From the Cartoon to the Classroom

by Craig Fishbane

Each night the images explode across the TV screen: violent crowds erupting in protest over a series of twelve cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed.  While the protesters rally in the streets, the artists who drew these cartoons have been forced into hiding, fearing for their lives. Although I am not an illustrator, I cannot help but feel that, as an educator, the plight of these Danish cartoonists is my plight as well.  The work of all teachers is threatened whenever freedom of expression is suppressed.

Good teaching is a risky business, challenging students to view their worlds in new, and sometimes unsettling, ways.  There’s always a chance that someone will be offended.  I remember when I was first taught about evolution in my high school science class.  One girl stood up and said, “I didn’t come from no monkey.”  The teacher corrected her double negative and then insisted that she would still have to learn the material for the final exam.  Although my classmate never did see eye to eye with Darwin, she did study his ideas well enough to earn an A for the class.

Every day, American pedagogues struggle to present difficult subject matter in a manner that’s fair and objective.  Science teachers strive to keep the pseudo-science of Intelligent Design off the curriculum.  Social studies teachers strain against text books that downplay the darker sides of American history, such as the legacy of slavery.  English teachers and librarians stand up for books that school boards want to ban, such as Huckleberry Finn.  All of these educators are working to see that our children get a well-rounded education, which includes ideas that may be disturbing, frightening or even offensive.

Some commentators have suggested that offensive materials—such as the Danish cartoons—should not be protected as free speech.  But true learning always brings the risk of offense or insult.  Socrates was put on trial—and ultimately driven to suicide— for challenging his students to rethink their beliefs about the gods.  The authorities in Athens were scandalized by his behavior, yet his teachings became the basis for the philosophy we still use to this day.

Many of our greatest teachers brought out notions that were once considered offensive or blasphemous.  Galileo was condemned to house arrest for his view of a heliocentric universe.  Spinoza was excommunicated from his synagogue for his pantheism.  Walt Whitman’s poetry was seized by the U.S. postal service for its lewdness.

Although most of us, in our classrooms, are not likely to make the groundbreaking assertions of these master educators, we all thrive in an environment where thoughts can be explored without fear of violence.  If the student from my science class had brought fifty armed demonstrators to school, demanding that Darwin be stricken from the curriculum, then none of us would have had the opportunity to study the most important theory in biological science.

One of the greatest lessons we can teach our students is that we are strong enough to face any ideas, even those that threaten us.  We can learn to argue against ideas that we disagree with.  And, once in a very great while, we might even learn from them.

Were the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed profoundly offensive to many members of the Muslim faith?  The images on the nightly news leave us no doubt.  But, perhaps, when this ugly episode has faded into memory, we can look back to it as the ultimate teachable moment:  an opportunity to remind ourselves of the value—and the fragility—of free speech.  Even when it hurts.


This piece was originally published in New York Teacher


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