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Classroom diplomacy

Is a lawsuit the only way for a student and a teacher to settle differences? Talk, and keep it out of court.

December 25, 2007

When a dispute between a high school student and his teacher ends up in federal court -- and as fodder for another chapter in our culture wars -- something has gone wrong, and probably more than one thing.

Chad Farnan, a student at Capistrano Valley High School, claims that history teacher James Corbett gratuitously bashed religion in class. The result, according to the complaint in Farnan vs. Capistrano Unified School District, is that Farnan and other Christian students felt "ostracized."

Is Corbett a know-it-all who inflicts his liberal political musings on his students? Or is he, as one former student said, an inspiring teacher who says outrageous things "to get students involved, to get them thinking?" Maybe both, judging by the (selective) string of quotations from Corbett cited in Farnan's complaint.

Some of those comments sound like a liberal "greatest hits" collection. An analogy between serfs and working-class Americans meanders into an attack on Rush Limbaugh, denounced as a "fat ... liar." According to the complaint, Corbett also treated his students to his views about the Boy Scouts' anti-gay policies, the failure of abstinence-only sex education programs and the experience of Sweden as proof of the inverse relationship between churchgoing and crime. Then there is the now-infamous observation that "when you put on your Jesus glasses, you can't see the truth." A teacher should be able to make the point that religion can trump economic self-interest without a flippant put-down likely to rankle a self-consciously devout student. Corbett is obviously an intelligent man, but, as a wise man once said, "tact is the intelligence of the heart."

But even if Corbett needs to be more diplomatic, a lawsuit is a terrible way to achieve that end. Teachers shouldn't inject their political opinions in a way that needlessly offends some of their students, who are, after all, a captive audience. But an even greater danger to civility in the classroom -- and creativity too -- is a situation in which a teacher must weigh every word lest he be confronted later with a transcript of his comments, perhaps attached to a lawsuit.

Farnan's lawsuit says complaints were made to the district. Even now -- in the spirit of comity, if not the holidays -- the district and Corbett should be willing to discuss this matter and save everyone a day in court.

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