The real mystery here is how the school administrators and teachers could not have seen this coming. Thus the ethical value at issue is, as it often seems to be with public education, competence, or rather the lack of it.
In April of 2016, Marshfield High (in Wisconsin) presented its annual musical. The production involved a cast of 40 students with 30 more in the crew and orchestra. Students from two elementary schools were in the cast. The show? Rogers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music,” based on the story of the Von Trapp singers and their escape from Austria when the Nazis took over.
In March 2016, a complaint was received from a parent alleging that the musical’s casting violated the district’s non-discrimination policy. The parent asked why the cast did not “represent the demographics of the school district” and why a deliberate effort was not made “to ensure diversity in the cast.” The parent further said that even if the organizers of the play did not intend to discriminate, they did so “in the most overt and egregious manner.” For more than a year, district officials tried to keep the complaint and the resulting investigation out of the news. Now the investigation is out, and it found that indeed the casting did violate the policy.
I didn’t have to read the whole article, or much of it at all, to guess what happened. All I needed to know was that a high school with a diverse student body had chosen “The Sound of Music” as its annual musical. Everyone has seen the movie, and knows that it is about the cutest Austrian family on Earth stocked with a group of brothers and sisters whose ascending ages and heights constitute the most vivid visual image of the play. High schools seldom produce this musical, for exactly these reasons. A theater department barging ahead with this Rodger and Hammerstein classic will be instantly risk appearing to exclude anyone who isn’t so white that their brilliant gleam will blind the audience (and African-American Nazis are even more jarring than Hispanic-American and Asian Austrians), or it must commit to the most show-undermining non-traditional casting imaginable. There isn’t even a true choice: if you produce this show in a public school, you have to be ready to cast a black Maria, brown Nazis, Asian Austrian nuns and a brood of Von Trapps that suggests that the Captain was rather naughty in his travels, if admirably open to amorous affections regardless of race, color or creed.
If ever there was a need for school administrators to play ethics chess, this was it. Before the choice of musicals was completed, from the second some dolt raised his or her hand and suggested “The Sound of Music,” the fact that this choice was almost certain to create ethical conflicts and dilemmas should have been apparent. Isn’t simply selecting this show inherently discriminatory, or at least controversial? Can it not be doomed to fail, one way or the other? Surely the artistic goal of making all of the Von Trapp children look like plausible siblings must be discarded at the outset. If not, does that mean that if the five most talented auditions by any measure are African Americans, they won’t be cast as a Von Trapps? Wouldn’t that mean that the casting would be dictated by color? What word does that scenario suggest? Come on, think. It begins with a “d.”
As so often happens when I examine ethics breakdowns in a school setting, I find myself wondering how adults this devoid of ethical decision-making skills and common sense can possibly be trusted to educate children. “Huh! I didn’t think it would hurt to walk into that spinning propeller!” “Wow! Hitting myself in the nose with that hammer was really unpleasant!” “Damn! Who would have thought using real fire in my kid’s Human Torch costume would turn out so badly!”
“Who would have thunk it? Our insisting that the Von Trapp kids look like a plausible Austrian family like the kids in the movie caused some parents to accuse us of discrimination!”
This fiasco didn’t even require advanced Ethics Chess, just the beginner’s version. From the earliest age, we need to begin mastering the knack of thinking ahead about the likely or possible ethical consequences of our conduct. That “The Sound of Music” risked making children feel discriminated against on the basis of their race was, or should have been obvious.
Two words: “South Pacific.”
Pointer: Rick Jones.