Friday, December 19, 2014

Attempt to mold students' minds hearkens back to Cold War

Originally published in the Tampa Bay Times on December 16, 2014.

The Legislature is considering a bill that would mandate the showing of a conservative film to all eighth- and 11th grade students in Florida. I'm sure the supporters of the bill believe the documentary, America: Imagine the World Without Her, will help influence the students' political beliefs.

This is not the first time our state legislators have tried to mold the minds of young people. I remember how the same group passed laws requiring all high school students in the state to take two special courses in order to graduate. It was the early 1960s and the Cold War was at its peak, with the space race, the Cuban Missile Crisis and early days of the Vietnam War. Fear of a nuclear war was at the forefront of our minds.
I was in high school at the time and took both courses. The first was "Survival in Case of Nuclear Attack." It was taught by a crusty old woman from the Red Cross who started the first class by pointing her finger at us and issuing a dire warning. "You," she said, "may be the unfortunate one to survive a nuclear attack." It was a threat that made us all feel very uneasy.
The second course was "Americanism vs. Communism." The Legislature had mandated a six-week course, but because that didn't fit into the academic schedule very well, the local school system made it a full semester.
Our textbook was called The Masks of Communism, and I still remember the cover. It was red and black and featured the upper portion of a man's face, his two sinister eyes staring out at us. Included in that book was a portion of a poem by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Half a century later, I can still recite his words.

"They say that I am a brave man, I am not.
Courage was never my strong point.
How strange these times when
ordinary common honesty
could be mistaken for courage."

Yevtushenko was known for pushing the limits of free expression in Soviet society and his words changed my perspective of the world. He was a Russian, a Communist, one of America's sworn enemies in the Cold War and yet he was talking about basic human values such as honesty and courage.
As a result, I began to question what I was being taught. I began to think critically about the issues of the day and I began to recognize that most Russians were just like most Americans — honest, hardworking people who wanted to live peaceful lives.
When my classmates went on to another course the following semester, I convinced my teacher to let me spend the semester in the library doing an independent study exploring the history of Russia. I was fascinated and I wanted to know more.
Of course, the intent of the Legislature in the 1960s was to persuade us that all Communists were evil monsters, the absolute antithesis of American capitalists. Today, one only need look at the origin of many of our consumer products — Communist China — to know that this is not true.
Don't get me wrong. The world has seen some very evil Communists, but it has also seen equally evil capitalists.
Thus, as the Legislature again seeks to tinker with schools' curriculum for political purposes, it may want to consider its past efforts. An atmosphere of fear and an educational system built on closed-mindedness does not always produce a generation of true believers. Indoctrination is apt to produce a backlash of equal force.