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?

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