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Art and Arbitration

For me, art is the refuge, the respite. I recall concurring with the diatribe explained at length in The Goldfinch: it’s the illusion that makes life bearable. I think in art, truth is revealed, put out for examination.

At the Denver Art Museum recently, I viewed paintings of the North American Indian by Fritz Schroder. They are bold and terrible, addressing the stereotypical images portrayed and memorialized by early photographers such as Edward Sheriff Curtis ( between 1907 and 1930) whose intent it was to record traditional Indian cultures. His opinion of Indians as “primitive ” reflected a majority American viewpoint, promoting a “myth of a vanishing race, with the notion that Indians are historical features of an American landscape, not functioning members in a modern society”. [See Beck, “The Myth of the Vanishing Race”, in Edward S. Curtis in Context].

In Schroder’s paintings, piles of viscera a la Francis Bacon, dead bodies, ravenous dogs and unhappy looks express an alternate reality. At least in Denver’s 21st century exhibit, the victim’s story is in evidence. And perhaps as importantly, national museums are not afraid to display a reversal of public thinking, accepting the blame that has been incurred on our first nations.

Earlier that day, I sat as an observer in a mock arbitration where the topic for resolution dealt with the dismissal of a teacher. Based on the famous 1925 Scopes- Monkey trial financed by the American Civil Liberties Union, lawyers Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan argued Modernist and Fundamentalist perspectives based on the accusation of a teacher’s teaching the Theory of Evolution in the classroom.

Fast forward to 2015 where this arbitration would flip the test by pronouncing the Theory of Creationism as the tempest in the teapot. Here Mrs. Betty Scopes is impugned by a confused 10 year old. The mother reports a change in the child’s behaviour along with nightmares that include being descended from an ape. This is the basis of a complaint that results in Scopes’ dismissal.

Although the teacher clearly states that she did not teach religion, as she might at her church, she did expose her students to her view of Creationism. However, she explains that, as well and significantly, she provided a forum for all students to discuss their ethnic and religious backgrounds, even citing aboriginal peoples’ beliefs in transformative animals and The Great Spirit.

Certainly she did not expect her students to parrot her views: no test or exam had in fact been given so no grades had been assigned to attest to the bias of the accused. Indeed, Scopes’ classroom forum to express diversity was the means towards developing critical thinking skills in her students, as attested by Scopes herself. The mother lampoons that Scopes was only paying “ lip-service” to this approach.

From my own educator’s pedagogical insights, it made sense that this thoughtful teacher was incorporating creative and cogent collaborative student narratives into her curriculum presentation, relying and including them as means to enhance and extend her teaching in an appropriate fashion. Boards of education and teacher education programs all promote a child-centered approach to learning.

Never had there been a complaint against Betty Scopes, and no one had ever requested her daybook, notes, or her teaching tools. Nor had anyone, teacher, principal, parent or board member set foot in her classroom to substantiate the words of the mother, or distressed Benny, a boy described as one who preferred to “be told how to think.” In fact Scopes had been recruited by the same school board where she had taught previously, lauded for her teaching.

At the conclusion of the first day of mock arbitration, one arbitrator queried if a ten year old was capable of critical thinking? I smiled because I reflected, this man understood what should be central to his rendering a decision:

How do we educate in the preponderance of social media? How do we learn how to listen to the stories of others? To respectfully question and ask why? How do we learn not to just accept, but to think, to search for truth, to evaluate and separate fact from argument, slander from pander and false rhetoric?

As guardians of children in this Post post- modern world, how do we, as teachers and parents, aid in making meaning for future generations, avoiding the mantle of the Modernists whose belief in hierarchy, order, master narratives and centralized control( see http://www19.homepage.villanova.edu) dictated what, where and how to instruct and indoctrinate, trampling individual truths in the midst of heavy chauvinistic slogans of country, religion, majority thinking, etc. No doubt the original Scopes’ trial raised issues that debated which theory of creation or evolution would overpower and corrupt knowledge in a democratic society. I believe the Post-Modernists addressed these issues in their strong backlash to the former’s world view.

When all four arbitrators, both Canadian and American, supported Scopes’ dismissal, I was shocked. Ironically I could hear the voice of William Jennings Bryan surmise that ridicule ( and worse) had been cast on everybody who believes in Bible. Ironically, here the reversal of the Scopes’ trial, an attack on the teaching of religion, not evolution, but in a time when religion is not the panacea but the culprit.

Much like the Salem witch trials and as in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, slanderous gossip results in death: death here to the individual ‘s freedom to not only express, not “ indoctrinate” ( the word used to castigate her ) with her own religion, but to enable her students to glean diverse knowledge of other worlds of creation and to think critically about them.

And for this teacher, as well, a death to her livelihood and likely a blackballing of her professional life.

When I taught high school English almost twenty years ago, our novel of senior study by Timothy Findley was Not Wanted on the Voyage, a twisted retelling of Noah and the Great Flood: where the hero/ heroine on the voyage is a transvestite and Noah and God are power mad. Not grounding this particular book in the Bible would have made no sense, but along with the Bible, we also discussed other stories of creation.

Would my own particular religion have also been called into question and the reason for firing me had a student reported my instruction to the school board? Even back then, parents sometimes complained about our Feminist-based curriculum and they were offered alternatives for their children. I never heard that our public board of education took extreme measures to censure or release any of my colleagues. Particularly with no hard evidence.

I wondered had any of these arbitrators, all easily over 60 years of age, been in a real school lately ? They might object that I had been working with senior students, not pre-adolescents as our Benny is.

But, had they not even noticed the eyes of babies glued to Ipads, imbibing the confusion of truth and untruth that comes their way. What tool, except critical thinking, even as young as kindergarten could provide for a toddler to make decisions or simply prevent herself /himself from being brainwashed, passively accepting and not knowing where advertisements ended and their shows began.

Were we not then perpetuating a generation to be easily led and manipulated by the Modernists we once lambasted? Our arbitrators had only to try and pry an iPad or computer from the hands of some toddler blissfully involved with the animation and machinations of a cleverly made show? Their parents ( grandparents?) believing the child was learning how to sort shapes, learn alphabet, dance with Mickey or sing with The Wiggles. Or so they hoped. If these arbitrators could not comprehend critical thinking as fundamental to teaching, where else had they erred?

Perhaps relying on their own unease with religious proselytizing, they had felt it better to go in the opposite direction, gagging all whiff of religion altogether. Would that mean the teacher wearing a skullcap or niquab would also not be permitted in the classroom? And where do we draw the line between minority and majority rights?

Several arbitrators stated that the teacher’s manner of not demonstrating remorse was also problematic. My mind raced to Albert Camus’ anti-hero in L’Etranger whose lack of tears and acceptable mourning condemns him. Had Betty Scopes displayed crocodile tears and promised to be a good girl, would they have been more lenient? Tut, tut, young lady ,repent the error of your ways and we will embrace you as the prodigal daughter.

And what of the 10 year old Benny? And again I thought of David Mamet’s plays in which stinging indictments fell professors and teachers, the words of one fatally impacting the rights of another. And here in this mock arbitration, only words, a child’s words, again reminiscent of The Children’s Hour, malicious gossip ruining the lives of school marms. Words as thin as the air through which they travel but strong enough to topple regimes as we watched in Egypt recently.

One arbitrator noted that young children idealize their teachers, until they know better. Here too a bias, but sadly a contemporary one.

So here I sat, amazed and shocked by this panel, their perspectives on teaching and teachers in today’s society.

I must admit my first response to this presentation which I heard performed, not read, was to condemn a teacher for indoctrinating her students, but then I withheld judgment because:

1. In a Post post-modern world, our natural inclination should be to listen to the victim’s story, to undo the harm a Modernist attitude has done to exult unthinking adherence to collective thinking; and rather now, to consider diversity of major and minor religions;

2. Consider the teller of the tale, reflecting on who and why the teller is telling his narrative and what factors have impacted on this person, child or not. But in this case, a child who as a child might be more inclined to fabricate, exaggerate for multiple reasons.

This particular vein of discovery was not permitted during the mock trial, in fact shut down by one of the arbitrators, fearful that the mother might be unfairly cited as reason for her son’s distress. We did not hear if perhaps Benny was being bullied at school? Were both his working parents not available to him? We are told he turns to his rabbi, but this results in only more confusion for the child. So we must take Benny’s confusion at face value, laying the blame totally on this unfortunate educator;

3.Where there has been no documented evidence, mere hearsay rules. So he says/ she says is not contested, even as the words of Benny, the child of the 21st century influenced by social media, apparently holds much more sway than the explanation of his educated teacher who not only imparts the curriculum in an accepted and endorsed 21st manner, but encourages the ethically diverse children in her class to share and critically assess their views. And the teacher, with a Masters Degree whose work has been applauded, not contested.

Wow.

We are in Alice’s rabbit hole where fearful of the imposition of a once predominant world view, we have decided to silence an individual who has spoken, unrepentant, her own truth as one of many truths: tossing the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

So, I return to art and silent art galleries where I can discover for myself, judge, and critically consider the stories of the victims. I can turn away from judgments that suggest political correctness in the 21st Century and terribly disparage once again, the one who is seen as different because of their personal convictions.

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