When Cox High School announced late last year that it planned to hold a student-organized gay-pride assembly, some people—predictably—voiced opposition. Incoming school board member Victoria Manning was chief among them. In an email to the board chair, she argued that the assembly would set a bad precedent.
“Additionally,” she wrote, “this is a controversial subject, and I do not believe it is appropriate to hold a gay pride event during instructional time.”
That’s some curious logic. The clear implication is that if a subject is “controversial,” it is not appropriate to discuss during the school day.
I could not disagree more.
Discussing controversial subjects should be actively encouraged during the school day, particularly in classes dealing with literature, history, philosophy and government—all with the objective of helping students learn to think critically.
Alas, many school districts in recent years have moved in the opposite direction. There are two reasons for this. First, the emphasis on Standards of Learning has resulted in an obligation on the part of educators to teach to the test—a process that emphasizes absorption of facts and formulas rather than critical thinking. Second, school districts have grown ever more fearful of controversy.
A case in point: On the same day that the gay-pride assembly was announced, the Accomack County School District pulled copies of To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn from classrooms and libraries after a parent complained about the books’ use of “racial slurs.” The district’s superintendent announced that a special committee would be formed to determine whether the books should remain on the shelves.
My first thought upon reading this was that the district was missing an important instructional opportunity. Instead of appointing a committee to evaluate the importance of two books that have long been regarded as American classics, officials should have held an assembly open to students, teachers and the general public—and including literary experts—to discuss the substance of those works. In the process, people who are unfamiliar with the books would have learned that Huckleberry Finn, in particular, is arguably the most important novel ever written about the nature of racism in America.
So, where does this leave Cox High School?
As of this writing, the gay-pride assembly had been rescheduled for late January—after hours. Additionally, the school division announced it would host a school-wide “diversity assembly” in late February in an effort to be more inclusive to all groups and students.
All of this strikes me as rather reactive and haphazard.
But there’s an easy way to avoid such problems in the future: Why not establish a schedule of regular assemblies—say, monthly, or even semi-monthly—during the school day to address topics of social importance. One might address gay rights, while another could deal with racism, and still another the role of religion in America. There are countless other possibilities.
In making such assemblies a part of the school day on a regular basis, students would learn important lessons—and not just about the subjects at hand. They would learn the tradition of the Town Meeting, which dates to Colonial times—an institution that is based on respectful dialogue among people with differing opinions, and therefore embodies the very essence of democracy.
Or as Henry David Thoreau put it in 1854, “When, in some obscure country town, the farmers come together to a special town-meeting, to express their opinion on some subject which is vexing the land, that, I think, is the true Congress, and the most respectable one that is ever assembled in the United States.”
Nothing could be more important in our schools today. There was a time, after all, when it was a given that one purpose of public schooling was to teach students to become engaged citizens. We need to restore that idea—and there is no better way to do it than with regularly scheduled assemblies that would model for students the process of vigorous but respectful dialogue.
Respect is the key. As a graduate school professor of mine pointed out to me years ago, the root meaning of respect—re-spect—is to take another look at something. That willingness, needless to say, is sorely lacking in American society today.
Nor can the demonstrations of respect be one-sided. In my vision, these assemblies would be truly diverse. That would mean involving people representing a variety of views—a conservative religious leader, for example, in the case of the gay-pride assembly. Some people would object to this approach, of course, arguing that it would just add legitimacy to prejudice. I understand their concern. To my mind, opposition to gay rights—or civil rights for any minority group—is rooted in ignorance, pure and simple. But what better way to fight ignorance than to confront it in a civil manner?
It is possible that the gay-pride assembly and subsequent “diversity” gathering will provide a basis for this sort of thing. But I have my doubts. All too often, assemblies such as these are little more than feel-good affairs, which allow school officials to pat themselves on the back for their “progressiveness.”
In saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that I believe the gay-pride assembly as planned was unimportant. Certainly it was well intentioned. It was planned after a student was bullied—a common occurrence these days, which calls attention to the necessity of raising awareness of the daily realities faced by gay, lesbian and transgender students.
But if schools really want to establish something of enduring value, assemblies must ultimately go beyond preaching diversity and tolerance and move toward Socratic dialogues in which students come to enlightenment through their own thought processes.