"Teach-ins" began with the anti-Vietnam student protests of the 1960s. These days a teach-in is a day that school officials designate for instruction about a subject they consider pressing enough to circumvent the normal curriculum. Some consider this unconventional technique a liberal propaganda tool. Having participated in several teach-ins, I believe that there are pros and cons to this sort of program; the real issue is the subject of the teach-in, and in this case, the Oakland Public School District selected a sure loser.
This teach-in was the brain-child of the Oakland Education Association, an administrative branch of the Oakland Public School District. It was strongly opposed by the NAACP, the Oakland school board president, and many people from the community. The subject, Mumia Abu-Jamal, is a death-row inmate awaiting execution for the cold-blooded murder of a police officer. He fired exploding bullets into the back of the officer’s head. And, big surprise, Mr. Abu-Jamal claims he was wrongly convicted. My supposition is that if you take a poll on death row, you will find quite a large number of innocent folk. This is no brain-teaser—a cop-killer trying to rally support with cries of racism and injustice in the courtroom. The real shocker is that the Oakland School district thinks his case is worthy enough to alter an entire day of study to incorporate discussion and debate.
As a student at Berkeley High School in the 1980s, I was subjected to several teach-ins. Because the student body considered them "free days"—consisting of material we would never need to regurgitate in a test situation—the subject matter was always a bit hazy. I remember a lengthy discussion during "No Business As Usual—Disarmament Day" (the yearly teach-in about nuclear weapons) in my history class. My stereotypically hippie teacher—whom we called "The Dude"—sat cross-legged on his desk and explained with unabashed emotion how he was a draft dodger who got caught smuggling sheets of LSD across the Swiss border and spent time in a federal prison. Very enlightening. (The same teacher later scheduled a field trip to the Berkeley City Jail. I was "sick" that day.) I don’t recall any quality dialogue regarding nuclear weapons, military procedure, or anything else educational resulting from the exercise.
We once had a current-events week of teach-ins during my senior year. I recall my physics class engaging in a debate on beer, wine coolers, and marijuana—the "gateway" drugs. The conversation ended with 30 senior advanced-physics students reveling in the valued information that Black & White Liquors never asked for identification and while Mario had the best bud, Jimmy had the best deals. I’m not sure what current events the school had in mind, but I’m quite sure that wasn’t it.
In college (UCLA), we had a similar event called an "educational moratorium," where no classes were taught until we felt we’d been properly filled in on the Gulf War situation. From those events, I learned the equivalent of what I would have learned from fifteen minutes of the evening news and a five-minute discussion with my parents. I would have learned twice as much if I’d read the World News section of the newspaper. Instead, I celebrated what I considered to be three "free" days during my college education.
To take away a day of education—forget the purpose—is to shortchange students. "Whaddya mean you never learned the quadratic equation?" "Well, that must have been bumped for the Mumia dialogues. I can’t do math, sir, but I can say ‘Free Mumia.’ " What really happens is everyone is very passionate about the subject for that particular day, but no one retains anything from it. Why? Because we learn by repetition. If this subject is not repeated at any other time, it will be lost in the crush of information taken in while playing Crash Bandicoot for fifteen hours straight. "Is this going to be on the test?"—the answer causes a snap decision about whether or not it is important enough to retain for more than the present 45 minutes.
The school district claimed several things. One, this is not a day taken away from education; this is material to be entered into the regular class discussions in each class. I can understand covering this type of material in a government-education class, in social studies, in a criminal-law course—even in an English class where students could be assigned to write argumentative essays. But every class? Math? "All right kids, Mumia was sentenced to death. If his sentence is commuted to life without parole (which is the equivalent of about 35 years) and he’s already served 15 years 37 days, how much time does he have left? Give the answer in fortnights."
Not all of Oakland, not even the entire school district, was behind this idea. The president of the school board allegedly said that the students should learn about the penal system since they will be a part of it someday. Shannon Reeves of the NAACP was vehemently against it, citing the poor scores of the students (65-70% are below grade level in many subjects) and an already suffering curriculum.
Since his conviction, Mr. Abu-Jamal has picked up many supporters through a radio show and other publications. I find this a bit distressing, as death-row inmates should probably have more restricted access to large segments of the public than I do. He has more supporters than possibly any other resident of San Quentin (except, perhaps Charles Manson). He doesn’t really need the support of Oakland’s several thousand impressionable school children.
It’s hard to understand why, with everything that children need to learn today, anyone would want to give eight hours of precious educational time to a convicted cop-killer who hides behind the cloak of racism. Many a guilty man claims to have been framed—should we expose our youth to the concepts of denying guilt and using loopholes to skirt accountability for wrongdoing? What will the students retain from these dialogues? Disrespect for the justice system, a willingness to cry ‘racism’ when faced with serious accusations, hope that even a death sentence can be overturned with a little fancy footwork?
If we grant that Mumia Abu-Jamal as a topic worthy of an entire day of colloquy, we risk making him a hero. If we alter the curriculum on the day the algebra teacher has slated for instruction on the quadratic equation, we set our children behind the rest of the country in their educational development.
Mumia’s case will not be a required section on the SATs, I can guarantee that. But watch out for that quadratic equation; it’s on the SAT, the ACT, the GRE, and probably several other tests that determine the direction one takes: higher education, low-level employment, death-row inmate.
On Sunday, January 10th, Oakland Police Officer James Williams Jr. was killed by a sniper's bullet. In a backhanded display of respect, the Oakland Education Association decided to reschedule the teach-in for non-school, non-site hours. If they really had any respect for officers killed in the line of duty, they would forget the whole idea.