HEAD OF THE CLASS
How Bureaucrats Are Ruining School
When the feelings of students are prized above all else, teachers looking to inject a little personality into the classroom are the first to suffer.
Teresa Buchanan, Rafe Esquith, and Jordan Parmenter have something in common: They are all nonconformist teachers who were removed from the classroom by hypersensitive administrators because they dared to treat their students like actual adults.
The most memorable educators in kids’ lives are often the ones who aren’t afraid to excite, to provoke, and even to offend. So why do bureaucrats think it’s a good idea to violate the academic freedom and due process rights of elementary school teachers, high school teachers, and university professors who haven’t done much of anything wrong?
The most recent example of this is Buchanan, formerly an associate professor at Louisiana State University who taught early education. The subject matter was often dry, and Buchanan would try to hold her students’ attention by telling jokes—and occasionally using profanity. When I interviewed her for Reason, she explained, “If the curriculum is fucking awful, I might say that it is. I’m not teaching Sunday school.”
Sunday school might have been more forgiving. On the last day of fall classes in December 2013, Buchanan was informed by her dean that she was suspended from teaching until an investigation could be completed. At least one student, according to the dean, had complained about her language and sense of humor. Buchanan had once used the word “pussy” in an off-campus conversation with a fellow teacher, and had joked with some of her female students that their boyfriends might stop helping them with their work once the sex became boring.
A faculty committee determined that Buchanan had indeed crossed some lines; its recommendation was for her to exercise better judgment in the future and return to class. But LSU President F. King Alexander decided to impose a wholly different penalty: termination. Buchanan was fired last month—after waiting a year and a half for the university to decide her fate—ostensibly on the grounds that she had engaged in sexual harassment and created a hostile environment for her students.
After Buchanan talked to the press about her treatment, LSU released a statement asserting that she had a “history of inappropriate behavior that included verbal abuse, intimidation and harassment of our students.” Certainly, universities should take sexual harassment seriously, but the mere utterance of sex jokes—when not directed at any specific student’s expense—isn’t worthy of condemnation or reprisal.
Buchanan is considering filing a lawsuit. She alleges that LSU grossly mishandled the case, neglecting her due process rights, academic freedom, and internal university procedures. She also pointed out to me that the LSU Honors College Student Council had awarded her the Robert L. “Doc” Amborski Distinguished Honors Professor Award in 2012. At least some of her students were laughing with her, it seems.
Teachers with unusual, engaging methods are often mistreated by the education system—even, like Buchanan, when they win awards. Rafe Esquith, an elementary school teacher at Hobart Boulevard in Los Angeles who won numerous teaching distinctions and was dubbed the world’s most famous teacher by The Washington Post, earned a suspension this year for a familiar reason: he told a joke.
Whereas Buchanan said some mildly provocative things to a bunch of full-grown adults, Esquith made a completely inoffensive remark to a bunch of children. He runs his own nonprofit, puts on productions of Shakespeare plays, and takes his low-income LA students on educational field trips—relying on private donations to fund his activities. In March, Esquith joked with his students that unless he was able to raise more money, they would have to perform the play naked. He made this remark after reading a relevant passage from Huckleberry Finn that concerns a king “prancing out on all fours, naked.”
The joke was essentially harmless. But another teacher overheard it, divined some sinister intention, and reported it to school authorities. Esquith had to cancel his production and sit in a rubber room while administrators interrogated his students about his behavior. A California credentialing committee ruled that Esquith did nothing wrong, but the district still hasn’t let him return to teaching.
Consider a third example. Jordan Parmenter, an Illinois high school teacher, was using an American flag as a pointer during an instruction on May 15. A student found this disrespectful and complained. Parmenter responded by taking his analogy a step further; he placed the flag on the ground and stepped on it, thus illustrating one of the symbol’s most important values: the right to free expression.
Or so he thought. District officials found out about the demonstration, and the education board voted 6-0 to fire him, even after he penned a letter apologizing for his actions. Instead of letting his exercise in free speech stand, administrators opted to send a message to students that provocative behavior would be punished, even if it’s constitutionally protected and serves a perfectly worthwhile educational purpose.
There’s something soul-crushingly conformist about what the public education bureaucracy demanded of Buchanan, Esquith, and Parmenter. Each tried to add a dash of personality to their lessons, and each was severely punished for it. Public school is boring enough—are students really well served by administrators making even more dull?
New federal government policies are at least partly to blame for driving school administrators to such unfunny extremes. The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights increasingly forces all universities that receive public funding to vigorously police their campuses for inappropriate behavior. As a result, academics who express even mildly unconventional views on touchy subjects like sex have faced formal investigations. One such academic, Northwestern University’s Laura Kipnis, recently spoke out about her treatment and lamented that the new approach infantilizes students.
If Esquith and Carpenter’s ordeals are any indication, it’s not merely college students being zealously sheltered from potentially offensive antics. The mandate to treat everyone like a delicate snowflake is taking hold in high schools and elementary schools as well.
Real life will be quite an adjustment for these students, who spent the first 20 years of their lives in institutions where freedom of expression was downplayed (or even punished), humor was frowned upon, and the protection of feelings was prioritized above all else.