A Montgomery County high school English teacher has been threatened with suspension without pay for refusing to stop teaching two classics by Aristotle and Machiavelli that county curriculum officials had decided were too difficult for 10th graders.
County School Supt. Edward Andrews contends that Cyril Lang, a 55-year-old teacher at Charles W. Woodward High School in Rockville, flouted school system rules and the direct orders of his principal by including the works in his course. Andrews has recommended to the county school board that Lang be suspended for seven months without pay.
Lang, however, argues that by forbidding him to teach the books, school officials violated his academic freedom.
"It wasn't subversive," Land said of the books in question -- Aristotle's "Poetics" and "The Prince" by Machiavelli. "It wasn't [sexually] offensive. It was kind of tough . . . .
"Why should that be a problem in a so-called enlightened school system that talks about raising standards?" he said. "I felt there are certain constitutional rights of free expression that a teacher has in a classroom. If you take that away, you take away the art of teaching and you might as well just have textbooks and baby sitters and movie machines, and that's it."
But Andrews, on the other hand maintains he is upholding the school system's uniform curriculum.
"I'm not an English teacher," Andrews said, "and I don't know whether [Land] is right or wrong [about how tough the books are]. But in a public school system, you have to have reasonable procedures to determine what is to be used, and the superintendent has to uphold them. . .
"Either we have a public school system and we have accountability to the public that supports it," Andrews continued, "or we have 6,000 teachers out there doing whatever they want to do. What if a teacher decided to use 'Playboy' or 'Hustler' or go down that road? Is that OK? I say no.
"Some would call that censorship," the superintendent added. "But I think the school system has an obligation to set standards and set curriculum. The procedures should have wide participation, and in this county they do. But once these decisions are made, teachers are expected to work within that framework."
In an eight-page letter to Lang, dated Oct. 8, Andrews accused the teacher of "insubordination and misconduct in office." The letter contains a detailed chronology, from February 1978 to last Spring, indicating that Lang was warned repeatedly by an English resource teacher and Woodward principal Anita J. Willens not to use the two books because the school system's textbook evaluation division had decided they were too difficult for sophomores. Despite the warnings, the letter said, Lang based two-thirds of his semester examination in June on the two books.
Lang said he has used the books for three years as part of the unit on Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," with the nature of tragedy. Machiavelli's political tract, written in 16th century Italy, offers advice on politics and statesmanship, as addressed to Lorenzo di Medici.
Lang said about one-third of his students -- all volunteers -- read parts of each work for extra credit. They then made reports to the whole class and Lang himself lectured on the works.
But all students, whether they read the classics or not, were responsible for mastering their main points, as presented in class. For example, one question on Lang's June exam asked students to analyze "Julius Caesar" as a tragedy, "using the main tenets of Aristotle's definition of tragedy."
Principal Willens said the parents of four or five students complained to her that Lang's assignments and tests were too difficult. One, who asked that her name not be used, said her daughter failed Lang's course even though she had previously earned good grades in English and received an A when she made up the course in summer school.
Willens said it would have been all right for Lang to use the books for extra credit but not to spend large amounts of class time on them and hold all students responsible for mastering their main points. Both books, she noted, are approved for Montgomery school libraries, and "The Poetics" is approved for 12th grade advanced placement English classes. "
But some of Lang's students and their parents praised his course warmly.
"I didn't thing [the class] was too hard at all," said Julie Shapiro, editor of the Woodward High student newspaper, who took Lang's English course two years ago. "They [the books] weren't exactly easy reading. But Mr. Lang had us go over it line by line, and I think they added a lot to the course . . . Some kids hated him at the beginning, but at the end they liked him a lot. He treated us like adults. He had standards."
"He gave students an opportunity to broaden their horizons," said Irene Mirkin, whose son took Lang's course. "That's something that should be applauded. He shouldn't have to suffer for it. That's book burning . . . If he had assigned trash that would be one thing, but this is classic literature."
Supt. Andrews said that although other school administrators recommended that the 10-year county employe be fired, he decided instead to suspend him without pay because of Lang's "long years of satisfactory service."
Under Maryland law, a teacher can be suspended only by a vote of the county school board, acting on the recommendation of the superintendent. At Lang's request, the county school board, acting on the recommendation of the superintendent. At Lang's request, the county school board decided Monday night to have a hearing examiner hold a hearing in the case, and report to the board before it votes. That process is expected to take at least 45 days.
Lang was put on leave in August, but has continued to draw his salary. Andrews had said in the past that he would cut off Lang's pay on Nov. 12, the day after the next scheduled board meeting, whether the board acts or not. However, he is now seeking an attorney's opinion on whether that is legal.
If necessary, Lang said, he will appeal his case to the Maryland State Board of Education and through the courts. He has the backing of the Montgomery County Education Association, the county teachers union, and its statewide organization, the Maryland State Teachers Association.
"This case doesn't only affect me," he said, "but teachers generally. Our teachers are apathetic because they are frustrated, but they have to realize they do have rights. Here we are guiding the youth in a democracy. Well, if democracy is so good, I should have some rights, too."
Lang said he has been involved in several protracted grievances with school principals and supervisors over grading and discipline, but he said he often let matters slide before.
"This time I decided somewhere along the line a line has to be drawn," Lang declared. "If I was doing something wrong, OK, get me. But I wasn't doing anything wrong, so I'll fight them even if they put the whole weight of the system against me."