Political Education or Indoctrination?

Special to The Times

In the library of Oakland High School last week, a parade of speakers lectured teens about American foreign policy in emotional tones resembling an anti-war rally.

"People of color are nothing to Americans," the forceful speaker declared. "The U.S. would never attack Britain or Germany unless we were attacked first," she told attentive students. Then activist Ling Yee, a former radical member of the Berkeley City Council, slammed home her point: "Americans attack people of color. We should not tolerate this."

In the library, at least, there was no debate. And while she spoke about class warfare in the U.S., she never mentioned Saddam Hussein's attack on his own people, the Kurds.

Anti-war activists, pacifists and all-around radicals descended on Oakland's public schools last week, some would say to educate, others would say to indoctrinate.

Unlike the '60s, when anti-war activists thwarted the establishment, organizing "teach-ins" to supplement regular learning, this one was cobbled together by the school board itself with the approval of the superintendent.

And these classes didn't supplement regular learning, they were held instead of it. Between 5,000 and 10,000 students participated.

But then this is not your average district -- only last week, Oakland schools asked the Legislature for a $100-million bailout.

And this is not your average school board. "We are the establishment," said school board member Dan Siegel, who proposed the teach-in.

That wasn't always so. A onetime president of the UC Berkeley student body, Siegel led the 1969 campaign to "take back" People's Park. Two thousand students, some armed with bricks, marched on the park. They were met by police with birdshot. More than 100 police and students were injured and one observer on a rooftop was killed.

Siegel became an attorney and for many years represented the Oakland public schools before joining its board.

After modifying his initial proposal to suit the majority, Siegel's plans for a teach-in received unanimous support.

As Oakland was holding its teach-in, San Francisco's board of education was authorizing its own. But there, the leader of the parents' organization has expressed skepticism.

Tuesday's sessions in 30 Oakland schools were declared a success by their organizers. Only one of the high schools refused to participate.

At Oakland High, one speaker showed a bottle of sludge, representing the water that he said children in Iraq drink because the U.S. bombed treatment plants. Another brought a box of medical supplies that she said she had tried but failed to take to Iraq several years before.

A storyteller told "peace stories" to elementary school kids. Aging Black Panther David Hilliard was a no-show.

The timing of the event was not left to chance. Held just before Saturday's anti-war march, organizers wanted students to "develop an awareness" so that they and their parents "could join us at the march," explained Mary Prophet, a retired Oakland schoolteacher and one of the teach-in organizers.

"It's not a public school's place to be doing that," said Bill Evers, an education policy specialist with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Though he'd favor a true debate on the issues, from what he's read about the one-sided teach-in, Evers said, it was unethical and un-educational. "And I'd say that if it were an anti-Saddam rally. It's not right. It's not fair to children who are your captive audience."

David Pearson, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education, said that he favors classroom discussions but that "schools are obligated to ensure that discussions are balanced."

That the sessions weren't always balanced doesn't bother the organizers. "We don't teach students that the Holocaust was a good thing," explained organizer and substitute teacher Jonah Zern, a member of the Oakland Education Assn.'s Peace and International Relations Committee.

Besides, he said, "Every media source [the students] see is pro-war."

Organizers say they couldn't find anyone to speak in favor of the war. In fact, some of the classrooms strove to offer balanced debate. A world history class invited San Francisco State University professor of political philosophy Ann Robertson, who led a lively debate on "Is It Right or Wrong for the U.S. to Go to War?"

In the future, Siegel said, he'd like to see a more rigorous discussion.

But that's not what happened Tuesday.

"They should be more concerned about the terrible rate of failure among minority students in Oakland schools than they are about right thinking on the Black Panthers or the war," said Kate Coleman, a freelance writer who has reported on the Black Panther Party since 1978 and who opposes war with Iraq.

Siegel says Oakland's test scores are rising, but they're still dismally low.

"This is the school system that brought you ebonics," Coleman said. "These kids can't read. Why not have a teach-in teach English?"

Oakland's school leaders are not bothered by the criticism. Prophet said the teach-in will help develop critical thinkers. Zern said that good education is about engaging students and that the teach-in engages.

And school board member Siegel said, "We're off to a good start. This is just the first round."


Times correspondent Valerie Hotz Nevin contributed to this report.

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