A summer reading list assigned by a Spanish Fort High School AP Government and Economics teacher has been removed from the Baldwin County school system’s website after a public backlash, but similarly controversial material remains posted on the site as of this writing.
The summer reading spectacle began when the reading list for the 12th grade teacher Gene Ponder’s Advanced Placement course was posted and widely circulated on social media. The list of 31 books leans overwhelmingly to the political right, including a few works by mainstream conservatives like Thomas Sowell and Ronald Reagan, scattered among many others by firebrands like Ann Coulter, Mark Levin and Michael Savage. Students were instructed to pick one book to read.
Many of the books on the list, which includes few academically-oriented texts, directly attack one political viewpoint, with no books featuring opposing views. On the list, works including: “Liberalism is a Mental Disorder: Savage Solutions,” by Michael Savage; “Guilty: Liberal Victims and their Assault on America,” by Ann Coulter; and “48 Liberal Lies about American History,” by Larry Schweikart.
The content of the list immediately concerned Elizabeth Denham, whose son will be in Ponder’s class in the fall, when he brought it home from school.
“He brought me the reading list, and I was horrified,” Denham told Lagniappe. “There were no academic titles listed, and the list was populated with almost all far-right conservative perspectives.
“Several authors were shock-jock type pundits who espouse hate. If he had offered a list with perspectives from both liberal and conservative points of view and asked them to read one from each side to compare and contrast, I would have been on board. I encourage my children to read things they don’t agree with so they have full perspectives and can learn from others. But in an academic setting, there needs to be balance.”
— Lee Hedgepeth (@ALPolitics) June 21, 2017
Denham and others reached out to Spanish Fort High School and Baldwin County Board of Education officials about the list, and they took action. After being contacted by Lagniappe, Baldwin County schools superintendent Eddie Tyler said the list had not gone through the necessary approval process for summer reading assignments.
“Mr. Ponder’s reading list that’s going on social media has not been endorsed by the school or the school system,” Tyler said. “The list has been removed by the teacher. Baldwin County Public Schools has a process to vet and approve reading lists so that a variety of sources are used. I expect all employees to follow our processes, procedures and policies.”
An email to parents and students from SPHS Principal Brian Williamson made clear that the assignment should be disregarded.
“There has been some confusion regarding the release of a summer reading assignment for the Government and Economics classes for the 2017-18 school year,” Williamson’s email said. “Please disregard this assignment as there is not a current summer reading list that has been approved by the school. We will be sure to notify you should there be any future assignments.”
Advanced Placement classes are aimed at preparing students for college level coursework and are administered nationally by the College Board. While College Board has not yet responded to questions about whether Ponder’s list meets its curriculum, example syllabi on their website show instructional materials with more mainstream sources like the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers and government-oriented anthologies like the Lanahan Readings in American Polity.
After Denham and other parents’ concerns were aired — and after it had gone viral on social media — Ponder’s list was removed from the school’s official website.
“I appreciate Mr. Williamson’s response to this list and look forward to a new list being produced,” Elizabeth Denham said of that decision. “I hope in the future, these lists will be vetted more carefully.”
While summer reading lists may indeed be vetted more quickly in the future, the same may not necessarily be said for other class materials posted on the site.
Several classroom presentations, some of which are still on Spanish Fort High’s website as of this writing, include similarly controversial, conservatively slanted content. One PowerPoint presentation called “Second Amendment” includes a slide featuring former President Barack Obama with the words “Change you had better believe in! Higher taxes, bigger government, socialized medicine, more dangerous world, more ‘activist’ judiciary.”
At the bottom, another comment: “Free men do not ask permission to bear arm [sic].” The next slide in that presentation says “Guns have only two enemies: rust and politicians” over a picture of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Then, a few slides later, an Obama campaign logo appears with the caption “sign of the easily fooled.”
Such classroom instructional materials also raise questions about the balance of Ponder’s class itself, not just its assignments, according to Denham.
“My son, Luke, is the Southeast Regional Director for the state of Alabama for the High School Democrats of America,” Elizabeth Denham said. “He is one of 90 children chosen to attend the HSDA Summit in Washington, D.C. next week. How is is supposed to sit in this class and feel he has a voice when only one side is presented? I pride myself on teaching my kids to find and use their voices. Teachers who espouse their own political perspective in class make it more difficult for children to feel comfortable speaking and debating the issues.”
A former student who posted on social media in support of Ponder, though, said he disagreed with Ponder being painted as intensely partisan.
“Gene Ponder was hands down my favorite teacher in high school,” the student, who was in Ponder’s first class in 1998, said. “He allowed me and others to see there is more than one side to a story. That’s exactly what he is doing here is opening up interesting dialogue so students can debate all sides instead of the biased, mainstream topics.”
In any case, Ponder is no stranger to the public eye. About 10 years ago, Ponder ran for a seat in the Alabama House of Representatives as a Democrat. In 2010, he ran for lieutenant governor as a Republican. In running that race, Ponder circulated a proposal he wanted adopted by the state Legislature saying that “all compulsory federal legislation that directs states to comply under threat of force by civil or criminal penalties or sanctions … be prohibited and repealed,” calling such federal law “coercion, intimidation and blackmail.”
Then Republican State Sen. Hank Erwin, who was also running for lieutenant governor, said Ponder’s proposal went too far. “We’re not trying to secede from the Union,” Erwin told AL.com in 2009, “I don’t think you need to use … language like that to try to get the point across.”
Ponder doesn’t shy away from public political controversy, either. He did not respond to requests for comment for this article but according to another former student who posted on social media, Ponder appears to have also authored a personal blog, ponderthatliberty.wordpress.com, that includes several highly charged political posts.
In one post, called “Racism and Bigotry in America 2015,” Ponder writes that white men, not any other demographic, are the subject of the most clear and institutionalized racism in the U.S.
“Where are my 14th Amendment Civil Rights? I have two white-male sons, who will suffer legalized discrimination all because of the way they were born; with a penis and white skin,” Ponder wrote. “When will my two sons receive their white-male privileges and their Civil Rights? Will they receive special privileges and ‘free’ public money for admission to college for having a penis and white skin? Will they receive employment promotions in the public and private sector for having a penis and white skin?”
Ponder’s personal blog is in no way connected to the school’s website.
As for the list, although it’s been removed from the school’s website, it appears to have been used since at least 2014.