On “Jesus in the Classroom”

I recently read a really interesting New Yorker article by Peter Boyer entitled “Jesus in the Classroom”. (Admittedly, I’m somewhat behind; I’ve been spending a lot of time at my other home.) It relates the events surrounding the lie, reported by the appropriately named Drudge, that the Cupertino school district had banned the Declaration of Independence.

For the moment I plan to pass over the relationship of this story to our recent discussion of whether the MSM has a role as provider of agreed-upon information, following Moynihan’s well-known aphorism, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” That’s a fascinating topic; mine, however, is the touchy question of whether, when, and how to educate students about religion. And, inevitably, why.

The School District

This story provides an excellent case in point. For one thing, we’re not talking about an average school district:

Last year, the Cupertino Union School District attained a score of 919 out of a possible 1,000 on the state’s Academic Performance Index, and one of its elementary schools achieved a perfect rating. Cupertino has two of the state’s top three middle and elementary schools, and two of its high schools have been ranked among the nation’s best.

The article lists the population of Cupertino at about 50,000. The median income for parents of Cupertino school kids is a hundred thousand a year, and the average house price is a million bucks, despite a certain generic quality (the article describes them, not inaccurately, as “tending toward a ‘Brady Bunch’ subdivision architectural style”).

Thus you won’t be surprised to hear that these are not average students either:

The Cupertino Courier, the local weekly, has reported that some immigrants from China and India migrate to the Bay Area strategically, with the aim of working their way up to Cupertino in time for their kids to enroll in middle school. “You get a lot of pressure to have the children do well,” Sarah Beetem, a fifth-grade teacher, says. “That’s partly because these parents have had to do well in their home countries in order to get the jobs that allowed them to come to the U.S. They were at the top of their classes all along. They believe in hard work. I never have problems with kids not doing their homework.”

The Story

It appears likely that the Cupertino school system is exceptional in the sense that it has a reasonable tax base, parental involvement, instructional talent, and bureaucratic proficiency that exceed the norm. In fact, in many ways Cupertino is what most parents want from a school system. In an environment like this, it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of cooperation among the participants, who presumably agree on academic achievement as the most important issue. But, given the variety of human dreams, it’s nearly inevitable that there will be conflict over the precise goals.

Still, many participants were caught by surprise when,

In November, a fifth-grade teacher named Stephen Williams brought a federal civil-rights claim against his school’s principal and the Cupertino Union School District, asserting that he had been discriminated against because he is a Christian. Williams said that he had been stopped from distributing historical documents to his students because the documents mentioned God.

The teacher, Mr. Williams, had a significant conversion experience in 2001. Many converts, political and religious, are among the most zealous members of their new congregations. This is not a new phenomenon; Gibbon reports that

It became the most sacred duty of a new convert to diffuse among his friends and relations the inestimable blessing which he had received, and to warn them against a refusal that would be severely punished as a criminal disobedience to the will of a benevolent but all powerful Deity.

The Proselytizing

Perhaps the issue is the definition of “friends and relations”, which may or may not include “students”.

Mr. Williams began looking for ways to make sure that he wasn’t leaving out the religious part of the history lessons he taught. Because many of his students and their parents admired his teaching skills, he was one of three teachers to whom the 2002-03 school yearbook was dedicated. He contributed an autobiographical sketch:

“I thank the Lord daily for revealing himself to me and his son Jesus Christ,” he wrote, “and setting me free from living a meaningless existence, to one of such purpose, filled with more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control than I ever thought possible. Praise the Lord for saving us from being lost, and setting us free to enjoy life the way God created it to be.”

To his credit, Mr. Williams made sincere and successful efforts to educate his students about religions other than Christianity as well. However, no one could be unaware of his preference:

“The crux of the problem is, if you look at Mr. Williams in general, he was extremely vocal about his beliefs,” says Armineh Noravian, a Stevens Creek mother whose son was in Williams’s class last year, when the troubles began. “If you talk to teachers, they’ll tell you that he was very vocal about his beliefs outside the classroom. And I believe what happened is that his behavior carried inside the classroom. You would notice that he wore a Jesus ring, he had a little Cross pin that he wore in class. He had a Bible and some worship CDs on his desk. And he would sometimes talk about his Bible classes, and about singing Bible songs with his Bible buddies over the weekend. It’s not hard for a ten- or eleven-year-old kid to pick up that this man is a devout Christian, a practicing Christian who loves his faith and is very serious about it. It was not hard for him to establish, very early in the year, who he was and what his religious beliefs were.”

The Problem

At this point in the article I’m thinking, okay, that’s pushing the limits. I’m very happy for people who find their own paths, but I don’t want them proselytizing in public schools.

I do want them educating, though. And history’s a tricky subject, including a lot of things one wishes it didn’t. You can’t narrate history without reference to philosophy and religion, any more than you can leave out science and technology. These are categories we lay on the world like a grid on a globe; they help us navigate, but they’re not really there. They’re all aspects of humanity, projections of consciousness, and as such they interact with each other constantly.

So what, in the final analysis, is the problem with teachers pushing religion in general, and Christianity in particular, in public schools? Seems to me there’s some sort of fuzzy line between educating students about religion and trying to convince them that there’s one true religion. If we provide equivalent amounts of material and support for all relgions, we’re fine. But supporting one and providing a glancing familiarity with several others is the opposite of that strategy. And who’s to decide which religions are state-approved? I shudder to think.

If we as a society allow religion to enter our history and science classes, we’ll get more of the ridiculous and less of the educational. If we teach our children that Intelligent Design is a scientific theory, they’ll be unable to recognize true science when they see it. They’ll continue the tradition of denying obvious facts that don’t fit their preconceptions.

Like the climate-change deniers, advocates of intelligent design cherry-pick the data that appears to support their case. They ask for evidence, then ignore it when it’s presented to them. They invoke a conspiracy to explain the scientific consensus, and are unembarrassed by their own scientific illiteracy. In an article published in the American Chronicle on Friday, the journalist Thomas Dawson asserted that “all of the vertebrate groups, from fish to mammals, appear [in the fossil record] at one time”, and that if evolution “were true, there would be animal-life fossils of particular animals without vision and others with varying degrees of eye development … Such fossils do not exist”. (The first fish and the first mammals are in fact separated by some 300m years, and the fossil record has more eyes, in all stages of development, than the CIA).

But if, like 45% of Americans, you believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so”, there can’t possibly be a 300 million year gap in the fossil record. Therefore scientists are elitist idiots who deny the obvious truth of the Bible.

The problem with proselytizing in a formal organization is that it implies organizational approval of the belief system in question. People are likely to think that the state wants them to affirm a particular creed. Many will, for that reason alone, proving nothing about the inherent appeal of the creed (let alone its truthfulness).

We know the likely result of such a system from previous experience.

…the nerves of the mind, curiosity and scepticism, were benumbed by the habits of obedience and belief.
Their credulity debased and vitiated the faculties of the mind; they corrupted the evidence of history; and superstition gradually extinguished the hostile light of philosophy and science.

The Dark Ages.

You're welcome to use this form for private as well as public comments; but if you don't want your comments posted to this site, please say so explicitly. As far as I know, this form works in every case, unless you're running XP (and if so, why?). If you have problems with this form, send your comment to count_belisarius@earthlink.net.

All fields are optional.