Where the sidewalk ends
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At a recent high school basketball game, students from Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair traded chants. The USC kids teased Mt. Lebo fans, who must walk or find rides to school, with "We have buses." The Mt. Lebo kiddies answered, "We have sidewalks."
School buses travel within borders, while sidewalks run to the edges of a town and, if good fortune combines with wise zoning, offer passage into the next town and out into the wider world where travelers can chart their own courses.
In Upper St. Clair, the sidewalk of the mind halted abruptly on a rancorous Monday night. Five members of the school board combined to eliminate the International Baccalaureate Programme, a curriculum that teaches students everything from history to literature from a world perspective.
It is hard to tell, judging from interviews after the fact, whether the board worried about cost or was somehow convinced the program would spawn a cadre of teen-age Bakunins who would, between flag burnings, chase Christ from the suburbs.
One board member, Dr. Mark Trombetta, has been quoted tying IBP to The Earth Charter and the charter, in turn, to Marxism. Board president William Sulkowski says it was a pure cost-cutting decision, although he didn't like the idea of having a school curriculum written in Geneva, Switzerland. As for cutting cost, IBP was less than 0.2 percent of the school's $50 million budget.
My own guess is that the board's conservative majority smelled a chai latte brewing in the curriculum and opted to cut funds for anything that might produce future NPR donors.
The citizens of Upper St. Clair are entitled to teach their children in whatever fashion they choose. If a majority of suburbanites rejoice in advising their offspring that thunder causes mushrooms, that swallows winter in caves, or that Britain was founded by displaced residents of Troy, there are teaching materials available. They are Plutarch's "Symposiacs," Gilbert White's "A Natural History of Selborne," and Geoffrey of Monmouth's "Historia Regum Brittaniae." These were all leading texts of their time, authored by brilliant men who rarely left home and looked inwardly for guidance about how the world works.
There is a world of error out there. Possibly, this is why some factions in Upper St. Clair find it comforting to keep the world away. Certainly they are not the only ones. Five states away, another drumbeat against IBP helped set the rhythm for last week's war dance at USC.
EdWatch is a right-wing campaign based in Chaska, Minn., founded by Julie Quist, a feminist-turned-rightist, and her husband, Allen, once a Republican candidate for governor.
The group's stated goal is to halt a growing "federalization" of the educational system.
"EdWatch," its literature states, "is working with business leaders to alert them to the undermining of America's free market economy and constitutional freedoms by the restructuring of education and the workforce."
The Quist family campaign has proven that ideology can, at its core, become a form of unreason. The objection to the International Baccalaureate Programme seems to combine a silly nativism with a groundless fear that Marxism is making a comeback. The leisure suit has as much chance of making a comeback as Marxism, but the Quist Web site invokes such documents as The Earth Charter and such authors as the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, whom they credit with creating multiculturalism. Gramsci died in 1937.
Mr. Quist can't get past IBP's enthusiasm for The Earth Charter.
The Earth Charter proposes saving the planet by environmental protection and says we should "promote the equitable distribution of wealth within nations and among nations." To the conspiracy minded, this sounds like Marxism. To the sane, it sounds like someone demanding correct change at the dry cleaner.
The idealistic chin music of The Earth Charter is almost indistinguishable from any other set of good wishes. The words to "Happy Birthday" are as likely to save the world, but phrases such as "distribution of wealth" and "social security safety nets" reflexively incite people fearful that the weak will one day rise up and take their stuff. Certainly the language about promoting women's roles "in all aspects of economic, political, civil, social and cultural life as full and equal partners, decision makers, leaders and beneficiaries," had to worry Allen Quist. When running for governor of Minnesota, he was quoted as saying men are "genetically predisposed" to head the family.
What is remarkable here is that, while some of the same rhetoric about Marxism and anti-Christianity swirled around the Upper St. Clair debate, nobody seems to have been in touch with EdWatch. The campaign simply bled into the agenda of the nation's hard right and left its stain on Upper St. Clair.
"The ideology is a tiny, tiny fraction of what went into the review," Dr. Trombetta noted.
But once the suspicions were planted and sides drawn, left and right, IBP became an easy target for board members already dismissive of anything that smacks of outside input.
"This is turning into a political circus when in fact it's a budgetary and curriculum issue," Dr. Sulkowski said. The problem, of course, is that as budgetary matters go, IBP was small. As ideological messages go, Upper St. Clair just sent up a large signal suggesting its boundaries are all the world they need.
Until it was cast aside, the International Baccalaureate Programme cost Upper St. Clair approximately $85,000 annually, or less than one-tenth of what the district spends each year on athletics.
If it had failings, they were perhaps best captured by the spelling employed by the International Baccalaureate Organization: that British "-me" at the end of "Programme" probably says as much about the impractical optimism of "international curricula" as the board's stubbornness says about the nativism that keeps this region intellectually landlocked.
The football program, after all, might produce a star who will go on to play in the Super Bowl, a world championship to which we do not invite other nations.
First Published February 26, 2006 12:00 am