What on earth is going on in our schools?
That’s just one of many questions I had upon reading some rather alarming news earlier this month. The Associated Press reported that “when told of the exact text of the First Amendment, more than one in three high school students said it goes ‘too far’ in the rights it guarantees.” The First Amendment, of course, guarantees all Americans freedom of religion and freedom of expression.
The million-dollar study, sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, focused on the latter freedom–the right of citizens to speak freely, and the right of the press to publish freely. These are two of our most cherished–and basic–freedoms. So it is frightening to find that the next generation of journalists, lawyers, bureaucrats, and politicians doesn’t feel the same way.
But perhaps the more than 100,000 students at 544 public and private high schools who were quizzed last year simply spoke out of ignorance. Seventy-five percent, after all, incorrectly believe that flag burning is illegal. And almost half believed erroneously that the government could ban indecent material on the Internet.
The results only get more troubling. School officials are often accused of censoring politically incorrect ideas in their schools. But many of those officials at least pay lip service to the idea that many flowers should bloom. Their students no longer do: “When asked whether people should be allowed to express unpopular views, 97 percent of teachers and 99 percent of school principals said yes. Only 83 percent of students did.”
This is surprising. The young, after all, are often the source of unpopular ideas. Remember the bohemians, the punks, and the beats? Teenage rebellion is a cliché that may soon become extinct.
At least a majority of students still believe in some freedom of expression. That’s because a majority don’t believe in freedom of the press. “Only half of the students said newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories,” the AP reported.
This statistic is so troubling, I almost don’t know what to say. Almost. Perhaps others feel the same way. Why else wasn’t there a firestorm of discussion about the survey? There were news stories, to be certain, but no observers seem particularly concerned about the next generation’s willingness to kowtow to authority.
It is difficult to expect teenagers to respect these freedoms, though, when we don’t even respect them ourselves. Close to home, school officials and others teach students that unpopular opinions are to be stamped out if they slight anyone–even a government official.
In Canada, for example, a school tour of Rideau Hall was hastily ended this month when a 15-year-old student offended the Governor General, who lives there. On spotting Adrienne Clarkson, the student wondered, “Is that the woman that spends the money on the Queen when she comes?” A rather innocuous comment about a controversial figure who has come under fire for her spending habits. For her part, Clarkson defended the tour guide’s decision.
There are countless similar cases in this country. With every instance, students are taught that it is wrong to express an opinion if somebody else doesn’t like it. When they hear this enough times from those whom they are taught to model, it will sink in. No matter that just about every utterance could offend somebody. One wonders what these officials would have made of the Declaration of Independence. Weren’t the Founders altogether too mean to George III?
And Hollywood, which may exercise more influence over youth than anything else, is more than willing to let the government interfere with its expression. A few years ago, Salon reported that the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy waived a requirement to offer cheap advertising to the government if the networks submitted television scripts for review. Five networks were given a total of $25 million to incorporate anti-drug themes into prime-time TV programs. No wonder teenagers think it’s acceptable for the government to censor the media.
It’s not only in trampling over the idea of open expression that we set a poor example to the young. Every day, in a myriad of ways, we teach them that freedom isn’t something we value. I think of this every time I’m in an airport. We are all too willing to suffer indignities, glad, even, to give up our freedom. Hardly anybody thinks twice about being told by screeners that they must remove their shoes, for example, even though it’s actually not mandatory.
I once had to go through “secondary screening,” my body groped everywhere, twice in one security line. Once was because my shoes beeped, the other was a pre-planned screening. It never occurred to them to combine these two to save me a great deal of discomfort. What is it to them if I don’t like having my breasts touched by strangers? No one else complains.
Of course, the aftermath of 9/11 is why traveling has changed, and it’s contributed to some of these other changes, too. “We’re at war,” the critics charge. “It’s no time to criticize the president/administration/whatever.”
But of course, wartime is the most important time to question our leaders. Thousands of lives–American and otherwise–are at stake. A small group of politicians has the power of life and death in its hands. It is insulting to a staggering degree for some to say we should allow them this power without questioning whether they are using it appropriately.
At times, we’re tested in our avowed belief that we value liberty. The last three years has been one of those times. Not only teachers and administrators, but all of us, must decide what we want the next generation to learn from our choices.
Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash. Her Web site is kellyjanetorrance.com.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire