A local high school health and physical education teacher circulated an editorial cartoon to her students recently. This was the cartoon:
A parent of one of the students contacted a local television news station, which gladly lapped up the story and stamped a “bullying” angle on it. To wit, a local anchor for the station posted the following text to accompany the cartoon:
FAT = STUPID? The father of a 9th grade girl at Mataoca [sic], who struggles with her weight, called NBC-12 to complain when this was handed out in health class. It’s a cartoon suggesting (according to the father) that heavy students aren’t as smart as thin ones. Maybe he has a point. Did the teacher bully the over-weight students, and set them up to be picked on by the other kids?
Aside from misspelling the name of the school involved, the anchor made a tremendous error at the outset that colored the rest of the conversation. Specifically, he proceeded from the false premise that the cartoon equates intelligence with obesity.
To spell it out: The cartoon uses the cultural touchstone of Rudolph Flesch’s Why Can’t Johnny Read? to highlight the crisis of childhood obesity. The artist is in no way suggesting that obesity is literally responsible for stupidity. In other words, had there never been a famous (although apparently not famous enough for Facebook rabble to have heard of it) book with that title, this cartoon would not exist in this form.
With the point badly missed from the outset, the pitchfork-and-torch crowd were out in full force, demanding that the teacher be fired. Naturally, the local media fanned those flames by suggesting that all of this is “bullying” by a teacher. And how could they be reasonably expected to resist that temptation? After all, nothing short of Miley Cyrus’ tongue is more effective click-bait than “bullying.”
But let’s look at what’s really happening, here:
1. A health teacher presented copies of an editorial cartoon that dealt with childhood obesity. Again—this is a health class.
2. The teacher did not draw the cartoon herself.
3. The teacher did not single out any students in her class or connect them to this cartoon.
4. The cartoon does not suggest that obese children are actually less intelligent than non-obese children.
To my mind, the teacher did absolutely nothing wrong. However, we have a much larger problem than whether this one teacher is disciplined over showing her class this cartoon.
If we live in a world where a teacher handing out a contextually-appropriate editorial cartoon to every student is “bullying,” then anti-bullying becomes a dangerous instrument. Put bluntly, I fear this strain of “anti-bullying” even more than I fear the results of actual bullying itself.
Let’s talk about those results. One common refrain in the comments to the story I just mentioned was the introduction of the suicide boogeyman as the usual unbeatable justification for taking any action, no matter how overbroad, in the name of stopping the “epidemic” of bullying. The premise is that bullying is worse than ever, and kids are offing themselves as a result. Let’s look at the numbers:
Youth Suicide Rate (1990): 13.2
Youth Suicide Rate (2010): 10.5
So, in the last couple of decades or so, the suicide rate has risen and fallen incrementally, fluctuating a bit over time. However, it’s roughly the same as it was a generation ago, if not a tad lower. Let’s look at another set of numbers:
That’s what an epidemic looks like.
If we’re so oversensitive to anti-bullying that we won’t even allow health teachers use an obesity-related editorial cartoon, reversing American obesity trends will be next-to-impossible. Teachers (understandably) will want to protect their jobs. If the teacher in this case were fired, the upshot of this entire episode would be that other teachers in the same jurisdiction (perhaps beyond) might decide that it’s just not worth it even to broach the subject.
For the folks who want this person fired on the grounds that such a cartoon might hurt the feelings of an obese student, I would ask this question: When the gym class is required to run a couple of laps, for example, will the obese student’s feelings be hurt as he lumbers around the track, wheezing while rolls of fat ripple from head to toe, grateful for the slight breeze generated as fit students fly past him with ease?
If so, is a teacher who asks overweight students to run a “bully” for subjecting them to this humiliation? Should overweight students be required to run or play any sports that require cardiovascular fitness? Should anyone ever have to do anything that may cause hurt feelings?
Or, do we do ourselves a societal disservice when we value feelings above everything, even when we damn well know that the road to self-improvement often doesn’t feel good.
Until we reach the destination.
The good news is that the parents who were “appalled” by this story (and their mush-peddling media enablers) may come up with a more concrete test to determine whether teachers like the one in question should keep their jobs. It will probably involve throwing the teacher in a body of water to see if she sinks or floats, but, still, it’s a start.
Not all criticism is “bullying,” especially when it’s constructive. On top of that, I’m not even sure that a cartoon making a contextually-relevant point is specific enough to be considered “criticism” as to any individual student.
We need to be vigilant in stopping bullying. Bullying is a real problem. But not everything that might make us feel bad is bullying. A broad belief that material that is educationally relevant is nonetheless “bullying” does more damage to our society than bullying itself.