Maryland Blogger Alliance

Alliance FAQs

Latest MBA Posts

February 26, 2006

Landing a sucker punch on "peace studies"

UPDATES below (and one of the students involved drops by my comments section).

During the Vietnam War, my older sister, who was in high school, quoted approvingly to my father a friend of hers who had said that if the United States simply disarmed, the Soviet Union would have no reason to be afraid of us and we could have peace. It's one of the few times my father ever got angry over a political remark one of us had made.

That was back in the 60's, but some stupid ideas never die. (Though, at least my sister's views have matured significantly since then.) One of those stupid ideas is that if we just want peace devoutly enough, if we are educated to want peace, all those people who hate us and want to kill us will suddenly stop hating us and hoping to kill us. Kumbaya, my friends, kumbaya.

I guess I didn't realize until today that "peace studies" is a course taught at several Montgomery County high schools. At Bethesda-Chevy Chase HS, the course is taught by former WaPo columnist Colman McCarthy. I think that when he wrote for the Post, no one actually read his column, but with the technology then available, the Post simply didn't realize that. And so, with no readers, and with the Post continuing to pay his salary, McCarthy was happily writing his paeans to whatever ignorant doctrine was currently fashionable on the progressive Left.

But one student at B-CC has now objected to the course. His views aren't going to be taken seriously, because he isn't actually taking the course, but here's what happened.

For months, 17-year-old Andrew Saraf had been troubled by stories he was hearing about a Peace Studies course offered at his Bethesda high school. He wasn't enrolled in the class but had several friends and classmates who were.

Last Saturday, he decided to act. He sat down at his computer and typed out his thoughts on why the course -- offered for almost two decades as an elective to seniors at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School -- should be banned from the school.

"I know I'm not the first to bring this up but why has there been no concerted effort to remove Peace Studies from among the B-CC courses?" he wrote in his post to the school's group e-mail list. "The 'class' is headed by an individual with a political agenda, who wants to teach students the 'right' way of thinking by giving them facts that are skewed in one direction."

He hit send.
This caused a little activity on the listserv.
Within a few hours, the normally staid e-mail list BCCnet -- a site for announcements, job postings and other housekeeping details in the life of a school -- was ablaze with chatter. By the time Principal Sean Bulson checked his BlackBerry on Sunday evening, there were more than 150 postings from parents and students -- some ardently in support, some ardently against the course.
Not to mention which, Colman McCarthy personally punched him out. (Only kidding, I think.) Actually this is what McCarthy's response was:
For his part, McCarthy, 67, finds the students' objections a bit puzzling. He said that although the two sat in on a recent class, they have not talked to him in depth about their concerns.

"I've never said my views are right and theirs are wrong," he said about the students who take his course. "In fact, I cherish conservative dissenters. I wish we could get more of them in."
McCarthy's course is different from those at other high schools, because he is not a school employee. But there seems to be no doubt about his approach in class.
Although a staff teacher takes roll and issues grades, it is McCarthy as a volunteer, unpaid guest lecturer who does the bulk of the teaching. He does not work from lesson plans, although he does use a school system-approved textbook -- a collection of essays on peace that he edited.

For McCarthy, it seems Peace Studies is not just a cause; it is a crusade.

"Unless we teach them peace, someone else will teach them violence," he said.

Students might spend one class period listening to a guest speaker who opposes the death penalty and another, if they choose, standing along East West Highway protesting the war.

But that, students said, is part of the course's appeal.

"We're all mature enough to take it all in with a hint of skepticism," said Megan Andrews, 17. "We respect Mr. McCarthy's views, but we don't absorb them like sponges."
And if you aren't sure yet about the course, consider this:
When they walk through the door of their fourth-floor classroom, students said, they never know what they might find. Once McCarthy brought in a live turkey to illustrate a point about animal rights. Everything went well until the turkey escaped and urinated in the hallway.

And Friday, when students opened the door, they saw Mahatma Gandhi -- or, rather, Bernard Meyer, a peace activist from Olympia, Wash., dressed as Gandhi. Meyer spent most of the class time taking questions from students about "life" as Gandhi. McCarthy, too, jumped in, quizzing Gandhi about his views on arranged marriage. At the end of the period, he jumped from his chair.

"Let's take a photo of us with Gandhi," he said, gathering the students.
So the turkey urinated, and Gandhi was known for drinking his own urine. A little unintentional karma there, right?

Anyway, the school has its story, and it's sticking by it.
For now, however, the administration said it has no plan to do away with Peace Studies.

"Peace Studies is one of the things that makes B-CC unique," Bulson said. "It's been an institution here, and kids from all across the spectrum have taken it. It's not about indoctrination. It's about debate and dialogue."
OK, it's not about indoctrination. It's about stupid ideas that kids will grow out of after high school. Like my sister. Unfortunately, not like Colman McCarthy.

UPDATE (2/27): Michelle Malkin is on the case. She provides us with links to two pieces by Colman McCarthy that add significantly to what I've written above: one about his textbooks, including a riff on why he can't teach the other side ("After a woman’s account of her using a nonviolent defense against a rapist, [should I teach] the thwarted rapist’s side?"); and one, a reprint of a WaPo column, extolling the wisdom of his students opposed to the 1991 Gulf War.

UPDATE (2/28): Avishek Panth, a second B-CC student mentioned in the Post article, has posted a defense of his position in my comments section, responding to another commenter's accusation that doing away with the course is censorship (which I've found is the usual tactic of people who can't bear to hear criticism). I wish I had been able to write so cogently when I was in high school.

UPDATE (2/28): James Taranto adds that McCarthy isn't being candid when he says he'd "cherish conservative dissenters" in his classroom:
Yet McCarthy's record belies his claim to embrace dissent. In May 2002, as we noted, he denounced the school for its choice of commencement speaker: Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser. "Students deserve better than someone who advocates, as Rice does, sending U.S. pilots to kill human beings in Afghanistan," McCarthy told the student newspaper.