Hazelwood’s Sheep

University of Arizona’s David Cuillier told us yesterday that “we’re raising a generation of sheep” in the wake of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the U.S. Supreme Court case that curtailed the First Amendment rights of students. The Media Law & Policy Center has been holding an eye-opening two-day conference on the 25th anniversary of the decision and the state of student speech more generally.

David’s comments hit me hard as a teacher of college students but especially as the mother of a 9-year-old.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court told us in Tinker v. Des Moines that students’ free speech rights don’t stop at the schoolhouse gate, we may want to think about having parents and educators check their helicopter propellers there. I work hard to check mine every morning, but as I look around, I see many of us, including teachers, swooping in at the first sign of struggle with our children and with our students. Our effect on student speech environments is significant, and it is fundamentally changing how we think about free speech and how we think about regulating it.

Our tendency toward the “helicopter response” is showing up in our classrooms, and it makes talking about controversial topics just that much tougher every year I teach.

On Wednesday I decided to reserve time in my journalism media law class for discussion of the presidential election. At first, students were hesitant to talk, as usual, for fear of judgment and disagreement. I did my usual teeth-pulling. Finally, I was told that they were sick of the social media cacophony they were witnessing by those who had “won” and those who were “ready to pray every day to save America.”  Like the four-year-old whose plea for the election to be over went viral, my students were ready to stop talking about the election.

But the truth is they never really started. The truth is that many of them have stayed inside the sheep pen. And we let that happen.

Critical pedagogy theorists like Mina Shaughnessy, Paulo Friere and Henry Giroux have been urging us for years to allow our students to struggle, fail and debate, and then guide their journey toward greater learning. They have been urging us to stop the robotic testing, skilling and drilling, and demands for perfection in academic performance. They urged us to urge them to talk about the difficult stuff – not the stuff I usually wind up talking to them about: test scores and cover letters.

The First Amendment has always recognized the struggle inherent in granting protections for free speech. But in raising our students to be good performers and genuinely nice people, we have taught them that failure and conflict are bad and are to be avoided. We have taught them to be quiet about controversy and about their own failures. And we have hidden our failures as educators along the way.

Not all students are like this, obviously, but in ten years of teaching, I will say that many are. And many more are potentially headed in that direction.

What will it take to change that approach? I’ll take that up in my next post, but welcome your thoughts here.

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