The oral arguments are over so the Supreme Court is currently deciding the fate of the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case. Regardless of the outcome, we are left with the comforting fact that, once again, the system has proven itself too willing to step into a case. Or, as is my current thinking on public schools, the administration doesn’t have a clue, nor do they care to find one, and so knee-jerk reactions to, let’s face it, creative-yet-disturbing moments by students have become Supreme Court Cases.
I remember when, way back in the day, there was a common phrase here in Montana. Before Bart Simpson enriched us with “Don’t have a cow, man!” we had people calmly saying, “It’s not a Supreme Court Case, chill.” I’ve not heard that phrase in nearly a score of years – 19, to be precise – and it was my 8th grade science teacher, whose name I can’t remember, but whose soft-spoken demeanor yet intense passion for the wonders of world made science interesting. He said it after a demonstration of an electrical circuit caused a student to freak out a bit. Holding hands in a circle, we created a circuit, and to prove this concept, two of us let go of each other and instead held the positive and negative wires from an alternator. The alternator was cranked over, only once and by hand, and produced electricity, and the circuit of teens lit up – one teen to the point of hysterics. But it wasn’t that big a deal, it was not a Supreme Court Case. It wasn’t even painful, just odd. I can’t imagine that he’s still allowed to do this demonstration, but I hope he is.
Which brings us back to the fundamental problem here. We have a student who wanted to test the limits of Free Speech. We have a principal that wanted to further her career, which one would hope would mean educating students better, but the cynical side of me suspects that means not upsetting the status quo.
You can’t expect teenagers not to push the boundaries. That’s just dumb. Anyone who was a teen knows that. If you didn’t push any boundaries when you were a teen, you were either in a persistent vegetative state or you did so many bong hits 4 Jesus that you’ve just forgotten what else you might have done. But it’s a good thing that teens push boundaries, it’s fundamental to learning. Every advance we have made has come about because someone said, “What if?” and didn’t listen to the chorus of people who responded in the negative. The trick, for teachers, is to channel that urge into positive events. I’m currently teaching a bit at the high school I attended, so I know it’s hard, but more on that later.
So this teen decides that on the day the Olympic torch is going to run past his school, he’s going to put up a message that he thinks, quite reasonably, will get him on TV. And he succeeds in his goal. Having put that much thought into creating the sign, there’s a very real chance that the kid knew he was going to get in trouble. So what happened next was a shock to the aforementioned carrots and stoners. The principal sees the sign, confiscates it, and confronts the student, giving him 5 days suspension. When the student quotes Jefferson on Free Speech, instead of being impressed by the kids knowledge on the subject, or hell, for even being able to quote Jefferson at all, she instead doubled the suspension to 10 days.
I won’t go into why suspension from school as punishment is about the dumbest thing ever. There isn’t enough ice-cream to keep me from blowing a gasket, so that, too, shall wait.
So the kid, armed with the ACLU, files suit. Round one goes to the principal, because it’s a school, and while the kids don’t lose all their rights when going to school, they do lose some of them. Some speech must be limited, after all, yelling “Fire!” in a crowded school is the same as yelling it in a crowded theater.
The kid and the ACLU appealed, and the 9th Circuit, not seeing any smoke, much less a fire, said that not only was the kid unreasonably stripped of his rights, in doing so the principal may be liable for monetary damages to him. So it’s no surprise that the principal, who by now is at the superintendent’s office, appealed this decision to the Supremes.
And the justices are quite overcome with joy on this one. I suggest reading Dahlia Lithwick’s Dispatch, as usual, rather than me trying to sum up her work. Apparently Justice Stephen Breyer managed to hide the fact that he spent his teen years doing his best impression of a rutabaga . I say that because he couldn’t have managed law school and his legal career to such great success if he was a pothead, yet he said that ruling in favor of the student would cause teens to start “testing limits all over the place in the high schools.”
Again, testing limits is how we all learn and create. That’s nothing new, and stifling that instinct is just as bad as letting it run rampant, yet those are the only options that anyone involved with this case can apparently see. Which just goes to show you how bad things are, because some of the brightest minds around can’t see what the sign said, and are off discussing completely irrelevant issues.
This case demonstrates one of the fundamental flaws of the current teaching regime, and it’s one of the biggest. Rather than confronting this student in a positive way, the principal was acted as a power-obsessed and power-corrupted coward and neglected all students, not just at her school, but now, due to the coverage that this sort of thing would obviously generate, at every school. And yes, I lay the neglect at her feet because it’s her damn job to lead teachers, which should mean she can think at least as well as the students. It’s not unreasonable to expect that since the sign got on tv already, she might want to really think about the best way to confront this.
“And how,” you ask, “is that possible? What should she have done?” The only thing she is really supposed to do – use her head.
Instead of suspending the student for 10 days, the principal should have given the kid 10 days to prepare the affirmative defense for his slogan. As in, debate. As in debating against teachers, because the principal would choose 3 teachers to prepare the negative. And the principal would pick the judge, too. And on the 11th day, at 10 am, the kid would debate the teachers. At school. In front of every other student, who would watch through either attending (if you had to) or through the announcement or the closed-circuit TV system at the school.
Now, let’s discuss the pros and cons of this event. Pros first, since I can actually think of a few of them.
- The kid is required to defend a controversial position in front of his peers, but the peers aren’t able to help in any meaningful way.
- The slogan is brought before the students not as a rallying cry for the oppressed but as a learning tool.
- The teachers get to bring out the big guns, go for the jugular (verbally, of course) in a way that, legitimately, showcases their greater knowledge, wisdom and experience.
- The students see that, rather than just getting a free 10 day vacation, pushing the boundaries can have consequences they really don’t want to face – namely, public speaking, but also being resoundly beaten down by teachers in front of the entire school.
- Everyone learns that “With great power comes great responsibility” actually is true.
- Everyone has a chance to THINK.
As for cons, the only real downside I can see is if the teachers aren’t capable of holding their own in the debate. That would suck, but, in my experience, even the worst teachers are always ready with a snappy retort to the smartass kids. In the debate, these teachers don’t have to win, as the phrase is nonsensical. So long as they expand the discussion to include why sometimes it’s better to not say something, or to hold back your free speech, they ultimately win.
And isn’t “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” really “Religion is the opiate of the masses” in disguise?