Friday, March 03, 2006

Dead Skunk Friday: Bush, Hitler, and High School

Lately, Fridays are becoming the day when I gravitate back to a story I've been trying to ignore all week. "Dead Skunk Stories," I call them, because they're disgusting to look at, yet all but impossible to look away from.

This Friday is no exception.

In case you haven't heard, a teacher at Overland High School in Aurora, Colorado has been disciplined for allegedly comparing George W. Bush to Adolph Hitler in front of his students.

One of the students taped the remarks, and showed the tape to his dad. His dad didn't like what he saw and heard, and complained to the school principle. The teacher, Jay Bennish, has been put on leave while school district administrators determine whether he violated a policy requiring balanced viewpoints in the classroom.

Yesterday, roughly 150 students walked out of class to protest Bennish's suspension. One student held a sign that read "Honk if you like free speech."

This morning, Bennish filed a lawsuit against the Aurora school district.

The kid who made the tape and showed it to his dad is thinking of changing schools for fear of reprisals.

What Happened?

I've only seen snippets of the tape on television. Nothing the teacher said sounded all that offensive to me. But Bush and Hitler are two of my all time least favorite political leaders, so hearing someone compare them doesn’t ruffle my feathers.

The controversy began on February 1st, the day after Mister Bush's State of the Union address. That a high school teacher might lead a class discussion on a major speech given by the president of the United States the night before hardly seems surprising or inappropriate.

The closest I've come to finding a transcript of the classroom discussion is in a report from ABC News.
"Who is probably the single most violent nation on planet Earth?" Bennish asked his class. "The United States of America."

Yeah, that's an incendiary sounding statement to be making in a classroom, especially in a public school in a state that's about as blue as a strawberry. But is it a true statement?

America is, after all, the only nation in history that used a nuclear weapon on a civilian population, not once, but twice. Were those acts of violence necessary and justified? Having mulled that question over for decades, I come down on the side that says yes, they were, given the circumstances in which they were committed. But necessity and justification are separate issues from whether the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings were two of the most violent acts of war ever conducted by a "civilized" nation.

So I'd say Bennish was stating an uncomfortable but accurate fact. We don't want teachers doing things like that?

As to the Bush-Hitler comparison:
"I'm not saying that Bush and Hitler are exactly the same, obviously they're not," Bennish said. "But there are some eerie similarities to the tones that they use."

Anybody who knows a fiddlers fundament about political tactics and rhetoric is acutely aware that Bush's and Hitler's tones are eerily similar, even though the two leaders are obviously not exactly the same.

So where's the problem?

Was Bennish somehow trying to brainwash his students, to sway them to his political point of view?
"I'm not in any way implying that you should agree with me," he said. "What I'm trying to get you to do is to think, right, about these issues more in depth."

Trying to get his students to think about issues in depth. How dare a high school teacher have the unmitigated arrogance to attempt a thing like that!


The radical right would like to see the American education system limited to teaching of the "3 Rs," which would reduce all learning to rote memorization of spelling, archaic grammar rules, and arcane math equations.

I happen to agree that our public school systems are weak in teaching basic skills. I wish I had a penny for every time I've handed a dollar and a nickel to a convenience store clerk to pay for an 85-cent candy bar and heard "That's too much."

But even the simplest human mind is much more than a computer hard drive. Higher brain functions go far beyond the storage of facts and formulas. Memorizing multiplication tables won't teach anyone how to get along with family, friends, co-workers and customers, or how to discriminate between self-respect and bigotry, or how to tell when they're being brainwashed by people who want their votes.

Perception and Reality

We don't have a fraction of the context necessary to draw accurate judgments regarding the Overland High School controversy. For all we know, the dad of the kid who taped the classroom discussion could Adolph Coors class Colorado conservative Bush supporter who overacted to what he thinks he saw. Conversely, teacher Jay Bennish might be a card-carrying member of al Qaeda who's been covertly assigned to corrupt the minds of America's teenagers.

But I'm guessing the former is more likely than the latter.

And the fact that 150 high school students risked expulsion and other discipline by walking out of class to support their teacher might be a significant clue as to where the reality of the situation lies.


Earlier today, I caught a few seconds of a cable news shouting contest on the high school Hitler controversy. The guy on the right, purple faced and bellowing, labeled Jay Bennish with epithets like "pink-o communist."

Who does sound "eerily similar" to?


You knew that Prescott Bush, Dubya's grandfather, did business with the Nazis, right? While U.S. troops were fighting in Europe during World War II, some of Prescott's companies were seized under the Trading with the Enemy Act because they were fronts for German industrialist and Hitler financier Fritz Thyssen. A regular Milo Minderbender, old Prescott was.

How about them acorns?


  1. I think you're off base on this one, Jeff. I heard a good portion of the tape. The teacher made a few offhand disclaimers about "I'm just trying to make you think," but the rant as a whole was decidedly anti-american, and he claimed that capitalism was incompatible with human rights, etc. It was, in large part, a nonsensical rant and it was evidence from the tone as well as the words that he wasn't open to discussion of the issue. The comparison between Bush and Hitler was just further nonsense.

    I think it was inappropriate in the setting. In a college political science class, fine. Heck, maybe even in a high school political science class if he could figure out a way to present opposing view points. But in a geography class. No wonder our kids can't find anything on a map if this is the sort of idiocy they have to listen to instead of actually learning the subject they are supposed to be presented with.

  2. The one who's screaming the loudest is probably the most insecure and afraid, and is also probably the one who knows the least about the given topic.

    Talk about basic educational needs! Debate? Reason? Compare and contrast? Lost arts, unfortunately.

    I've said for years we waste too much time teaching kids how to write checks, when we should be teaching them practical ways to handle money so they'll have enough to COVER those checks.

  3. Scott,

    "Anti-American" how? In what context did he discuss capitalism and human rights? What did he actually say. Was he expressing his own opinion, or was he quoting the opinions of others?

    You know who you're sounding "eerily similar" to, don't you, Scott?

  4. I've heard small - let me repeat that SMALL portions of the tape on radio, and what I heard was undoubtedly cheery-picked, and presented out-of-context, by virtue of being effectively soundbites, (which are the curse of American Infotainment, but that's the subject of a four-volume book.)

    He has a high-pitched voice, and thus sounds strident saying "Good morning" which doesn't help the case. But he spoke his opinion of the truth, much of which not only agrees with my version of reality, but also agrees with historical documentation.

    IMO, he wasn't "anti-American," Scott, but he was ceratinly anti-Republican, anti-Big Business and anti-Bush without actually indicting those folks by name.

    So, Scott, if you disagree with Mr Bush's self-proclaimed "right" to objectively wipe your ass with the Constitution, to wiretap any person anywehere in the world, to attack any country, anywhere in the world pre-emptively, without warning, by any means at all up to and including small tactical nuclear weapons, to imprison and torture any person, regardless of nationality, without accountability, does that make you "anti-American?"

  5. Jeff H:

    I'm not sure it is necessary for the converstation to devolve to a personal level. You have a habit on occasion (can that still be a habit) of just making an offhand personal jab when you are disagreed with, whether it is "you know who you sound like" or throwing around the talking points accusation. What's up with that? Can't the arguments in both directions stand on their own?


    The part I heard was quite systematically anti-american and anti-capitalism. He wasn't quoting any sources, it was fairly clear to me he was giving his opinion. I don't think any of the things you recited against Bush, most of which I agree with, make one anti-american. I'm referring to other parts of the audio.

    Here's the problem as I see it:

    1) You have a guy who is not even remotely teaching his subject; and

    2) He's got a captive audience of minors at whom he is directing an extremely one-sided (and one-way) view of things.

    This sort of thing would be just fine in a college setting, in a classroom of adults. But a captive audience of kids in a public school, in a classroom not even directed to that subject? No, I think he stepped over the line. I'd be just as against some right-wing teacher in a high school geography class extolling Bush's virtues to the class in such a one-sided, one-way manner. It simply isn't appropriate to the setting, if you ask me.

  6. Meribeth5:20 PM

    I had a teacher like fact a couple of them in high school.

    Mr. Monrad taught history and taught us about Laos and the recent history of SE Asia. And he welcomed, or demanded, debate. bless his heart, we were well informed for Viet Nam.

    Had a civics teacher, Mr. Wells aka Stubby Wells. Crazy old guy would have us bring in articles from the paper and call on us to discuss them in class. Stubby hated the Dems. and did not pause to get on his rant. That made is class very interesting and woke us up to the changes that had started.

    And I did have a geography teacher that not only taught simple geography, but also taught why this country/area is valid..politically, economically, etc. And yes, he did spout off some interesting ideas, but it made us realize that there is more to the story.

    Kids need to think, and to kick that into second gear, they need to be challenged to put forth a reasonable argument.

    If our leader can call paraplegic veteran un-American, and trash/swift boat an VN prisoner of war, and call those who disagree with him traitors...hell, he called the game and the rules, not the teacher. What is going on with those kids makes my heart sing! Good for them and good for the teacher!

  7. Scott,

    I call you on your debating technique and you frame it as a personal attack?


    You're just proving my point.

  8. William Bollinger5:31 PM

    It is High School we're talking about here, so they're not exactly young kids. We discussed equally controversial things when I was in High School (a little "police action" going on in southeast asia to be exact), so I don't think that's an inappropriate age for kids to be asked to stop memorizing and start thinking.

    I would also say that Geography isn't that much of a strech for me. History, politics, and geography are pretty closely related, especially when talking about national borders.

    Also, I agree with Jeff that if that many kids were willing to walk out for the teacher, he probably wasn't someone regularly guilty of abusing his position, or at least not to the point of bullying a captive audience.

    Other than that, since I haven't seen these tapes/transcripts, I'm going to reserve judgement for now.

  9. Thanks for the update, Scott. I'm glad I mentioned I only heard soundbites, rather than launching my glider off the edge of the cliff. Tell me, please, what year of HS were these kids in? And do you know what subject this teacher was supposed to be teaching? The though occurs to me that if he's teaching a social science, like History, etc, and they're 15 or older, then they really couldn't be hurt too badly when a teacher tells them "This is my opinion. I encourage you to look into it," as I understand he did. Is that your understanding, also? Geeze, I had a HS Latin teacher who taught us a LOT about the 1940's/50's US trade unionism. That sure wasn't on the curriculum, but it broadened my horizons.

    Y'know, kids are "captive" in public schools and hear all sorts of lunacy, like "masturbation causes blindness" and "tongue kissing will spread AIDS" and "condoms will not prevent disease," to name just three. I understand lately they're also getting the full court press about how idyllic life is in the Armed Forces - pizza and beer every night, and video games up the ole ying-yang. Is that what you understand, too?

    I don't want to sound like I'm trying to climb down your throat, because that would be insulting to you, and demeaning to me. I just want to make sure we're on the same page here.

    15 year old American children will soon become legally, adults, and it is in their best interests to have as much survival information as possible. I've read enough of your posts to know you agree. And, I'm sure you'll agree with me that the US print and electornic media do not present a balanced version of what happens in the world. I know during HS we didn't spend every minute solely upon the subject of the course. Are we able to find out the context of the speech? Was it a presentation? An "open floor exchange"?

    I don't know your background, so I'm not sure of where you're coming from, sociolgically and ideologically. (Yes, we call that "class prejudice" and "class identification"in Marxism-Leninism.) So I can't be specific about what I don't know much about.

  10. Joffan1:05 AM

    A dollar and a nickel for an 85-cent candy bar? How crazy can you get?

    Obviously you should give a dollar and a dime.

  11. Lurch and Scott,

    I didn't mention this in the post because I only saw it in one place, but I think the guy also teaches social studies, so there's probably quite a bit of cross over. Plus, how one completely isolates geography from history and politics is beyond me. I recall that geography in HS and JHS involved quite a bit of every country's history. That's how I recall learning about Simon Bolivar.


    Guess I'm showing my liberal arts background. ;-)

  12. Lurch & William:

    I saw the kid who taped the class on television. He said this was indicative of about 80% of what went on in the class, with about 20% dedicated to the subject being taught. If that's true, then I don't think the teacher is defensible.

    The kids, from what I understand, are 14, 15 and16, so they're not exactly young children. Nevertheless, I think it is important to ensure that kids are getting exposed to various viewpoints in a way that encourages them to think critically. From what I heard of the tape, it sounds like this teacher was just propagandizing.

    As I said above, I would be equally against a Bush lover doing something like this. Sometimes tells me that if a teacher in this same class was talking about how wonderful Bush was, and reciting Rush Limbaugh to the kids, and telling about how good it was that we're in Iraq, etc. (basically, if he were the exact opposite of the guy who taught the class), and then was suspended, I wouldn't be reading in this blog about how terrible it was that he got suspended. I suspect that many of the people defending the teacher would be on the exact opposite side of the 'academic freedom'' argument if the teacher were some arch neocon. That's just my guess, and I'm not drawing any conclusions about either of you because I think you guys approach things fairly.

    As to my background - fairly ordinary white, middle class, small town in California. No religious beliefs. I'm probably closer to libertarian in viewpoint than anything, though I can't agree with them on everything and I think they don't follow some of their ideas to their logical conclusion.

    I don't like teachers who are responsible for minors of any kind abusing their authority by ramming a political or religious agenda down the throats of kids, and that's what I think this guy was doing.

  13. Jeff H:

    I don't want to get into this whole 'personal attack' business. You know well what you're doing, so I won't insult you by allowing you to pretend you don't. It's intellectually lazy to simply suggest that someone "sounds like somebody else" (and the general tactic is to make the 'someone else' a person that neither likes, to make the charge more insulting), or to say that they are using 'talking points.' You know very well the implication is that they aren't thinking for themselves, and of course that's a personal insult.

    A lot of what you say is similar to things said by Democratic officials, and what might be considered Democratic 'talking points,' but you won't find an instance of me discounting offhand what you say and telling you 'oh, those are just Dem talking points." The reason is, I do you the courtesy of assuming that you have thought things through and arrived at your own position, rather than simply having parroted what you heard from the Dems. I'd appreciate the same in return. I look at all sides and form my own conclusions, and if you are going to imply that I'm simply parroting some GOPer, then I'm going to call you on it. Sorry if you don't like that. The easy way to avoid it would be to simply respond to the substance of what I've said instead of trying to use these backhanded debate tactics that set up straw men in terms of credibility and ignore the substance all together.

  14. Meribeth:

    You're exactly the sort whom I imagine would be entirely offended if this teacher were an arch conservative and extolling the virtues of Bush.

    Is it really academic freedom and making kids think that has you supporting this guy, or is it (as it seems to me) the fact that you like what he's saying. If the guy were a right-wing nut, I don't think he'd have your support for making the kids think. Would he?

  15. Scott, you made at least one valid point in picking the hypothetical example of a Fascist teacher trying to indoctrinate the school kids. I heartily agree with you that the topic wouldn't be covered here on this blog.

    But your conclusion for non-coverage is wrong. We wouldn't discuss it here because on this blog we're not news reporters. EWe're aggregators and commenters. We just connect dots.

    We cover things the media publicizes.

    The point I'm making is that the national, regional, and local media consider it quite ordinary for Fascist propaganda to be disbursed on all levels: dead tree, radio and television. It doesn't cause a single eyebrow to rise a tenth of a millimeter.

    Be very clear on this: the teacher is being castigated nationally not because he broke the curriculum and inserted political thought into the class. It is because he inserted LIBERAL/PROGRESSIVE thought into the classroom.

    I remind you that followup reports made much of the fact that quite a few of the schoolkids (the figure I heard was 150, which is significant) walked out of their classes in protest of his suspension.

    The inference I draw from this is that the kids are actually capable of rational thought and appreciate the validity of what he was handing out.

  16. Don't be comparing shrub Bush with Adolph Hitler. Hitler was a decorated veteran who served on the western front...Yeah, I stole it. You gotta love it, though.

  17. Meribeth6:41 AM


    I am all for any teacher to use unconventional methods to get kids to think. I was lucky to have a high school education that allowed teachers to wake us up.

    Liberal education? Yep! I had teachers who wore a WWI German uniform to class while teaching that period of history and a Humanities teacher that would routinely sit cross legged on the desk, which eased us into open discussion. And I can assure you that Stubby Wells was as close to ranting Rush as 1965 could conjure. So when I use the word liberal....I mean it to be all inclusive, not just one "party line."

    Stubby ranted and his political position was the more popular, but some were questioning and arguing against his spin, tirades and statements. We put out the effort to fight back, and those who agreed with Stubby did the same. Isn't that education?? Even in high school debate clubs, etc one must argue for a cause one does not really believe in. Couldn't that teacher have been doing the same to get his class to think?

    I hated high school, but I thank my lucky stars that I had teachers like those. And I applaud those who will step out of the "rote" and add a little reality and challenge. Bravo!! And No, I would not hold it against a teacher who carried the Bush banner, because I would hope that my kid would fight back and speak their minds. Nor would I have my kid tape his class and try to get him fired, just because he was doing something I didn't agree with...politically.

  18. Lurch:

    Agreed. I'm not disputing what is driving this fiasco in the media, I'm just giving my personal thoughts on the matter. I have no doubt that the fire that feeds the criticism against him is that which originated in the right-wing media and has bled over into the mainstream. I'm not defending the rationale behind the actions of those people, but I am saying I don't like to see this sort of thing in schools, and I wouldn't like it if it were a vehemently pro-Bush message (in fact, I'd probably like it less because there is something more unsettling about a government school pushing the point of view of those in political power).

    As for the kids walking out - I suspect that all but a small percentage of those doing so were being opportunistic, following along in something that was probably started by a few. Thinking back to high school days, I believe a lot of people I went to school with would have walked out whether just because it was an excuse to do so. Maybe that's a cynical viewpoint.


    From what I understand, the father didn't "have" the kid tape the conversation. The kid did it on his own. I guess, again, independent thought is great with you unless someone thinks of doing something you dislike, then criticism is the order of the day.

    If every teacher in the school did what this teacher allegedly did (i.e. spend 80% of the class periods espousing his personal political opinions), then the act you applaud would lead to a bunch of uneducated dolts coming out of high school who never learned the subjects at issue.

  19. Who's alleging the teacher "spent 80 percent of class periods espousing his personal political opinions?"

  20. Jeff:

    The student who made the tape recording also made that statement. Whether it is true or not, I don't know (I realize it will be immediately discounted by most because it doesn't conform to what tehy would like the facts to be, but I saw the kid on TV and I won't discount what he says out of hand. It may or may not be true, but if a kid had the idea to bring a tape recorder to catch just this sort of thing, it stands to reason it has happened on multiple occasions. I doubt he just fortuitously had the recorded on the one and only day the teacher ranted like this).

  21. A tape recorder? This was a video tape, right? How do you make a video tape of a class lecture without the teacher knowing about it?

  22. Jeff:

    My understanding is that it was an audio tape. Even with the excerpts played on TV, they've only had audio.

  23. First question: was it 80% of the class time? Has anyone heard the ENTIRE audio tape and actually timed it?

    Second question: has it been firmly established that this teacher does this often? If so, i can see why the student's father might have urged him to tape the class.

    Once again, the right-wing allied Corporate Media fails to deliver enough facts to really understand what's happeneing.

  24. William Bollinger9:31 PM

    On the other hand, these mini-recorders are common enough today, and I've seen kids that record every word spoken in class instead of taking written notes. This could have just as easily been the first "rant" that the kid and his father thought could be used against this particular teacher. That the kid making the complaint says it happened 80% of the time proves nothing. After all, he can't be concidered impartial in this.

    Good point though, about the kids walking out. That could have just as easily been nothing more than an excuse to escape for most of them.

    Lurch hits the main issue. What we hear is pre-spun, and we'll never actually know if this was a teacher out of control, or a parent with a grudge, because any facts will be altered to fit the conclusion either way.

  25. Lurch and William,

    Way back when, I think that was the point I was trying to make. We don't have anything like "close enough" to the facts to draw the kinds of conclusions about the situation or the teacher.

    There's a chance that the guy's the creepy ideologue some people are making him out to be, but we have no real way of knowing that. We don't know if he was expressing his own views or just role playing. We don't know the context in which the episode was included in the class.

    And as far as I can tell, neither does anyone who's calling the guy a "communist" (that's a Horowitz quote) and using the story to bash the public school systems.

  26. Raspberry Joe5:35 PM

    You'd believe the kid because kids, of course, never ever lie about anything they do in school.

    Nope. Never!

    It's interesting how no one addresses the fact he said the class could disagree with him. Why didn't anyone? Why didn't Sean?

    Sounds to me like the same old whining I hear on GaiaOnline from the young neo-cons: "I can't voice my opinions,because the teacher's a better debator than me! S/he won't just accept my opinions as fact! It's not _fair_!"

  27. Anonymous11:46 AM

    You people need to listen to the entire tape. Then you will realize that he really cannot be defended, and the student who taped him did speak up, he is the only person on the tape that sounds even mildly intelligent, which is the problem. Bennish is an idiot, plain and simple.

    Link to full audio