PRO/CON: Should students be excused from lessons that make them uncomfortable?

Aidan Backus and Claire Gilliland

Aidan Backus:

Psychologists claim that human beings are influenced by two sources: nature and nurture. To ensure students are brought up well, society can’t change their nature — how they were born — but they can change their upbringing. Two of the most important factors in a student’s upbringing are his parents and his school. But what happens when the beliefs of the parents and the beliefs of the school come into conflict, and students and parents are uncomfortable with the material being taught?
Parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit; to some extent, this right is guaranteed by the First Amendment, which states that the state cannot impose religious values upon its citizens. Moreover, the right of a parent to override school policy and curriculum is upheld by the case Gruenke v. Seip, which states that “It is not unforeseeable that a school’s policies might come into conflict with the fundamental right of a parent to raise and nurture their child … but … the primacy of the parents’ authority must be recognized and should yield only where the school’s action is tied to a compelling interest.”

An incident in which students are “uncomfortable” — that is, believing their studies step outside the ethical boundaries that their parents or guardians set for them — is an example of such a conflict between parent and school, and therefore the rights of the student and parent must be upheld.

One may argue that enforcing the right of the parent to maintain “comfort” is unrealistic; after all, in real life, adults are exposed to troubling content every day. For example, many social conservatives were disgusted by the legalization of gay marriage, the upholding of Obamacare, and the takedown of the Confederate flag this summer, but could not hide from these events, as they dominated the media and American society as a whole.

This argument has merit, and so schools are only responsible to act on a student’s discomfort when the student and parent protest. This way, one valuable life lesson may be lost, but another will be gained: the lesson that citizens have the right to act as they believe, and that that right can be utilized to prevent excessive government intervention in one’s lives.

In addition, it is very rare that teachers are compelled to subject students to offensive content; on the contrary, such material is usually unnecessary. Many teachers show films at the end of the school year, after exams, or when a substitute is present, and these films vary in relevance to the class. A movie such as “Skyfall” definitely cannot be mandated — but what of “Jurassic Park,” with its theme of ethics in science, but also its scenes of violence, or “Schindler’s List,” a brutally realistic recounting of the Holocaust?

Parents and students can reject movies relevant to the class as well. “Schindler’s List” contains not just risqué sex, but also the gory image of Jews and other victims of the Nazi Party being marched starving, hairless, and nude to their slow, painful deaths. World history teachers showing the movie in their classes will argue that exposing a student to “Schindler’s List” will surely convince them of the evils of World War II, and of war and genocide in general. However, there are other ways to teach such concepts; by the time students get to high school, they should be empathic enough to realize that the murder of six million noncombatants is wrong, without having to exposed to be such violence firsthand.

The same logic applies to other fiction, besides movies, taught in classes as well: last year, when a student refused to read Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried” because of the profanity contained therein, she was well within her rights to do so; there are far too many short stories that share the story’s subject (the Vietnam War) and its theme (the morality of death). “The Things They Carried” is well written, but similar texts exist, and so it is not mandatory that it be taught in high school English courses.

That said, parents who are concerned about the morality of their students’ classes must take responsibility. If one is easily offended, he must consider the material “optional” courses — AP classes, electives, and so on — will cover. Because these classes go far more in-depth, they will occasionally have reason to step outside the boundaries of political correctness. A college-level English class studying secularism or religious movements in literature, an arts class creating work about social issues, or a film analysis class watching movies with scenes of sex and violence in them all get a pass. The student still has a chance to reject the material, though — he just shouldn’t sign up for the class!

There are times when it is a necessity to draw a student out of his his comfort zone, or demand a parent to drop her beliefs and accept that her child is being taught something contradictory to how she raised him, but those times can be minimized. If it is not necessary for material to be taught to students, there is no reason to increase enmity between the two most important factors in a student’s upbringing — teachers and parents — in an already cynical, chaotic age.

Claire Gilliland:

Education is important and what students are taught in school directly reflects what their community wants them to learn.

When students are excused from crucial lessons, they miss out on learning important information that will prepare them for their life after high school. If high schools don’t equip students with the knowledge and experiences they need for their future, they risk creating a generation of young people who believe they should avoid anything unpleasant or objectionable when it is often those very experiences that allow students to grow the most emotionally. In college campuses, students are already reporting professors and fellow students who say or do something that anyone may perceive as even slightly offensive, making them more sensitive about touchy subjects.

When they are young, children are solely exposed to the views of their parents and other adults active in their life. As students are introduced to more ideas or beliefs, they grow more accustomed to hearing other people’s opinions and can start to decide for themselves what to believe. Students need to be able to listen to other people’s views without getting too offended so they can share intellectual interactions with people they don’t agree with. To do so, they should be taught both sides of the story, or multiple beliefs surrounding one topic, such as creationism and evolution.

A competent teacher can make a difference by teaching students all they need to know to make their own decisions. Not only will students then be able to form their own opinions, but they will also be able to adjust to hearing other beliefs. Students need to learn about the opinions of the people around them so they can grow into adults that are adaptable and able to make their own choices, and they should be taught about these opinions in school with standards decided upon by the school board.

It is not a teacher’s job to tell students what they should believe or how they should think. They are merely there to teach students enough so that they can make their own informed decisions about what they want to believe.
“Education is about learning the information and being able to discriminate,” Principal Bill Atte
rberry said. Learning allows students to grow into adults who can make their own choices and judge whether something is right or wrong on their own.

The subject matter is not up to him as an administrator, or other Bear Creek staff members as teachers and faculty, but it is a compilation of the community’s beliefs gathered to determine what should be taught. The teachers are allowed some freedom in deciding how to teach, but what they teach follows national, state, and district standards.

California Assembly Bill 517 requires students to receive sex education on preventing HIV/AIDS, among other topics. However, this bill also allows parents to request that their child be excused from these lessons. Sex education is supposed to teach students about how to keep themselves safe, and being excused from learning it could leave them unsafe and uncertain.

California Assembly Bill 329 states that sex education should also cover domestic violence and healthy relationships. These may be touchy subjects for people in an unstable or violent relationship, or those whose parents are, but it’s important that students learn to recognize an unhealthy relationship so they can protect themselves from types of situations. Being excused from this topic because it makes students uncomfortable could leave them being uninformed about domestic violence, or sex education topics.

“The whole point of education is to pull you out of what you believe and question your beliefs, to expose you to new ideas,” biology teacher Kim Forbis said.

Students need to learn about things like sex education or evolution to prepare them for later in life.

It’s not just evolution and sex education that parents may excuse their children from. “If a class is reading a certain book, parents can ask that their child be given a different book, as long it focuses on the standards,” Atterberry said. In college, professors would not provide students with an alternative, and they should get used to this style of teaching in high school so they can be prepared for further education.

Some students feel uncomfortable with the vulgar language, violence, or graphic scenes described in a novel, such as the profanity in the classic novel “Catcher in the Rye.” Teachers include these things in their curriculum to teach students, and they will not learn as much if they ask to be excused from a lesson because they don’t agree with a book the class is reading. At the least, they won’t receive the same learning experience as others, which could lead them to be at a disadvantage against their peers.

Students may also reject classwork because they do not want to ‘trigger’ an unwanted memory or challenge their religion. When students are allowed to skip a lesson because of an unpleasant memory, then they are being encouraged to avoid their past, and their fear or avoidance of a certain thing would continue, and perhaps even escalate. Experts Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt say that, to be absorbed in protecting themselves from remembering a past event, students asking to avoid ‘triggering’ topics must have some sort post-traumatic stress disorder, and avoidance is not a way to treat this.

“Students with PTSD should of course get treatment, but they should not try to avoid normal life, with its many opportunities for habituation,” said Lukianoff and Haidt.

Habituation is when a fear diminishes after repeated exposure to something. They believe that students should confront the topics that make them uncomfortable to reassure them that nothing bad will happen from them hearing a ‘trigger’ word.

Learning everything about a topic can help students think more clearly about anything without their emotions clouding their opinion, and being excused from a lesson will slow down this process.