Thursday, September 12, 2013


I graduated from Sheridan High School in 1993.  My parents still live near Sheridan, and my mother is a teacher in the district.  I have many friends who live in the district.  Many of them have children who attend school there. 

Sheridan was in the news yesterday for what I can only term a bizarre reason.  Some teachers thought that yesterday, the 12th anniversary of the 9/11/01 terrorist attack, would be a good day for their students to get some perspective on what happened that day, and what happened before and since with respect to the Muslim world, from someone who is a practicing Muslim--an Arkansan, an American, who adheres to Islam, and who happens to be the neighbor of one of the teachers.

This particular person, whose identity has not been revealed to me, reportedly planned to offer his perspective as a Muslim who abhors violence and terrorism.  That's not news in any real sense.  His position is the same as that of almost all American Muslims.  The Muslims I know strongly condemned the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks and were sickened by the death and destruction carried out in the name of their religion.  (It appears that a lot of people, ignorant people, believe that all Muslims hate Americans and want Americans to die.)

Notably, the guest speaker was not there to proselytize anyone to Islam, or to advocate for Islam, or to compare Islam to other religions, or even to speak for all Muslims.

He was there to offer his own opinions on the subject of terrorism.

Judging from the reaction to his proposed presence, his presence was sorely needed yesterday.

Dr. Brenda Haynes is the superintendent of the Sheridan School District.  Dr. Haynes put out a press release [PDF] yesterday in which she announced that the guest speaker's appearance had been canceled and may be rescheduled for another day.  As she noted:

The purpose of the invitation was to have a member of that faith inform our students that Muslims are not identical in their beliefs with regard to the use of terror; that, on the contrary, some, probably most, strongly disapprove of it. There was no thought of having this person address the classes to paint Islam as "a religion of peace." Rather; it was to give him an opportunity to state his personal point of view in strong opposition to terrorism in general and the events of September 11, 2001, in particular. The teachers considered it instructive to the students to hear a different viewpoint.
I understand the reasons why the district canceled the speaker's appearance.  This is a controversial subject.  Parents have the right to be involved in their children's educational experience.  The district is a public institution, and therefore a politically controlled one. While teachers and administrators must put the education of children as their highest priority, it is also necessary that the schools have the confidence of the public and of the people who are most heavily invested in the schools' success at their mission.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have known Dr. Haynes for nearly 25 years, from the time when I was a seventh grader at Sheridan Junior High School.  I once served on a committee with her.  She and my mother have been employed by the district for a long time.  She is my mother's "superboss," to use a phrase I have heard other teachers use to describe their relationship to the superintendent.  Neither my mother's employment nor her opinions influence what I write here, and I am not certain that she even reads it or knows how to find it, nor do I care.

That being said, I have unqualified confidence in Dr. Haynes's leadership on this issue, both in the decision to cancel the speaker's appearance and in her explanation of the situation.  Her statement on this point is smart, even-handed, respectful, and confident.  I expect and hope that she is able to convert this controversy into a greater opportunity to educate.

I am also bitterly disappointed, though not surprised, that this was even controversial.

In the reaction to these developments, I have seen the worst aspects of ignorance and hatred and hypocrisy and pretended martyrdom on proud display.  I have never been one to withhold my opinion, but I am confounded by people whom I know are smarter than this who nevertheless display these qualities.  It is an emotional reaction, but it is out of control.

Sheridan schools are some of the best in the state.  They are led by able, student-focused, principled administrators who are educators first.  The teaching corps is solid from top to bottom.  In the quiet moments of my reflection, I am proud to have been a product of these schools.

In the louder moments such as these, when unimpeded, half-cocked hate fills the air, I wonder sometimes if my Sheridan education is something I have overcome rather than something that set me on the path to where I am today.  It is, however, a waste of time to wish to have had better origins.

I am, as most of you know, an admirer of the intellect of Louis Brandeis, a U.S. Supreme Court justice from the first half of the 20th century.  His words gave this blog its name.  Perhaps his most famous quote is below:

Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.
Brandeis meant, of course, that the best way to determine the value of something is to get it out in the open, for free examination, comment, and criticism.  He was talking about a marketplace of ideas.

"Brandeis," Justice William O. Douglas, who replaced him on the Supreme Court, wrote, "was a militant crusader for social justice whoever his opponent might be. He was dangerous not only because of his brilliance, his arithmetic, his courage. He was dangerous because he was incorruptible."

Brandeis knew, and overcame, prejudice in his own time.  He was a Jew, the first to be nominated to the Court; though non-religious, he suffered through the anti-Semitism common at the time.  His 1916 nomination to the Supreme Court was bitterly contested by conservatives who deemed him a "muckraker" and "unfit," and who derisively dismissed his supporters as "a bunch of Hebrew uplifters."  For the first time in its history, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings before voting on his confirmation.  At a time when the judicial nominating process usually took days at most, his confirmation took four months and was split along ideological lines.  Yet he is today one of the most admired and often-cited Justices in our history.

I do not understand the people who want so much to hold onto their hate, and to pass it on to their children, that the mere possibility that an opinion contrary to that hate will be expressed is enough to send them into wild tangents of rage.

But I do understand that hate hides in the shadows.  It cannot survive scrutiny, because hate is irrational.  Hate is contrary to our nature as humans.  The more information we receive, the more experience we gain, the less we can hold onto the hate we have.

I also understand that the source of hate is fear, and the source of fear is ignorance.

In my lifetime there have been two great human cultural changes.  One is the end of the Cold War.  The other is the recognition of equal rights for homosexuals.  The end of the Cold War came about not because of an overt victory, not because of a triumph of our philosophy over theirs.  It came about because of cultural exchange that allowed each side to recognize the other as humans.  Hate cannot survive the light of understanding.

And no one has been more surprised than I am by the rapid acceptance of homosexuals as equal citizens in our Republic, with equal rights and privileges.  But that came about first through cultural exchange; in the 1980s, gays were seen as promiscuous, lascivious spreaders of a dread disease.  But it's hard to hate Ellen DeGeneres.  It's hard to hate that which makes you laugh and feel good.  Soon, gays began to be seen as ordinary people with different preferences.  Then one state, and another, started recognizing gay marriages, and the world didn't end, and soon I expect it will be the law of the land everywhere.

And we are better for it. 

I hope beyond hope that Dr. Haynes uses this opportunity to teach us all a far more important lesson than what one Muslim might think about a horrific act.  The lesson that needs learning is that exposure to ideas is the entirety of education.  When you prevent your children from being exposed to ideas, you make them less intelligent.  This is something she hinted at in her statement:

We know that our students are intelligent enough to make up their own minds about world events and the causes of those events, but that requires that they have as much information as can be made available to them.

I can't think of a better way to describe what needs to happen, or to express what education is all about.

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