February 26, 2006

Does This Course Belong In High School -- *UPDATED*

UPDATE -- Two students from the school offer extensive comments about the class.

Does a course that explicitly advocates for a particular point of view on issues belong in a high school ?

My initial reaction is negative, but I wonder if allowing such a course as an elective is a bad thing.

For months, 17-year-old Andrew Saraf had been troubled by stories he was hearing about a Peace Studies course offered at his Bethesda high school. He wasn't enrolled in the class but had several friends and classmates who were.

Last Saturday, he decided to act. He sat down at his computer and typed out his thoughts on why the course -- offered for almost two decades as an elective to seniors at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School -- should be banned from the school.

"I know I'm not the first to bring this up but why has there been no concerted effort to remove Peace Studies from among the B-CC courses?" he wrote in his post to the school's group e-mail list. "The 'class' is headed by an individual with a political agenda, who wants to teach students the 'right' way of thinking by giving them facts that are skewed in one direction."

He hit send.

Within a few hours, the normally staid e-mail list BCCnet -- a site for announcements, job postings and other housekeeping details in the life of a school -- was ablaze with chatter. By the time Principal Sean Bulson checked his BlackBerry on Sunday evening, there were more than 150 postings from parents and students -- some ardently in support, some ardently against the course.

Sounds interesting -- but what of the charges the kid makes about the class?

Since its launch at the school in 1988, Peace Studies has provoked lively debate, but the attempt to have the course removed from the curriculum is a first, Bulson said. The challenge by two students comes as universities and even some high schools across the country are under close scrutiny by a growing number of critics who believe that the U.S. education system is being hijacked by liberal activists.

At Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Peace Studies is taught by Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post reporter and founder and president of the Center for Teaching Peace. Though the course is taught at seven other Montgomery County high schools, some say B-CC's is perhaps the most personal and ideological of the offerings because McCarthy makes no effort to disguise his opposition to war, violence and animal testing.

So the course is, to use a phrase, biased and unbalanced, sort of like McCarthy himself during his days in journalism. I don't necessarily have a problem with a teacher being open about points of view and beliefs, but doing so brings with it a responsibility to present the other side as well. And that is what concerns me about this class. It sounds like advocacy.

What sort of things go on in the class?

The course is also offered at Montgomery Blair, James Hubert Blake, Albert Einstein, Walter Johnson, Northwest, Northwood and Rockville high schools, but the Peace Studies course at Bethesda-Chevy Chase is unique for a number of reasons. Although a staff teacher takes roll and issues grades, it is McCarthy as a volunteer, unpaid guest lecturer who does the bulk of the teaching. He does not work from lesson plans, although he does use a school system-approved textbook -- a collection of essays on peace that he edited.

For McCarthy, it seems Peace Studies is not just a cause; it is a crusade.

"Unless we teach them peace, someone else will teach them violence," he said.

Students might spend one class period listening to a guest speaker who opposes the death penalty and another, if they choose, standing along East West Highway protesting the war.

But that, students said, is part of the course's appeal.

"We're all mature enough to take it all in with a hint of skepticism," said Megan Andrews, 17. "We respect Mr. McCarthy's views, but we don't absorb them like sponges."

When they walk through the door of their fourth-floor classroom, students said, they never know what they might find. Once McCarthy brought in a live turkey to illustrate a point about animal rights. Everything went well until the turkey escaped and urinated in the hallway.

And Friday, when students opened the door, they saw Mahatma Gandhi -- or, rather, Bernard Meyer, a peace activist from Olympia, Wash., dressed as Gandhi. Meyer spent most of the class time taking questions from students about "life" as Gandhi. McCarthy, too, jumped in, quizzing Gandhi about his views on arranged marriage. At the end of the period, he jumped from his chair.

"Let's take a photo of us with Gandhi," he said, gathering the students.

I'll be honest -- i'd like to do some of this stuff in my classroom. In particular, I'd love to do the Gandhi thing with my kids, because I think it might really spark some of them to do some thinking and to reconsider the gang influence in their lives. I also think that such activities spark good learning due to their hands-on nature.

But taking the kids out for a protest or a rally? That disturbs me. Would I be permitted to take kids out of school to hold up pro-life signs? What about taking kids to stand across the street with signs supporting the war?

And does McCarthy present opposing views on capital punishment or the war? It does not sound like he does. Is such an approach intellectually honest, especially with high school kids?

I'm also curious -- does this school have an ROTC program? Does it allow military recruiters through the front door? Or is the ideology of the Peace Studies class a reflection of a wider anti-military sentiment, even though there is a large military presence in Bethesda?

Without such answers, I'm conflicted on the issue of keeping the class, although I am sceptical of it

I'm curious -- what do others think about this?

Other Voices: Michelle Malkin, Thunder Run, Dread Pundit Bluto, Pillage Idiot, Cranky Professor, Elephants in Academia, Hello, MoCo

OPEN TRACKBACKING -- Conservative Cat, Don Surber, Outside The Beltway, Blue Star Chronicles, Adam's Blog

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Comments on Does This Course Belong In High School -- *UPDATED*

Isn't this an elective class? So, if students can choose or refuse this class, why should it be banned?

|| Posted by Jane, February 27, 2006 09:01 AM ||

I tend to agree with Jane. As long as other courses (electives) are permitted to be offered on the "other side" of the spectrum, there is little cause for concern.

|| Posted by Hube, February 27, 2006 05:18 PM ||

I am a sophomore at Bethesda-Chevy Chase, and I currently am taking Peace Studies; I have done so for the past three weeks or so. I am also acquainted with both Andrew Saraf and Avi Panth. It is very much a one-sided course; no other viewpoints are presented. People in the class are allowed to disagree; unfortunately our discussions rarely go anywhere due to (what I percieve as) an inability on all sides to listen to eachother. (I really like semicolons)
The protests on Friday are anti-war. No one is required to go out, with alternatives being working in the library or sleeping.
As far as I know, we have no ROTC program here; our school prides itself on being a college preparatory high school (though our college counselor would not allow her children to go to college west of the Mississippi). I have not seen any military recruiters and hope that I never do. However, due to a certain little section in No Child Left Behind (7028?), military recruiters should have no problem accessing people. I need to ask my dad if he opted out of that. It is an elective, and is usually only open to seniors. I have heard that it does not count towards graduation. I am not sure whether it counts in GPA. Everyone gets an A. No homework is assigned. There are no tests. Brady Blade (our official teacher) allows people to go to the library once or twice a week if they should so choose. There is no war or violence class, or even a self defense class, come to think of it. This all reflects the general attitude of B-CC, where Young Democrats outnumber Young Republicans 10:1. (Their sponsor teaches my AP World History class, which I have some (unfinished and not yet started) homework for due tomorrow). Who would have ever thought? Join the Young Republicans and be a rebel.
Last I heard, administration is in support of Peace Studies. The course may be reformed, but I doubt it will go away.

|| Posted by Hsieyun, February 27, 2006 08:40 PM ||

I will try to address some of the points people have posed and keep this as short as possible.

Though this is an elective class, any class that the school system offers is a manifestation of the very values that the education system holds dear; this is certainly true at the high school level. A professional degree of objectivity should be maintained in the county's education philosophy, since not all high school students are able to take Mr. McCarthy's teachings with a grain of salt. To some students, Mr. McCarthy's lectures are an introduction to the issues at hand.

Parents would throw a fit if a neo-conservative were brought in to teach decentralization or trickle down economics. No ROTC program either; most parents are vehemently opposed to any (what may be loosely deemed) conservative influence in the mainly liberal state. Furthermore, students do not always know what they are getting into when signing up for this class; the description of the class is a very vague 2 liner, sans any mention of the political nature of this class.

If you read some of the articles Mr. McCarthy has written, his teaching philosophy becomes shockingly clear. His own statements suggest that he inculcates an agenda tailored to his political motives. He has said "I cannot in good conscience teach the other side" (Students Astutely Aware). Though he does not stifle debate, he only presents facts from his perspective. He has mentioned that the moral course of action after 9-11 was to forgive the terrorists and ask for forgiveness in return, called grades/tests/homework forms of academic violence, called free market systems a form of economic violence, called our society a violent society...the list goes on. He is openly anti-military, in all its forms; he has even said that any school named after a military figure should be renamed (Lee, U.S Grant, Churchill, etc). He has a very unbalanced agenda that he is trying to promulgate.

As for opposing views; the facts that he presents and the guest lecturers that he brings in only, or disproportionately, support his view; I had the privilege of observing one such lecturer that was against capital punishment. He says himself that the counter balance to his views is found in the violent society that we live in, which is a highly circumstantial argument. Mr. McCarthy decides what topics to cover and how to cover them; he even edited the textbook. The lack of oversight in this class is appalling.

Here is one lecture that he gave at EKU that reinforces much of what I have said.


By the way, this is not a question of conservative vs. liberal. I am personally a liberal, and I agree with some of what Mr. McCarthy preaches. This is a question of half-truths and interpretations, regardless of their affinity (liberal or conservative), being taught to impressionable high school students, without a counterbalanced point of view.

I pose this question: is it our school’s role to serve as a political battleground?

Feel free to email me if you have any questions or seek further discussion.

Avishek Panth

|| Posted by Avishek Panth, February 27, 2006 09:01 PM ||

The course is fine. First off, the protest rally's are not even decided by McCarthy. The time my class went out to protest, we decided a week before, without any provocation by the teacher, that we would organize it.

Interestingly, several students objected to the idea, stating that protesting the war was not a good idea. The class is not one sided. While the teacher has viewpoints, and he makes them said during discussions, it should also be formed in the minds of those learning about this article that his beliefs are in the midst of a discussion, one that has several people involved who either agree or disagree with his viewpoints. I would say there are an equal amount of people who disagreed with what he said on Animal Rights, and his viewpoints does not in anyway prevent us from speaking up. All decisions to act in the class are chosen by majority without anyone being forced to do anything in any way.

The class is great, and speaking as one who disagreed with McCarthy's views at times, I would have to say that the class provokes serious thought about several subjects.

Saraf, the one leading the picture in the Washington Post as a crusader of some sort, has not done his job in attacking the class. If he were to attack the class reasonably, he should have at least attended the class before primarily sending a letter that sparked this debate. "He had never been to the class or talked to me," says McCarthy. And I can assure you that he had never settled into our class before the letter.

But he did come once, and what did he say, that it wasn't as bad as he previously thought, meaning what others had told him. So this demonstrates that a series of beliefs by other faculty and students led this student to act on hearsay.

Somewhat depressing if you ask me...I'd rather learn peace studies.

|| Posted by Alex Bannon, February 28, 2006 10:35 AM ||

Glad to hear from current students and alumni. I'm an alumni as well, class of 86, so I didn't get a chance to take this course. But loving what's creeping up in support of the class -- it's nonsense. These kids are off base! Here's someone from the passionate side supporting:

|| Posted by hubert, March 1, 2006 07:14 AM ||

There are two issues here, given that this is offerered in a high school: First, this course has absolutely no academic content or value, and should therefore not be offered at all. It is indoctrination, not education. Second, this faculty member is abusing his power over students by feeding them his political agenda as if it did have some academic value.

The political demographics of the area or the school are wholly irrelevant here.

|| Posted by rightwingprof, March 1, 2006 08:55 AM ||

Hubert -- after reading that piece, I can only say that I am frightened of any student produced by McCarthy's class.

Offering it is clearly a case of academic fraud -- the class appears to have little academic content and the primary criteria for passing appears to be respiration.

And given that his critique of the move to end the program seems to consist of a fairly long ad hominem attack on the two students who raise the issue, it seem clear to me that the course failed to even instill critical thinking skills, as the author claims.

|| Posted by Rhymes With Right, March 2, 2006 12:17 AM ||
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