LOS ANGELES – The education ministry’s decision to encourage high school students to become actively involved in political activities is well-intentioned. But if the experience in the United States is any indication, it will have unforeseen consequences.
At height of the Vietnam War in 1965, 15-year-old John Tinker, his 13-year-old sister, and their 16-year-old friend wore black armbands to school to protest U.S. involvement. School policy at the time prohibited the practice, with violators subject to suspension. The rationale for the ban was that it disrupted learning.
After the American Civil Liberties Union approached the family, a lawsuit was filed that eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. In 1969, the high court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. Ever since, the burden of proof has been on schools.
Once Japan implements the new policy, it will find itself faced with similar situations that will have the potential to lead to litigation. That’s the unavoidable price paid in a democracy, and the devil will be in the details. For example, will students be disciplined for demonstrating their beliefs on the street adjacent to the school during school hours? Will the establishment of a free-speech zone on campus pass legal muster?
Adding to the concern is that teachers will be required to remain neutral in their instruction. That is reasonable enough. But what are they supposed to say to students who ask them about their personal opinion regarding the issue under discussion? Education that engages students will invariably lead to such possibilities.
When an elementary school student asked Deborah Mayer on the eve of the Iraq War whether she would ever take part in a peace march, she said, “I honk for peace.” That was enough to get her fired. Unable to find another teaching position for three years, she sued, claiming that her free speech rights had been violated. But a federal appeals court upheld her firing by ruling that a teacher’s speech is the “commodity she sells to an employer in exchange for her salary.”
Will Japan uphold the right of teachers to answer a student’s question honestly? Or will public education be simply a situation where the government is the speaker and teachers are its mouthpieces? That is not a theoretical question. Students in Japan today are far more sophisticated than earlier generations. They are exposed on a daily basis to images and debates that by their very nature are controversial. As a result, they cannot be expected to be passive.
If the ultimate goal is to get young people to vote, schools are the proper place to imbue them with the necessary critical thinking skills. Muzzling teachers and restricting students are not the way to achieve that objective. Not only will that chill the debate, but it will also breed disrespect for the entire educational process.
Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the United States.
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