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In Defense of Homeschooling: The Story of John Freshwater

John Freshwater
John Freshwater

Almost three years and one million dollars in public funds ago, the Mount Vernon Board of Education in Ohio began considering the case of John Freshwater, a middle school science teacher. The accusations had piled up over the previous decade that Freshwater had been proselytizing his religious beliefs in class, that he physically hurt his students, and that he wasn't adequately teaching the science curriculum. The Board of Education had a difficult determination to make: was Freshwater a bad, abusive, overzealous teacher, or was he the victim of overreaction, gossip, and heresay? It shouldn't have taken nearly three years and one million dollars to answer this question, because once you look at the case, it becomes pretty clear that John Freshwater was more than just a bad public school science teacher; he--along with the mind-numbingly terrible and wasteful bureaucratic rigamarole the public school system had to go through to get him to stop "teaching"--is a good reason to consider homeschooling your kids.

This case is not about personal belief or "academic freedom." This case is about teaching science and what constitutes abuse of the trust we put in our teachers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a teacher who wants to teach religion or discuss his or her own personal views, as long as the subject matter is relevant and personal opinions are not paraded as fact. For some reason, there is a large segment of American society today that feels like the science classroom is an appropriate place for religious indoctrination, despite the obvious fact that science has absolutely nothing to do with religion. Science is about the natural world and studying it empirically, and matters of faith, doctrine, dogma, and morality are largely irrelevant to the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Therefore, teaching religion in a science class is analogous to teaching Seventeenth-Century Russian literature in a jazz class; it's just bad teaching, no matter how much you fallaciously invoke the First Amendment.

According to many students, John Freshwater is guilty of similar bad teaching. He allegedly used his eighth-grade science classroom to discuss what the Bible has to say on homosexuality, to discuss whether Catholics can be considered real Christians, and to preach that evolution has been fully discredited. He allegedly assigned pro-creationist literature as required reading and offered special credit to students who went to see Expelled: No Intellegence Allowed, all while refusing to spend a minute explaining the facts behind modern evolutionary theory. I could spend hundreds of pages discussing how evolution is absolutely essential to understanding almost all of modern science and how the creationists and "intelligent design" proponents are the ones who have been fully discredited, but I'm not going to play that game. Besides, hundreds of thousands of people have already done that, and it doesn't actually sway the true believers. The point is that these ideas are not science, which means that Freshwater is a bad science teacher. Period.

Science Education: Observe, Interact, Change, Learn
Science education: notice that "read the Bible" and "reject evolution" are not listed

For at least eleven years, other teachers had been complaining about Freshwater. One high school science teacher has been very vocal about how difficult it was to reteach basic scientific principles to freshmen who had been through Freshwater's class. This is a serious failing for the public school system, because our science education is already lacking without having to deal with zealots like Freshwater giving young minds the wrong impression of what science is actually about. Science has nothing to say about what is right or wrong, only what is empirical, and if young people are made to understand this early on, it is no threat whatsoever to our religious institutions or cultural beliefs. Instead of doing this, teachers like Freshwater only serve to give Christianity a bad name. Therefore, if Freshwater's goal was to popularize his brand of Christian thinking to a broader audience, he has not only failed but acted counter to his goal.

Speaking of brands, none of this speaks to Freshwater's greatest alleged violation. According to multiple reports, Freshwater used an electrostatic generator (a Tesla coil, essentially) to burn a cross into the arms of some of his students. In other words, he branded them. During the course of his court battles, Freshwater defended himself by arguing that the brand wasn't a Christian cross, but actually an "X." Because, you know, branding an "X" on your students is totally cool. According to other reports, he also shocked a special-needs student when he bent over to pick up a test tube, among other things.

Though the electric burns aren't permanent and probably didn't cause any permanent damage, it is still a dangerous thing to do and could have caused more harm than is visible. Even in a legitimate science class (which Freshwater's apparently was not), using scientific tools to burn the skin of your students is not an acceptable thing for a teacher to do. In a perfect world, such an act should lead to automatic termination as surely as bruising your students would. After all, let's call it what it really is: assault.

The alleged brand
There is more than one way to have a cross-burning

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Just on the merits of the allegations, is it possible that Freshwater was the victim here, that his students and fellow teachers conspired to end his career? Yeah, it's possible, but highly unlikely given the sheer volume of testimony. That's why an investigation--or at least a fair hearing--was justified (several years ago). The investigation that resulted came up with plenty of physical evidence, and that lead to Doe v. Mount Vernon Board of Education et al., a civil court case that went on for two and a half long years. In the end, Freshwater was heavily sanctioned for his behavior (both out of court and in court) and wound up having to pay several hundred thousand dollars in plaintiffs attorney fees. The Mount Vernon Board of Education had to pay a large settlement as well. It took two additional months for the Board to finally terminate Freshwater, which it did last week. All told, the entire legal battle cost the public school system an estimated total of $902,765.

This is perhaps the most shocking aspect to the case; that it took so long and so much money to fire one bad teacher. A fair hearing or an investigation is one thing, but this has been going on for over a decade. You have a teacher who apparently isn't teaching the curriculum, is branding his students, and who has refused to obey continued instructions to change his methods, and it still takes you this long to do anything about it. Meanwhile, Freshwater had over ten years to continue his idea of teaching science to impressionable young minds, forcing future teachers (and hopefully parents) to work harder to undo the damage. That is, in a word, unacceptable.

Of course, the story does have a happy ending, because Freshwater is no longer teaching at Mount Vernon Middle School. Besides, kids are smarter than we usually give them credit for, so with the help of more advanced teachers that are apparently teaching science correctly, most of them will not be permanently damaged by being in Freshwater's class. This is not to say that we shouldn't always be on guard against bad teachers and a school system that is flawed enough to allow them to thrive for so long. There's no telling how many more of these teachers are out there, but Freshwater was certainly not the only one.

I could easily use this as a springboard to discuss many other problems I have with our current public education system, but let's save that for another day. Sufficed to say, on my checklist of pros and cons as I contemplate how to educate my son, this story is absolutely listed in the "con" column for public school and in the "pro" column for homeschooling or private school. I'm happy that I didn't have any teachers like Freshwater in my public school experience, and I know that the odds are my kid won't either. I also know that I'm up for the task of being a responsible parent and making sure that he's learning the appropriate lessons in school, but if, God forbid, he winds up in a classroom like Freshwater's and there's nothing I can do to quickly resolve it, I will pull him out of the system.

-e. magill 1/18/2011

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