. 4: The Taliban may engage in religious practices that we find repugnant and repressive, but their religious preferences should be respected in the same way that American Episcopalians respect the religious practices of American Catholics and American Jews.

While I could provide a strong response to each argument, it does not make the arguments unworthy of making or considering.  I want students to reach reasoned conclusions after considering many sides of an issue, not after being told what to think by one of our nation’s leaders.

Is it somehow wrong to expect eighth graders to think?  According to Linda Erdos, spokeswoman for the Arlington Public Schools, “There is a sensitivity that eighth grade kids don’t have the maturity level to do this at this point.”  I could not disagree more.  It’s never too early to teach a student how to think.

I, for one, worry far more about the students at Swanson Middle School than I do about the students at Paradise High School.

H/T The Answer Sheet


~ by Dennis Taylor on 20 December 2009.

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