"Mom, I want to tell you about something," Amy says as she settles into the van after school. "It's about a story from our Scholastic News."
In case your children have matriculated beyond grade school and you've forgotten, Scholastic News is the digest of current events presented in a weekly newsletter for children by the Scholastic publishing folks. (Its big claim to fame is an uncanny accuracy in the correlation between its presidential polling of children and the outcome of presidential elections.)
My fifth-grader relays a news story written for elementary schoolers about the new law in California that prohibits adults from smoking inside a vehicle where children are present. "Isn't that a great law?" Amy asks. "I think it is."
Apparently, Amy's teacher made it clear she thinks the California law is a good one, as did every child in Amy's social studies class. Plus, according to Scholastic News, children who completed an online survey overwhelmingly supported the law – more than 200,000 online votes in favor of it but fewer than 2,000 votes against.
As far as Amy was concerned, this issue was a no-brainer.
If you're a child of a smoker in California, I gather this law offers some relief, if not the improved health it's designed to promote. We parents know that a "great law" would be one that would require children to eat vegetables, wear warm socks and brush their teeth – all things that also would promote improved health (not to mention fewer cavities).
Better yet, how about a law that children simply do what they're told? Such a law could be labeled the "Very Good, Obedient Child Act." For reasons beyond my comprehension, no one has ever enacted such an exceptional piece of legislation. Go figure.
I decide to throw a curve into Amy's policy discussion. "Well, it's a good idea not to smoke in cars with kids," I say, "but I have concerns about making more laws about peoples' behavior choices. My concerns have to do with preserving personal freedom."
Our ride home passes quickly while we talk about the idea of personal freedom and the fact that a free society invariably allows people to do things that are unhealthy – or even downright stupid. "Odd as this may seem, it's our right to be unhealthy if we choose. And it might even be someone's right to do things that are unhealthy for their children. After all, some parents let their kids drink a lot of soda, which isn't exactly a healthful choice."
Amy gets uncharacteristically quiet. She loves soda. Perhaps something's at stake here.
Amy's Scholastic News experience wasn't the first time in the week that I unraveled an issue of policy or politics from one of my children's classrooms. In fact, it was the fourth time.
From history class to theology to biology, from college to high school to middle school and even down to fifth grade, my four children get daily doses of political spin on their academic lessons. Sometimes the messages are overt; sometimes they're slipped insidiously into the curriculum. Either way, the slant is clear. To wit:
A college history class includes frequent references to our current "imperialist" president (who was not present at the Revolution, the period under study) as he derides the "imperialist George Washington."
A high school biology teacher asserts that "only Republicans" seem to misunderstand the concept of the Earth's potential "carrying capacity." A presentation on biotic potential apparently must include the teacher's assessment of idiotic potential.
A middle school class on American history nearly eliminates any discussion of Europeans in the settlement of the American West except to highlight their atrocities against Indians (not that this view departs from the textbook, mind you, which is another problem altogether).
Fortunately, because we're blessed to be able to enroll our children in Catholic schools, they don't hear messages that challenge the religious beliefs we're teaching in our home. However, we're teaching political and patriotic beliefs, too, and those are challenged every day by teachers who think nothing of tossing in a side (read: snide) comment to undermine the legitimate differences of opinion that fuel our pluralistic society.
Gives a whole new meaning to the question, "What did you learn in school today?" Doesn't it?