To the Superintendents of Schools and Parents of CT’s Fourth Congressional District:

I have just finished a raucous week of town hall meetings on health care reform. I listened to support and opposition, to new ideas, to all manner of issues and concerns. I got my fair share of applause and catcalls and heard some language we discourage in our homes and schools.

The rollicking meetings were pure exercises in American democracy. Ideas, facts, and misinformation alike clashed in an open forum. People spoke and were heard. I appreciated even those who chose to shout if only because they weren’t apathetic.

I loved just about every minute of it. I was thrilled with the vibrancy of our democracy.

Until today. Today I learned that many of our educational leaders are choosing to not show President Barack Obama’s address to the nation’s schoolchildren, or to review it for “appropriateness” in response to concerns from certain parents. This is deeply disappointing, even frightening, for many reasons.

Let’s set aside what seems to be a complete absence of respect for the office of the President in the world’s most vibrant democracy. Let’s set aside the question of whether a few vocal parents should have such stunning influence on a moment of huge potential educational value.

Far more important is the fact that our democracy is founded on the idea that citizens think and decide for themselves. No one else, king or bureaucrat, does it for them. That is why we do not compromise on freedom of expression, freedom of religion and freedom of the press. The honor of being an American citizen lies in the fact that we are asked and trusted to consider and judge all manner of ideas and visions, and to express our judgment through our votes. We grow into that honor by having the courage to expose ourselves to ideas we may initially find strange, different, maybe even repulsive.

The highest aim of education is to give our children the critical faculties required to be American citizens worthy of that honor. We so value intellectual freedom in the classroom that we protect the purveyors of ideas, our teachers, with tenure. We are prepared to embrace the otherwise unusual idea of lifetime, guaranteed employment because it is so important that our teachers not be removed from the classroom for ideas they may purvey. Why in the world would we now ask them to censor the ideas of perhaps the most influential man on the planet?

The President will surely urge our children to work hard to expand their intellectual horizons and to develop the skills to succeed.  But even if we accept the ludicrous idea that the President might use his platform to convey a particular point of view, what should be our response? Are we comfortable with an America in which teachers, of all people, are asked to censor such ideas, in which children are given the impression that some ideas are to be feared and avoided rather than considered on their merits?

I prefer an America in which our schoolchildren watch the speech and are asked to think about it. In which their teachers ask them if they agree with the President or not. I imagine an America in which students return home on Tuesday and hear what their mom and dad thought of the speech and have a discussion about it over the dinner table.

As a Democrat, I might be charged with fighting to promote the President’s point of view. Nonsense. The decisions you will make about Tuesday have nothing to do with political parties and everything to do with the core values of American democracy and enlightened education. During the healthcare town halls, I rearranged my schedule to attend a panel sponsored by the Ridgefield Republicans. I repeatedly waded into angry shouting crowds who clearly disagreed with me to hear what they had to say. I sought out those who might disagree because I learn little and represent poorly if I only hear from those with whom I agree.

As parents and educators, on Tuesday you will be presented with a unique teachable moment. You will decide what happens Tuesday night. Children at dinner tables will be asked what they thought, encouraged to think, and perhaps even challenged. Or they may eat in silence, wondering why their schools and parents thought them unworthy of seeing what other kids will surely see. Maybe they’ll learn that the people they trust most fear ideas and the challenges ideas sometimes pose. Please don’t let that happen.


Jim Himes

Member of Congress, CT-4