Politics in the Classroom: How Not to Do It, Courtesy of Diantha Harris of Asheville, North Carolina
For an update from Cumberland County Schools Superintendent William Harrison – and for analysis of his statement – check out the new post.
Discussing politics in the classroom is a delicate thing. It’s a bit like open heart surgery; if you know what you’re doing, you can perform miracles. If you don’t, you’re going to cause irreparable damage.
A couple of months ago I heard of a local school district board member who curtly instructed staff that politics are not to be mentioned in the classroom. That stance is absurd and there’s no inherent, justifiable reason for it. Politics past and present can be discussed by any two reasonable, informed parties.
I assumed that this board member’s worry was that some teachers wouldn’t approach the subject honestly or in a disinterested, unbiased way – she was playing it safe. Some teachers can’t be objective because they don’t want to be; others simply don’t know enough about politics and history to engage in a proper discussion of either.
It’s time to meet Diantha Harris of Asheville [turns out Ms. Harris is from Fayetteville in Cumberland County] North Carolina.
Ms. Harris was included in a recent Swedish-language Finnish documentary called From Bill to Barack. She’s shown teaching a class of what looks like ~7th graders. In an interview portion of the documentary, Ms. Harris explains her philosophy for discussing politics in the classroom:
Diantha Harris: “Now I can support whomever I want to support, as long as I don’t browbeat another person for the candidate that they supported. Like I have some students that support John McCain, and when they told me that, I said ah … “that’s good’ and I just moved on. So, I think that everybody is entitled to their own personal opinion.”
Not terribly eloquent, but we get the idea. What Ms. Harris describes is a mix of freedom of and respect for intellectual diversity. This is a fine foundation on which a teacher might build a disinterested discussion of politics in the classroom.
That Ms. Harris didn’t show up for class. The real Ms. Harris lured her students into a degrading, brow-beating indoctrination session that buffed her 13 year old political allies and demeaned her barely-pubescent opponents.
The entire exchange – caught on tape below, with transcript – shows Ms. Harris:
- Demeaning a student for supporting John McCain, with dismissive laments of “Oh no, John McCain… Oh Jesus, John McCain…”;
- Coaching another student on reasons to support Obama;
- Berating a girl whose father is apparently in the military over the “senseless war” and how her dad will be in Iraq for “100 years”;
- Setting same girl up for ridicule from peers, Harris pushes her until girl almost cries.
Here’s the video clip – it’s a harrowing three minutes. The English portion begins 15 seconds in. [Click here if you're reading this in RSS]
… and here’s a transcript, courtesy of Tundra Tabloids:
Diantha Harris: We want to talk about the presidential election. Ok, what I want to ask you, who are you pulling for? Raise your hands.
(Kids seen dutifully raising their hands one states ‘Obama’)
Diantha Harris: You’re pulling for Obama
Diantha Harris: (Speaking to another student) Who you’re pulling for? And if you’re pulling for John McCain, that’s fine say him as well. Who are you pulling for?
Student’s answer: Obama.
Another student: John McCain
Diantha Harris: Oh Lord John McCain!
Another student: John McCain
Diantha Harris: Oh Jesus, John McCain! Ok, Now I want to ask you something. (to the girl who is ‘pulling’ for McCain) Why are you pulling for John McCain. Now it’s ok! But why are you pulling for John McCain?
Student: I think it’s because of my parents are going for him too.
Diantha Harris: Ok, your parents are going for him. (Now to another student) Why are you pulling for Barack? (pronounces it differently) Or Barack?
Student: Because I just want a black president sometime.
Diantha Harris: Ok, you want a black president. Addresses another student.
Student: The reason I want to pick Barack Obama is because he is making good changes, in the good country and stuff like that.
Diantha Harris: So he’s making good changes for our country. (Shaking her head affirmatively) Ok, now can you tell me just a little bit more like, like what type of changes?
Same student: Like, …..not having um, a fight between Iraq, and having soldiers killed.
Diantha Harris: Shaking head up and down) So in other words, B-a-r-a-c-k is going to end that war (shaking head up and down) in Iraq. (Speaking to the classroom) What do you all know about that war in Iraq? Now talk to me, because your dad is in the military!
(Same female student who supports McCain shown noticeably biting lips)
Diantha Harris: Talk!
(Female student shown again but doesn’t speak)
Diantha Harris: It’s a senseless war! (shown staring at her) And by the way Kathy (the girl’s name), the person that you’re picking for president said, (Harris seen shaking head) that our troops could stay in Iraq for another hundred years if they need to! (emphasis added),
(Kathy shown biting lips and looking nervously in silence, while kids stare at her smiling, laughing and smirking)
Diantha Harris: So that means that your daddy could stay in the military for another hundred years!
During an interview later:
Diantha Harris: Now I can support whomever I want to support, as long as I don’t browbeat another person for the candidate that they supported. Like I have some students that support John McCain, and when they told me that, I said ah … “that’s good’ and I just moved on. So, I think that everybody is entitled to their own personal opinion. And we have something in our school system that called ‘Kids Voting’, and in my class….Barack Obama won. (Smiling).
Ms. Harris was in the news once before. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush met with Roy Harris – Diantha’s ex-husband and former member of the Asheville City Schools Board of Education – and our Diantha. A transcript of that exchange is available on the American Presidency Project’s website.
Over the last three months, the level of discourse at that point where politics and education meet has been disappointing and worrying. Public school teachers aren’t all Diantha Harrises, but tendentious, overzealous, underinformed discussions are more common in the classroom than most folks realize.
It isn’t clear what Ms. Harris’ job was in Asheville, though I’d find it odd if she was filmed for a documentary while serving as a substitute teacher. Either way, Ms. Harris needs to find a new line of work.
Teaching is a tremendous responsibility. That’s no secret. If you, as a parent, teacher or administrator, can’t discuss politics or history responsibly, don’t do it yourself. Find someone who can, sit back and learn.
Ms. Harris has embarrassed herself, her school system and her profession – and in that order of importance. But what she taught 15 young kids about political discourse is the real problem. Harris showed these children that it’s acceptable [and a desirable means to an end] to abuse someone into submission over ideology; that it isn’t important to respect one’s views, or engage in discourse that furthers understanding; that intellectual diversity and dissent is to be crushed for political expedience; that a sneering, mean-spirited contempt drives politics.
We’ve heard a great deal about hope, change and goodwill over the last two years. Ms. Harris’ disgusting display undermined the efforts of folks on both sides of the aisle.
Other takes on Ms. Harris:
RiehlWorldView: Harris needs to be fired.
Scoopthis.org: Teacher bullies students who support McCain.
BelchSpeak: Reason 142 to homeschool.
HotAir.com: Hope and Change.
Michelle Malkin: Harris is a child abuser.
Poligazette: It’s extremism.
The Forum: Teacher embarrasses student.
Rhymes With Right: Utterly unprofessional.
34 Responses to “Politics in the Classroom: How Not to Do It, Courtesy of Diantha Harris of Asheville, North Carolina”
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- UPDATE: Analyzing Cumberland Superintendent William Harrison’s Response on Partisan Teacher and Bully — Education for the Aughts - American School Issues and Analysis - [...] Ms. Harris teaches in Fayetteville, not Asheville, in the Cumberland County system. Not that it matters to me [...]