This tribute originally appeared in the January 03, 2011 issue of The Berkeley Daily Planet.
Jean Benson Wilkinson, a longtime defender of civil liberties and beloved teacher, passed away at the age of 96 in Berkeley, California, on December 28 surrounded by her loving family. Jean was a California native with deep Bay Area roots whose life embodied almost a century of the state’s history. She was a pioneering teacher who believed in allowing high school students to grapple with controversial issues and a civil liberties advocate who, with her husband, stood up for their belief in the constitutional protection of free speech in the face of the McCarthy-era HUAC and the State Committee on Un-American Activities – and paid a high cost. Jean was an active member of the teachers union, an advocate for academic freedom, women’s history and multi-cultural education.
Born in Monterey, California, she spent her early childhood in and around the East Bay. Jean’s father Marvin Benson was a one time Superintendent of the Hayward School District, and her mother Lydia Miner Benson, was a schoolteacher. Her sister Doris was born in 1917, also in Monterey. Jean’s family moved to Los Angeles and she graduated from Fairfax High School in 1932. Jean then attended UCLA to study English and History, where she became student body president in 1936, and graduated with a B.A in History. Jean returned briefly to the Bay Area to obtain her teaching credential and her first teaching job was in Winters, California. From there, Jean returned to Los Angeles where she married her college boyfriend, Frank Wilkinson, in 1939. Frank went on to become the Director of the Los Angeles Federal Housing Authority, while Jean taught high school in rural Canoga Park. While there, Jean began to understand the importance of academic freedom. Many of her students were children of farmers, and the landowners of the surrounding farms made up a powerful conservative farming elite which tried to influence what was being taught.
In 1940, Jean wrote a paper entitled "Controversial Issues in the Schools." Jean asserted that it is the right of the student to hear both sides of a controversial issue in order to learn to distinguish between fact and opinion. And that it is also the right and responsibility of the teacher to express her own opinion. Jean believed the classroom should be a place for debate and discussion. Jean wrote:
"The child is the first to realize when the issues which are so important to him are being avoided and neglected…As school becomes less helpful and meaningful to him, the farther away he draws from any influence it tries to wield over him. Education as an important force in a democratic society loses its purpose. If education continues to follow its mistaken policy of ‘impartiality’ which in reality is consent to the status of the moment, then it fails in at least one function which is vital to the continuance of democratic society."
In 1952 during the McCarthy Era, Jean and Frank Wilkinson were both called before the State Committee on Un-American Activities and refused to answer questions based on the protections of the First and Fifth Amendments to the US Constitution. As a result, Frank was fired from the Housing Authority. Jean became one of the first public school teachers to be fired by the Los Angeles Board of Education for refusing to cooperate with the Committee. Jean took her case to the State Superior Court and lost, with one judge saying Jean had "sowed the dragon seeds of treason in the classroom."