4 January 2006: Teachable Moment

School missed a teachable moment

Teachable moments arise in an infinite circumstances and are not coincidental, but synchronous. When not acted upon, they dissipate back into the void. However, when a teacher seizes the moment, a lifelong learning experience can be the result. CSAP won’t measure it; Governor Owens won’t consider it a part of an excellent school report card; and the district’s Gold Nugget News won’t post it. A student would later, nevertheless, point to it from the advantage of maturity as a critical juncture, a turning point that impacted his/her development, attitude, and perspective—all those things about which CSAP is clueless.

One such teachable moment presented itself at the controversial high school assembly on Iraq. During the part about the destructive impact of the American invasion and ongoing occupation in which Dr. Dahlia Wasfi displayed some graphic pictures, a student applauded and shouted, “I’m proud to be American.” Too bad he left without being challenged—perhaps with this: “So am I, but you need to learn first what it means to be a good American.” He, along with his peers, might have been able to learn that mouthing platitudes is one thing, while putting into practice true American ideals, such as being respectful of diverse opinions and to guests in our homes, is the American way.

It seems strange that Principal Reeves felt compelled to send a letter to parents with an apology and offer for counseling for those that may have suffered psychological trauma. One wonders if those students would have been “offended” and in need of therapeutic counseling if the pictures were the result of Saddam Hussein’s actions rather than George Bush’s.

Scrambling to provide “balance,” the administration arranged for Republican Party Chair Steven Schultz to address the students. When I first heard of this controversy, one observation I made was students needed to realize that a war is not like a football game. Imagine my chagrin when I heard Mr. Schultz make that exact sophomoric analogy, comparing body count to a game score, as if we hadn’t learned the folly of that thinking in Vietnam. Further, responding to the question “Why do they hate us so much?”, Mr. Schultz need not have gone back 1400 years to the great Islamic schism, but instead given an overview of the exploitation of the region over the past century by the British Empire and, from Muslim perspective, the Second Coming of the British Empire—America.

One of my teacher education professors, Dr. John Haas, reminded us in the land before time—before “Nation at Risk” made the scene and public education was discovered to be a convenient and bountiful political football by the Right—that schools reflect the community in which they exist and serve as inculcators of community values. Certainly it is the job of all educators to inculcate their students with values such as honesty, tolerance, and those delineated in our great documents—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But pabulum served up like “my country right or wrong” is offensive, disrespectful, and insulting to the intellects of soon-to-be adults. Students hunger for more—to be challenged and corrected on their fallacies in logic and with facts, which as Ronald Reagan famously reminded us, are “pesky little things.”

The truth is Bush’s most current justification for the invasion and continued occupation of Iraq is far different than the rationale he laid out prior to the invasion. Something has changed, and it’s not the facts: Saddam had no WMD, which Hans Blix could have documented had he been allowed to finish his job. Furthermore, he had no connection with the September 11 attacks or with Al Qaeda. In fact, Saddam’s rejection of religion in his secular government made him an enemy and a target of the fundamentally religious Osama bin Laden. Saddam was a tyrant and brutal murderer for sure, though not alone among world despots.

Given that, legitimate questions can be posed: What made Saddam stand out from the crowd? Was war the only answer? Which dictatorship is next—Cuba, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, China, or Sudan? Where’s bin Laden and why hasn’t he been captured? How does that justify spying without court approval on American citizens? By torturing and constructing secret prisons, is Bush in effect “Saddamizing” America? After a sound debate on those and other points, students could then draw their own conclusions as to whether George Bush should be enshrined on Mt. Rushmore, impeached, or hauled before the World Court.

Public school educators are in a crucible today. The easy thing, at least in terms of keeping one’s job, is not to “rock the boat.” But great teachers and administrators abhor that approach. Master teachers challenge their students to question the prevailing zeitgeist—the outlook and attitude of a current generation—particularly when it is dishonest and an affront to American democratic values. The teachers responsible for arranging for Dr. Wasfi’s presentation as well as the students in the audience that treated her with respect are to be commended. Those that objected to her presence, students and adults, deserve a failing grade and a refresher course in American Civics 101.

Program Note: Several CCHS students are scheduled to be my guests on Western Exposure on KYGT on Saturday, January 14 @ 3:00 to have a dialogue about this event and other situations at the high school as they relate to it.

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