Homework turns political
A Northern Virginia middle school teacher assigns blatantly partisan homework. He has his students dig dirt on Republican Presidential candidates, but not on the man they will oppose, Barack Hussein Obama.
The detailed report comes from The Daily Caller. Michael Denman, who teaches eighth-grade civics at Liberty Middle School (Fairfax, VA) assigned this homework to his students in mid-January. He divided his class into four groups, one for each Republican candidate still in the race (Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul). Each group had six students. Two were to complete one of these three tasks
- Find any information that might embarrass the candidate, politically, personally, or in any other way.
- Write a strategic plan to use this information to weaken the candidate.
- Find out where to send this information if they want to help the Obama campaign.
That last point is in dispute. Outraged parents hinted to The Daily Caller that the homework included actually sending the information to the Obama campaign. But John Torre, the PR man for the Fairfax school district, said that the teacher told them only to learn where to send it.
Several parents called the school in outrage. Said one:
This assignment was just creepy beyond belief — like something out of East Germany during the Cold War.
Said one student who had to do this homework:
My classmates don’t actually know a lot, but a few of us tended to agree that the most recent instruction on this project just didn’t seem right. Mr. Denman didn’t tell us where to find the information, just to research on them.
The key point: the class did not include any opposition research group on Barack Obama.
Analysis of the homework
From the numbers that The Daily Caller gave, twenty-four students took part in this homework project. Some parents called the school to complain, but the author never says that they all did. So every Republican candidate must calculate that some of the negative radio and TV spots and Internet banner ads attacking him used ideas that came from a middle-schooler’s homework assignment. John Torre insists that the teacher never sent any of the strategy papers to the campaign. But did a sympathetic student send it on? The Daily Caller won’t say — or probably never asked.
Nor is The Daily Caller talking about what kind of information any of those students thought would make any candidate “weak.” One person’s weakness is another person’s strength. For instance, Ron Paul “doesn’t wanta study war no more.” He says so all the time. Does that make him “weak”? To the Republican base? Maybe. To the Democratic base? Certainly not. (In fact, that might make Ron Paul stronger to a base that expected Barack Obama to close Camp Delta, at Guantanamo Naval Air Station, and then wept and gnashed their teeth when he did not.) Did Denman plan to have his students discuss those fine points after presenting their homework in class? No one, even Torre, will say.
This also highlights the worst part of the homework, and that is not that some sympathetic student send his paper to the Obama campaign anyway. It is this: it teaches the students to think like partisans, and not to think for themselves. Is teaching students to copy the modes of thought, and the ideological lenses, of people who make a living tearing other people down, a proper example of civics? CNAV doubts that.
CNAV also doubts that building an anti-Obama group would have turned out very well. If that group had done their job properly, they would necessarily have turned up the recent Obama eligibility investigations. They might have called the Sheriff’s office of Maricopa County, Arizona, and asked to speak to Mike Zullo, head of the Cold Case Posse. And then the Obama base in the school would have “rolled” their houses the night after they presented their homework to class. (And that teacher would probably have lost his job at once.)
How the media have reacted to the homework
The news media, except for Fox News Channel, The Washington Post, and local TV stations, have said little about the political homework. The Post published this blog entry and attracted 36 comments at last access. This comment is typical:
Some middle school instructor has the gall to waste the time of his/her students doing slanted ‘oppositional research’ for POTUS candidates in a society where our kids are statistically woefully ignorant as to how the government is supposed to work, because no one is really teaching in depth history or government anymore, yet the school district supports ‘civics’ and potentially giving this assignment in the future?
Have they all lost their minds? If the parents tolerate the continuation of this class, let alone these sorts of assignments, then they are the ones falling down on the job.
The Daily Caller has attracted well over a thousand comments, with more coming in every hour. Some comments said that Denman should lose his job. But others showed something more disturbing: Michael Denman is not the only teacher to give out political homework or to run his or her class like a Soviet zampolit (Deputy Political Commander) running a daily political briefing.
Maressa Brown, writing in The Stir, had an interesting take. She said that, as a student of middle-school age (they probably called it “Junior High” back then), she had a teacher whom she guessed was not politically neutral. But that teacher never assigned political homework nor led an explicit political discussion. Which Michael Denman did.
A personal perspective
This correspondent will not deny that contemporary politics came up in his classes in elementary, junior high and high school. At every election, the teacher would poll the class to find out how their parents planned to vote. But they did this to encourage students to see, and watch for, civics in action. That included which candidates were running for office. One school system set up mock polling stations, and had students “work” the polls, to show us how real poll workers do their jobs. Students could even vote on a mechanical Print-O-Matic voting machine, like the ones their parents voted on. After that, the principal announced the results — again, strictly as a lesson in how to vote, not to tell students for whom to vote.
This, of course, was the era of the great anti-apathy campaign, that used this memorable slogan:
Vote, and the choice is yours. Don’t vote, and the choice is theirs.
Only once did any teacher host a political debate on the merits of the candidates. That teacher taught American history, and always in an even-handed way. The most negative thing he ever said about an American politician was:
Franklin D. Roosevelt was a politician par excellence — in the negative sense.
By that he meant only that Roosevelt governed as a politician, not as a statesmen. He never passed judgment on whether the New Deal, Lend-Lease, etc. were sound or unsound. And in setting up that debate, he never hinted at which candidate he favored.
Political homework, thirty-five years ago, started in college, and usually in classes in Political Science. But now we see political homework in middle school. And we have also seen political classwork in lower school. The embedded video shows a memorable scene that played out in a lower school in Burlington, New Jersey:
Mmmm! Mmmm! Mmmm! Barack Hussein Obama!
The spectacle of those children reciting and stamping their feet in cadence takes on a far more dire meaning in the face of a teacher assigning political homework.
Any teacher who wants to discuss anything political in class, should do so only after speaking a disclaimer of this sort:
The views that your teacher will now express to you, are his own, do not represent those of this school or the school district, and will not show up in homework or on any test.
Instead, Michael Denman assigned his views as homework. CNAV can only imagine how the final exam might have read, had no one complained about the political homework.
Did he get this idea from the Obama campaign? CNAV receives Obama campaign e-mails regularly. Never did any message suggest such a thing. So Michael Denman either acted on his own, or got the idea from his “local” of the teachers’ union. (It wouldn’t be the first time. A Bergen County (New Jersey) deputy school superintendent once sent out, using the school’s e-mail account, a mock “prayer” reminding God that several of his favorite celebrities had died, and that Governor Chris Christie was his favorite governor.) Neither alternative flatters Denman. What kind of teacher even thinks of assigning that kind of homework, whether his union told him to or not?
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