Critical Thinking or Bush Bashing?

An AP senior government class at Parsippany High School in New Jersey has attracted national media attention with their class project – a war crimes trial of President George Bush.

After national media coverage, including the Drudge Report, call in radio, and blogs, students now have an added dimension to the lesson – free speech, and evaluating the quality of information that is broadcast on the media.

Much of the outcry against the activity is about patriotism – is it fair to stage a mock trial of a sitting president in time of war? Is it responsible to encourage students to do so?

These are not ordinary students – they are AP seniors, used to independent study and a high order of critical thinking. Mock debates and trials are not new to them. The design of the trial was with their input, and a product of their work. These are probably the students least likely to be “brainwashed”. Originally the “Trial” was supposed to have a verdict delivered by a panel of teachers. Prior to the start of the activity in late February, students expressed discomfort with that part of the process. So a “verdict” was not to be rendered, but the panel would grade students on their presentation, argument, research, effectiveness, and so on.

It should be noted that the teacher of this class is a registered voter who does not belong to any political party. Last week the all republican Board of Morris County Freeholders voted to condemn the project. The one exception to the 6-1 vote was a former teacher whose son in law is a marine who has served in Iraq. Her concern was that the board should not censure students who are actively interested in exploring the war issues in depth. A majority of the freeholders expressed the opinion that the activity was inappropriate because of the presumption of indicting a sitting president during time of war.

Public commentary at the freeholders meeting was in favor of the activity. At a subsequent meeting of the board of education, public commentary was mixed. Students, teachers and parents rallied in support of the class and of the teacher. E mails to the superintendents office which had been running overwhelmingly negative about the activity, suddenly took a positive, supportive tone after the Board of Freeholders meeting.

The most indelible lesson the 27 students carry forward may not be the lesson of the activity itself, but of the debate and discussion surrounding it.