Schools—and I’ll restrict my comments to publicly funded and accessible schools from Kindergarten to High School—are places where children are sent, often under the force of law, to learn the content of an approved curriculum. This is the main business of school. Teachers are given responsibility for student learning. Of course, other things happen and other things are learned in school, but the main responsibility is for the approved curriculum.
Partially intentionally, and partially through experience to structure and random events, students also learn lessons about the ways of the world. The vagaries of democracy, the values of timeliness and neatness, the consequences of standing for what you believe, fairness, unfairness, cooperation, justice and injustice, they’re all experienced and internalized by students whether it’s part of the approved curriculum or not. One of the frequent rubs in schools is in free speech and expression, popular and authoritarian reactions to them, and the real-life consequences of conflict over free expression.
Last week, a school in the town of Onoway, Alberta (population of about 1000) became a Canadian talking point over the public display of a work of student art.
The story, as I understand it, goes something like this. Kaela Wilton, a 16-year-old student at Onoway Junior and Senior High, sought and received permission to paint a mural on one of the interior cinder-brick walls of the school. The mural, which depicts two young men kissing, was approved in advance by both the principal and the student’s art teacher. The school began receiving complaints. It is not clear from the news articles whether the complaints were from students, parents, community or all three. Curiously some of the complainants noted that students were not allowed to kiss in the hallway, so it was inappropriate for this depiction. We don’t know the exact content of the complaints, but it’s safe to assume that the fact that the kissers are both male figured in some of them. At this point, the principal took the action of temporarily covering the mural with a bulletin board. Some students protested by tearing the board down. As I write this, it’s the weekend, and the principal has not publicly stated what will happen next.
Not surprisingly, some of the public have jumped on one bandwagon or the other. Most of what I read criticizes the principal for not standing for the student’s freedom of expression, of giving in to rednecks and homophobes, and of not supporting the rights of sexual minority students to be themselves in public. A minority is backing the principal for covering the art, and is asserting that the picture should never have been displayed in the first place.
Based on the details I have seen, I think the principal has made solid, defensible decisions throughout the incident to date.
First, Kaela should be commended on her artistic and social vision. She had a statement she wanted to make with her art, and she found a way to make it. Kaela recognized that the school is a public place and the principal and art teacher have legitimate authority over what is displayed in that space, so she sought permission. Kaela’s part in the drama is beyond reproach, given today’s publicly available information. The principal and art teacher obviously had to think about the consequences of displaying this work. Keep in mind that the purpose of a publicly funded school is for students to learn the approved curriculum. That’s it. Yes this implies many other subsidiary duties, but the purpose of the school is for students to learn. The principal and art teacher, it is safe to assume, were aware that the picture could cause controversy, but believed that it would not be sufficient to disturb or distract the fundamental purpose of the school. (It is worth noting that this drama took place during final examinations for the first semester of the school year.)
Now, this next part is hard to judge, given the sparse information available, so I will be sympathetic to the principal, James Trodden. Mr. Trodden decided that the situation had become unclear, and that the presence of the mural might actually be an unwarranted distraction for his students. In the eyes of his detractors, he wavered in his protection of free speech. From where I sit, he took a prudent action to buy some time. The complainants have a right to be heard. So do those in favour of keeping the mural in place. So does the artist. Mr. Trodden undoubtedly has personal beliefs about whether he’d like the mural up, but those aren’t the issue here. As I’ve noted before, students of this age (12-18) are conscripts, not volunteers. When you put something in their hallways, they have to deal with it. And their voices—as well as their parents’ voices—have to be given consideration.
We’ll know next week whether the mural stays or goes. I know what I hope will happen. But I don’t have a say in this matter. James Trodden will have to make a decision that will make some people unhappy and/or uncomfortable. That’s his duty as principal. But along the way, I fully support him for doing his utmost to balance the differing views, interests and anxieties of the children under his charge, as well as their parents and guardians.
The interesting ethical questions always leave some people displeased.