Students' Obama song: Is there a better way to teach civics?
The controversy over New Jersey students singing about the president raises the issue of how schools should talk about contemporary politics in the classroom - including the first African-American president.
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Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin was one of the first to take note of it, referring to it as an “O-cult lesson” and concluding at the end of one blog: “Out: Readin’, writin’, and ’rithmetic. In: Rappin’, revolution, and radicalism.” On Fox News, Tucker Carlson said the video was “pure Khmer Rouge stuff,” and Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele called it “the type of propaganda you would see in Stalin’s Russia or Kim Jong Il’s North Korea."Skip to next paragraph
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Such characterizations, says Richard Harris, a political scientist at Rutgers University, are wildly off-base. "Indoctrination implies an ongoing and systematic effort to advance a strategy … and is a program that’s devised or managed by an organization or government,” he says. “This doesn’t even come close.”
What he finds particularly troubling, says Professor Harris, is that the episode appears rooted in an ongoing effort to "associate [Obama] with centralized planning and totalitarianism.”
School to review the incident
Still, a number of people, including some parents in the district, have been bothered by the video, and the New Jersey Department of Education announced that the commissioner has directed the superintendent to conduct a thorough review of what happened.
Superintendent Manno, meanwhile, has tried to put the video in context, noting that it was created during Black History Month when there was “much exuberance throughout the country over the inauguration … of the first African American President of the United States.” Lyrics to the song were sent home with students beforehand.
While the district “is confident that this incident was not an attempt to promote a political agenda, [we] are sensitive to the concerns this has raised,” Manno wrote to parents.
For his part, Levine says that singing songs of adulation to a sitting president probably isn’t the best way to deal with politics in the classroom. A better way to talk about Obama’s presidency, he suggests, might be to start a classroom dialogue, eliciting a variety of responses from students and making sure people feel respected whatever their political viewpoint.
But the reality, he adds, is that some classrooms are likely to err in ways that offend both the right and the left when it comes to how they address current events.
“I’d be tolerant of some less-than-perfect practices,” rather than have both sides cancel each other out by eliminating anything remotely controversial, Levine says. The alternative is that “we all just veto each other’s videos.”
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