is the author of Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory and three other books on the history of education.
Yet the wonder Zimmerman instills in his New York University students, readers of his frequent op-eds and listeners tuning into “That’s History” on Philadelphia’s WHYY-FM radio station, is anything but small.
As the Distinguished Teaching Award he received from NYU attests, Zimmerman has a record of teaching effectiveness and an engaging and innovative approach that fosters critical thinking.
“The most important thing I do is to help people make sense of the world and controversies over education, and help them develop reasoned conclusions,” he said.
At 3 p.m. Saturday in the Hall of Philosophy, Zimmerman will raise the fundamental issue of teacher speech rights in the classroom while giving the fifth lecture in the Chautauqua Women’s Club’s Contemporary Issues Forum series.
Zimmerman said his talk, titled “You Can’t Say That: Teachers’ Rights in the United States,” developed from his historical research for a book he is co-writing that will be included in a series on education in the U.S. Teaching Controversial Issues will, in part, expand on themes Zimmerman explored in his 2005 book, Whose America: Culture Wars in the Public Schools, his August 2009 lecture at Chautauqua, and his June 2011 New York Times op-ed, “When Teachers Talk Out of School.”
When previously hosted by the Women’s Club, Zimmerman discussed the dueling dilemmas of race, religion and the culture wars in American public schools. He focused on how society chooses the values that are taught in public schools and passed on to young Americans.
“Over time, we have asked our schools to teach students to be citizens,” Zimmerman said. “But how can we ask teachers to model democracy if we don’t endow them with the rights of a democracy? Especially during wartime, teaching about constitutional rights is very limited. Within their institutions, teachers are not able to practice the skills and habits of a democracy.”
Zimmerman said that U.S. courts have circumscribed classroom speech. Amid a growing body of case law, he focused on the decisions reached by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in 2007 in Deborah A. Mayer v. Monroe County Community School Corporation.
When Mayer initiated her suit, she had been teaching for more than 20 years.
The opinion of the three-judge appellate panel summarized the facts of the case: “Deborah Mayer worked for one year as a probationary elementary-school teacher in Monroe County, Indiana,” the opinion read. “When the school district did not renew her contract for a second year, Mayer filed this suit … maintaining that the school system let her go because she took a political stance during a current-events session in her class, thus violating the First Amendment.”
The current event occupying the minds of Mayer’s class of fourth- through sixth-graders was the presence of U.N. officials in Iraq.
Continuing with its summary, the 7th Circuit Court wrote: “[Mayer] answered a pupil’s question about whether she participated in political demonstrations by saying that, when she passed a demonstration against this nation’s military operations in Iraq and saw a placard saying ‘Honk for Peace,’ she honked her car’s horn to show support for the demonstrators. Some parents complained, and the school’s principal told all teachers not to take sides in any political controversy. Mayer believes that this incident led the school system to dismiss her: we assume that this is so.”
The Chicago federal appeals court ruled in favor of the Monroe County School District.
It held that “the First Amendment does not entitle primary and secondary teachers, when conducting the education of captive audiences, to cover topics, or advocate viewpoints, that depart from the curriculum adopted by the school system.”
At the time Mayer’s class was discussing Ritu Upadhyay’s Time for Kids article, “Searching Iraq,” on U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq, the school had not instituted a policy on the expression of personal opinions when teaching about war.
According to Zimmerman, the 7th Circuit Court’s Mayer decision has put a clear prohibition on modeling democracy in the classroom.
In his New York Times op-ed on teachers talking in and out of school, he wrote that a teacher has a professional duty to teach the skills and habits of democracy. Zimmerman acknowledged that teachers are responsible for transmitting the topics and principles of the prescribed curriculum. Yet he also stated that democratic capacities such as reason, debate and tolerance should be taught so that American children learn to think for themselves.
To Zimmerman, schools are not just about preparing people for the workplace.
“They’re also for preparing us to be citizens,” he said.
While individuals will have different professions, he said that the one job everyone has in common — the only one — is being a citizen. He added that schools are the central public institution to which American’s have given this charge, yet they have deprived teachers of the ability to carry it out.
“I would like Chautauquans to have an awareness that over time and at present the right of teachers to engage their students has been limited, especially during wartime,” Zimmerman said. “While no one has completely free speech, I’d like them to think about ways to endow teachers with speech rights. We need educational institutions that show students how to reason, discuss, deliberate. Teachers aren’t ventriloquists for the state.”
*Correction (July 28, 2014): In an earlier version of this story, the article “Searching Iraq” was incorrectly titled “Searching for Iraq.” Changes have been made to fix this error.