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.