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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Random: Chicago Tribune Articles on High School Political Intolerance 
14th-Nov-2008 09:47 pm
Thomas More
Did many folks catch this? One of the refreshing pieces of babysitting the nieces is just the pleasure of sitting with a morning paper during part of breakfast (after the getting-the-girls-fed part). So this caught my eye in the Chicago Tribune yesterday, and its follow-up today.

As an undergraduate History major, I had quickly learned the lesson that the Left is correct about everything in our society, and it was only the long study of history that eventually pushed me over to hard-core political independence and the determination to try to think through issues on a case-by-case basis. As I wait in hope to see if an Obama administration fulfills any reasonable proportion of people's hopes for it, a big part of my hope rests in whether Obama will transcend the sillier side of hard-core American liberalism, which somehow never seems to realize that by "tolerance" it means "agreeing with us," and that to embrace diversity means to be Just Like Them. These very well-meaning people – perhaps illustrating the danger of "a little education," even if Ivy League – have long decried that white, male, European culture has been an all-conquering phenomenon in world affairs. The greatest ideological irony of all time is that these same people can then turn around and push onto the whole world the most all-conquering form of that culture ever, which is today's Western European/American secularist liberalism, and to then hail that as diversity.

I'm very bad for saying this, I know, and you might think I'm a conservative for not going after them with equal fervour here, but really, going after conservative inconsistencies seems beside the point since election day.

Which brings me to this article I caught in the Chicago Tribune. Had this girl been one of my high school students, she'd be riding a helluva college recommendation from me for her creativity and guts. And perhaps most of all for her class: for her willingness to not name names, and to turn what could be a sneering "aren't they all dumb?" moment instead into what teachers like to call a "teachable moment." It's no big credit to you if you simply point out someone else's failures, as I do in the generalization I make about some ideologues, above. It's great credit to you when you can actually look at yourself and get others to do so, and to admit that maybe we aren't as far along as we think we are....

Tolerance fails T-shirt test
John Kass
November 13, 2008

As the media keeps gushing on about how America has finally adopted tolerance as the great virtue, and that we're all united now, let's consider the Brave Catherine Vogt Experiment.

Catherine Vogt, 14, is an Illinois 8th grader, the daughter of a liberal mom and a conservative dad. She wanted to conduct an experiment in political tolerance and diversity of opinion at her school in the liberal suburb of Oak Park.

She noticed that fellow students at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama for president. His campaign kept preaching "inclusion," and she decided to see how included she could be.

So just before the election, Catherine consulted with her history teacher, then bravely wore a unique T-shirt to school and recorded the comments of teachers and students in her journal. The T-shirt bore the simple yet quite subversive words drawn with a red marker:

"McCain Girl."

"I was just really curious how they'd react to something that different, because a lot of people at my school wore Obama shirts and they are big Obama supporters," Catherine told us. "I just really wanted to see what their reaction would be."

Immediately, Catherine learned she was stupid for wearing a shirt with Republican John McCain's name. Not merely stupid. Very stupid.

"People were upset. But they started saying things, calling me very stupid, telling me my shirt was stupid and I shouldn't be wearing it," Catherine said.

Then it got worse.

"One person told me to go die. It was a lot of dying. A lot of comments about how I should be killed," Catherine said, of the tolerance in Oak Park.

But students weren't the only ones surprised that she wore a shirt supporting McCain.

"In one class, I had one teacher say she will not judge me for my choice, but that she was surprised that I supported McCain," Catherine said.

If Catherine was shocked by such passive-aggressive threats from instructors, just wait until she goes to college.

"Later, that teacher found out about the experiment and said she was embarrassed because she knew I was writing down what she said," Catherine said.

One student suggested that she be put up on a cross for her political beliefs.

"He said, 'You should be crucifixed.' It was kind of funny because, I was like, don't you mean 'crucified?' " Catherine said.

Other entries in her notebook involved suggestions by classmates that she be "burned with her shirt on" for "being a filthy-rich Republican."

Some said that because she supported McCain, by extension she supported a plan by deranged skinheads to kill Obama before the election. And I thought such politicized logic was confined to American newsrooms. Yet Catherine refused to argue with her peers. She didn't want to jeopardize her experiment.

"I couldn't show people really what it was for. I really kind of wanted to laugh because they had no idea what I was doing," she said.

Only a few times did anyone say anything remotely positive about her McCain shirt. One girl pulled her aside in a corner, out of earshot of other students, and whispered, "I really like your shirt."

That's when you know America is truly supportive of diversity of opinion, when children must whisper for fear of being ostracized, heckled and crucifixed.

The next day, in part 2 of The Brave Catherine Vogt Experiment, she wore another T-shirt, this one with "Obama Girl" written in blue. And an amazing thing happened.

Catherine wasn't very stupid anymore. She grew brains.

"People liked my shirt. They said things like my brain had come back, and I had put the right shirt on today," Catherine said.

Some students accused her of playing both sides.

"A lot of people liked it. But some people told me I was a flip-flopper," she said. "They said, 'You can't make up your mind. You can't wear a McCain shirt one day and an Obama shirt the next day.' "

But she sure did, and she turned her journal into a report for her history teacher, earning Catherine extra credit. We asked the teacher, Norma Cassin-Pountney, whether it was ironic that Catherine would be subject to such intolerance from pro-Obama supporters in a community that prides itself on its liberal outlook.

"That's what we discussed," Cassin-Pountney said about the debate in the classroom when the experiment was revealed. "I said, here you are, promoting this person [Obama] that believes we are all equal and included, and look what you've done? The students were kind of like, 'Oh, yeah.' I think they got it."

Catherine never told us which candidate she would have voted for if she weren't an 8th grader. But she said she learned what it was like to be in the minority.

"Just being on the outside, how it felt, it was not fun at all," she said.

Don't ever feel as if you must conform, Catherine. Being on the outside isn't so bad. Trust me.

Friday's follow-up to this John Kass column

Girl's lesson: Bias, like shirts, picked out at home
John Kass
November 14, 2008

Catherine Vogt—the brave 8th grader who used a T-shirt test to find out about political tolerance in Obamaland—is something of a celebrity now, thanks to you readers of this column.

By the time you read this, she will have already finished a round of TV and radio interviews, including a PBS spot for a Philadelphia station. It's all somewhat unsettling for a 14-year-old girl who had important high school entrance exams Thursday and a tryout for "The Music Man" at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park.

"Well, a lot of people came up to me and told me that they saw me in the paper, and my teacher told me that a lot of people were telling her 'Way to go, way to support your student' and everything," Catherine told me Thursday. "It's been very exciting and hectic too."

The Catherine Vogt Experiment on Diversity of Thought took place before the presidential election. She shared her idea secretly with her history teacher, Norma Cassin-Pountney.

Catherine wore a McCain shirt one day and secretly recorded the comments of teachers and students in her journal. The next day, she wore an Obama shirt and also recorded the comments.

Her findings?

When she wore the McCain shirt, she was stupid and was told to go die. One kid said she should be "crucifixed," which should prompt outrage from that student's grammar/lit teacher. Crucifixed?

One student whispered—perhaps like Winston Smith in "1984"—"I really like your shirt." But she said it quietly so no one else would hear and denounce her.

And when Catherine wore the Obama shirt? Her brains grew back and she was smart again and welcomed into polite society.

Since many liberal journalists live in Oak Park, I expect to receive many snarky reviews. My crime? I dared to illustrate, through the actions of a brave 8th-grade girl, that even high-minded liberal communities can be intolerant, no matter how many times parents gush on about "diversity" at their cocktail parties.

So much for the audacity of hope.

But it's also true that if Catherine lived in a beet-red community and wore an Obama shirt, she'd get a similar negative, intolerant and ugly reaction. And certainly some Republican children would outrage their grammar/lit teachers by wanting her crucifixed as well.

All such outrage is predictable. Whether red or blue or right or left, many adults don't get it. But Catherine Vogt sure gets it: Children learn their politics from their parents.

A kid doesn't learn to love Democrats or hate Republicans or vice versa by reading editorials. You can't blame this one on bloggers or "Grand Theft Auto." You can't even blame Fitty Cent or however he incorrectly spells his own stage name.

Many parents in Oak Park and elsewhere want their kids to figure out things for themselves. Others only want a mirror for their own tribalism. Parents, Catherine told me, "are actually a pretty big influence on kids. They take a lot of what's home to school."

At school Thursday in Ms. Cassin-Pountney's class, they discussed Catherine's experiment and my column.

"The students were mostly shocked because when they read it they kind of figured it out. They were like, 'Oh, I actually said that thing to her and now—I'm not mentioned—but I'm actually in the paper for saying something mean?' "

She said her classmates tried to determine whether she cracked and gave up their names to me, but because she's not a Chicago machine politician under federal indictment, she didn't have to name names.

"They were all like, 'So who did you mention and what did you say?' But I didn't give out any names," she said.

There were some rough patches on Thursday. The phone rang off the hook at home. She had her big tests and that tryout. And her parents—liberal Democratic mom and conservative Republican dad—had to run down to school to stave off an impromptu imposition of the Fairness Doctrine.

"Some parents were upset that one teacher remarked about her shirt. And other parents were upset that the experiment was conducted in the first place, and didn't go through 'proper channels,' " said Catherine's mom, Pamela Webster.

"So we rushed down to school to say we were backing the principal and all the teachers and not to make a big thing of it," she said. "It was just crazy. There was no crime committed here."

Not even a thought crime?

"No," she said. "We support the principal and the school. Let this be a way for students and teachers to discuss the issue. That's what we want in our home, not indoctrination but discussion."

Catherine still won't say whether she's a Democrat or a Republican.

"I still have four years to pick a guy or a woman," she said of the presidential election in 2012, which will be her first. "I've still got four more years. Then I can decide."

Catherine says she doesn't want to become a lawyer, but perhaps a surgeon. Either way, this week, she was a great teacher.

Thank you, Catherine.
15th-Nov-2008 05:00 am (UTC)
There were four "outed" conservatives at my high school in 04 - a guy in the year above me, a guy in the year below me, and my twin and me. (There were other conservatives of course, but they weren't talking.) The guy the year above me wore a Bush t-shirt to class and had this happen to him; except it was no experiment.

As an undergraduate History major, I had quickly learned the lesson that the Left is correct about everything in our society, and it was only the long study of history that eventually pushed me over to hard-core political independence and the determination to try to think through issues on a case-by-case basis.

Gotta agree with you here. I even feel like I am more politically passive than politically independent.
15th-Nov-2008 06:38 am (UTC)
Actually, having read some of your account of that not too long ago probably created that much more of a resonance in me when I read this story. And as I've written elsewhere, my own consciousness of how often even at the university level students do not receive an education - taught and modeled - in how to think openly, clearly, and broadly, but simply what to think and to feel pleased because having the right thoughts means you're "open minded" (how often is that phrase offered as the opposite of "conservative" for you?).

My rabbi at Notre Dame was a great one for modeling real dialogue to me: "I don't think Jesus was the Messiah. You do. Now let's talk...!" I loved the refreshing feeling of someone who could say that we thought one another was dead wrong on key issues, and that that was the starting point for real acceptance of one another. There was no hint of the common tactics of the brushing over of differences in warm fuzzies, passive-aggressively trying to win an argument by avoiding an actual debate through calling the other's position one of fear or ignorance, or in subscribing to some all-conquering so-called "neutral" position that was really just another ideology in disguise.

Edited at 2008-11-15 06:40 am (UTC)
15th-Nov-2008 07:17 am (UTC)
It's hard to resent the people - kids and teachers - who more or less enforced that mentality in my high school, because in many other ways they were well-intentioned and loving people. But I think, like you say, they offered a set of sentiments and didn't bother to openly examine the ideas they were founded on (at least during school hours).

I find more fault with people who shut down the entire process of questioning by saying (and believing) that religious ideas have no actual place in human thought, and are totally foreign to ethical or cultural or scientific discussions or human life in general. As long as someone admits that religious ideas aren't just superfluous, meaningless, inexplicable cultural baggage, however vehemently they disagree with me, we have something to talk about. But what I get so often is the total shutdown. It's weird.

I envy you your rabbi! The rabbi who taught my Jewish Thought class was Reform, and I'm really not sure what he believed.

Edited at 2008-11-15 06:59 pm (UTC)
15th-Nov-2008 04:49 pm (UTC)
Wow, great post---and hats off to this girl. And shame on the teacher!!!! She should be embarrassed.
15th-Nov-2008 04:49 pm (UTC)
17th-Nov-2008 05:47 pm (UTC)
This is a great pair of articles. Thanks!
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