Horace Mann teacher shouldn't have been fired says historian, but ...

Historians in the News

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century” (Harvard University Press).]

In 1936, historian Howard Beale published a book entitled, “Are American Teachers Free?” In 855 not-so-succinct pages, Beale gave a simple answer: no. Across the United States, schools placed strict limits upon teachers’ speech, manners, and conduct. Some schools barred teachers from dancing, smoking, or playing cards; others fired instructors who joined “radical” political groups, including the Ku Klux Klan.

OK, so the ban on card-playing seems a bit draconian in this day and age. But a teacher who goes home, dons a hood, and carries a flaming cross to a KKK rally? I’m perfectly fine with firing him. And that, I suppose, marks me as an enemy of “academic freedom.”

Witness the dust-up at the Horace Mann School in New York, one of the city’s most prestigious prep schools. The school recently dismissed Andrew Trees, who published a saucy satire last year of New York’s high-society, private-school set. Then it barred the student newspaper from publishing two letters and opinion piece in support of Dr. Trees.

“Doctor” Trees, you see, holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia. If he taught at a college or university, like I do, he would certainly be free to write or say anything he wished. Instead, he teaches at a high school. Should that make a difference?

Not according to one of the censored letters, signed by dozens of prominent American historians. “We believe that academic freedom should be the cornerstone of an academic institution,” declares the letter, which was obtained by the New York Times after the Horace Mann newspaper was prevented from publishing it. “In our own work and in our classrooms, we strive to create an environment where students and faculty are free to think critically.”

Well, sure. Every teacher should try to do that, no matter what their subject of instruction or the age of their students. But if the historians think that elementary and high school teachers should have the same type of academic freedom that university professors have . . .well, they’re simply wrong.

Let me get a few things on the table right away. First of all, full disclosure: I don’t know Andrew Trees. But I do know several of his professors at UVA, who signed the letter in his support.

Second, I share their outrage about Trees’ dismissal. If Horace Mann fired Trees for publishing a send-up of the school, it should be deeply ashamed of itself. And the school compounded its foolishness by censoring letters to the student newspaper, where the editor-in-chief is none other than Elyssa Spitzer, daughter of Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

But I’m troubled by the implication that high school teachers should have exactly the same rights and freedoms as university professors. Suppose a teacher wrote a book denying the Holocaust, or maintaining that the world was created in six 24-hour days. If the teacher was fired, would the East Coast’s academic all-stars rally to his defense?

I think not. And that’s because all of us understand—whether we admit it or not—that elementary- and secondary-level teachers need to stay within some kind of community consensus. They teach kids, not adults. So it’s reasonable for the community to insist that teachers’ public behavior—and sometimes, even, their public expression—respects a few broadly shared norms.

That’s why federal courts upheld the 2000 dismissal of Bronx High School of Science teacher Peter Melzer, a leader of the North American Man-Boy Love Association. As a citizen, Melzer has every right to join an organization advocating the legalization of underage sex. But he has no right to teach in a school, where his presence would generate too much fear, confusion, and controversy for young people to handle.

Could the students at Horace Mann handle a satire of their upscale private school? Of course they could. No one who attends Horace Mann would be in the least bit shocked, surprised, or scared by the behaviors that Andrew Trees described in his book,"Academy X": drug abuse, grade inflation, or plagiarism.

So if school officials fired Trees because of his book, they certainly weren’t acting to protect the kids. Instead, they were acting to protect their market share: they wanted to appease angry parents and trustees, who thought the book would hurt the reputation of the school.

And that’s truly despicable. Like any school—indeed, like any adult—Horace Mann can and should shield children from attitudes, opinions, and behaviors which are simply too horrible for young minds to contemplate. But it shouldn’t censor faculty or students simply for making the school look bad. That makes Horace Mann look even worse.

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