February 12, 2004,
My 14-year-old blogger daughter got Instalanched last week, after she wrote about how her English teacher had ridiculed her in front of the class for writing an un-p.c. paper. I've heard what happens when the mighty Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds links you but never seen it up close, and it really is amazing: From 100 hits a day (typical for a teenager's blog) to 100 an hour, with links to dozens of other blogs and almost 200 posted comments from Edinburgh to Auckland.
Here's the back story: My daughter, whose nom de blog is Cecile DuBois, wrote a paper about Mary Wollstonecraft arguing that modern American women have achieved equal rights, and also that the pioneering feminist would have frowned upon contemporary concerns like "banal women's studies classes." The teacher was shocked, began a discussion of affirmative action for women and minorities, and described Cecile as racist not only in front of the whole class but also (according to reports from other kids later) to all the classes she taught that day.
By the way, this is not to say that I think my daughter's paper was above criticism. As Cecile put it on her blog: "Since I was stuck on the spot with my futile attempts to convince the class I was not racist and mentally sane, I moved on to the second paragraph of my 'paper' that even my mother said had weak arguments...afterwards [the teacher] thanked me casually, as if I were heretical, for sharing my 'interesting opinions.'"
Brian Micklethwait of Samizdata, a group blog of British libertarians, immediately began a Support Cecile DuBois campaign, along with our blogger friend Jackie D, a young American living in the U.K. who'd introduced us to the Samizdaters when we were in London over Christmas. A day later Instapundit picked up the story, and the outpouring of already sizeable support Cecile had gotten via Samizdata quadrupled.
I suppose that tales of students humiliated by teachers for dissenting from the prevailing groupthink always touch a chord. As Michael Jennings, another Samizdata contributor, observed on his own blog: "I think the moral of this story may be that there are a great many people in the blogosphere whose lives really sucked when they were 14 and in high school." That's certainly true. But there are a few other morals as well in this story of a Los Angeles teenager whose bad day at school on Friday got the attention of a bunch of London libertarians and a Knoxville, Tenn. law professor by Sunday.
One is that the Internet really has folded certain corners of the planet into the small town of Blogville, Planet Earth; conversely, the traditionally small, closed world of high school can no longer be so small and closed not when any kid can find countless informed opinions that differ from what the teacher thinks with just a few mouse clicks.
This can be difficult for schools, which I suspect often are entrenched in conventional leftist wisdom simply because they are institutions. A fondness for instructing and improving (in other words, teaching) might be another reason why pedagogy and the Left seem to have a natural affinity. In any case, while there are of course many left-of-center bloggers, the rightward tilt of some of the biggest (Instapundit, Andrew Sullivan, Eugene Volokh, proto-blogger Matt Drudge, etc.) has been noticed and complained about from the beginning. Especially by traditional media, another institution not unsympathetic to liberal orthodoxy.
Blogging is essentially an unregulated, free-agent activity, and that can drive people who prefer rules and regulations and decision-by-committee crazy. From its earliest days, I noticed a tone of disapproval towards bloggers that reminded me of school, what with all the carping from magazines like The Nation and The American Prospect about the blogging world's sorry lack of supervision. The tongue-clucking made me think of the teacher's pet constantly raising a hand to protest: "Miss Jones! Miss Jones! Johnny's reading ahead again! Unsupervised!"
I imagine many teachers go into the profession because they want to be inspiring figures who open students' minds, like Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love. That's great when the teacher actually is like Sidney Poitier (and the students are like the underprivileged little know-nothings in the movie.) But what happens when a student's brain has a few ideas in it already and is not simply waiting to be filled with every opinion the teacher has? Well, if the teacher is the exact opposite of the To Sir, With Love type, she can try humiliating the student in class. And in the old days, that probably would have worked, because high school pretty much was a student's whole world and such an incident would have seemed like the end of it.
But a teenager with a blog is a teenager whose world has already expanded, sans help from Sidney Poitier wannabes. Much has been written about the dangers of the Internet to teens; I've seen how it can be a safe outlet. Cecile often feels frustrated by what kids her own age want to talk about, and she likes discussing politics and other topics online with various people (law students, soldiers, retired accountants) she's not going to meet in the school cafeteria. I doubt they'd want a 14-year-old in one of their real life hangouts, but on blogs she's a welcome constant commenter. And now they're commenting more on hers too; she posted an item last week about John Kerry's chances, and got a bunch of responses complaining about things like Kerry's home state of "Taxachutsetts." It was kind of funny to see, in the middle of all that, a comment from her friend announcing what she did for her birthday: "Now I'm fifteen, poohoo...mom took me to watch 'Along Came Polly.' Hilarious!"
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog "Cathy's World."