Community forum: Students are many things, but brainwashed is not one of them

By Michael Fournier

To win a debate in my classroom, a student does not have to be liberal or conservative, just more researched and articulate than the opposing side. Young people from all walks of life, from progressive to conservative, have found their voices. In fact, I am most proud of students not when I agree with them, but when I am compelled to understand their perspectives.

As a middle school teacher, I don’t often weigh in publicly on issues. Of course, there have been numerous stories and local issues I have wanted to speak up on and take a side. In the end, I always decide to withhold my commentary. I take every precaution, as do most educators, not to alter or change the course of a student’s thinking by telling them how to think. I believe that every child will arrive at their own understanding using the content, skills and strategies we teach them.

I did not want to write this op-ed, but I felt it necessary because of what I had been reading on social media regarding last week’s Mount Desert Island High School student protest that was in reaction to the horrific Florida school shooting.

I am not writing to take a side on the gun debate. I am not writing to argue whether the Constitution protects free speech more or less than the right to bear arms. I am writing to defend what happens every single day in classrooms all across this island.

The comments that disturbed me the most were the comments aimed not at educators like myself (for there were plenty), but those aimed at students. Students deserve better than the shallow attacks that were launched at them from the digital stratosphere. I am saddened that we live in a time in which folks can hide behind their computer screens and express uninformed, demeaning and untrue statements. On every level — from the political, to the social, to the emotional — students need to be taken seriously.

I read nearly a dozen times from several individuals that students on MDI are “brainwashed.” Anyone who has spent any time in classrooms in any school on this island would wholeheartedly disagree. Setting aside how condescending this remark is and how off-base it is, let me begin by shining some light on what I see every single day.

I see free thinkers walk into my classroom who come from all walks of life. These young people have identities that, like those of adults, are works in progress. Students grapple with who and what shapes them. They are reflective. Students examine their strengths and their weaknesses, trying to figure out where exactly they fit into this complex and confusing world. The students that I have been fortunate enough to teach over the years here have taught me how to get a better handle on both the world’s beauty and its madness.

To say that students are brainwashed vastly underestimates their intellect and their abilities to form and sustain genuine perspectives. I cannot agree with those who would define MDI students as “brainwashed.” I can say something, however, about what they are.

These students are fiercely independent. These students are creative. These students are inventors. These students are problem solvers. These students are so much bigger than small comments that are designed to degrade, demean and belittle their thoughts and accomplishments. We must encourage civic engagement in a time when our country is hard-pressed to find the next generation of leaders and community-minded people. We must defend young people, no matter what their political viewpoints are. Ultimately, we must not interrupt nor depreciate the process that permits a student to discover their place in the world.

Michael Fournier teaches fifth- and sixth-grade social studies at Conners Emerson in Bar Harbor. He lives in Bass Harbor.


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