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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Teaching tolerance or tolerating teachings?

By Dan Plutchak/Associate Editor

For some, there appears to be an intolerance for tolerance.

Elkhorn Area School District officials recently received a lesson in how quickly good intentions can get turned on their head in an era in which bloggers have quick access to too little information.

The controversy grew out of material in English teacher Sarah Arnold's class, which addressed the way some high school students treat their out-of-the-mainstream classmates, particularly those who are gay.

To me, Arnold's intentions were a thoughtful way to get high school students to think about the powerful effect their words can have on others. Some critics, however, saw the unit as an insidious effort by the school district to promote homosexuality.

The seeds were sown four years ago, when Arnold applied for a grant from the magazine Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The grant proposal, entitled "Exposing Hidden Homophobia," developed a 32-part unit that explored the social consequences of homophobia.

The article included detailed lesson plans, although in practice, teachers pick and choose which parts to use in the classroom.

That appeared to be the case for Arnold, who introduced some of the material into an elective multicultural-literature class, according to District Administrator Gregg Wescott, who addressed the issue at the Feb. 9 school board meeting.

Since then, some of the material has been absorbed into the American literature course required for all juniors.

But that's not how the issue played out when the article on Arnold's unit finally was published Jan. 12. Bloggers jumped on the story, claiming the class spent 32 days indoctrinating students on homosexuality.

Laura Higgins wrote on the Illinois Family Institute Web
site that, "Wisconsin public schools are permitting radical ideologues to use public money to promote their subversive, unproven moral conclusions and political goals about homosexuality."

I hope that tolerance isn't an unproven moral conclusion.

If Higgins disapproves of homosexuality, that's her business. But to claim that promoting tolerance is somehow promoting homosexuality is a stretch, at best.

Tolerance is not the same as approval.

But when disapproval turns to harassment, bullying or persecution, that's a problem that society rightly should correct.

I have two teenage sons, and my wife and I think it's important to teach them the idea of respect by reinforcing the notion that you can be tolerant of people, even if you don't agree with them.

Parents of teens know their kids freely use words like "gay" to describe anything they deem silly, uncool or not worth their time.

What we try to teach our kids is that those words can hurt, too.

At the last Elkhorn School Board meeting, one resident reportedly argued, "Teaching tolerance for tolerance's sake is not a good idea ... Americans were taught to tolerate slavery."

But I'd argue that the problem with slavery was not too much tolerance, but not enough. Americans never understood the human toll of slavery. They were taught to treat slaves as an inferior race.

And should issues like homosexuality, race and discrimination be addressed in an English class? I'd say where better?

Although the study of English includes grammar and spelling, fundamentally, it's about ideas -- the ideas that shape the human experience, and can only be explored in English and literature.

Both Arnold and Wescott inexplicably declined to comment on the controversy, and Wescott refused to make his prepared statement available, despite repeated requests.

It's true that bloggers from who-knows-where don't necessarily need or want an explanation; however, parents of Elkhorn Area High School students do.

I also understand there are many parents whose values clash with the material, and it seems that the school district has come up with a reasonable set of policies to address similar situations down the road.

According to Wescott, American literature teachers will meet to focus the unit and to broaden the scope to address harassment and discrimination, not only as it relates to homosexuals, but also to race, gender and ethnicity.

Wescott now will review all grant applications, and parents will be notified in the future when the class addresses the topic.

In the end, the issue boils down to whether tolerance is something that should be addressed in schools in the first place.

There are those that say we should stick to the basics -- reading, writing and arithmetic. But the world moves quickly, and the problems these kids will be asked to solve when their time comes are complex.

We hope they'll use good judgment when they need to, but if we don't teach and challenge them while they're in high school, it's hard to say when they will learn it.


Anonymous Bonnie said...

In response to the issue whether tolerance is something that should be addressed in schools... Absolutely! Schools are not only educational, but also social, and there is a severe lack of tolerance in the classrooms and hallways. Parenting my children through middle and high school was a daily effort to boost their confidence after it was whittled away during their educational hours. Too often a blind eye is turned to the lack of social skills in our kids by the administration and parents.

It seems to me that some tolerance is lacking in the parents that are so concerned about it being taught to their children.

10:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a parent, I teach my children to respect different people and their opinions. What bothers me is when my opinion is labeled bigoted or intolerant because I believe homosexuality is against God's design. The school is a place to teach fundamentals of academia, not to instill values. What if I brought in a Christian value laden curriculum? Would that be "tolerated"?

4:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Be realistic. See this for what it is. They are trying to promote liberal agendas in our schools. Why else the main focus on homosexuals? If my kids were in this school with this curriculum, there would be a problem. Tolerance may not mean approval, but in this day and age, it really does. And thank you to the previous commenter-- no, more than likely a Christian-based curriculum would not be tolerated. So much for tolerance.

9:16 AM  
Anonymous sever09 said...

"Elkhorn Area Schools, in partnership with the community, are dedicated to providing an education that challenges every student to continually improve and to excel as a respectful, responsible, and productive member of society."

This is the Mission Statement of the Elkhorn Area High School. For people to say that the school is a place to teach academia, not to install values are just plain blind to what high schools are about. It even states in the mission statement. to excel as a RESPECTFUL, responsible and productive member of SOCIETY. So for you to say that values are not to be instilled is a terrible argument because clearly they are teaching the value of respect, which in-turns means to be able to tolerate someone else whether you agree or not. You know it is quite sad that the people who are ridiculed and looked bad upon are they very people who are tolerant of people who despise homosexuals. Tolerance does not mean approval at all, but to be able to maintain a respect for something or someone that you disagree with, us homosexuals tolerate the hate that is brought on by people that us. That in itself makes us more civil then the people who hate us, because we become stronger than the people who hate us because we can tolerate them more.

3:04 PM  

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