Pity the poor school superintendent.
It’s hard enough to make the classrooms work — but to referee the debate about global warming is a mountainous order. It was certainly too much for Kevin St. John, superintendent of the Choteau School District, located in northwest Montana on the eastern edge of the Rockies.
Last week St. John cancelled a speech to be given by Steven Running, a University of Montana professor of ecology and lead author of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations group that shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year with former Vice President Al Gore. Running was going to talk to students about the importance of science education.
St. John’s decision was picked up by the New York Times this week and has become a topic of debate in the west. (See the comments at New West.) It certainly wasn’t the usual kind of news to come out of Choteau. Last week, for example, one of the best stories in the Choteau Acantha was Nancy Thornton’s account of a momma barn cat that curled up in the engine of a car, only to be found by a service station attendant more than 400 miles down the road. Now that’s a story!
Choteau is not new to debates over the environmental effects of energy and fuel production. This region of Montana is rich with wildlife — and with natural gas. When gas prices began rising several years ago, the drilling rigs came back to the Rocky Mountain Front and a debate began about the environmental effects of sinking wells in a region that is home to sizeable herds of bighorn sheep and elk, and the largest population of grizzlies outside of the national parks.
Superintendent St. John initially agreed to bring in Running to speak to the district’s 130 students, but then, he said, some school board members pressured him to find someone to present an opposing view. Some in town thought the speech would be “anti-agriculture,” and as opposition mounted, St. John, who is in his first year at Choteau, cancelled the invitation. “Nobody wants to believe in science and promote science more than we do,” St. John told reporter Matthew Brown. “It was my decision to bring him in and it was my decision (to cancel him.)”
“It was my failure to articulate who he is and what he was here for,” the superintendent told the New York Times. “He’s a Nobel scientist, highly distinguished, but people thought he was something else. Academic freedom is very important here, and science education is very important here.”
Running did give a talk at the Choteau High School auditorium, addressing about 140 people on the evening of January 10, according to the Choteau Acantha. Running’s talk to students earlier in the day about science education was the event St. John cancelled.
Kip Barhaugh, 17, and a Choteau High School student, wrote about the episode for the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune. Barhaugh said that the superintendent cancelled Running’s talk because of pressure from the school board. “With this act,” Barhaugh wrote, “some members of the Choteau School Board not only denied its students access to valuable information about the future of our planet, but they demonstrated their shortsightedness.”
Barhaugh continued: “Our school leaders seem to be under the impression that high school students are not able to hear about what some deem ‘controversial topics’ and form individual judgments. This raises the question of what exactly public high school education is. Is it the spoon-feeding of information to America’s next generation or is it presenting this generation with all the facts and allowing students to decide how those facts are interpreted?
“To the Choteau school board and some of the Choteau community I hope you realize that our school is probably one of the few districts in the nation to deny a Nobel Peace Prize winner the right to speak to its students.”