Friday, March 13, 2015

The Slippery Slope of Education Legislation

I will be the first to admit that I am not very up to date on current news or political issues, so I apologize in advance for my ignorance. However, something has recently come to my attention that scares me. 

Earlier this year, the Kansas senate approved a bill that will allow teachers to be prosecuted for distributing harmful content to minors. The teacher could be sentenced to six months in jail. The problem with this bill, is how to interpret the phrase "harmful content." According to the bill, any teacher who provides materials for students that can be considered offensive by "any reasonable person" can be sent to jail. Supporters claim that the bill is necessary to ensure that our students are protected from being introduced to any kind of pornography in school. They claim that teachers will not be prosecuted for teaching works of "literary or scientific value." 

However, the conditions of the bill are highly subjective. Schools are a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities. Different people are offended by different things. Parents have different values and opinions that they want passed down to their children. My classes recently finished a unit on Asian literature where we studied Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist texts. What if a Christian or Muslim student is offended at the fact that we read an excerpt from The Analects of Confucius? If I were a teacher in Kansas, this bill gives the state the right to prosecute me for simply teaching my curriculum. “It’s going to cause teachers to be afraid to teach great literature, display or talk about great art,” said Dave Kirkbride, KNEA South Central UniServ (quoted from ksn.com). 

And all of this started with a sexual education poster. A poster that had no images at all, only text. Granted, it was a mildly explicit poster, and from what I've read the teacher was heavily reprimanded. But one poster was all it took for someone to decide that teachers could be sent to jail for their content. And we don't even know the story or the context behind the poster. One person wasn't satisfied with just the teacher responsible getting in trouble. They had to take it farther and assume that all teachers are corrupt. All teachers aren't able to be trusted. All teachers need their content monitored for the safety of our children. 

I haven't been a teacher for very long, so I don't know much about the "good old days" of teaching; where teachers were considered professionals and were trusted to do their jobs well and to uphold integrity in their classrooms. I understand that the world we live in is changing, and that not everyone can be trusted. I also acknowledge that I am blessed to work at a school where my administrators are always supportive and always have my back. They trust me and they will defend me. If I am struggling they won't condemn me, they will do everything they can to give me whatever I need in order to succeed. I feel safe, and I know that I can go to them for help without fear of being written up or looked down on. It makes me a better teacher, because I know that my administrators are a tool I can use to improve my teaching ability. I recognize that this isn't the case everywhere, and that is so sad to me. 

What scares me about this is the fact that, technically - according to this bill - a teacher can be sent to jail for up to six months for teaching basic reproduction processes in a Biology class. All it takes is one person who has an issue with the content. Those of us who teach novels like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, 1984 by George Orwell, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley can be prosecuted for teaching novels with "inappropriate content." These are novels that I read in high school. These are novels that I enjoyed so much, I had to go back and read again as an adult in order to make sure I fully appreciated them. These are classic pieces of literature that I truly believe every person should be introduced to at least once in their lives. There is mature content in these novels. I wouldn't consider teaching them before high school; maybe not even until junior or senior year because at that point there is a certain level of maturity expected. Teenagers are introduced to more pornographic content on the radio, so by the time they are 16 and 17, they are more than capable of reading a novel like 1984. Plus, if we're being truthful, is there a piece of literature that exists that doesn't offend someone? What would I teach in my class? Even some grammar rules are ambiguous and up for debate. (I don't know about you, but I have some pretty strong opinions about the Oxford comma.) 

Imagine what it would be like if your doctor wasn't allowed to have malpractice insurance. What if he could be put in jail just because of an accusation because someone didn't like a drug he prescribed? He would be too afraid of the repercussions to treat you to the best of his ability. I realize it's a loose analogy, but work with me. In the same way, this bill will cause teachers to be afraid to do their jobs.

I know there are creeps out there. I know that the world we live in isn't perfect. I'm just afraid that we are trampling on personal freedom with legislation like this. One of my friends and co-workers said it best. She pointed out that public education is under attack. She's right. Our principal sends us updates on bills and legislation related to education on a regular basis, and more often we see that our government no longer trusts our teachers or our education system. We are seeing people who have no experience teaching in a classroom making rules and regulations for those of us who do.  

Where does it stop? When can teachers breathe again? When can we feel safe in our schools and our classrooms? When can we feel trusted? Where did the autonomy go? And why stop there? Why not start prosecuting newspaper editors for printing content that is considered offensive by a "reasonable person"? Why not start regulating what we allow people to blog about or post on the internet? Why not just have senators who have never taught in a classroom start determining our entire curriculum? (Oh wait...they already do that!) An entire AP US history curriculum has been put on the chopping block because it included all aspects of American history and someone felt we should only be teaching the parts that make us look good. When do we start banning books, like they do in countries where citizen's freedoms are severely restricted? We should never be ok with that. No one has the right to tell us how to think, what to like, or what should offend us. 

I shouldn't have to worry that doing my job will put me in jail, simply because someone doesn't like the book we're reading. There are better ways to handle issues with content. We have alternative book options for students who don't feel comfortable reading the novels we read in class. This is a much more reasonable solution than jail time. I am afraid this is the direction that education is going. It's eerily similar to the dystopian future Orwell created in 1984. Big Brother is watching, and Big Brother tells you what to believe. If you're like me and you had to study that novel at some point in your education, then you recognize the similarities. Unfortunately, someone is trying to take that privilege away from future generations of students, which is exactly what George Orwell was afraid of, and why he wrote the novel. 

The minute we stop thinking for ourselves, the minute we allow someone else to tell us what to believe, how to feel, and what should offend us; that is when we have truly lost all hope. That is when we lose our rights and our liberty. It won't happen all at once; it will be slow. We are the frogs, and legislation like this is the pot of water, slowly increasing its temperature until we become so complacent, lazy, and comfortable that we don't realize we are being cooked alive.

If you would like to read some articles on the Kansas Senate Bill 56, here are a few links:

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