Thursday, June 28, 2007

Justice Thomas's Views On Education

One of the recent 5-4 decisions of the US Supreme Court determined that a principal's right to discourage drug use in a school outweighed a student's right to free speech. The decision got it wrong, in my opinion, but it did raise some interesting side issues, especially because of the rather strange concurring opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas. One of those issues was explored in an op-ed piece written by Jonathan Zimmerman (himself an educator) for today's Los Angeles Times.

WHAT ARE schools for?

For the last decade, I've taught a history course with that title at New York University. My students and I examine the different purposes that Americans have assigned to public schools, including:

A. to teach the great humanistic traditions of the West;

B. to develop the individual interests of the child;

C. to promote social justice;

D. to prepare efficient workers.

Over the last four centuries, Americans have struggled to balance these goals — and many others — in their schools. To Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, however, there's only one right answer:

E. to instill discipline and obedience. ...

Ruling 5 to 4 in favor of the principal who censored the banner, the court decided that the school's interest in discouraging drug use outweighed the student's free-speech rights. But Thomas went further, insisting that the student had no right to free speech in the first place and that the history of American education proves it.
[Emphasis added]

The thrust of Mr. Zimmerman's essay is that the history of American education proves no such thing. While the first schools in America were in fact discipline factories, the new nation soon trashed that approach for a more humane one. In the Nineteenth Century, Horace Mann suggested that the education system needed to do more than beat children into submission. In the Twentieth Century, a new reformer appeared, John Dewey:

The early 20th century would bring another burst of change to American schools, centered on the question of democracy. To reformers like John Dewey, schools based on strict discipline — and its pedagogical companion, rote memorization — could never give citizens the skills they needed to govern themselves. Instead of fostering mindless obedience, then, schools needed to teach children how to make up their own minds — that is, how to reason, deliberate and rule on complex political questions.

While American's still haven't decided just what exactly schools should do, Zimmerman's point is that the history of American schools has never been all about discipline, as Justice Thomas erroneously claimed. The question, however, still remains: what is it that Americans want in their schools?

The question is an important one, especially these days when teachers are being forced to 'teach to the test' under the mandates of No Child Left Behind. Do we want a citizenry that avoids marijuana but is too fearful to speak out on important issues? One that can do basic math but can't see the importance of budget choices in Washington and the effect those choices have on the nation as a whole?

Justice Thomas has announced his views on public education. Now it's time for the rest of the nation to revisit the issue.

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Anonymous Nora said...

Well, of course this is Clarence Thomas, the only Supreme Court Justice who held in Ramdan that the President could hold anyone, as long as he wanted, without any kind of due process at all, as long as the President called that person an illegal combatant.

After that dissent, there is literally nothing that Thomas could say that would surprise me. The man should never have been on the Supreme Court in the first place, and the thought that he is so young (relatively speaking) is profoundly depressing.

11:02 AM  
Blogger shrimplate said...

I came away from reading "Strange Justice" convinced that Thomas was a "very" mediocre man lacking in maturity, taste, and intellect. How he ever got on the Court mystifies me still. He's an idiot.

I was relaxing before nursing classes with a snackugdqyt in the college lounge when the TV showed the roll call vote. Freaking Sam Nunn voted to approve Thomas.

The Democratic Party put a bullet in its own foot that day.

Why are we so beholden to sociopaths and incompetent yet malignant jerks? Why do we give them so much power?

12:14 AM  

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