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?