Saturday, March 04, 2006

Student in Maryland Peace Studies Controversy Responds to Critics

Andrew Saraf, the young student who has questioned the balance and purpose of the Peace Studies class offered at Bethesda-Chevy Chase high school, wants to respond to critics who have attacked him since his story was coverd by the Washington Post. Andrew emailed me and gave me permission to post an essay he composed at the request of Greg at Rhymes With Right, where it was posted yesterday. Andrew also confirmed that Alex Bannon, who posted a comment to my story about the Peace Studies class is, indeed, one of Colman McCarthy's students. Alex's comment in defense of McCarthy was posted as an update.

Here is Andrew Saraf's response to critics:
The reaction to Sunday's Washington Post article, in particular the critical reaction to the views I expressed therein, seem to consist of two main charges. The first is that we are conservatives, or Republican "chickenhawks" as one blogger put it, bent on the removal of liberalism from the classroom. In other words, we are witch-hunters. This is absolutely erroneous. Avi and I are also not on any "witch hunt" against those with certain political ideologies. My mother is a teacher; I therefore have a pretty clear understanding of the fact that teachers are human beings with political views. A certain degree of bias is to be expected in any classroom lecture. The difference is that Peace Studies is a class whose very mission is biased. Mr. McCarthy has in the last few days said such things as this: "People say, 'You don't give the other side.' And I say, 'You're exactly right'. " In classes sometimes disparagingly called 'traditional' or 'mainstream', bias is fought, and hopefully kept at a minimum. In Peace Studies, there is a resolute refusal to do so. And why? Or, at least, what is the stated reason for this? "This is the other side," Mr. McCarthy claims, to what we get elsewhere. Every other source of information has a conservative bias. In the meanwhile, as the class learned in a recent reading, we are "on a moving train", and "you can't be neutral". So the class, and its current practices, are based on two rather questionable assumptions: The first is that outside the class, the bias is a conservative one. The second is that neutrality is neither possible nor desirable because history is moving in one clear direction. The moment the existence of other points of view is acknowledged, these assumptions simply fall apart. We find that the liberals complain of a conservative bias, a "right-wing media", while the conservatives believe that the media and the public school system are controlled by left-wing radicals. Who is right? Is this issue settled? And as for the "moving train", in truth, we are not yet clear on what direction the train is moving in. What is the course of history? Who has defined it? Who has been responsible for the progress that has been made? Once again, these issues are not settled. But the class is taught as if they are. And that is the problem.

The second charge made against us is that, because we have not taken the class, we are in no position to speak on it or protest it. This is absolutely absurd. By that rationale, what has become a high visibility issue is in fact reserved to the select few who have had the privilege of being seniors at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and the infinite wisdom and good judgment required to choose to take the class. This means that parents, bloggers, commentators and all those younger than 17 or 18 have no place in this debate. What I suggest is that we be more rational. Just as a parent with a son or daughter in the class has every right to discuss it, I feel that as a student who has done extensive research into Mr. McCarthy's educational philosophy, and who has spoken at length with a number of Peace Studies students, none of them with an "Anti-Peace Studies" agenda, I too have a right to engage in discussion about this issue. And my allegations, which were much more tentative at first, have only been further confirmed in the last few weeks. We asked a student and self-described supporter of McCarthy's whether he himself ever presented facts or positions that contradicted his own ideology. The answer was "no". Not once have I heard of statistics provided in the class that would support a conservative interpretation of the issues; but again and again I have heard impassioned talk by his students on the differences in the amount of money spent "on war" and "on the poor", and on the inequalities in the distribution of wealth in the world, and so on and so forth. The only opposing speaker that has been brought in (of the many speakers), as far as I have heard, has been a parent of one of the students. His cause? He supported animal testing. On every other issue, not one student of Mr. McCarthy's has been able to produce an example of someone brought in with an alternative view. I have asked them to do so a number of times.

And, of course, there is the inevitable invocation of the class' status as an elective. This is a very appealing argument to make, because Avishek and I can thus be cast as curmudgeons who just want to keep everyone else from having fun. The problem is that it ignores two fundamental facts: First of all, Montgomery County Public Schools has a duty to apply the same basic standards of educational quality to every class that is offered, whether the class is an elective or not. Among these standards is a recognition that the major issues of our time are not settled; political ideologies are not the equivalent of algebra or physics. Mr. McCarthy has said that not everyone believes in algebra, and that not everyone believes in physics, but that they are taught anyway, but to attempt to make a comparison between science and math and political beliefs is simply ridiculous. If only one political ideology is being taught, the class should not be offered. The second fundamental fact is the nonexistence of an alternative. Peace Studies is a class tailored to liberal tastes. The 2nd period Peace Studies class, which we have visited, has only one or two Republicans in it. So the choice is between a political class that represents left-wing views or no political class at all. This could hardly be called a choice.

I would finally like to clarify my goals with this effort. Despite the Washington Post's unfortunate misstatements, Avi and I are not calling for the "banning" of the Peace Studies class. We recognize that certain aspects of the class are of value. But we believe that alternative lecturers must be brought in, individuals who would teach with Mr. McCarthy on alternating days. That way, both sides will be presented, while the unconventional nature of the experience is preserved. In spite of what some of our critics have said, this does not mean that students will also be "taught war" or "taught violence". It simply means that more than one narrow view of peace will be presented. Most political ideologies, and surely almost all Americans, 'believe in peace'. The question is how peace is to be achieved and approached. There is more than one way, and students should be taught as such.
Thank you very much.

- Andrew Saraf