Thursday, February 09, 2006

My "Committee on Americanism" Apology

by Kyle Michaelis
See, this is why I'm hesitant to write more on the activities of the Nebraska Legislature....because, frankly, without actually being there or doing a lot of independent research, it's hard to know just what the hell is going on.

Such was the problem a few weeks back when I over-relied on the Omaha World-Herald for information about a legislative proposal by State Sen. Abbie Cornett. I responded to Cornett's proposal, as reported, requiring school districts to form a "Committee on Americanism" with no small degree of (good humored) mockery and derision. I wrote:
Way to be a better American than everyone who didn't propose this bill, Sen. Cornett. That all it does is add another unnecessary layer of bureaucracy hardly matters, not when we all now know how much you love your country....

Also, how long before we finally get back to our roots and create the more important "Committee on UnAmericanism" that will root out the insidious forces corrupting our children and threatening this nation?

Then, we'll truly know how far we've come.

Well, it has since been brought to my attention that I was somewhat misinformed by the World-Herald and subsequently misdirected my ire. It was an honest, innocent, but nevertheless inexcusable mistake for which I apologize to Sen. Cornett.

What the World-Herald failed to report and I failed to discover by doing any actual research is the fact that the law requiring Nebraska school districts to have "Committees on Americanism" already exists and seems to have done so for over 50 years (see Section 79-724 of the Nebraska Statutes). Cornett's bill is little more than an update to that legislation, the purposes of which remain somewhat unclear beyond its newfound suggestion that students learn about historical documents "that are pertinent to understanding the principles, character, and world view of America’s founders," specifically naming "the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, the Pledge of Allegiance, Patrick Henry’s "Liberty or Death" speech, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address," and so on.

Though not a bad idea, ultimately this seems just a bit of feel-good legislation that adds a few more paragraphs and straightens out some language - not really worth the time to comment or to perhaps even reach a vote before the full legislature.

Nevertheless, I'm glad for this snafu because it drew my attention to a competing proposal by State Sen. DiAnne Schimek that, in my mind, actually does a lot to REFORM the existing "Committee on Americanism" mandate. Schimek's bill puts added responsibility on the State Board of Education in directing Nebraska's civics programs. That's sensible enough since what it means to be an American doesn't change much between Plattsmouth and Pawnee City or Alliance and Arapahoe.

Still, the actual reforms of which I spoke are in the elimination of some out-dated and morally questionable standards for review of educators' private beliefs, as well as a series of unnecessarily burdensome demands on each school's civics program. The first of these provisions that would hereby be removed orders Committees on Americanism to "assure themselves as to the character of all teachers employed and their knowledge and acceptance of the American form of government."

In our current political climate, with accusations of being "unpatriotic" lobbed at the slightest hint of questioning America's military activities or the policies of the Bush Administration, it's clear this language is an invitation to censorship and partisan indoctrination in the classroom. While a teacher's politics should never overshadow his or her teaching, it doesn't serve the interests of students or society to have them fear for their jobs at simply expressing an opinion - especially one of dissent that might challenge students - trading all the value of free and open debate for ridiculous fears at an exaggerated (if not imaginary) threat.

Also removed by Schimek's bill is language ordering the teaching of "the dangers and fallacies of Nazism, Communism, and similar ideologies" and ordering the celebration of "Lincoln’s birthday, Washington’s birthday, Flag Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day."

While schools should teach about the above ideologies, teaching them from a state-mandated prism can only obstruct the truth and stand in the way of students actually learning why these movements arose and - yes - why they failed. Meanwhile, I have no objection to schools recognizing patriotic holidays, but this bill is right to leave it to individual schools to plan their own activities.

Probably still not a bill deserving of highest priority, it's nevertheless nice to see Schimek taking our nation's democratic principles to heart, not to mention exercising plain old common sense, when considering reform of the state's civics education.

Of course, her changes still do little to relieve my discomfort with the idea of these "Committees on Americanism." Having graduated from a Nebraska high school without ever having heard of such a well-intentioned but philosophically disturbing entity, it simply seems too easily conceived as a tool of propaganda in what is likely our democracy's most sacred space. In so far as Schimek's bill tempers the extremes of such a directive, though, I feel obligated to lend it my personal seal of (qualified) approval.

Now, who thinks that will be enough to get it through committee?


Anonymous Mr. T said...

I agree with your thoughts. There was an event at the Unicam last year affiliated with one of their offices and there was a proposal/presentation that (in my opinion) confused civic "education" with "indoctrination." What can't kids from Nebraska decide on their own whether or not communism or fascism is good or bad?

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was blindsided too, by this issue of Nebraska's "Americanism Committee" law, over 30 years ago, while working as a rural reporter.

A very bright and respected superintendent answered my inquiries by stating simply that this law was regarded by educators as potentially violating teachers' constitutional rights, but that every school board in the state was mandated to choose such a 'committee' from its membership. The implication was that the whole thing was a distasteful 'formality' which no school board in its right mind would fully implement.

Incidentally, my quoting of these remarks in my routine story about the agenda for the upcoming regular meeting of the board, earned a furious response from the board president (a local pharmacist) who said I was the one "responsible for putting the school IN A BAD LIGHT!"

I agree Kyle, that this is a very 'insidious' concept for our schools. That hundreds of groups of farmers, shopkeepers, housewives and just plain folks that populate these local boards of education, have been routinely placed in the position of judging their own teachers' politics & patriotism, is a scary eye-opener huh? It doesn't take too fertile an imagination to guess that some of these board members might relish the opportunity to get back at some educator that 'done their kid wrong.' I would be surprised to discover (as if it were possible) that this kind of 'gestapo-style' discrimination has NEVER HAPPENED in this state.

The disgusting aspect of all this prejudice in the name of patriotism, is that it remains a part of our 'body politic.' It serves to remind us just how far we have to go, to do OUR DUTY AS CITIZENS, and keep alive (revive?) the American ideal of (excuse the expression) liberal democracy.

I would say considering the length of time that the State Education bureaucrats have been allowing this idiocy to continue for decades, that the Senator's proposed legislation requiring THEM to implement these rules, is 'just the chickens coming home to roost.'


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