Anatomy of a Controversy
With over 250 comments, it’d take quite a bit of catching up, and the horrible policy of letting readers delete a comment when enough of them flag it as “inappropriate” makes the conversation difficult to follow, because comments (including Gordon’s) suddenly disappear, but the response thread to this story on the Tiverton-LittleCompton Patch is a fascinating glimpse at the boiling of a controversy.
The story itself is about Tiverton High School student Cynda Martin’s founding of a gay-straight alliance (GSA) group. There was no controversy in the group’s founding, no push-back from the school, and the subject is a mildly more-topical variation of the local feel-good story. The controversy began when Budget Committee Member Joe Sousa and State Representative Dan Gordon expressed the opinion that schools should focus on academics, with the latter writing:
And this is why if I have anything to say about it, Tiverton will lose school funding to local charter schools. It doesn’t matter if gay or straight, if sexual meet-up groups are being promoted in our schools rather than improving test scores, that school is failing. Is it really more important for our children to get ‘sexed-up’, than learning advanced math?
As I was quick to point out in the comments, what’s reasonable in that paragraph is inartfully put and, in my view, errs in the approach to charters, which might very well emphasize such groups and the motivation for which ought to be to improve public schools, not defund them. What’s not reasonable in the comment stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of such student groups and an apparent disconnect from the current state of acceptance of homosexuality in terms that aren’t explicitly sexual, but amorous.
The indignant comments began to steamroll, with parents, students, and school faculty chiming in, especially when WRNI picked up the story as “Lawmaker wants to ban gay student group from Tiverton High School,” RI Future tugged on the thread, and Gordon went on John DePetro’s show. His fellow Tiverton rep. Jay Edwards eagerly condemned his comments, and the state Democrat Party got in on the action. Then Gordon made matters worse by returning to the comment section, where he wound up arguing about grammar with high school students.
Amidst a flurry of posts from students during the school day, yesterday, Tiverton tech teacher Edward Davis took the opportunity to decry a focus on test scores:
The popular trend is to say, “We are falling behind other countries, we need to get our scores up!” But research shows concentrating on test scores is not the solution. Harvard Graduate School of Education’s recent study, “Pathways to Prosperity”, looked into why our education system, that once led the world, has fallen behind. According to the report, most of the countries that have passed us up have developed career pathways that emphasize technical education and preperation for the workforce.
And not surprisingly, commenters — including Davis, but many anonymous — have dragged the local taxpayer group, Tiverton Citizens for Change (TCC), into it, because obviously one cannot limit taxation without having an anti-gay agenda… or something.
If you want a glimpse of the seams of personal politics, this controversy shows them. It really is fascinating, not to mention a case study for new politicians.
Although I thought it worth noting that teachers and students have been participating in online discussions during school hours, I don’t think there’s anything inherently objectionable about it. Given the state of technology, it’s entirely feasible that everybody can post on the Internet during truly free time. (That kids might be better off socializing in person or doing something active is a different question.) And even were class time being used for that purpose, online discourse and politics are certainly legitimate areas of concern in some classes.