An Ovation for Jefferson County

You know the moment when you ready yourself to leap to your feet at the end of a symphony, only to hear that glimmer of a violin note that keeps you glued to your seat and safe from mortification? That was me a few weeks ago at the College Board Forum.

You may or may not love classical music, but some things should not be a matter of taste. That's why I'm not afraid to offend 3/5s of a certain suburban school board: anyone who doesn't appreciate the irony of discouraging protest in the name of promoting American values has, at the very least, a tragically stunted sense of irony.
(Exhibit A: the Boston Tea Party.)

Every educator in the country should applaud the protests in Jefferson County, Colorado, that took place this September and October in response to the school board's attempted sanitization of the Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum. As you know, the majority of the board proposed that the district's teachers of U.S. history emphasize "benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights," while glossing over the nation's episodes of "civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law."

The students of Jefferson County responded, not unpredictably, by exercising their rights to show disrespect for authority. They eventually compelled the board - by a still pathetic 3-2 majority - to reconsider its position on AP U.S. History.

I didn't get to witness the protests firsthand, but I felt no small measure of excitement when David Coleman and Michael Sorrell, the president and a trustee, respectively, of the College Board proclaimed their support and admiration for the student protestors of Jefferson County at October's College Board Forum. In front of the entire College Board membership and thousands of other attendees, Coleman narrated a video celebrating the students' exercise of civil disobedience. The College Board had earlier issued a statement along the same lines.

As a habit, Coleman speaks with a nearly unsettling level of earnestness, regardless of the topic of his remarks. It was never put to such good use as it was when he spoke of the Jefferson County students' pursuit of academic freedom.

Of course, Coleman has self-serving reasons for defending AP U.S. History. It's a College Board product, after all (the SAT exam being its most famous offering). And, like all other AP courses, it's imperfect and worthy of its own scrutiny. But just because Coleman is biased doesn't mean he's wrong. He and the rest of the College Board leadership deserved credit for putting Jefferson County front and center.

That's when I almost knocked over my coffee, pulling back my elbows before my lone pair of hands could break the silence, overwhelmed by an ovation that never came. Coleman himself seemed momentarily bewildered. Then he went with other remarks, implicitly chastened by his constituents.

I tell myself that my fellow audience members, numbering several thousand, were just a shy bunch. I suppose the field of education includes its share of professionals who prefer to keep a low profile. But a battle for the soul of democratic society does not call for abidance or quietude. That world must include the freedoms of thought, speech, and conscience - in and out of the classroom.

Why didn't I applaud on my own? Or try to stir the audience to life? I wish I had a forgivable response. For one thing, it wasn't my conference; I was a newcomer, representing my company and not myself. For another, I simply didn't expect to be the first and only one. Surely if I waited another millisecond someone else would take the lead--maybe some College Board veteran or even one of the trustees who approved the Jefferson County campaign--and I could have gleefully, anonymously joined in. And then the moment passed.

This, then, is my mea culpa. I didn't express my convictions when I had the chance. I suppose I owe David Coleman an apology. The best part of all of this is that, regardless of what happened in the stale confines of a conference hall, the students in Jefferson County are the ones who truly gave the command performance. Forcing their ignorant, anti-American elders to rescind their decision is their masterpiece.

It is one that will, I fear, be played many more times in this country in the years to come. May the members of the College Board, and all other educators, join the chorus next time.