Hyped conservative takeover?

blackboard advocacyI am struggling to dissect this front page piece in today’s Washington Post. Initially it seemed like a hit piece, but on a second reading, I have trouble finding any gaping holes in what is an extremely well reported and relatively balanced piece of journalism.

Here’s the main idea of the story:

Margaret Young, chairwoman of the Charles County Board of Education, has at times taught her children at home in Waldorf using a Christian-based curriculum. She says she wants teachers to stop assigning books that contain profanity and what she believes are immoral messages. As an example, she cites Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which is an option on the 10th-grade reading list.

Young, 46, has been a controversial figure on the school board since she pulled her eldest son out of fifth grade for a day in 2000 to protest a state exam she considered a meaningless diversion. But now, she leads a voting bloc that has shifted the balance of power on the seven-member board in Charles, a growing suburban county.

The conservative views of Young and her allies are not typical among school boards in the Washington region. But such ideas have been building on boards across the nation since the 1980s.

Perhaps it was the tone of the story? I sensed an attitude of disbelief that someone who does not send her child to a public school could serve on the board governing the public school system. I also felt that the writer clearly did not understand arguments for including religious material in public school curriculum and choose to present the idea as something that only religious fanatics tied in with Jerry Falwell would advocate.

Key questions that must be asked:

  • What real changes in the school’s policy and curriculum have this conservative bloc made since coming to power?
  • What other restrictions is Young seeking on what teachers can include on optional reading lists?
  • Why are the lives of these four individuals the only ones so thoroughly researched and reported (down to the fact that one is a member of Gideons International)? What about the other three board members?

Right now this article seems like a lot of hype drummed up by opponents of Young and her allies. The main fire of the story is a lot of religious talk from the board members that will scare secularists and opponents of religion in schools. I am perplexed as to why this story was given such prominence without it containing more substantial news value. Sure, the issue of evolution vs. intelligent design is hot, as are school vouchers, but until this board actually does something, this story belongs on the cover of the Metro section.

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  • paddyo’

    Make up your mind: “extremely well reported and relatively balanced” or “a lot of hype”? What’s your point?
    This story is a slice of life in suburban DC on a topic that has bubbled elsewhere in the country. The WashPost may be a national paper, but it’s also a local one. Is it the story’s play that you don’t like? Maybe it does belong on the cover of the Metro section, maybe not. But editors make all sorts of calls, sometimes good, sometimes awful, all the time. Buut if this is well-reported and balanced, what’s your beef? I sensed absolutely no “attitude of disbelief” in the way this story was written about why someone who doesn’t send his/her children to public school could or should be on the school board. It’s simply a fair and obvious question to raise, nothing more. The reporter and paper made no judgment of that. They reported it straight. As for not-understanding-arguments-for-including-religious-material-in-public-school-curricula — say what? The reporter went out, asked questions, and reported the answers. Methinks you see anti-faith bogeymen where none exist.

  • tmatt

    paddyo:

    Here is my question. Let’s focus on one issue that the WP piece is vague about — parents who want alternatives to offensive readings.

    Notice that they do not want the readings banned (at least, I don’t think they do. WP doesn’t really nail that down).

    Let’s say that a Muslim parent comes into the school and asks for alternative readings because the books assigned are an offense to Islam. Do you think school officials will work with them on alternatives?

    I think so. And I think that public school officials should work with other streams of cultural conservatism to have the same flexibility AND DIVERSITY.

    You think?

  • paddyo’

    I can’t argue with that, TMatt — but that’s not what I was taking issue with, and I don’t think that was what the original GetReligon post was focusing on, either.
    You’re right, the piece is vague on that issue, alternatives to offensive readings. OK, so it’s not a perfectly written/reported/edited story. I never said it was, either. But I think the piece is a far cry from “a lot of hype,” etc. I was just reacting to what strikes me as an ill-aimed swipe at “MSM” going off on faith and religion again. I’ve said this before in other posts — sometimes a story is just a story, not a diatribe or a fatwah or anything else.
    Frankly, this one exhibited little of the distressingly common ignorance with which some of my “MSM” brethren (and I am not without fault on this, either) still report on faith-related topics. It just struck me as a not-very-good example to get huffy about, that’s all.

  • dpulliam

    Paddyo,

    I appreciate your criticisms because I have often found myself frustrated over underserved criticisms of the MSM, especially since I myself am a member of what is known as the MSM.

    What I was trying to point out in the story was some questions that I might have asked before running the story on the front page. There are dozens of school boards that the Post covers and this big takeout – demonstrating some quality report that I must say the Post is quite consistent on and a story of this magnitude plays very well on their Metro section almost everyday – seemed to be an attempt to keep the “Christians are taking over our civil institutions” storyline and things like the reading list were presented in a way to make them seem a bit more controversial than what they really are.

  • Kitt

    Notice that they do not want the readings banned (at least, I don’t think they do. WP doesn’t really nail that down).

    What is this, then? This from Young in the third paragraph of the story: “She says she wants teachers to stop assigning books that contain profanity and what she believes are immoral messages.”

    Oh, I see – not banning them; stop assigning them. Then what?

  • Michael

    And it’s not that the readings criticize or question Christianity but instead because they have contain profanity or immoral messages. So readings selected by informed educators and librarians should be supplanted–on books considered contemporary literature classics–because there are too many swear words.

    Why is this different from Islamic parents complaining? Probably because Islamic parents would be complaining about anti-Islam themes, not too many four-letter words.

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd Dan Berger

    Michael, I doubt that Islamic parents would refrain from complaining about the four-letter words; they tend to be at least as morally conservative (and sensitive to blasphemy) as Christian parents. On the other hand, how many high school English departments assigned “The Satanic Verses” vs. how many of the same assigned “The Handmaid’s Tale”? The point here is that cultural sensitivity need not omit members of one’s own culture.

  • tmatt

    Kitt:

    The key is whether a student HAS to read something as a mandatory assignment. A book is banned when it is, well, banned from use in the school — you know, like copies of “Little House on the Prairie” that do not have the prayers edited out.

  • Michael

    Or banning Hamlet or Twelfth Night because of the language and “homosexuality.”

  • Kitt

    Still – how is this NOT a form of banning?

    Does Young have a list of books she doesn’t approve of or is that left to the teacher?


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