Friday, March 03, 2006

Propaganda in the Classroom

Long before I knew a philosophical reason for being an atheist, I was turned against religion by the manner in which many preachers preach. Rather than appealing to a person's mind, they shout, stamp their feet, wave their arms and carry on like madmen. For a young person to see an adult behaving in such a way, not really understanding what he's talking about, and unable to judge whether he is right or wrong in what he's saying, is very scary. It's even more so when he proclaims that his listener's are sinful and doomed to burn in hell for eternity unless they live as he says they ought to.

If a person wants to convince another person of something, he has to respect the context of that person's mind. He has to begin from what the person already knows, and present facts in a dispassionate manner, and, instead of forcing the conclusion on the person, allow that person to draw the conclusion himself. As Frederic Bastiat said, "a mind never fully accepts a conclusion that it has not reached by its own effort."

That is the ideal way to teach, which is what makes this so disturbing (h/t Instapundit, via Michelle Malkin). Most of you have probably already seen the story, but to recap, it is about World Geography teacher Jay Bennish of Overland High School in Denver, Co., using his classroom as a bully pullpit from which to disseminate his personal view of American politics.

Ignore for the moment the exact content of his views. That's really unimportant, except for being the impetus for all the publicity. He is committing grievous errors in teaching methods here.

First, his entire demeanor is strident, confrontational and intimidating. Judging from the tape, few of the students have the nerve to express a dissenting opinion. Given his reaction to the one student who did, it is no wonder. He blasts the student with a barrage of disconnected assertions designed to overwhelm the student's ability to process and still remain focused on the central issue. The student who did respond did an admirable job of coming back to the main point each time, but that is probably because he lacked sufficient knowledge to even attempt to counter the teacher's other points.

His second error is discussing issues which the children do not yet have sufficient knowledge to judge for themselves. He constantly tells them, in between brow-beatings, that he just wants them to think about those issues for themselves, but what exactly is a 16 yr old supposed to think regarding issues about which he lacks any independent information? How many books would the average high schooler have read about US foreign policy and Cuba? It's obvious that he wants them to agree with him, or he wouldn't be pushing his viewpoint so hard. He wants his evaluations to acquire the status of facts in their minds. Instead brow-beating them, he ought to be providing them with the basic information they would need to draw their own conclusions.

His third error, is that he has veered completely off the subject matter of his class in order to propagandize. A World Geography class should be about world geography, not about current events. A dictionary definition of capitalism might be necessary to identify which countries have such a system, but a diatribe about the evils of such a system is beyond the scope of his course. One might get into evaluating economic systems in a world history class in order to explain why events unfolded the way they did, but not in a world geography class.

Jay Bennish is the kind of teacher that makes me glad I'm homeschooling.


Steven Brockerman, MS said...

Geography--usually called social studies--has become the dumping ground for every kind of halfwitted multiculturalist or social constructivist theory.

Truth is, geography--after the first or second grade, in which the basic concepts are taught (map, city, state, surface formations, relationships of location, etc.)--is supplemental to history, which provides geography's context.

Without that context, it's deuces wild in terms of content; and idiots gone wild in terms of instruction.

Steven Brockerman, MS said...

BTW, as an educator, I congratulate you on correctly analyzing this moron's teachiung shortcomings--kindly put. He has as much business in a classroom as does an alcoholic in an operating room.

Ardsgaine said...

As I was writing it, I was thinking that you could have done a better job with it. I did borrow your Bastiat quote for it.

MPH said...

Jay Bennish's teacher ratings"> if you are interested

Ardsgaine said...


Thanks for the link. To be honest, I don't think much of student evaluations as a measurement of teacher performance. Some of the most popular teachers when I was going to school were the ones who were lax and didn't make the students do a lot of work. Their classrooms were out of control and it was impossible to learn in them. The ones who had high standards of behavior and learning were among the most disliked. (The most universally disliked were the ones who wanted to have high standards but lacked the ability to enforce them. Students took delight in running over teachers like that.)

The online rating system you pointed to is even worse than useless. It's obvious that some of the comments are from adults who are only familiar with Mr. Bennish through the tape that has been made public. It's impossible to say whether their low ratings are an honest assessment of his teaching methods, or just a knee-jerk reaction to his politics. Several have given him 1's straight across the board, which suggests they're simply making a political statement. A few others went in the other direction. I can't give any weight to ratings like that. I will stick to my own assessment of his teaching methods.

Steven Brockerman, MS said...

My comment at that rating's site was disallowed b/c of "bad language." Must be run by one of Bennish's students.

"Based strictly on his pedagogical method sans content--i.e., using diatribe & harangue to validate his assertions--Bennish has much more in common with Hitler than does Bush."

Do you suppose we could nail him for the fallacy of self-exclusion?