By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2006
For months, 17-year-old Andrew Saraf had been troubled by stories he was hearing about a Peace Studies course offered at his Bethesda high school. He wasn't enrolled in the class but had several friends and classmates who were.
Last Saturday, he decided to act. He sat down at his computer and typed out his thoughts on why the course -- offered for almost two decades as an elective to seniors at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School -- should be banned from the school.
"I know I'm not the first to bring this up but why has there been no concerted effort to remove Peace Studies from among the B-CC courses?" he wrote in his post to the school's group e-mail list. "The 'class' is headed by an individual with a political agenda, who wants to teach students the 'right' way of thinking by giving them facts that are skewed in one direction."
He hit send.
Within a few hours, the normally staid e-mail list BCCnet -- a site for announcements, job postings and other housekeeping details in the life of a school -- was ablaze with chatter. By the time Principal Sean Bulson checked his BlackBerry on Sunday evening, there were more than 150 postings from parents and students -- some ardently in support, some ardently against the course.
Since its launch at the school in 1988, Peace Studies has provoked lively debate, but the attempt to have the course removed from the curriculum is a first, Bulson said. The challenge by two students comes as universities and even some high schools across the country are under close scrutiny by a growing number of critics who believe that the U.S. education system is being hijacked by liberal activists.
At Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Peace Studies is taught by Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post reporter and founder and president of the Center for Teaching Peace. Though the course is taught at seven other Montgomery County high schools, some say B-CC's is perhaps the most personal and ideological of the offerings because McCarthy makes no effort to disguise his opposition to war, violence and animal testing.
Saraf and Avishek Panth, also 17, acknowledge that with the exception of one lecture they sat in on this month, most of what they know about the course has come from friends and acquaintances who have taken the class. But, they said, those discussions, coupled with research they have done on McCarthy's background, have convinced them that their school should not continue to offer Peace Studies unless significant changes are made. This is not an ideological debate, they said. Rather, what bothers them the most is that McCarthy offers students only one perspective.
"I do recognize that it is a fairly popular class," Saraf said. "But it's clear that the teacher is only giving one side of the story. He's only offering facts that fit his point of view."
For his part, McCarthy, 67, finds the students' objections a bit puzzling. He said that although the two sat in on a recent class, they have not talked to him in depth about their concerns.
"I've never said my views are right and theirs are wrong," he said about the students who take his course. "In fact, I cherish conservative dissenters. I wish we could get more of them in."
The course is also offered at Montgomery Blair, James Hubert Blake, Albert Einstein, Walter Johnson, Northwest, Northwood and Rockville high schools, but the Peace Studies course at Bethesda-Chevy Chase is unique for a number of reasons. Although a staff teacher takes roll and issues grades, it is McCarthy as a volunteer, unpaid guest lecturer who does the bulk of the teaching. He does not work from lesson plans, although he does use a school system-approved textbook -- a collection of essays on peace that he edited.
For McCarthy, it seems Peace Studies is not just a cause; it is a crusade.
"Unless we teach them peace, someone else will teach them violence," he said.
Students might spend one class period listening to a guest speaker who opposes the death penalty and another, if they choose, standing along East West Highway protesting the war.
But that, students said, is part of the course's appeal.
"We're all mature enough to take it all in with a hint of skepticism," said Megan Andrews, 17. "We respect Mr. McCarthy's views, but we don't absorb them like sponges."
When they walk through the door of their fourth-floor classroom, students said, they never know what they might find. Once McCarthy brought in a live turkey to illustrate a point about animal rights. Everything went well until the turkey escaped and urinated in the hallway.
And Friday, when students opened the door, they saw Mahatma Gandhi -- or, rather, Bernard Meyer, a peace activist from Olympia, Wash., dressed as Gandhi. Meyer spent most of the class time taking questions from students about "life" as Gandhi. McCarthy, too, jumped in, quizzing Gandhi about his views on arranged marriage. At the end of the period, he jumped from his chair.
"Let's take a photo of us with Gandhi," he said, gathering the students.
Susie Doyle, 18, said she respects Saraf and Panth for having the courage to speak out on the school e-mail list about their concerns. She does not agree, but said: "It would be a little hypocritical to jump on them. I have a little trouble with them criticizing the course since they haven't taken it, but it's important that they speak up."
In the meantime, Saraf and Panth said, they plan to do more research and present their case for discontinuing the course to the administration. For now, however, the administration said it has no plan to do away with Peace Studies.
"Peace Studies is one of the things that makes B-CC unique," Bulson said. "It's been an institution here, and kids from all across the spectrum have taken it. It's not about indoctrination. It's about debate and dialogue."