Melinda Kenny scrapped her lesson plans for yesterday's honors philosophy class at Catonsville High School.
Instead, she seized this week's teachable moment - the revelation of the identity of Deep Throat, the famous confidential source to The Washington Post during the Watergate scandal - and shaped her 90-minute class around a discussion of his ethics.
Three students came out strongly in defense of W. Mark Felt's decision to guide reporter Bob Woodward, and the public's right to know the behavior of its elected leaders.
"How are people supposed to elect the president if they don't know if he's doing the right thing or the wrong thing?" asked Brijesh Patel, 16. "If nothing came out about President Nixon, how are we supposed to know he was doing something wrong?"
However, most of the 12 juniors in the class said it was unethical for Felt to talk to Woodward. One student said Felt's job was "to go to his superiors," while another said the public "should only know so much."
Kristen Dooley, 16, suspected that Felt, then the FBI's No. 2 official, was acting out of spite because President Richard Nixon passed him over for the agency's top job. Charles Kozak, 16, said that, "if it was truly to benefit society, he wouldn't have kept his name secret."
Kenny was grateful to have the time to discuss Watergate with her students, who, born in the late 1980s, know Watergate only as a unit in history class. With underclassmen preparing for final exams, many teachers have little time to set aside what they are doing to bring that lesson to life.
"I have the luxury to spend a little more time on it," Kenny said.
Her initial plan for yesterday's class was a discussion about philosophers' view of the meaning of life, but a conversation about Felt tied directly to a previous unit on ethics.
In a journalism class down the hall, junior Sierra Harris was itching to talk about the Vanity Fair article naming Felt as Deep Throat, which she had read, but she and her classmates were scrambling to finish the last issue of the school newspaper.
"It's something more people my age should care about, but you can't force people," said Harris, who will be co-editor of the Catonsville High Comet next school year. She knew of one classmate who didn't know what Watergate was until this week.
Among those who do know, she said, "it's kind of upsetting me because there's lots of people calling [Felt] a traitor. ... I don't understand how you can even have that opinion."
Kenny began her class by giving students time to read an article about Felt and ask questions about Watergate and this week's developments.
She then prodded the students with questions of her own: Do certain professions have a different code of ethics than society? Was Felt acting Machiavellian? Why don't students look to politicians to have ethics? Is that a view shaped by Watergate?
Ethics and politics
Responding to a classmate who thought the scandal weakened the U.S. position during the Cold War, Evan Fuller, 17, said, "Before you can be concerned about protecting America as a superpower, you need to be concerned about protecting America as a democracy." Without media scrutiny, he said, "you're eventually going to get a Julius Caesar who says, 'I want more power; I want more power, and there's nothing you can do to stop me.'"
YinYin Yu, 16, said Felt did not need to inform the public about Nixon's behavior because all politicians act unethically.
"They don't have ethics. They have politics," she said, adding: "No one acts ethically all the time, and in politics it's more effective to act unethically than ethically."