When I was a high school senior one of the more popular elective classes was called "Problems of Democracy," wherein in an attractively snide 30-something male teacher told us what to think about LBJ's Great Society. (We were supposed to like it.) Because a lot of us had parents who loudly pontificated that Medicare was the first step toward communism, this was deliciously subversive. But we had no means of sharing our insights except through the creaky old school newspaper. Just think what we could have done with Twitter!
Think no longer: A high school senior in Shawnee Mission, Kan., has fearlessly blazed the trail so often tread before it's more like a ditch. On a field trip to Topeka sponsored by Youth in Government, Emma Sullivan amused herself during a welcoming talk from her state's governor by tweeting:
"Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot."
Of course, she made no such comments; the governor was speaking and Sullivan was not rude or nervy enough to spout meanness from the back of the crowd. What she didn't know was that the governor's office monitors mentions of Brownback's name on social media. His director of communication, Sherriene Jones-Sontag, was not amused, and word got back to Sullivan's school. Sullivan received a lecture from the principal of Shawnee Mission East High School, who emphasized that she had brought shame on the school and instructed her to write a letter of apology. At first she agreed-no point in adding a black mark to the application package going to the University of Arkansas.
But that was before the press coverage hit the fan. Sullivan's list of Twitter followers ballooned to 9,000, vaulting her to national cause célèbre status. It's heady up there. Sullivan decided not to write the apology after all; there were larger issues at stake, right? Like, you know, free speech. Instead, after negative commentary directed at the governor had reached critical mass, Brownback issued a statement that his office had overreacted, which included an apology to Sullivan.
The principal, who declined to wade into the media storm, was right to reprimand her. But greater harm has been done to Sullivan rather than by her. She is probably brighter than her silly tweet would indicate, with a lively interest in politics. That's fine. She and her friends are upset about the governor's cutting off state aid for the arts. That's fine, too. National news attention that makes her a free-speech hero isn't fine. After she changed her mind about writing the apology, the 18-year-old asserted, "I think it would be interesting to have a dialogue with [Brownback]. I don't know if he would do it or not, though. And I don't know that he would listen to what I have to say."
With all due respect, Sullivan, why should he? Why should you breezily suppose that your opinion carries equal weight with a 56-year-old, duly elected governor who may be wrong, but who served a term in the U.S. House of Representatives and two terms in the U.S. Senate and has been struggling to balance a state budget while you may just be getting around to setting up a personal bank account? The beginning of real education is realizing how much one doesn't know. Teenagers are in school to learn, not to express themselves. But according to Sullivan's mother, "If she wants to tweet her opinion about Gov. Brownback, I say for her to go for it and I stand totally behind her."
That may be the problem-too many adults standing behind her and not enough out in front, providing real instruction and substantive debate that would teach her to think. Flattery will get her nowhere.