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I Infantilize High School Students and Have Little Faith in the Intelligence of High School Teachers? Who Knew? (Certainly Not Me)

David Safier Nov 3, 2017 16:08 PM
The current issue of the Weekly has a response to my Guest Opinion about UA's libertarian-leaning Center for the Philosophy of Freedom and the high school course it created. It's written by Michael McKenna, the  current director of the "Freedom Center." I braced myself for a serious tongue lashing. Instead I found some serious quibbles with what I wrote along with information which either confirmed or added to the facts and ideas I presented.

I plan to post about McKenna's response in depth next week, but now I want to focus on my favorite part of his opinion piece, where he writes about how little respect I have for high school students and teachers.
Safier and those who find [David] Schmidtz's course so outrageous should consider just how much they infantilize high school students and how little faith they apparently have in the intelligence of high school teachers. Advanced high school students with an interest in enrolling in challenging college courses can be a pretty tough audience. And most high school teachers offering such courses do have minds of their own—even if they do get the chance to be trained by Schmidtz in how to teach the course.
I don't know if McKenna has taken the time to look into my work history even though I refer to it regularly in my posts. He may or may not know I am a retired public high school teacher who has taught thousands of high school students and worked closely with hundreds of high school teachers. I'm pretty sure most of my colleagues and former students would be surprised to hear that I held them in little regard, especially my students who know I encouraged them to think independently and deeply respected their intelligence and potential.

Reading McKenna's paragraph above, I have to wonder if he has much respect for the power of education to shape minds and the power of teachers to change students' perceptions of the world. Why did he choose to be a professor, I wonder. Why "profess" if you don't believe what you say will have much impact on the people you profess to?

God yes, high school students are a "pretty tough audience" as McKenna says, for a whole host of reasons. But if a teacher can get their attention and tap into their native intelligence and inherent curiosity about the world they're beginning to make sense of, the person standing in front of a classroom full of receptive students can have a profound influence on them, in the short and the long term. Students' lives can be changed by a single teacher over the course of a school year—or sometimes in a single "Aha!" moment. When former students returned to visit me or dropped me a note long after they left my class telling me how much impact I had on their lives, I have to say I still cherish those moments, even decades later. Sure, high school students are a "pretty tough audience," but that doesn't mean they can't be swayed by a good teacher using a well-constructed curriculum.

I mostly taught English. My students had lots of teachers teaching them about reading and writing before I had my chance, so they had enough experience with the discipline to be critical of what I was teaching. They could think, "Wait a minute, that's not what I learned from other teachers." The same goes for lots of other high school subject matter which adds onto what students learned from other teachers since they were in elementary school. Students have points of reference they can use to critique what their teachers are saying. But the course put together by the "Freedom Center," Ethics, Economy, and Entrepreneurship, draws its concepts from economics and philosophy which have little precedent in what the students learned in earlier coursework. The students enter the classroom as something close to blank slates in those fields, which gives teachers lots of space to write new ideas into the students' world view. While teachers can be persuasive in any field, they can be especially persuasive in an area where the students have little background.

Apparently, some adherents of libertarianism don't agree with McKenna's view that students are hyper-critical consumers of new ideas, including a libertarian professor at Brown University. Professor John Tomasi taught a freshman seminar where he emphasized, among other thinkers, Friedrich Hayek, an economist and philosopher much admired by libertarians. According to Jane Mayer's book, Dark Money, which I can't recommend too highly:
At Brown, which is often thought of as the most liberal of the Ivy schools, Charles Koch’s foundation gave $147,154 in 2009 to the Political Theory Project, a freshman seminar in free-market classics taught by a libertarian, Professor John Tomasi. “After a whole semester of Hayek, it’s hard to shake them off that perspective over the next four years,” Tomasi confided “slyly,” according to a conservative publication.
Give freshmen a little Hayek, Tomasi says in essence, and they're yours.

If getting a libertarian-heavy course into high schools will have as little effect on students as McKenna suggests, it's a puzzler why David Schmidtz, one of the creators of the course, put so much time and energy into it. In 2011, five years before the course made it into high schools, Schmidtz talked about his plans to train teachers and write materials for the courses: "We aim not only to produce the teachers, but the materials that are getting taught," he said. He sought and received a $2.9 million grant from the Templeton Foundation to, as it states on the Foundation's website, "foster research and produce curricular resources that will empower teachers (at the high school and college levels) to help students come to a deeper understanding of the nature of success and the virtues that are required to secure it in our distinctively American context." The description goes on to say it hopes "activities funded by the grant will reach some 25,000 high school students—roughly 25 percent of Arizona’s high school student population." All that time, all that energy, all that money spent trying to educate a "pretty tough audience" in the libertarian view of economics and philosophy? It sounds to me like a few people thought it was very worth their while.

As for high school teachers, they—we—absolutely have minds of our own, as McKenna states. But when teachers have a textbook and a syllabus presented to them covering subject matter which they are only somewhat familiar with, and they have "Freedom Center" profs teaching them how to teach the class—and someone from the Center visiting each class at least once a semester—it's not just likely, it's virtually certain that the course they teach will be highly influenced by the materials and instruction they receive.