J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

The Spinning Season for Social Studies

In each of the past two Novembers, America has seen headlines about a public school preventing a teacher from discussing Revolutionary history. In both cases, that formulation of the dispute turned out to be a distortion created by the teacher's politically conservative supporters. Will that pattern recur this month? Or have news reporters learned to be more skeptical of such claims?

In each case, the teacher and his supervisors were in the midst of a older, more complex disagreement which wouldn't have provided much red meat for newspapers, radio hosts, political websites, and the like. By describing a teacher as muzzled from talking about the Revolution, however, advocates turned an individual dispute into a national issue—all Americans have an interest in the U.S. of A.'s founding! Eventually, each dispute was settled with the teacher's departure, though not before administrators had been deluged with angry phone calls.

In 2004, an organization called the Alliance Defense Fund filed suit against the Cupertino, California, school district on behalf of teacher Stephen Williams. By filing papers on 22 November, the Monday before Thanksgiving holiday, and issuing a press release, the ADF ensured that the story would appear in the local newspaper the next day and then go out on news wires just before the holiday, giving school officials a hard time responding.

The ADF headlined its press release on the case "Declaration of Independence banned from classroom," and initial news coverage echoed that spin on the case, as in this Reuters report preserved at MSNBC:

School bans history materials referring to God
Calif. teacher prohibited from giving Declaration of Independence

A California teacher has been barred by his school from giving students documents from American history that refer to God — including the Declaration of Independence.

Steven Williams, a fifth-grade teacher at Stevens Creek School in the San Francisco Bay Area suburb of Cupertino, sued for discrimination on Monday, claiming he had been singled out for censorship by principal Patricia Vidmar because he is a Christian.
(As a historiographical note, this dispatch's misspelling of the teacher's first name as "Steven" makes it easy to determine which people writing about the case had seen only the early article and which had done their own reporting.)

The New Yorker ran an article about this case in May 2005, and on its website journalist Peter Boyer reporter described how the story had developed:
The first, great burst of attention came from...Web sites, such as the conservative Free Republic. . . . Sean Hannity had Williams on his radio show "Hannity & Colmes" at least twice, and he moved his Fox News television show to Cupertino for a special hour-long live broadcast that he called "Take Back America".
However, as reporters outside Fox News easily discovered, the ADF's complaint was greatly exaggerated. The school was still teaching the Declaration of Independence. And, even as the school taught about various religions, for at least two years Williams's students and their parents had complained about how he had inserted references to Jesus and Christianity into his lessons. The documents the lawsuit claimed he had been barred from using were selective or simply bogus, such as a "George Washington prayer journal" that was revealed as a fake decades ago. Even a Wall Street Journal oped essay concluded, "For those who worry about the way faith is treated in our public institutions, Mr. Williams may not be the best candidate for a hero."

Eventually, Williams chose to resign, drop his suit, and say nothing more. A San Jose Mercury News editorial called this "a total victory by the district over conservative lawyers who drummed up a bogus claim of religious persecution." More details can be found at the website started by parents of children at the school.

A year later, Fox News was in Carson City, Nevada, to cover the case of Joe Enge, a teacher at Carson High School. Postings to Free Republic.com and blogs from Enge's supporters document that Fox News had contacted the school in the week before Thanksgiving to film him in front of a class. The school refused permission, so the network taped its interview with him somewhere else on 22 November. In 2005, Thanksgiving was on the 24th.

How had Fox News learned of Enge's story? The teacher's political champion was Chuck Muth, a former head of the American Conservative Union and manager of such political websites as COPAC Nevada, CitizenOutreach, and CampaignDoctor. Muth had posted his first article about friction between Enge and his supervisor on the NVconservatives.com website on 22 April. That article said nothing about a dispute over teaching Revolutionary history; it described a disagreement between Enge and his supervisor over educational methods and classroom management.

In early November, however, Muth was airing a new complaint on a new website devoted to the case, The Enge Files. Muth left off his April article about teaching methods and instead wrote that Enge had been barred from teaching about the nation's founding:
You see, Joe has this crazy idea that American history should include our colonial period, as well as the Revolutionary War period. You know, where the Founding Fathers fought for independence from England and wrote the greatest governing document the world has ever known - the United States Constitution. You know, that period of time which gave us patriot heroes such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Tom Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Sam Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, John Paul Jones, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Hancock.
(That's two John Hancocks, by the way.)

At the same time, Muth's dispatches from the Enge Files popped up on conservative websites across the country, such as The Common Voice, normally devoted to South Carolina, and eventually on FreeRepublic.com. That got the buzz going for other online opinion writers. The nearby Reno Gazette-Journal ran a story on 23 November—the day before Thanksgiving. It started:
A veteran history teacher at Carson High School said he's being targeted for dismissal because administrators have questioned his determination to thoroughly cover America's colonial period and the Revolutionary War and his teaching methods.
Fox News used its footage the following week, after Thanksgiving. Once again, the school in the case became the focus of phone calls and nationwide political criticism.

But Muth's spin on the case didn't take, at least in part because Enge maintained his own focus on pedagogy. On 21 November, he posted an editorial on the History News Network focusing entirely on the question of teaching facts. The next day, the Washington Post's education columnist commented on the case in a skeptical article titled "Fired for Teaching Too Much?"

Technically, Enge had indeed been told not to teach the Revolutionary War in detail. He would also have been told not to teach the English Civil War, the Punic Wars, algebra, and driver's ed since his assignment was to teach a course in U.S. history since Reconstruction. Enge apparently felt that his colleagues had done a poor job of preparing his students, so he wanted to reteach the Revolutionary period using a different pedagogical method.

Enge has a more impressive teaching record than Williams. I found no mention of complaints from students or teachers. None of his teaching materials is obviously problematic; indeed, he's written a couple of curriculum guides for the Teaching Point organization. But I suspect the dispute between him and his school administrators was as much about interpersonal relations as about educational methods.

In the end, Enge and the Carson City school district came to a confidential settlement, and he left teaching. Muth claimed victory even though his campaign had not actually achieved its stated goals: saving Enge's job or changing local teaching methods. Enge now describes himself as "Owner, translation agency; writer and researcher." He's chairman of a website called Edwatch Nevada, a "project of Citizen Outreach"—which is run by Muth. And this story's not really over: last week Enge won a seat on the Carson City school board.

Will a similar dispute flash across the internet this month? If so, reporters can do their jobs by calling schools before they file their stories. Ask the principal or the head of the social studies department if it's true that the curriculum no longer includes the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, or whatever iconic element of the founding is at issue. I would be astonished if that actually turned out to be true.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

Joe Enge has left a comment about this posting, but it got attached to this one.