Hide or seek?

Most education debates reduce students to one of two stereotypes:

Students are either impenetrable stones, so dense and unresponsive that they can’t muster the wits to learn basic algebra and so entranced by their smartphones, iPads or laptops that they wouldn’t notice if their teacher were on fire.

Or they’re sponges who absorb everything without question, and thus easy prey for classroom proselytizing, from environmental radicalism to pro-Palestinian politics. A whiff of liberal ideology and students will go vegetarian, don Birkenstocks and donate to NPR.

This was the week for the latter — students as vulnerable, impressionable vessels who will absorb whatever’s poured over them.

First, there was the outcry over a Cobb middle school lesson that used a fictional, two-page letter by a 20-year-old Saudi Arabian woman. The “Letter from Ahlima” was middle school resource material provided by the state Department of Education. The teacher used the letter in a discussion of school dress codes.

In the letter, the young woman praises life behind the veil under Shariah or Islamic law, cheerily discussing her upcoming marriage to a man with one wife already. She explains how she is willing to obey her new husband because “I know I will be cared for.”

The lesson plan went viral on the Internet and was attacked as an attempt to “Islamize” schools. The letter was a far more creative way to expose children to Middle East culture than an encyclopedia entry.

Yet, the Roswell curriculum publisher who created the lesson received threats from people outraged that adolescents would be reading this information in school.

Then, there was the annual brouhaha over President Barack Obama’s back-to-school speech, which he gave last week amid complaints that he was using America’s schoolchildren as guinea pigs and indoctrinating them into his social liberal agenda.

Several school districts across the country, as well as some in metro Atlanta — including those in Gwinnett and Fulton counties — sent notices to parents informing them they could request that their children be excused from watching the speech.

Among the president’s “subversive” remarks to schoolchildren: “You’ve got wonderful parents who love you to death and want you to have a lot more opportunity than they ever had — which, by the way, means don’t give them a hard time when they ask you to turn off the video games, turn off the TV and do some homework. You need to be listening to them.”

As a reporter, I’ve covered British royalty talking to U.S. high school students, and no parent pulled his or her teens out for fear his or her children would come home waving the Union Jack and singing “God Save the Queen.”

Many critics of the “Letter from Ahlima” and the Obama speech argue that schools should avoid all politics and religion and stick to fractions, spelling and state capitals.

As a poster on my education blog wrote: “Schools teach reading, writing and arithmetic. I don’t want my kid educated about religion in school. I don’t want the Sunday school teacher teaching my kid math.”

But you can’t teach world history without mentioning religion. And you can’t develop critical thinking skills in adolescents if you feed them only pabulum and don’t provide meaty, thought-provoking assignments.

In the “Letter from Ahlima,” the young Muslim woman discusses how Western fashions seem immodest to her. (Some parents of teenage girls here might agree with her.)

So much of middle school social status for girls depends on their appearance. This lesson could raise relevant questions: What if girls wore veils that revealed only their eyes? Would social hierarchies change? Would who you are become more important than what you look like?

As Obama reminded students in his speech Wednesday, their future will not be filled with people who think or look like them.

“What does it mean to live in a diverse nation,” he asked, “where not everybody looks like you do or thinks like you do or comes from the same neighborhood as you do? How do we figure out how to get along?”

Not by cloaking anything that could be controversial.