Fears of an anti-American agenda are ridiculous

I don't know local parent Holly Sweetin. I'm sure she's very nice. But that doesn't matter when she's trying to impose a political agenda on the public school system.

Sweetin, according to the Las Vegas Sun, complained to the Clark County School District when her son's fifth-grade teacher made what by all reasonable accounts was a common and innocuous assignment. The teacher asked students to write an essay about a winter holiday tradition that is not practiced in America.

Sweetin was upset that the students were not allowed to write about Christmas in America.

"I have great difficulty with the fact that American soldiers will be spending their time in a desert protecting our country and my fifth-grader is forbidden from using the words American, Christmas or Christ," Sweetin wrote to the district, spreading it on about as thick as it gets.

OK, let's take this slowly.

First, the teacher's assignment was not offensive to most reasonable people. No other parents complained, according to a district official. The goal obviously was to expose students to other cultures, a common and desirable practice.

It's desirable because several billion people do not live in the United States and a whole lot of them do not celebrate Christmas. Learning about these things is called receiving a well-rounded education.

Second, it's fair to assume that most if not all the kids in that fifth-grade class are quite well-acquainted with the traditions of Christmas in America. Even if they're not all Christians, the traditions are ubiquitous in our culture. If the point of the assignment is to learn something new, writing about Christmas in America would not achieve the objective.

Third, it is crude and tasteless for Sweetin to inject American soldiers serving overseas into this issue. Besides the fact that the soldiers have nothing whatsoever to do with it, her reference represents the worst kind of patriotism. She is suggesting that a fifth-grade teacher's assignment in a Las Vegas elementary school is an insult to the sacrifices made by U.S. troops. I can hear it now: "If my kid can't write about Christmas in America, the terrorists win!"

On the contrary, the assignment is just the kind of thing that might inspire a few young Americans to take a greater interest in the world and perhaps dedicate their lives to improving relations among different peoples and nations. It's the kind of assignment that has the potential to plant seeds of open-mindedness and tolerance, which are the opposite of narrow-mindedness and bigotry. It's also the kind of assignment that might be beneficial to those young people who enter the armed forces and are sent to foreign lands, where they will be exposed to many new and different beliefs and traditions.

Finally, Sweetin's comments reflect the religious right's mantra that the United States is a "Christian nation." This, in fact, is false. The United States does not have a state religion. It is forbidden by the Constitution. What's more, the United States has a rich diversity of citizens, and millions of them do not celebrate Christmas. I can picture Sweetin shuddering at the thought.

This overwrought reaction to a class assignment reminds me of the dust-up a few months ago when some ultraconservative parents yanked their kids out of class during a live broadcast of a speech by the president. These parents said they were worried the president was going to indoctrinate their impressionable sons and daughters in the agenda of the Communist Party.

This, of course, was utterly ridiculous. President Obama's message to the students was to do their homework and stay in school -- as predictable as rain in Seattle.

And just to be clear, efforts at agenda-fueled meddling in public education are hardly reserved for conservatives. At the university level, we often see efforts to suppress free speech when that speech has a conservative bent. Just a few weeks ago, complaints arose at the University of Nevada, Reno, over a plan to hold a debate that included the founder of the Minuteman Project, the anti-illegal immigration group.

The Minuteman Project clearly has a forceful position on illegal immigration, but to argue that their views represent "hate speech" and therefore should not be heard on a university campus mirrors the narrow-mindedness espoused by Sweetin. Across America, and no more so than on our college campuses, free speech should reign.

So let's review:

* Learning about people and places beyond our borders is a good thing. It's a big world, and one key goal of a comprehensive education is to expose students to some of it.

* American soldiers serving overseas should not be used in a cynical ploy to advance a political agenda at home. They deserve better.

* Occasionally you hear about a teacher who goes off the deep end and needs to be reined in. This is definitely not one of those cases.

We live in a time of deep political polarization, when rancor and partisanship too often trump pragmatism and compromise. The greatest hope to improve this situation is in the area of education -- if we can keep the kooks and censors at bay.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. His column appears Friday.