JUSTIN POULSEN

Chilling Effect

A long-time teacher reveals how “opt-out” legislation is limiting public education

By Dale Wallace

I was in my classroom marking essays in October 2010 when the phone rang. The guidance counsellor told me she had two very upset parents in her office. Apparently, their daughters had seen a film in their Grade 11 English class that was “inappropriate.” As head of the English department at Lord Beaverbrook High School, part of my job was to hear such concerns. “Send them down,” I said.

In my classroom, the mothers, with daughters in tow, explained that the movie contained nudity. Their families had strong religious beliefs, they told me, and it was simply wrong for their children, of any age, to see such things. The mothers were assertive; the girls looked a little scared. The parents argued that by not forewarning them about the scene in question, and by not giving them time to request that their daughters not see the film, the teacher had contravened Alberta’s Human Rights, Citizenship & Multiculturalism Act. A recent amendment to the Act—contained in the infamous Bill 44, passed just one month earlier—had been designed for K–12 classes explicitly concerned with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation. Despite official reassurances that high school English wasn’t under threat, I’d expected complaints from some parents about the literature (books and movies) used in our department. But I was surprised the first complaint had come so soon.

The teacher in question had shown the movie Into the Wild; his students had glimpsed a female breast. The teacher later explained to me that he hadn’t sent a letter home because the previous year he’d received emails from parents telling him not to bother them with extra forms; their children were 16 years old and could decide for themselves if they wanted to see a movie. Plus, he considered the nudity so fleeting it was barely noticeable. The movie was rated 14A: suitable for Canadians aged 14 years and older. 

I listened carefully to the parents’ concerns. But as well as complaining to me, the parents had filed a complaint with the Calgary Board of Education. Because the parents had gone to the trustees, my principal had been obliged to take more serious steps. The teacher would eventually have a letter of reprimand placed in his file. And I was now obligated to review, with all the English teachers, our department’s policy of showing movies with “questionable content.”

Even though this particular Bill 44 amendment to the Human Rights Act had been in force barely six weeks, it had already stirred controversy. Teachers started to change how they taught, with English teachers realizing they’d have to send letters home for almost any literature they studied. The quality of English education started to fall—and has continued to fall in the two years since Bill 44 was passed.

sep12_chilling-effect_albertaviews-2During my 25 years as an English teacher, and in my tenure as head of the English department at Lord Beaverbrook, I’ve always relied on teachers’ professional judgment and common sense when it comes to selecting books and movies. Alberta Education provides an “approved” list, but teachers are allowed to use other texts as well. In the pre-Bill 44 era, I heard few complaints. Our department policy had been to send a letter home when some content of a book or movie might reasonably be considered objectionable. Even though it doubles the planning time, an alternative activity can be offered to students whose parents ask for them to be excluded. 

Looking back, there doesn’t seem to have been much public demand for changes to how Alberta’s schools handle controversial material. But some politicians would disagree. Rob Anderson, MLA for Airdrie-Chestermere and at the time a Progressive Conservative (he later crossed the floor to the Wildrose), told the media in 2010 that “thousands and thousands of parents, the silent majority, severely normal Albertans… are extremely happy with [Bill 44].” The Minister of Culture & Community Spirit at the time, Lindsay Blackett, said Albertans “are better off for it, and we had the courage to actually bring it forward.”

Following a heated legislative debate the year before, the relevant section of the Alberta Human Rights Act came into effect on September 1, 2010. Teachers were now legally obliged to notify parents in advance every time “courses of study, educational programs or instructional materials, or instruction or exercises, prescribed under [the School Act] include subject-matter that deals primarily and explicitly with religion, human sexuality or sexual orientation.” Alberta Education identified the seven courses that required such notification: Aboriginal Studies 10, Career & Life Management, Health (in Grades 4–6), Health & Life Skills (in Grades 7–9), Religious Ethics 20, Religious Meanings 20 and World Religions 30.

With Bill 44 passed, Alberta Education tried to reassure teachers that parental notification need not be sent home for incidental or indirect references to controversial subject matter. The government and the Alberta Teachers’ Association agreed that “teachers should not allow the new law to have a chilling effect on their classroom practice.” However, English teachers were still afraid the amended Human Rights Act might get them into trouble—for good reason, as it turned out.

In Lord Beaverbrook’s English department, we faced, and still face, a conundrum. Much of the literature we use contains references to religion, sex or homosexuality. In fact, we estimate that at least one of these issues is discussed every couple of days. We were unsure how to proceed. Some teachers asked if a letter could be sent home at the start of each semester explaining that in English classes, religion, sexuality and homosexuality would be regularly discussed. After all, just about all literature written before Shakespeare (pre-1564) was religious in nature. Many of the pre-Shakespearean writers were monks and priests; they were the only literate people back then. Certain classic pieces have religious themes. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is about a group of people on a religious pilgrimage (the book also has chapters that are quite bawdy). What we now call “mythology” is actually the study of ancient peoples’ religious beliefs.

One teacher in my department pointed out that some well-worn works of literature that have been studied for years—and which are Alberta-government-approved resources—now could contravene Bill 44. Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha (frequently used by Lord Beaverbrook teachers) could be brought into question, since it’s about a young East Indian boy’s spiritual journey. Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale has much sexual content. Shakespeare’s Macbeth features witches who foretell the future. J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is about a teenaged high-school dropout depressed and obsessed with sex. Timothy Findley’s The Wars features a visit to a whorehouse, gay sex and a rape scene. Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is now off the list of at least one of my colleagues. Some teachers liked John Krakauer’s non-fiction Into the Wild, and were interested in teaching his Under the Banner of Heaven, but now said they wouldn’t because it’s critical of a particular religion. Several told me they’d avoid Krakauer’s books altogether.

The growing problem wasn’t limited to the classroom, either. Our school librarian told me she was reluctant to bring in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, despite numerous requests from students to do so.

Even though the government says this wasn’t their intention, a definite chill is now settling over English classrooms. Several teachers at Lord Beaverbrook, veteran and new, have told me they don’t want to deal with the controversy. The veterans simply want to teach; the new ones aren’t ready to risk censure. So they avoid literature with religious or sexual content. And the self-censorship has spread beyond these themes. Provocative, thoughtful films such as Apocalypse Now are replaced by films with different themes altogether, like Cast Away.

Challenging novels such as 1984 are replaced with safer ones, like Pride and Prejudice. I can’t fault my fellow teachers; they’re simply using their professional judgment. But clearly, teachers feel increasing pressure to avoid controversial materials—so they do. Ron Brown, chair of the Rights & Freedoms Committee of the Writers’ Union of Canada, foretold this outcome of Bill 44. “It’s called silent censorship,” he told a reporter from FFWD Weekly. “A school librarian, for example… if they know that some parents are upset with a particular book, the book comes off the shelf and [goes] under the desk. That happens a lot, and there’s no way to monitor it.” At Lord Beaverbrook, “controversial” books aren’t coming off the shelf at all; they’re collecting dust in the English book room. Silent censorship is absolutely occurring at my school.

English teachers were afraid the new Act might get them into troublefor good reason, as it turned out

Parents questioned me about my choices of literature even before 2010’s Bill 44. But the only time anyone ever asked that his child be removed from class was about 20 years ago, when I read an Edgar Allan Poe story to a Grade 8 class. In the 2010–2011 school year, following the passage of Bill 44, a parent challenged me on two texts I used with my Grade 10 class. The first was William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The parent didn’t take exception to how Jews were portrayed (a criticism I’ve heard before), but to how Christians were portrayed—as acting on a deep and ingrained prejudice against Jews, treating the character Shylock horribly. Another reason the parent was upset was that I’d explained that the main character (Antonio) was likely homosexual. Of course, students had then wanted to discuss religious prejudice and the way modern society treats homosexuality.

The second book he objected to was Inherit the Wind, a play loosely based on the famous Scopes “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, in which the defendant was a teacher who had taught parts of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in violation of a state law that prohibited the teaching of evolution. John Scopes was tried, found guilty and fined $100. An appeal court later overturned the conviction. The original trial, however, got nationwide coverage, and in the court of public opinion, Scopes won. Inherit the Wind depicts the Biblical creation story as scientifically unsound, and Christians are portrayed as being stubborn and backward. However, the play is also about the importance of dissenting opinions and the need to discuss and debate. It shows that nobody is privy to absolute truth, and that through discussion and debate greater clarity emerges. I’ve overseen numerous class discussions about Inherit the Wind, each featuring valuable exchanges about how science, art and religion discover truths. Students enjoy reading the play, and they openly and honestly give opinions on all sides of the issue.

I didn’t send a letter home asking parents’ permission to study The Merchant of Venice because I’d used it many times before and the play’s rich ideas induce students to think deeply and critically. I did send a letter home before studying Inherit the Wind (the first time in my career I’d done so), but didn’t receive any negative response from parents. Regrettably, the parent who objected to The Merchant of Venice and Inherit the Wind never came to see me in person about his concerns. He went to the school’s administration at the end of the semester. When they asked him to speak to me about the issue, he refused. He was “too angry” and afraid he might say something offensive. Admin passed along his concerns, but I never did actually speak to the man. 

In the face of Alberta’s amended Human Rights Act, I still must decide what literature to study with my students. On one hand, my diverse mix of students and their families have personal beliefs that ought to be respected; on the other hand, students deserve to read rich literature that stimulates their thinking and has them examine and talk about their assumptions and beliefs. Because I’m an educator, it’s my responsibility to bring up important and relevant issues with students. School should reward students for more than giving the right answer or simply nodding their heads. School should be a forum for discussing issues, weighing arguments and acquiring the tools to make difficult decisions in life. 

I will continue to choose The Merchant of Venice because it encourages students to think about prejudice and discrimination, which are still widespread in Canada. One year, the discussion of the book prompted a student from Iran to tell the class he was called a “sand nigger” in his first year at school in Calgary, thus letting other students witness first-hand the hurt caused by prejudice and discrimination. Many of his classmates had been unaware of his difficulties; many offered words of support and encouragement. The Merchant of Venice also stimulates discussion about gay students and gay marriage. It surprises me, but some students in Calgary in 2012 still believe homosexuality is a mistake or disease that can somehow be “fixed” or “cured.” It is always interesting to see such students given an opportunity to challenge their ideas. And even though Canada has legalized gay marriage, many students still want to express their opinion on the controversial subject. Most are well aware that many American states haven’t made gay marriage legal; some support this, some criticize the US for dragging its feet.

I’ll also continue to choose Inherit the Wind, because it sparks debate about the Biblical creation story and gives students an opportunity to question whether God exists (and hear other students’ arguments for and against). Studying Inherit the Wind also teaches students how to discern fact from opinion. Gone are the days when anyone in a position of power could stand before young people and make them accept positions or arguments by virtue of nothing more than the speaker’s authority. Young people know, probably more so now than ever, not to simply obey and follow. They know it’s perfectly fine to question parents, priests, politicians and teachers. They’re learning to think for themselves. 

But can Alberta teachers still offer students a deep and rich education under our amended Human Rights Act? If a student is excused from class, they miss out on a valuable learning experience. Some teachers are intimidated by the new rules and avoid certain books and movies, but real education is not about pussyfooting around the library trying to find something all parents will find acceptable; it’s about bringing material that stimulates students to discuss important matters and think deeply. Education is not about keeping students comfortable; it’s about making them uncomfortable (at least for short periods). Sadly, Alberta’s new Human Rights Act tends to keep students in their comfort zones. More and more often they don’t have to deal with and think about ideas different from their own. But in truth it’s not students that demand comfort—it’s their parents. Some parents can’t tolerate dissenting views, especially coming from their own children. 

Do students still get a deep and rich education if they don’t get to discuss ideas different from their own?

Which brings me to the most devastating consequence of Bill 44: it can stifle a child’s curiosity and independence. A true education creates conditions that allow a young person to grow; it’s not about making children into carbon copies of their parents. A true education allows a child to identify and define herself as something new, separate and distinct from her parents. It allows the child to throw back the protective blankets of his family and become an autonomous individual. 

Truthfully, when those parents came to complain to me about the fleeting breast scene in Into the Wild, I probably did them a disservice. We didn’t discuss the difficulty of their trying to monitor their teens’ every moment online, in front of the TV or with their friends; at least in classrooms discussions are moderated by an adult. I didn’t try to convince them that teachers choose movies for a reason; that Into the Wild, for example, contains a positive message about sexuality (a young girl wants to have sex with the protagonist, Christopher, and he tells her it wouldn’t be right, that she should wait to find someone she truly loves). It was a sneak attack; I wasn’t ready with my rebuttals. I could only listen to the parents and regroup. If it happens again, I’ll be better prepared to defend the deep and rich education that their daughters, and all students, deserve.

Sadly, the same teacher who showed Into the Wild ran afoul of the new Human Rights Act again this year. He sent a letter home this time, for a different film. However, a father complained to him that by declining to sign the consent letter, thereby exempting his daughter and creating more work for the teacher (who’d have to make an alternative lesson), he was afraid he would cause his daughter’s grade to suffer. So, even when the procedures are followed, it’s still impossible to please all parents about what and how to teach their children.

Bill 44’s proponents argued that parents know what’s best for their children. But when parents pull their kids out of classes that touch on religion or sexuality, they’re hardly preparing their children to thrive in a society full of people with different viewpoints and orientations than their own. When a government enables and even encourages parents to pull their kids out of class, it’s hardly fostering the kind of learning conditions that lead to a harmonious society of people who mutually (even if grudgingly) respect each other’s differences.

With Bill 44, teachers are being bullied by legislators who themselves were bullied by parents who have narrow views of the world. In the run-up to the 2012 provincial election, Alison Redford said that “perhaps” the Human Rights Act needs to be reviewed. As a teacher, I’ll be more clear: Alberta needs to move back into the 21st century. The opt-out clause must be repealed. It’s time for the silent censorship to stop. #

Dale Wallace teaches at Lord Beaverbrook High School and is president of the English Language Arts Council, Calgary branch.

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