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November 20, 2007

Nice Is Different From Good

In case you missed it last week, the high school in Berwyn, Illinois that planned to expel students for protesting the Iraq war has backed down:

District 201 Supt. Ben Nowakowski said in a statement that 14 of the 18 students who faced expulsion will be cleared to return to class Wednesday and that four students who bore more culpability for the disruption can return to class Friday.

Arthur Silber says:

We may be grateful that these brave students have escaped the most severe punishment. But what lessons do you think they may have learned from this episode? As I described in the earlier piece, they have learned that the operation of justice is excessively fragile, and that justice is meted out depending on how willing you are to accommodate yourself to the demands of authority in areas that should be irrelevant. They have learned that justice often depends on matters of race and class. They have learned that certain punishments may be avoided, but only if public protest is significant and sustained. In the absence of such protest, these students' futures would have been altered significantly, and perhaps destroyed in large part.

With regard to the subject of their protest, the students look to our national leaders, and they see that no one -- no one, with only a handful of exceptions -- recognizes the horrors the students see, and is committed to ending them. They see a government made up in large part of criminals, and they see that these criminals are suffering no negative consequences at all. The students were punished, and might have been punished much more severely -- but no one in Washington suffers a similar fate on any scale.

I award Arthur extra blurgh points for his illustrative use of Into the Woods. If I were a drama teacher at Morton West, I'd get the students to put on Into the Woods this year. Then I'd sit back and wait for them to realize it's not a weird, post-modern Broadway musical with no connection to their lives, but a weird, post-modern Broadway musical that's about nothing but their lives. Then I'd get fired.

Posted at November 20, 2007 09:57 AM | TrackBack

If you were lucky, you'd just get suspended and threatened with unemployment.

Posted by: StO at November 20, 2007 12:05 PM

Do you think these students will protest the next time? Do you think they will still believe it's worth it? We might hope they will, but who could blame them if they did not? Many of them may take the path of least resistance, as the vast majority of adults do. They will have learned the most fundamental lesson, the one most necessary to the continued operation of the criminal State: they will have learned to obey.

Jesus. Is there any better example of "the glass has not even the tiniest drop of water in it" pessimism than Arthur Silber?

Yes, some of these students may have learned to sit down and shut up. But isn't it possible that other students will learn something else? Isn't it possible that some have learned that if you have the courage to stand up and speak out, others, perhaps thousands of others who you have never seen or met, may rally to your cause? And, if that happens, you might actually win some small victory against those in power? And, if that happens, you may start looking at the world differently, and start seeing opportunities for similar victories elsewhere.

One you beat back the powerful, even in some small way, they don't look so powerful anymore. I suspect that every effective activist, every person who has done something positive to change the world, began with some moment like this, where the curtain is pulled back, and the Great and Powerful Oz is revealed to be a jittery man pulling levers (or a School Principal who is scared of his own students). Moments like this can be literally life-changing for those involved. For that reason, I'm expecting great things from these Morton students.

Posted by: SteveB at November 20, 2007 12:18 PM

I'm with SteveB. Michael Moore got started as a gadfly because his high school principal punished him for wearing his shirttails untucked. Moore ran for school board as soon as he graduated, just to get back at the guy. I'm thinking these students are a bit more resilient than Arthur believes they are.

Posted by: Whistler Blue at November 20, 2007 01:23 PM

fortune cookie says:

cthulhu will eat them

oh! outta nowhere, the insatiable ancient god!

Posted by: hapa at November 20, 2007 01:33 PM

i mean, how's this a victory? was it likely to end another way? these kids aren't burmese monks risking their lives under direct military rule. not jena. the morton however-many did what seems like a good thing but for outsiders it seems like it became some kind of leftish version of cops.

maybe i've seen too many staged arrests in an era of lost ground....

Posted by: hapa at November 20, 2007 01:48 PM

Oh you are overvaluing yourself even if that is a joke. In what way does INTO THE WOODS threaten the status quo anyway? The status quo is blissfully accommodative of any form of art that doesn't threaten it, no matter how radical the art might APPEAR to be. Works of art are dangerous not because of what they say, but because of how they say it and the effect this has.

>I'd get the students to put on Into the Woods this >year. Then I'd sit back and wait for them to >realize it's not a weird, post-modern Broadway >musical with no connection to their lives, but a >weird, post-modern Broadway musical that's about >nothing but their lives. Then I'd get fired.

Posted by: En Ming Hee at November 20, 2007 02:02 PM

i mean, how's this a victory? was it likely to end another way?

It was likely to end exactly as the principal wanted it to end: with the expulsion of some of the students, as a warning to other students not to try the same thing. And that's what would have happened, if these students and their families had not organized, and drawn some support from their community and around the country.

Is that a victory? Yes, albeit a small one. Any time you force a concession from those "above" you it's a victory. And, as I pointed out above, the main positive consequence is on the students themselves, in terms of their understanding of power, and that it is possible to win against power. Remember, when you're a high school student, any victory you have probably isn't going to be earth-shattering (even if you're Michael Moore), but I'd say these students are off to a great start. Let's check back with them in 20 years, OK?

Posted by: SteveB at November 20, 2007 04:17 PM

En Ming Hee:

Oh you are overvaluing yourself even if that is a joke.

No, I'm correctly valuing the paranoia and cravenness of American school administrators. Teachers really do get fired for this kind of stuff in America.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at November 20, 2007 04:29 PM

1-202-225-0100 DEMAND IMPEACHMENT.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at November 20, 2007 06:05 PM
And that's what would have happened, if these students and their families had not organized, and drawn some support from their community and around the country.

which was unlikely...? given the low opinion of the war and its autocratic supporters?

or: "which was unlikely to have been effective, because the decision lay with tough-minded administrators more concerned with school discipline than with public opinion?" i mean, in the photos i saw, the kids don't look black....

Posted by: hapa at November 20, 2007 06:42 PM

I don't get this likely/unlikely business. A principal says publicly that students are going to be expelled, then the students get expelled, unless something else happens. In this case, the "something else" happened. That's a good thing, right?

Why is it important whether the opposition that they were able to organize was "likely" to happen? And I'm not saying the millenium has arrived, just that some students won a small victory over someone (small) in power. As I've said (twice now) the main impact is on the students themselves. Do you disagree? If so, do you think you could put your disagreement in a slightly more intelligible form?

Posted by: SteveB at November 20, 2007 07:19 PM

I agree with SteveB--and cite as an example of how a run-in with petty authorities can have enlightening effects--how Mike Albert was radicalized in the very cerebral cortex of the MICFiC beast by being told about his frat brothers' warrantless surveillance of him during Rush Week--mentioned here a couple of weeks ago

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at November 21, 2007 11:39 AM

i don't know from positive or negative effects on the dissentlings. it might have had a bigger net effect on their supporters, who hadn't bargained on the confrontation, as the kids surely had, someway. arthur assumed i think that the kids thought the principal and school system and town were beatific, before their inner bureaucruelty was revealed.

the principal looks like a doofus. successfully challenging the doofus may have worked better than expected, maybe even changing young minds about how to push back, right? something about deeper community solidarity, and also its limits?

they learned good things to know.

Posted by: hapa at November 22, 2007 03:09 AM