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Fighting for the Freedom to Dissent

by WINSLOW MYERS

What an extraordinary civics lesson for the students, faculty, administration, town officials and parents connected with the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School on Cape Cod. Two teachers, Marybeth Verani and Carrie Koscher, stood up at an assembly recognizing six students who were joining the military and held a sign that said "End War." The students who were recognized were quickly given access to national television to tell the world why they were joining up. Student-organized support-our-troops rallies were organized. A national media firestorm ensued. The teachers were suspended.

In the blogosphere, peaceniks and teacher unions were vilified. One post particularly struck me. In response to the teachers’ gesture, the gentleman wrote: “Despicable. I hope they get fired.” But the motto underneath his post read "You know why there’s a Second Amendment? In case the government fails to follow the first one. (Rush Limbaugh 8/17/93)”

The first one, you may recall, is about freedom of speech. The free speech issue is always complicated for teachers. I taught at a private high school for 30 years, and often had to contend with the temptation to lay my own intellectual trips on my students. While I was interested enough in the challenge of teaching well to sublimate my passions into occasions for Socratic dialogue, sometimes I failed to keep my own biases from showing. No doubt I would never have made it all the way through to retirement unscathed if I had worked in a public school. The ideal function of a good teacher is to expose students to a variety of opposing views and encourage autonomous and critical thinking, keeping the personal convictions of the teacher out of the mix. On the other hand, when my biases did seep through, my students at least experienced a model of an adult authentically on fire with a love of ideas. Likewise in Yarmouth, where Verani and Koscher had the courage, if not the prudent judgment, to put their own authenticity on display at a risky moment.

Much as we would dearly like to be a nation without ambivalence about its wars, raging ambivalence has been the rule since Vietnam. Participating in a culture of ambivalence for decades is complicated and stressful. Even as this ambivalence can fracture us, surely it indicates our ongoing maturation as a citizenry. This tension endures in what was often repeated by unambivalent enthusiasts of the military during the Yarmouth episode: “These kids are going off to fight for the right of those teachers to protest.” Verani defended her gesture by saying, "I’m showing students in a democracy how to exercise dissent."

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” One opportunity for the adults in the Yarmouth situation is to rise to that condition, helping students understand that two apparently contradictory forms of patriotism were on display at the recognition ceremony, a willingness to serve at the risk of death, and a willingness to stand up for a deeply-held conviction.

In reality these two, far from being contradictory, are intimately complementary. Most veterans I’ve talked to have no problem with the notion of ending war—so that future generations of our young will no longer have to die for murky purposes in distant lands. Oops. My bias is showing.

WINSLOW MYERS, a retired teacher, lives in Boston and serves on the Board of Beyond War, a non-profit, non-political foundation exploring and promoting alternatives to war.

 

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