Lessons All Communities Can Learn from the Hinsdale South Film Class Debacle
Lessons All Communities Can Learn from the Hinsdale South Film Class Debacle
Written By Laurie Higgins   |   09.18.12
Reading Time: 7 minutes

America’s presumptuous, partisan teachers 

Many teachers seek to retain almost absolute autonomy when it comes to curricula. They are presumptuous and elitist in their attitude about their own “expertise,” parents’ rights, curricula, and their autonomy. Yes, they run their text selections by their department chairs, but that’s often a mere formality. It is not uncommon for department chairs to sign off on novels, plays, or films that they have not read or seen. In addition, teachers often bring in “supplementary resources,” which they don’t have to run by anyone prior to teaching. Having nearly limitless autonomy regarding curricula is not particularly problematic in math or science. It’s hugely problematic in English, social studies, theater, and to a lesser extent world languages. 

Perhaps this kind of autonomy worked 40-50 years ago when there was consensus in America on what is good and proper and promotes human dignity and flourishing. But such a consensus no longer exists. Compounding the problem of teacher autonomy is that departments and colleges of education that train future teachers are notoriously liberal, teaching future educators to be “agents of change,” which means using the classroom to promote their personal moral and political visions. 

Teachers as experts? 

There are two pedagogical ideas often used by teachers to defend their controversial curricular choices and, therefore, warrant some analysis: those ideas pertain to  teacher “expertise” and “critical thinking skills.” 

Some people—usually teachers—argue that neither community members nor school board members should have any part in curricula. All deference and trust should be given to them—the teachers—because they are the “experts.” But what confidence should community members have in the expertise of people they didn’t hire and that their school board had only a superficial hand in hiring? Does any community member know what their teachers think about the teaching of highly controversial issues? Does any community member know what their school board members think about the teaching of highly controversial issues? Do school board members try to discern the philosophical views of faculty applicants on teaching texts that include graphic sex, nudity, obscene language, and highly controversial themes? 

If teachers are “experts,” what are their areas of expertise? Is the Hinsdale South High School English teacher who chose American Beauty and Brokeback Mountain an expert in film studies? If so, what qualifies her as an expert? Is she also an expert in the areas of ethics, philosophy, theology, moral development, child development, theology, and psychology—all of which are relevant when choosing controversial, sexually graphic films? 

Critical thinking skills? 

When challenged about cotnroversial text selections, teachers will assert that they chose it in part because it cultivates critical thinking skills, hoping that no one notices that cultivating critical thinking skills does not necessitate the use of graphic or highly controversial texts. One can easily teach students how to think critically and defend their ideas by studying virtually any text. 

Moreover, if teachers really wanted to teach students how to think critically, they would offer a primer in logic. While students graduate from high school well-versed in demagoguery, many have little understanding of what constitutes good or bad reasoning. Most don’t know what an ad hominem argument is, or a false dilemma, or circular reasoning. A basic understanding of logic is more fundamental to effective critical thinking than is watching provocative films. 

Why not respect all student and parents? 

There are scores of exceptional texts from which teachers can choose. Why not choose texts that are unlikely to offend parents and other taxpayers while still providing a challenging and substantive academic experience? If teachers truly valued diversity, they would select resources that don’t expose students to the most controversial and offensive material available in the culture. When schools have Muslim students, Orthodox Jewish students, conservative Catholic and Protestant students, why teach a films that promote the normalization of homosexual acts, use language that no decent person uses (and which schools prohibit), and that show a man masturbating and lusting after a teenage girl. Moreover, if these words, images, and ideas are considered appropriate, what words, images, and ideas are not? Do “progressive” teachers have any boundaries regarding texts? If so, what are they? 

America’s ineffectual, partisan school boards 

That school boards refuse to get involved in curricula is a continual source of frustration for many taxpayers. The only voice community members have in school curricula or virtually any other school issue is the election of school board members. When school board members refuse to take an active role in curricula, other than rubber stamping whatever passes their desk from department chairs, community members are left with no voice. 

Community members have no voice in the hiring of teachers either, and even school boards have little to do with their hiring other than, again, rubber stamping the selections made by each department. 

This inability of community members to have any substantive role in curricula explains why there are conservative communities in which teachers are “progressive.” The point is that conservative communities don’t have teachers who reflect their values or for that matter make any attempt to present controversial topics in an ideologically balanced way. 

School boards should establish policy to prevent teachers from allowing their personal biases to shape curricula. School boards could create policy that requires teachers who present resources that affirm, espouse, or embody one set of beliefs on controversial social and political issues to spend equal time on resources that affirm, espouse, or embody dissenting views. 

School boards should also establish policy that strictly prohibits teachers from expressing their personal social, political, and moral beliefs in class. 

And school boards should establish policy that prohibits the teaching of texts (e.g., films, novels, plays, and essays) that include depictions of graphic sex or nudity or that include pervasive obscene language. 

Revelatory comments from Hinsdale Township School District 86 Superintendent Dr. Wahl on controversial films:

I’m writing today regarding a recent curriculum objection filed by the parent of a Hinsdale South senior regarding the newly reintroduced “Film as Literature” course….The selections screened during this course can contain R-rated films….Any parent who objects to a particular film selection may indicate as such and that student will be provided an alternate assignment in the course with no academic penalty. 

On September 12, the parent of a Hinsdale South high school senior… filed a formal curriculum objection to two selections: “Brokeback Mountain” and “American Beauty.”…This is the first time in my eight years that District 86 has received any curriculum objections. 

Selections in the “Film as Literature” course were chosen based on their ability to achieve the course objectives…. “Brokeback Mountain,” for example, addresses objectives in a unit on text adaptations. The story itself, by Annie Proulx, won multiple awards, and the screenwriters and the director made many decisions for the film that offer valuable topics for discussion. These include the genres of both romance and Western, story-to-film, cinematography, music and themes. In addition, the film helps to balance other films in the course in terms of genres, styles, time periods, themes and techniques. “American Beauty” has similar qualities. It synthesizes many cinematic elements and offers many topics and themes for study. 

…Hinsdale Township High School District 86 is proud of the academic quality and integrity of the curriculum delivered in our schools…. Our commitment is to provide the best possible learning environment for each student and for all students to learn as much as possible in order to maximize their future opportunities. (emphasis added)

Thoughts about Wahl’s statement: 

  • Wahl validates my contention regarding the elasticity of the selection criteria English teachers have at their disposal: winning awards; fulfilling course objectives; balancing “other films in the course in terms of genres, styles, time periods, themes and techniques”; synthesizing cinematic elements; and offering many topics and themes for study.” Such criteria would permit virtually any film to be selected. 
  • “Winning awards” is a perennial and effective conversation-stopper for public school administrators and teachers. The problem is that there’s never any substantive examination of the award-givers or the criteria used to determine the winners, or the political chicanery that often goes into award-giving. Does the fact that a film has won an award from the Hollywood community mean that it’s automatically suitable for teaching in public high schools? 
  • Wahl used the tried and true favorite line of virtually every administrator who receives a curriculum complaint: “This is the first complaint I’ve ever received.” The fact that no one has complained does not mean there are no problems. What this statement exposes is that most parents have no idea what’s going on and/or are too fearful, lazy, or apathetic to address the problems. 
  • Wahl’s statement points to the absence of boundaries in curricula-selection criteria. In other words, Wahl states that these films fulfill a number of course objectives related to theme, genre, cinematography etc.which raises the question, shouldn’t there also be criteria related to boundaries or that establish what constitutes prohibited material? Is it the district’s view that as long as a film, novel, or play connects thematically to the course, or represents a certain genre, or presents some particular adaptation challenges, then the presence of graphic sex, or extremely controversial viewpoints, or egregiously obscene language is irrelevant? Why are theme, characterization, genre, and figurative language taken into account, but not obscene and profane language or graphic sex and nudity? Why, do the potentially sexually arousing images of pedophilia in American Beauty not render it unsuitable for teaching in a public school? Why is the fact that Brokeback Mountain is a mixed genre (romance/Western) film a more important positive factor than the graphic sex, obscene language, and controversial themes are negative or prohibitive factors? If these two films are permitted in a high school classroom, what films wouldn’t be allowed? 
  • Wahl refers to the school’s willingness to provide an “alternate assignment,” ignoring the fact that this option is irreconcilable with his commitment to “provide the best possible learning environment for each student.” The truth that all teachers understand is that opting out results in an isolated diminished academic experience. Further, most parents are unaware of the controversial elements in the texts teachers are assigning and don’t have time to preview all the films, novels, and plays being offered. Opt-out notifications rarely if ever provide sufficient details about the obscene language, graphic images, and controversial themes for parents to make fully informed decisions. And finally, most students are self-conscious and resentful about being pulled out of class for a couple of days or weeks and will fight their parents about opting-out. This means schools are unjustifiably creating conflict between parents and their children. 
  • The fact that the superintendent of a public school is “proud” to show American Beauty and Brokeback Mountain to teenagers and uses the word “integrity” when describing these films reveals just how far gone our schools are and how foolish their leaders. 

I will repeat what I have said many times: Cultural change rarely happens through dramatic single events but rather through the slow accretion of little events that we ignore or dismiss. We have arrived at the cultural point where a teacher would choose films like American Beauty and Brokeback Mountain by our failure to address prior and seemingly lesser offenses. 

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Laurie Higgins
Laurie Higgins was the Illinois Family Institute’s Cultural Affairs Writer in the fall of 2008 through early 2023. Prior to working for the IFI, Laurie worked full-time for eight years...
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