Delaney’s (outstanding) third grade teacher put together a nice slideshow for the parents to watch during the “Thanksgiving Feast” day at school this year. In the show, each student offered a list of things s/he is thankful for.
I don’t mean in the least to diminish the lovely expressions of gratitude by her classmates when I say that I would have recognized my daughter’s own list of gratefuls even if I were blindfolded and they were read by James Earl Jones. Not better or worse, but distinctively Delaney. Can you find her in this sampling?
Student A: I’m grateful for my parents, my school, God, my country, and my teacher Miss Jones.
Student B: I’m grateful for my family, food, my house, my pets, and my teacher Miss Jones.
Student C: I’m grateful for God, Jesus, my family, a roof over my head, and my teacher Miss Jones.
Student D: I’m grateful for my family and friends, for a roof over my head and a meal every night, for a good education, and for freedom of speech.
Erin (12) is in the middle of a nice comparative religion curriculum in her social sciences class. Looks to be much better than the usual slapdash.
The units are tied in with geography and culture. They’re currently on Southwest Asia, so at the moment it’s the three Abrahamic monotheisms. As usual, minority religions — Bahá’í, Gnosticism, Druze, Zoroastrianism, et al. — get the short straw, with no mention that I can see. I’d especially like to see Zoroastrianism covered, if only for all the yummy Christian parallels.) But three is ever so much better than one.
I know from Connor’s middle school years that they’ll get into the other two of the Big Five as they move east, and I told Erin as much.
“So what religion is in China?” she asked. She’s taking introductory Mandarin at the moment, so it’s a natural first place for her mind to go.
“All of them,” I said. It’s an annoying answer that happens to be true. I try to resist the tendency to paint countries with a single religion, a practice as misleading as Red and Blue states.
Most people equate China with Buddhism, but the country has a long history of pluralism of belief. Buddhism, Taoism, and various folk religions account for about half the population combined. Christians and Muslims are estimated at 2-4 percent each, with a metric smattering of Jews, Hindus, and others.
And the rest? I told Erin the largest single belief group in China is the nonreligious, clocking in at 40-50 percent — not a consequence of Mao, but a strong tradition going back 2200 years.
“A lot of those follow a philosophy you might hear about next year when you study China,” I told her. “It’s called Confucianism.”
She puzzled on the word a moment.
“Is that because they don’t really know what they believe?”
I’m about ready to be done with church-state issues in schools for a while. I’m in the mood to go well off-topic for a bit, to talk about child-eating mermaids and why trying to get the great works of Western civilization through the 19th century intact is like passing the Louvre’s collection of French Impressionism through a preschool on Fingerpaint Day. But since I blogged the Taylor situation last month, y’all keep sending me good on-topic questions. So as long as mine inbox groans under requests for counsel, the kid-noshing merperson will have to wait.
It seems some of you are running into the presence of outside youth evangelizing groups in your public schools, including Young Life and The Good News Club, and wondering you should be concerned. I can’t say “ask NCSE,” since they rightly confine their work to the science classroom. So I’ll weigh in, then give a plug for the folks who DO handle this end of things.
The Good News Club, a group with the stated purpose “to evangelize boys and girls with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ,” has begun meeting in the public school attended by the daughter of one of my readers. Turns out this is another situation on which the courts have weighed in.
Good News Club was the plaintiff in a 2001 Supreme Court case (Good News Club vs. Milford Central School). Even though it allowed other clubs to meet, Milford School had prohibited the Good News Club from meeting in the building after school, thinking it would violate the establishment clause to allow it.
The court ruled 6-3 in favor of Good News Club, the majority stating that Milford Central School was not endorsing a particular religion or even religion in general by allowing them to meet.
Parenting Beyond Belief contributor and former American Atheists president Ed Buckner once noted in a discussion forum that “Bible clubs and clubs based on religion in other ways are permitted in public schools, though with real limits (not always adhered to): such clubs cannot be endorsed by, or even be given the appearance of endorsement by, the principal, school system, etc.”
The Good News Club meeting in the school after hours is legally kosher, and I for one think it should be, with reasonable restrictions. But the fact that GNC flyers were also coming home in the backpack of this parent’s child is perilously close to endorsement and oversteps the limits Ed referred to. And there’s the rub — that these groups can so often be relied upon to overstep whatever reasonable restrictions they are asked to observe.
I recommended having a chat with the principal, who probably doesn’t know the flyers are going home. And I pointed her to an outstanding source of information.
There are several such resources, and, if necessary, sources of direct assistance in cases like these. PBB contributor Stu Tanquist described receiving quick and effective help from The Freedom from Religion Foundation, run by the brilliant team of Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor. There is of course the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that has earned the labels “un-American” and “traitors” for defending the constitutional rights of American citizens.
Please don’t get me going.
Then there’s an organization with which I’m constantly impressed: Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU). In addition to solid advice and long experience, AU provides a spectacular set of online resources. If you’re running into a church-state issue of any kind in public schools, you can’t do much better than starting on AU’s Public Schools page to get quick, intelligent answers.
I’m curious about what you would say to a teacher with concerns about a colleague’s coverage of evolution. We have a science teacher who is evangelical, doesn’t believe in evolution or global warming, and “teaches the controversy” from what we hear. The problem is, I’m not in a position to have proof about what he teaches or how he does it. Any suggestion? — teacherlady
Boy that’s a good one. Teachers have an obligation to be responsive to parents. They have no such obligation to colleagues, and pointed questions from a faculty peer can (and probably would) be seen as galling presumption.
I forwarded the question to NCSE, and once again Glenn Branch provided what seems like a solid, reasonable answer:
It’s a little delicate, obviously, since this is a problem with a colleague, and there may be complicated workplace politics involved. But she should take the problem upstairs, to her department chair (if there is one) or her principal, whose job it is to worry about whether the teachers are doing their jobs right.
She should keep in mind that by doing so she’s going to be serving two interests: not only do the kids in the school need a decent science education, but also the district needs to be able to protect itself from possible lawsuit, as case law is clear. It’s difficult, we know, but she needs to do what is right, both for the kids and the district.
Any discomfort a teacher might feel in raising the question pales when weighed against those two interests.
In a later comment, teacherlady notes that the principal is also Christian and so might be disinclined to act. I wouldn’t assume that. In addition to the possibility that the principal is a sane, moderate Christian, the professional recognition of legal liability will generally trump personal leanings in all but the densest administrator.
There are a few good ground rules for approaching a classroom issue. The first is to start with the teacher. Going straight to the principal or superintendent instantly escalates things. This is especially important if there’s any doubt about what happened — and there almost always is.
I don’t usually suggest email, since tone is hard to convey, but I used it this time to have a record of the exchange and took care that my tone didn’t become the issue. I’m trying to ensure that kids in our community are getting science in the science classroom. For that I need information, period. Is this teacher undercutting our state’s excellent science standards by tub-thumping against evolutionary theory in his (unrelated) class…or not? Is he inserting “intelligent design,” which the judge in Kitzmiller v. Dover said serves only a “blatantly religious purpose,” into a public school science class…or not? That’s what I need to know.
If he is, I want to use the information not just to spank him (which changes too little), but to make it less likely to happen again in any science classroom in the district.
It’s best to focus on a single question. His rant about “evolutionists” can’t be explained away, so there’s no need to give him an opportunity to muddy it. I stuck that one in the file for later. First, I wanted to check on that other red flag.
“Dear Mr. Taylor,” I wrote:
I was so pleased to see that my son Connor is taking science this year. He’s always had a great interest in the subject, and we often discuss what he learns in class each day.
Last Tuesday he came home a bit puzzled over something from the lecture, and I’m hoping you can clarify it. I’m puzzled as well, so perhaps something was lost in the translation.
He recalled you saying something like this: “Experiments (or evidence) today can’t tell us anything about what happened in the distant past. Since no one was there to see it, we can only guess.”
I’m not a science educator myself, just a fan, so I’d appreciate your clarification. It seems to me that much of science is devoted to examining the present for clues about the past. I remember learning about the 19th century debate between catastrophism and uniformitarianism, for example, two theories that attempted to understand Earth’s past by examining present clues. A strong consensus eventually converged on uniformitarianism, which is now the cornerstone of modern geology.
Can you point me to a citation or two so I can further explore this idea that we can’t use evidence in the present to understand the past? Or, if he misheard, I’d appreciate knowing that.
I Googled him for kicks that night (as I’m sure he Googled me). Found him on a social networking site of a sort. “I love God,” said the first sentence of his self-description. “He is the center of my life.” Of course this alone is not the slightest problem. I had a dozen colleagues and friends in my teaching days who were Christians and brilliant science educators. But combined with the odd evidentiary notion and the anti-evolution rant, I was starting to get the picture about Mr. T — a probably decent, hardworking man who is letting his private views compromise his professional responsibility to the kids in this community.
He replied the next day:
You can most definitely use evidence found in the present to understand some things that have happened in the past. Just like in law evidence found in the present can help prove a crime that occurred in the past. That would be nonsense to think otherwise. Let me ask you this question. Which would be considered more reliable evidence to you, you personally seeing something happen in front of you over and over again or you not seeing this event happen but you find circumstantial evidence indicating the event happened?
Even without citations to the Institute for Creation Research, there’s our smoking gun. This is a hamfisted set-up for a creationist punchline: Evolution relies on “mere” circumstantial evidence, while God witnessed creation and wrote about it in his Book.
I replied, answering his question but quickly returning to mine:
Dear Mr. Taylor,
Oh good, thank you. I suppose he misheard. One way to be sure — he said it was on an overhead. Perhaps you can share that to help clear it up?
To answer your question: If my eyes told me Mary entered an apartment over and over, but the DNA indicated it was Susan, I would certainly go with the circumstantial evidence, as would the legal system.
Another example: my son witnessed your statement about our inability to know the past from the present, but I’d like to see the circumstantial evidence of the overhead — when you have a minute.
I do appreciate your time and help.
No answer for three days. Apparently I spoiled his punchline.
Warning label formerly in biology textbooks, Cobb County GA. Two lovely sentences bookending a howler. Gone as of 2006.
The teacher was young, hip, and hugely popular with the kids in her Georgia public middle school, a talented teacher in many ways. Everybody wanted Miss Reynolds for seventh grade science.
“You may have noticed in your syllabus that we’re talking about evolution today,” she began one day, a few weeks in. “Now,” she said — I picture the palms out, eyes closed, head cocked, the posture of assured commiseration — “I know this is a controversial thing. But I want you to understand that this is just a theory. There are lots of other theories too. This is just one guy’s idea. M’kay?”
My son Connor was in the class. He was raised on the wonder of natural selection and sees the implications of it everywhere. He felt a bit betrayed to hear a teacher he really liked giving evolution the “just a theory” treatment.
It wasn’t for long. Within days, she was on to something else.
This, it turns out, is standard operating procedure in US classrooms. A NYT article written around the time of the Kitzmiller trial noted that even if evolution is in the curriculum, science teachers nationwide generally downplay, gloss over, or completely ignore it.
Dr. John Frandsen, a retired zoologist, was at a dinner for teachers in Birmingham, Alabama recently when he met a young woman who had just begun work as a biology teacher in a small school district in the state. Their conversation turned to evolution.
“She confided that she simply ignored evolution because she knew she’d get in trouble with the principal if word got about that she was teaching it,” he recalled. “She told me other teachers were doing the same thing.”
Dr. Gerald Wheeler, a physicist who heads the National Science Teachers Association, said many members of his organization “fly under the radar” of fundamentalists by introducing evolution as controversial, which scientifically it is not, or by noting that many people do not accept it, caveats not normally offered for other parts of the science curriculum.
It isn’t usually the beliefs of the teacher that screw things up but a desire to sidestep a firestorm from parents. And though opposition is almost entirely religious parents, not all religious parents are opposed. In fact, Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education has observed that it’s a non-issue in Catholic schools — at least since John Paul II gave the infallible okie-doke in 1996.
Last year Connor was a freshman in high school and hit Life Sciences and evolution again. Once again it was a teacher he really liked, an affable coach who taught science brilliantly as well. But once again, Connor knew the odds of a strong presentation were not good.
Sure enough, on the first day of the evolution unit, Coach Davis strode to the front of the room, cleared his throat, and said: “Today we’re starting the unit on evolution. Evolution, as you know, is just a theory.”
I can just picture my boy’s eyes, the only part of his face that betrays his feelings when he’s holding the lid on tight.
The teacher paused. “Now,” he continued, “let me tell you what the word ‘theory’ actually means.”
Connor described it to me with obvious relief. “He said a theory is something that explains what facts mean, and that ‘theory’ doesn’t mean something is just a guess. He said there are strong theories and weak theories, and that evolution is one of the strongest in science. He said that gravity is a theory, but it doesn’t mean we’re not sure about gravity. It was awesome.”
But even that map reflects only the quality of state science standards. What happens in the classroom is anybody’s guess. Miss Reynolds and Coach Davis are three miles apart in a state with the highest grade in science standards, yet one of them is hitting it out of the park while the other settles for a bunt. One thing is for sure — by presenting evolution intelligently and in depth, my son’s more recent Southern science teacher is doing better than many of his counterparts, even at the higher latitudes.
It’s not about the defense of the concept for Connor. It mostly just pains him to hear people he likes and respects, and who should know better, saying dumb things. I’ve seen him flash the same disappointed face at me. And half the time he’s right.
Hopefully we’ll both carry away another lesson, something Kurt Vonnegut once said. Considering what a mess of nonsense and bad wiring we are, I don’t get too depressed anymore by the dumb things we say and do. That’s normal. Instead, I’m mostly gratified that we ever get ANYTHING right.
And we do, despite ourselves. Despite the fact that evolution so decisively dethrones us, that it so deflates our mighty self-importance, we still figured it out, and we’re still passing it on. Incompletely and inelegantly, yes. But given the sorry way evolution actually threw us together, I say woohoo.
Went to a classroom play of sorts at Erin’s middle school — a mostly unscripted mock trial. The teacher is innovative and fun, and Erin adores her, so I wasn’t surprised to see that she’d come up with this clever little exercise.
The kids were assigned roles — prosecution and defense teams, jury, witnesses, and so on. On trial was an alligator, accused of eating the witch in the Rapunzel story (a wrinkle I’d never heard before).
Various other fairy-tale characters testified — again, unscriptedly, so they had to think on their feet. It mostly went as you’d expect of sixth graders asked to improvise.
Erin was the bailiff. As the first witness approached — the prince, I believe — Erin instructed him to raise his right hand and place the other hand on a fairy-tale book she held out. (Had myself a nice internal chuckle at the parallel.)
It occurred to me casually — I’ve come ever so far — that the name of the Creator was about to be invoked. Sure enough, Erin looked the prince in the eye and said
Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you Grimm?
ERIN (11): Mohammed is believed by Muslims to be directly descended from the Angel Gabriel.
DAD,looking up from his book: Uh…really? I didn’t know that.
ERIN: It’s a question, Dad. True or false.
DAD,suddenly interested: Is this homework?
ERIN: Yes Dad, it’s homework, social studies, world religions, I’m terrible at it, so is it true or false??
DAD: Well you won’t get better at it if I just give you the answers.
ERIN: Plee-he-he-heeease, Daddy.
DAD: First tell me who Mohammed is.
ERIN: (*Sigh*) I don’t know. Some Jewish guy.
I could barely contain my delight. Not that she had bar mitzvahed the Prophet, which gave me the shpilkes, but that she was learning about religion in school — something I didn’t think the district would dare do.
Contrary to the fears of many nontheistic parents, and despite irritating nonsense from the occasional evangelical teacher, the vaaaaast majority of U.S. public school administrators are not the least bit interested in injecting religion into the classroom. On the contrary, they are terrified of getting into a constitutional row over it. In the early 90s, Becca’s principal forbade teachers to so much as put up the word DECEMBER in alternating red and green construction-paper letters lest (by associative property) one religion be invoked above others, however distantly.
But this isn’t that. Erin is studying religions, in the essential plural, an entirely good thing when done right.
b. Describe the major religions in Europe; include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
By grade seven in Georgia, “The student will
explain the diversity of religions within the Arab, Ashanti, Bantu, and Swahili ethnic groups
explain the diversity of religions within the Arabs, Persians, and Kurds
compare and contrast the prominent religions in Southern and Eastern Asia: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Shintoism and the philosophy of Confucianism
describe how land and religion are reasons for continuing conflicts in the Middle East.
I LOVE THIS.
It would be wrongheaded (and unconstitutional) to favor any one religious perspective in the classroom, though that was the practice in the U.S. for generations. But a well-designed and well-taught curriculum in comparative religion would go a long way to improving our shameful status as one of the most religiously faithful AND most religiously ignorant countries on the planet.
Europe and the United States are diametrically opposed in not one but two religious respects: belief in and knowledge of religion. The U.S. is both the most religiously enthusiastic and the least religious literate country in the developed world. We believe with great fervor but know very little about the tenets, history, and elements of our own belief systems, let alone those of our neighbors. Europeans, on the other hand, show very low levels of religious belief but, thanks to formal religious education in the schools, tend to have a very deep knowledge of religion.
Because U.S. schools shy away from teaching about religion, religious education falls to the parents—all parents. Religious parents can take advantage of whatever religious education is offered at church but have the detriment of a single, limiting point of view. Nonreligious parents reverse the polarity—the responsibility for the religious education of their children is primarily theirs, but unhindered by an organized doctrinal system, we have a greater opportunity to bring multiple perspectives to bear. And we must. Children who are ignorant of the elements of religion will be easy targets for religious zealotry and will be hobbled in their own free decisionmaking. Ignorance is impotence. Knowledge is power. (p. 69)
Gah, that’s a good passage.
Granted, the curriculum Fulton County is using is lame and uneven. Erin’s class watched three short films about the Abrahamics, then completed worksheets full of typos and oversimplifications ( “T/F: Judaism is diferent than other religions because there is onky one sect” — oy vey).
I don’t like the fact that each of the three is presented as a single thing — “Christians believe that…” is pretty close to meaningless, given the presence of 33,830 Christian denominations by last count — nor a hundred other things about it. But I can quibble with curricula in almost every subject. The important thing is that the kids are seeing Christianity placed side by side with other religions. This simple act has an automatic dethroning effect — mild for some, startling for others. And what balance and depth is missing, I’m helping Erin discover.
I helped her get past her confusion of Judaism and Islam in part by putting them in historical perspective with this insanely cool flash map showing the spread of the five largest religions:
Even this required supplementing, of course. For one thing, I had to point out that the grey areas certainly had beliefs of their own before they were subsumed into one or another of the corporate faiths, and that not everyone in a given color believes the same. I, for example, am not (at least in this respect) blue.
So I’m with Steven Prothero in supporting MORE religion in schools. Let’s call it Worldview Studies to include the nontheistic perspective. If the worksheets linked below are any indication, the current curricula vary from lame to awful. But done well, such a thing would enhance the ability of kids to make informed decisions in the long run.
Older siblings can have a strange and scary power over their youngers. So experienced, so judgmental, and so good at pushing buttons.
I was the middle of three, and so both receiver and wielder of that power. I could get my younger brother to completely lose his mind with a well-timed twitch of my eyebrow and rarely missed the chance (sorry, Randy). My older brother could do the same to me.
Ron’s five years older, so I was in kindergarten when he was in fifth grade and therefore automatically an Ewok to his Obi-Wan. By the time I entered junior high, he was halfway through high school. I started college right after he finished. There was just no catching up.
I know Connor (14) has the same effect on his sisters. They try to dismiss his teasing or criticisms, but it’s not easy. He aims, he fires, they fall.
The same is true with his observations about life in general, which are always delivered with the devastating finality of Judge Judy. He tells them how it is; they mutter “nuh uhh,” then collapse into brow-knitted self-doubt.
That dynamic was only one of my concerns when Connor delivered one of these pronouncements a few days ago. From the next room, I heard Delaney (7) sharing a conversation she had with a friend at school. “I told her I didn’t really believe in God, but I was still thinking about it. She said she didn’t know anybody else who…”
“Lane…” Connor said, then sighed with exaggerated patience.
She stopped. “What?”
“Lane, you really shouldn’t talk about religion at school.”
“Why not? It’s interesting.”
“You shouldn’t talk about it because you gain nothing and it gets all your friends to hate you.”
“Yes. It does, Lane.”
It took every bit of my strength to stay in my chair.
I had at least three reasons to be concerned about this. First, I wanted to know if he was speaking from painful experience. If not, I wanted to be sure Delaney completely disregarded his advice, since these astonishing conversations are a big part of her unique engagement with the world. And if it WAS something he experienced, I might need to revisit the advice I give to parents around the country — to encourage their kids (and themselves) to discuss belief and disbelief openly in hopes of moving us toward that world in which differences in belief are no big deal. The whole idea of engaged coexistence turns on questions like this.
I waited until after dinner, then told Connor I’d heard their conversation. I said this was something I needed to know the truth about because parents come to me for advice on these issues, and I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. Had this ever happened to him? Had he ever had friends begin to hate him because of religious differences or conversations?
“Well…no,” he said. “Not anymore. But younger kids do that.”
“Someone stopped being your friend when you were younger?”
“Well…no. But one time this kid freaked out because I told him I didn’t think God was real.”
“And he hated you from then on?”
Laney’s approach to life
“No, I guess not. He just freaked out for a minute, you know, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you don’t believe in God, how can you not believe in God?’ blah blah. Then everything was fine. We were still friends and everything.”
I was relieved. This is exactly what I’ve heard from countless parents–the vast majority of the time, kids engage, they freak out, they move on. I asked Connor not to discourage Laney from talking about these things with friends, and he agreed.
At bedtime I asked Laney what she thought about Connor’s advice. She shrugged. “It’s not true. My friends don’t hate me. They think it’s interesting.”
I told her that I’d chatted with him and found out that it had never happened to him. I encouraged her to keep it up as long as she found it interesting.
“I know. It doesn’t bother me when he says things like that,” she assured me. “I just think…” She shook her head dismissively and sighed. “…brothers.”
Curriculum Night at my freshman son’s fabulous high school. I’m dazzled. Enthusiastic and intelligent teachers half my damn age but who’s counting. A sparkling clean building one NINTH my age. Nationally-ranked academics.
All this to say that I was not looking for trouble when I stopped and scanned a cartoony poster in his science class titled “WHY STUDY BIOLOGY?”
At left is the largest photo of it I could find online.
Scattered around the poster are cute and curious children studying the natural world and giving all the reasons such study is worthwhile. The three most important reasons, judging from font size alone, are to answer the questions “Where do birds go in the winter?”, “Where do ants go in the winter?”, and “Where do snakes go in the winter?”
But in the left center, another reason caught my not-for-trouble-looking eye:
So I can decide if I believe in evolution.
Yes, I know what’s wrong with that sentence. But I surprised myself by seeing it as…not too bad.
Now anybody rushing to the comment section with the word “gravity” on your fingertips can take a pill. As much as I cringe at the phrase “believe in evolution,” it is not the same as “believing in gravity,” and we should stop making that glib comparison. Although evolution is as solidly established a fact as gravity, it’s not half as obvious. It takes effort and education to see how thoroughly established a fact evolution is. To believe in gravity, all you need is a ladder and a six-pack.
What the poster is saying, really, is that you study biology so you have the education to understand the evidence for evolution. It’s saying Don’t base your decision on the gut feeling that you’re far too special to be related to a chimp. Learn, then decide. Only by stubbornly not learning about it, by not encountering that staggering evidence, can a person hope to hang on to his or her opposition to it.
So I can and do quibble with the wording — it’s not about “belief” — but the message is pretty much on the mark. At least it could be worse.