The right to nonpolitical homework

Can a teacher require students to be activists? There’s a First Amendment right to nonpolitical homework, concludes the New York Times‘ ethics columnist.

A parent wrote:

For my daughter’s high-school biology class, the students are required to take a public action addressing climate change. They have a wide range of options of what they can do: write a letter to a public official, design a website, develop a public-service announcement or organize a flash mob. They are required to submit proof that they presented their work publicly — that is, that they mailed the letter, launched the website, etc. Is it ethical for the school to require students to speak publicly on a specific issue? Or even to give extra credit for doing so? Does the students’ right to free speech also give them the right not to speak publicly on this topic? KATHARINE LONDON, CAMBRIDGE, MASS.

The teacher can “teach climate change as hard science” without “universal community support,” responds the ethicist. But requiring public support for a divisive idea is not science.

Asking students to create the groundwork for a presentation (letter, website, flash mob) is not unethical, because it’s mostly a way to make students investigate a subject in a less conventional, more practical context. They will understand the ideas with greater depth. It’s a creative means for self-directed education. But forcing them to publicly advocate for that idea is something else entirely. That’s an extension of civics. And if a civics instructor demanded all her students campaign in public for a controversial environmental view that she personally supported, it’s pretty easy to see how this would be a problem. Here again, the issue is not about the subjective accuracy of the concept; it’s about forcing someone without agency to serve as a conduit.

The biology teacher might respond that students could “address” climate change by writing a letter saying it’s all hooey. That would be a brave student. But, even if students were given a real choice about what opinions to voice, mandatory activism is creepy.

And . . . organize a flash mob?

About Joanne


  1. Yeah, I don’t see that this needs to be part of a biology class.
    I don’t think it should be mandatory that they make a public display of speaking out about climate change.

    What else bothers me though, is that while I think climate change should be addressed, is that there is so much that could possible be taught in high school biology. Sure talk about climate change….expecting students to design websites about climate change though seems to be crowding out the chance to learn about other things.

    • SC Math Teacher says:

      This would be a dubious assignment even in a civics (social studies) class…unless the teacher allowed the students to advocate for whatever side of the debate they chose.

  2. Nobody would have a complaint about requiring students to display art publicly, play a sport publicly, or submit to a science fair or some such event. So the only objection is that a presentation on climate change is something political. But it is no more political than the value of Pi – sure, some legislators can continue to pretend that it doesn’t exist, but it does, it’s a fact, and it’s human-caused, also a fact. So there should be nothing controversial about this project at all. Unless you’re climate change denier (aka, in the science world, a ‘flake’).

    • Or if you think that it’s real but nothing should be done about it. At any rate, I’m a little dubious that complex solutions to complicated problems can best be advised by teenagers who have yet to do research or hold a job.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Students expect to play sports publicly, except possibly for cross country.
      Science fairs are generally a voluntary matter and a teacher who insisted on the work and expense of putting something into a science fair would be taking a chance with a kid who really didn’t want to do it.
      Art is done in private, more or less, and is displayed without the presence of the artist, most of the time. And kids go into art voluntarily expecting that some art will be displayed publicly.
      The idea isn’t that this is about denying AGW. The NYT and the Economist have run articles about how climate scientists have been struggling to explain/understand the fact that temps have been level for about fifteen-plus years. The Brit Met office projects level to 2017 and doesn’t project thereafter. Hansen, late of NASA, is reduced to saying something like…level now but hell when it cuts loose. The Hockey Stick was busted years ago, as was East Anglia’s CRU. Arctic ice is up from last year.
      This could go on for a long time. The question is whether a kid could get away with such a list, finishing up with scolding Al Gore for having five houses and a carbon footprint similar to that of Rhode Island.
      Obviously, not a chance in hell.

    • Ah, a traditionalist. Someone who understands that a great deal of the value of the public education system lies in its supposed ability to bend young minds into the path of truth and righteousness before they get old enough to start asking uncomfortable questions and develop unsanctioned opinions. Bravo Stephen, the proponents of intelligent design welcome you as a brother.

      From your post I take it that you’re also a supporter of the Nouveau Scientific Method in which truth is established by repeatedly using the word “fact” and thoughtful criticism is met with appropriate name-calling, aka “flake”. How’s the effort to replace experimentation and observation with consensus going?

      I’ve never quite understood how that works.

      Is it a percentage of scientists in agreement that results the determination of scientific truth or is there some absolute number of scientists in agreement that’s necessary before scientific truth’s established?

      The problem with the former approach is that in some narrow specialties all the scientists working in the area could sit on a bar stool. If two out of the three scientists associated with the area of study form their own, little consensus does that two-scientist consensus result in the establishment of scientific truth?

      By the way, love the hair. Nothing says “intellectual” like a mile of shiny forehead matched with the graying remnants of teenage rebelliousness.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Science Fairs, sports, and – past the elementary level art classes – are voluntary. Biology typically isn’t.

      Stephen, stating something is a fact and trying to marginalize anyone who disagrees (and tenured MIT climatologist disagree) with you is the most fascist of tactics. But, then fascists usually have no problem using the force of the state to crush dissent and force compliance.

  3. The better exercise would be for the student to craft an arguement for the view opposite from which he stands so that he can learn to dismantle that opposing arguement.

  4. Linda Seebach says:

    I’m a letters editor for a group of Florida newspapers (and have held the same job at others) and every now and then we get a flock of letters from students who submit them as a class assignment. Sometimes they all say the same thing, sometimes not; but most papers reject all of them because the submission was coerced, even if the specifics of the opinion were not. Sometimes teachers have told their students that the letters must be published in order for students to get credit — that is completely unacceptable, as it is something the students have no control over.

  5. I can’t understand why teachers feel the need to politicize science? Can’t they just teach biology with objective facts? The 80’s and 90’s, the decades I was in elementary and high school, the Ozone Layer was the cause du jour. Not once did my science teachers talk about being politically active in fighting the depletion of the Ozone Layer. I’m lucky I was born in the right time. I feel sorry for the school age kids today. They won’t have any knowledge about anything, save the parroting of political hokum they got from their teachers.

    • Richard Aubrey says:


      Wrt yr last sentence: What percentage of pub ed thinks that’s a feature, not a bug?