Should this Tennessee teacher have been fired over his one-sided political presentations?

One of the top stories at the Washington Post today is this piece about a teacher named Matthew Hawn who was fired for teaching his class about “white privilege.” Actually, the argument here is really over whether or not Hawn was teaching the topic, i.e. offering it as one perspective, or just telling students to adopt his own progressive viewpoint on political issues. In the end, the school decided it was the latter and he was fired.

Regular readers will know I’m always hesitant whenever someone is getting fired over their political opinions. That’s a double-edged sword that, once endorsed, can do do damage to a lot of people. Even so, in this case I’m hard pressed not to see a teacher who had really abandoned any pretense of objectivity.

Hawn teaches a class on contemporary issues which is meant to discuss things that are happening now. After the shootings in Kenosha by Kyle Rittenhouse, Hawn pointed to Rittenhouse as an example of white privilege.

In the video, Hawn compared the fates of Jacob Blake and Kyle Rittenhouse. Blake, a Black man in his late 20s, was shot seven times in the back and side by police in Kenosha, Wis., leaving him partially paralyzed. Rittenhouse, a White teenager from Illinois, drove to the same area of Wisconsin and shot and killed two men, wounding a third, before surrendering, unharmed, to the same police force. A jury later acquitted Rittenhouse of all charges under the state’s self-defense law.

“My question to you, and this is going to be a tough one,” Hawn said to his class on Aug. 27, 2020, “is how is that not a definition of White privilege?”

Tired after a long day of hybrid teaching, Hawn accidentally uploaded the video to the folder for his personal finance students, where a parent spotted it. The parent immediately contacted Sullivan County administrators to complain.

That description doesn’t really do any justice to what Hawn actually said. The Post does include video of this statement which seems a lot more strident and misleading.

I’ll go ahead an say it. There’s no really arguing this or debating this. This is white privilege is what it looks like. That kid right there. Whenever you can fire into a crowd of people and kill people and then you can walk to the police without fear of being shot back, that is the definition of privilege, of white privilege. It’s awful. These aren’t isolated incidents. This has been happening to African-Americans for 400 years.

There’s more but you get the gist. Pretty much everything Hawn said about this case last year was wrong. Kyle Rittenhouse did not fire into a crowd of people and he did not “walk” to the police without fear. In fact, he ran and was repeatedly attacked, first hit with a piece of concrete, then a skateboard, then kicked, then hit with a skateboard again. Then he had a handgun pointed at his head. In every case he only fired at people who presented a threat which is why a jury determined he’d acted in self defense.

After the video was spread locally, Hawn was warned not to be so one-sided in his presentations in class:

Sullivan Central’s principal, Mark Foster, pulled Hawn aside at a football game the next day. As Hawn recalled it, the principal asked, “Why are you talking about White privilege in personal finance?” Not long after that, Brent Palmer, the school system’s assistant director of schools for personnel and operations, sent a warning email.

“In many of your statements, ‘this is a fact,’ you leave little room for discussion,” Palmer wrote. “Going forward, I would ask that you provide space in your discussions for students to objectively express their various opinions.”

In January he assigned a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay to his class in which the author blames Trump’s election on racism. He was reprimanded and appealed the reprimand claiming he had planned to introduce other reading into the discussion. But ultimately the school board upheld the reprimand. Then, just a few weeks later Derek Chauvin was convicted for the murder of George Floyd and Hawn was asked what it would have meant if Chauvin had been acquitted. Instead of answering in his own words, Hawn pulled up a video clip about white privilege.

Hawn decided to let the poet Kyla Jenée Lacey speak. He clicked to YouTube.

Jones and several other students in the class later said they remember a group of White boys throwing up their hands in anger during the poem.

“The video is definitely very confrontational and doesn’t sugarcoat, the point of it is to be in-your-face-harsh,” said a White 18-year-old in the class, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of backlash from her conservative family. “I think that’s what really upset the boys.”

One of those boys complained to administrators, his classmates said. Within two weeks, Hawn was fired.

Again, you won’t really get a sense of what Hawn was promoting by reading the Post story. Here’s the video he apparently showed the class (contains some NSFW language):

Should he have been fired for assigning the Coates reading or showing the video clip? My own take is that teachers should be given a lot of leeway in class. But in this case it seems that Hawn wasn’t really presenting anything like a range of viewpoints to his students. It’s just one leftist diatribe after another with him directly telling students in some cases that there’s no discussion. Hawn himself, when he appealed his firing this summer seemed to belatedly acknowledge that how he taught the class wasn’t really appropriate:

He now realized, he wrote, that his discussions of White privilege “would be more appropriate for a college level … course” and promised to expose his students to “varying points of views.”

It didn’t help. His firing was upheld in June and his appeal of that decision was denied last month. It seems to me he did realize he wasn’t teaching the class in an appropriate way. Maybe if he’d figured that out last year instead of after he was fired he’d still have his job.