Saturday, February 17, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: In limiting school speakers, MaryEllen Elia caves to advocacy groups

If it's true that we fear what we don't know, then it is probably fair to say Terry Kemple, Hillsborough County's answer to Torquemada (only without the sense of whimsy), spends his days curled into a fetal position at the prospect of having to confront anything that might remotely cause him to learn anything — like a history book.

There are times when important figures in positions of power are presented with golden opportunities to essentially tell silly people like Kemple and his fellow Katzenjammer Kid of biblical browbeating, David Caton, to take their twisted theological kneecapping and stick, well, you get the general concept.

Instead, Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia caved in to irrational ignorance a few days ago and in doing so, tossed a dedicated, well-meaning, thoughtful teacher under the bus. This is like being in the trenches and discovering a cowering Barney Fife next to you.

Kelly Miliziano, who is a history teacher at Steinbrenner High School, was teaching an advanced placement class on various world faiths in the delusional belief this sort of knowledge would make her charges better informed, better read and better citizens.

To that end, she invited Hassan Shibly from the Council on American-Islamic Relations to talk to her students about Muslim stereotypes. In a delicious bit of irony, Shibly's appearance did indeed rouse the illiterate ire of local gospel gadflies David Caton and his liturgical Renfield, Terry Kemple, who reacted as if Miliziano had asked Osama bin Laden, Uday and Qusay and the Gadhafi family to meet her students.

At first Elia, along with Hillsborough School Board member Candy Olson, stood up to the wide-eyed ranks of Caton and Kemple, defending Miliziano, while stressing the value of exposing students to varying cultures and religious beliefs. You know, the stuff that history is made of.

But a few days ago, in the face of dithering criticism led by Kemple, the Elmer Gantry of Brandon, Elia proposed new guidelines for speakers, which would require teachers to select classroom visitors recommended by the school district, consult with principals before extending an invitation to speak and to avoid inviting anyone associated with an advocacy group.

Or put another way, the new rules suggest an experienced, qualified teacher like Miliziano is too dense to figure out for herself who would be a suitable speaker in one of her classes. So much for academic freedom.

At the same time the irony is probably not lost on anyone that Elia's hand-wringing guidelines about avoiding advocacy groups as classroom visitors was the result of the superintendent caving into pressure from obtuse advocacy groups led by Caton and Kemple.

If it is left up to paper-pushing/clipboard-wielding/pocket protector-wearing Major Major keister-covering bureaucrats, then about the only people who will ever be invited to speak will be reclusive mutes, which come to think of it would still represent more intellectual firepower than the Catons and Kemples of the world.

Who is better positioned to teach world history? An educator trained and steeped in the subject matter, with only the best interests of her students in mind? Or a xenophobic cabal of theo-hooligans committed to sustaining ignorance and narrow-mindedness in the classroom?

What a pity MaryEllen Elia seems to struggle with the answer.

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