We Don't Need No Education
Aaron Campbell gets excited when he talks about how the use of trenches defined the combat of World War I. Between working at Gander Mountain and practicing rugby, the 16-year-old Minnetonka High School student is learning history that once was unavailable to him. Campbell says his European history class, which covers the neo-classical age through the Great War, is "awesome" because he's learning from a perspective not uniquely American.
"It's a lot better than learning about the Revolutionary War for the 10th time," says Campbell, a junior.
Campbell's history class is one of about a dozen that Minnetonka High School offers through its new affiliation with the International Baccalaureate program. The IB classes, with their intercultural focus, are at the center of a fierce debate incited once parents got wind of the program's cost and philosophy. They question the need for IB in a district that already has Advance Placement, a successful college-level curriculum, and wonder why the district is spending $46,000 for a new program in the midst of cutting $3.2 million for the 2005-2006 school year. The debate grew more contentious when parents began claiming the program is propaganda for the United Nations, giving kids an anti-American, anti-Christian education.
The accusations are not lost on Susan Campbell, Aaron's mother. "I'm a Christian," says Campbell, "so I was very concerned about the controversy." So concerned, in fact, she asked her pastor about the program. "He's really sharp, and he said it is anti-Christian," she says, with resignation. "I guess I have to accept that as his opinion."
When the IB organization gave Minnetonka its stamp of approval last July, there were already 10 other districts in the state that offered the curriculum. Minnetonka brought the program to the high school this past fall, in part, to increase open enrollment numbers. When each new student enrolls in the district, the state hands over about $5,500.
A handful of vocal parents publicly wonder why the district is more concerned with students outside of the district than the ones it's already charged with educating. Armed with internet research and information picked up from phone calls to other districts with the IB program nationwide, a bevy of parents is fighting to prevent the international program from continuing in their prestigious district. Their pleas for the program's elimination culminated in February, when they presented a petition to the school board. In a telling example of how much momentum their movement has, parents say it took them just a couple of days to collect almost 100 signatures.
The petition gives seven reasons why the program's elimination is needed, one of them being that "the International Baccalaureate rejects the Judeo-Christian values held by the majority of families in our district and instead promotes the atheistic Secular Humanist principles of multiculturalism, pacifism, one-world government, and moral relativism."
Several parents, after getting pegged as Christian fundamentalists by supporters of the program, shy away from some of the statements espoused in the petition. Paul Borowski, a parent of three children in the district, does not. "Our education system is the envy of the world," says Borowski, citing the IB's origins. "Why would we want to subordinate that to some organization connected with the United Nations?"
With its global perspective, the IB program does veer from the path of a traditional public education. Students apply to enroll in the comprehensive, two-year program with classes ranging from humanities to sciences. At the core of the program is the "Theory of Knowledge" course, which, among other things, teaches students how to identify ideological bias.
The IB program was developed in 1968 as a way for diplomats' children to have a uniform, rigorous education in Europe. The International Baccalaureate Organization, governed by a board in Geneva, Switzerland, aims to develop inquiring and caring people who help create a more peaceful world through intercultural understanding. Gov. Tim Pawlenty and President George Bush--two people who aren't particularly known for their anti-American, anti-Christian beliefs--have endorsed the program.
(While the United Nations did partially fund the program in its inception, and IB is taught at some UN schools, the UN does not have any governance over the program.)
School board chair Erin Adams says she's surprised by the attacks and disagrees with the parents' ideological arguments. "I think intellectual freedom is a profound American freedom," says Adams. "Respecting people is in keeping with all the faiths of the world."
The anti-Christian critique was brought to the forefront during a January school board discussion about the required reading for the "Theory of Knowledge" course. Objections were raised about including Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World without the inclusion of a book to counter it. In the end, two board members, Dave Eaton and Bill Wenmark, voted against the book list, but the entire board voted 5 to 2 in support of it. Even so, dissent is a rarity in a district where the board usually unanimously agrees on everything.
The ongoing battle in public schools about curriculum seems to be coming up more and more lately, with creationism, social studies classes, and No Child Left Behind dominating headlines. In terms of IB, about a dozen schools nationwide have seen protests. Minnetonka parents often use the Fairfax County School District as an example, where parents voiced similar critiques to challenge the district. (Some schools in the Fairfax district did drop IB, others did not.)
From Borowski's view, the program is anti-American in the sense that it teaches students that the United States is equal to other countries. "My fear is that my kids are going to be taught America isn't better than any other country in the world," Borowski says.
Parents opposed to the program recently found an ally in one of the district's middle school teachers. Julie Light's objections stem from the IB's endorsement of the Earth Charter, a group that calls for the sustainability of the Earth through, among other things, responsible reproduction and wealth distribution. "They have pledged to work toward principles that deny U.S. citizens rights guaranteed to them," says Light.
Fervor over God and country aside, the school district's communications department assembled an 18-page document as a definitive answer to questions lurking about the fledgling program. But most of the concerned parents simply don't trust the district's counterarguments, and they complain about the heavy hand of the district's superintendent, Dennis Peterson.
As Aaron Campbell nears completion of his first year in the program, he says he doesn't see how any class could be a threat to his Christianity and adamantly refutes any sort of anti-American tone in the classes. "The parents aren't the ones taking the class," he says. "They're just nervous of new."
What's certain is that the debate is nowhere near finished. The Minnetonka School Board is not reconsidering its decision to offer the program in the high school. What's more, school board members recently discussed the possibility of bringing IB to the district's elementary and middle schools.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.
- Friendship comes at a price for the new Seward co-op
- Lake Elmo's beautiful greensward threatened by disuse and developers
- U of M student Rahsaan Mahadeo awarded, then arrested for his activism