Aristotle, Machiavelli and Cyril Lang Face Suspension from a Maryland High School
To his supporters, Cyril Lang is a dedicated teacher who reached above and beyond his high school’s curriculum to enhance his students’ understanding of Shakespeare. To critics, including his superiors at Charles W. Woodward High in Rockville, Md., he is an academic mutineer, threatening the school system with anarchy. The issue is a curious one. Lang, 55, exposed his 10th-grade English class to Aristotle’s Poetics and Machiavelli’s The Prince. For doing so, he was removed from the classroom and ultimately may face a seven-month suspension without pay from his $24,000-a-year job.
Lang’s sin, school officials declare, was using books that were too sophisticated for most of his students, then refusing to stop. “I was insubordinate,” Lang admits, “but a larger issue is at stake: my academic freedom. I know I can’t go off and teach anything I want. But I do have the right to enrich capable students who I feel have the ability.” Woodward’s principal, Anita Willens, who has had several run-ins with Lang during his six years at the school, disagrees. “Sure it sounds great,” she says. “But if teachers added a lot of other things to the curriculum, there would be chaos. We’re part of a public school system, and we can’t depend on the capaciousness of each teacher.”
Lang acknowledges that it would have been unreasonable to ask every one of his 120 sophomores to read and understand Aristotle and Machiavelli. He insists that was not what he did. “Only four or five of the more capable students in each class read selected passages,” he says. “Then they presented those ideas to the rest and afterward I lectured on the material.” Otherwise, Lang insists, he followed the curriculum scrupulously. “I was not subverting the country,” he declares. “I was not giving them salacious material. It was straight academic stuff for the unit I was teaching on Julius Caesar. We applied Aristotle’s definition of tragedy and Machiavelli’s comments on leadership to Caesar. It was all relevant.”
Opinion on Lang is sharply divided. “I think he should be applauded,” says senior Arthur Kingsley. “He taught students to think and dig deep into books that were possibly over our heads.” “He flunked me, but I learned something,” adds classmate Mark Scalettar. “I think Lang would be better teaching seniors, but he is a resource the school should keep.” Other students, however, claim Lang was an overenthusiastic disciplinarian (“He made you put your gum on your nose if you were chewing it”) who played favorites and flunked too many pupils. Retired social studies teacher Frances Dellon taught many of the same students and believes Lang’s standards were unrealistic. For example, two-thirds of the questions on his final were based on Poetics and The Prince.
For his part, Lang points out that Woodward is an elite high school—85 percent of its 1,000 students go on to college. “These are the kids of doctors, lawyers and diplomats,” he argues. “In an affluent society you get boredom, so I usually flunk them early on to shake them up. The kids come back once they’re in college and thank me.”
Born in Newark, N.J., the son of an accountant, Lang studied philosophy at Lafayette and earned a master’s in drama and English at North Carolina. When a career in the theater eluded him, he became a district sales manager for an encyclopedia company. In 1960 he turned to teaching. After his wife died of leukemia in 1968, he moved to Maryland with his four children (then aged 3 to 17).
Lang lives alone in a sparsely furnished garden apartment. Since August he has been assigned to the Montgomery County school administration office, where he does research. Next month the county board of education is expected to determine Lang’s fate. If the decision goes against him, he has vowed to appeal, and if necessary take his case to the courts. “I love teaching,” he explains. “It’s never boring. But there has to be less political power and more teaching power.”