Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

The Power of Two: How Shared Dissent Can Make All the Difference

 

First published in 2011, this article feels especially urgent in 2018. Erin is now a junior in college.

A few days ago, Erin, my eighth-grader, made me proud. That alone is not news. But in this case she showed courage in someone else’s defense, and when that happens, my shirt buttons grab their crash helmets and wince.

“Guess what happened today,” she said.

I gave up.

“I was at the table in the cafeteria with these three other kids, and two of them asked the other girl where she went to church. She said ‘We don’t go to church,’ and their eyes got big, and the one guy leaned forward and said, ‘But you believe in God, right?'”

Oh here we go. I shifted in my seat.

“So the girl says, ‘Not really, no.’ And their eyes got all big, and they said, ‘Well what DO you believe in then??’ And she said, ‘I believe in the universe.’ And they said, ‘So you’re like an atheist?’ And she said ‘Yes, I guess I am.'”

I looked around for popcorn and a five-dollar Coke. Nothing. “Then what??”

“Then they turned to meee…and they said, ‘What about YOU? What do YOU believe?'” Another pause. “And I said, ‘Well…I’m an atheist too. An atheist and a humanist.'”

She’s 13, old enough to try on labels, as long as she keeps thinking. She knows that. And she’s recently decided that her current thoughts add up to an atheist and a humanist.

“And I looked at the other girl, and…like this wave of total relief comes over her face.”

Oh my word. What a thing that is.

“Erin that’s so great,” I said. “Imagine how she would have felt if you weren’t there!!”

“Yeah, I know!!”

I’ll tell you who else knows — Solomon Asch.

The Asch experiment is one of the great studies in conformity. When you are alone in a room full of people whose opinion differs from yours, the pressure to conform is enormous. But when individuals were tested separately without group consensus pressures, fewer than 1 percent made any errors at all. The lesson of Solomon Asch is that most people at least some of the time will defy the clear evidence of their own senses or reason to follow the herd.

One variation in the design of the study provides a profound lesson about dissent. This is the one that Erin’s situation reminded me of. And it’s a crucial bit of knowledge for any parent wishing to raise an independent thinker and courageous dissenter.

In this version, all but one of the researcher’s confederates would give the wrong answer. The presence of just one other person who saw the evidence in the same way the subject did reduced the error rates of subjects by 75 percent. This is a crucial realization: If a group is embarking on a bad course of action, a lone dissenter may turn it around by energizing ambivalent group members to join the dissent instead of following the crowd into disaster. Just one other person resisting the norm can help others with a minority opinion find their voices.

This plays out on stages even larger than the school cafeteria. On April 17, 1961, the US government sent 1,500 Cuban exiles to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The idea was to give the US plausible deniability—barely plausible, but still. It was supposed to look like the exiles did it on their own.

Well, it did end up looking like that. The invasion was a mess of lousy planning and execution. Most of the 1,500 were killed or captured by a force of 20,000 Cuban soldiers, and the US government was forced to essentially pay a ransom of 53 million dollars for the release of the prisoners. And that’s in Mad Men dollars—it would be $510 million today. Cuba’s ties with the Soviet Union were strengthened, and the stage was set for the Cuban Missile Crisis six months later.

In short, it was a complete disaster. And in retrospect, that should have been obvious to those who planned it. But among President Kennedy’s senior advisers, the vote to go ahead had been unanimous. Why? It came out later that several of them had serious doubts beforehand but were unwilling to express those doubts since they thought everybody else was on board. It was the height of the Cold War, and nobody wanted to look “soft.” The climate of the discussions made real dissent too difficult to articulate, so a really bad idea went unchallenged.

The presidential historian Arthur Schlesinger was there for most of the discussions, and he later said that he was convinced that even one dissenter could have caused Kennedy to call off the invasion. ONE. He said he wished most of all that he had found the strength to be that dissenter.

At least Kennedy learned his lesson. During the Missile Crisis later that year, he made a point of fostering dissent and encouraging the collision of ideas among his advisers. The resulting policy led to the peaceful conclusion of what may have been the most dangerous crisis in human history (so far).

Many think that times of crisis and war are the worst possible times for argument and dissent. Hitler certainly thought so. He often said the mess of conflicting opinion in democracies would cause the Western powers to crumble before the single-minded focus of his military machine. He got the difference right but misdirected the praise. Military historians are pretty much agreed that the stifling of dissent in the Third Reich’s military decision-making was its fatal flaw. It was entirely top-down. Only if Hitler’s plans were flawless could that system be stronger than one in which ideas contend for supremacy.

So Montgomery and Patton’s pissing contests, MacArthur and Truman’s showdowns, and the constant whirl of debate among the Allies and even among the branches of the American service was a better approach to running a war than the single-minded dictates of dictators, from Napoleon to Hitler to Saddam Hussein. Crush dissent and you will most often end up shooting yourself in the foot. United We Stand is bad policy, even in wartime.

Dissent is often discouraged in the corporate world as well. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld’s research found that corporate boards that punish dissent and stress unity among their members are the most likely to wind up in bad business patterns. It’s corporations with highly contentious boards that tend to be successful. Not always—it depends on the nature of the contention—but when boards generate a wide range of viewpoints and tough questions are asked about the prevailing orthodoxy, they tend to make better decisions in the end. All ideas have to withstand a crossfire of challenge so the bad has a chance of being recognized and avoided.

A list of corporations with boards that valued conformity and punished dissent reads like a Who’s Who of corporate malfeasance: Tyco, WorldCom, Enron.

There’s something so counter-intuitive about all this. It seems on the face of it that uniting behind an idea or position or plan is the best way to ensure success. And it can be, if the idea or position or plan is good in the first place. And the best way to ensure that it is good is by fostering dissent from the beginning.

And “from the beginning” really means long before the meeting even begins — while the decision makers are still in the eighth grade cafeteria, learning to accept the presence of difference in their midst.

Had the other girl in my daughter’s story not mustered the courage to self-identify first as a person with a different perspective — in this case an atheist — Erin would have been statistically less likely to share her own non-majority view. Once the girl spoke up, Erin’s ability to join the dissent went up about 75 percent. And once Erin shared the same view, the other girl enjoyed a wave of retroactive relief at not being alone.

The other two kids also won a parting gift. They learned that the assumed default doesn’t always hold, and that the world still spins despite the presence of difference. They’re also likely to be less afraid and less astonished the next time they learn that someone doesn’t believe as they do, which can translate into greater tolerance of all kinds of difference.

Age Stories: How My Kids Met Me One Year at a Time

“Twenty-eight!”

“Hmm, okay, 28. Ooh, that’s a good one.”

Despite living with him for 13 years, I knew very little about my dad. He worked three jobs and traveled a lot. When he was in town, he came home exhausted from a hundred-mile round-trip commute. I didn’t even know he was a nonbeliever until long after his death at 45.

My mom spoke very little of him, consumed as she was with the lonely and impossible task of working full-time while raising three kids by herself two time zones away from any other family.

I’ve wondered how much my kids would remember of me if I died today. The situation is different — I’m more involved in their lives than my dad was able to be in mine, for several reasons — but I wanted a way of sharing my life with my kids that was natural and unforced.

At some point, without even meaning to, I found a way, starting a tradition in our family called “age stories.” Simple premise: At bedtime, in addition to books or songs, the kids could pick an age (“Twenty-eight!”) and I would tell them about something that happened to me at that age. For a long time it was one of their favorite bedtime options.

Through age stories, they now know about my life at age 4 (broken arm from walking on a row of metal trash cans), age 9 (stole a pack of Rollos from Target and felt so bad I fed them to my dog, nearly killing her), age 21 (broke up with my first girlfriend and got dumped by the second one), 23 (my crushing uncertainty on graduating college), 25 (the strange and cool job in LA that allowed me to meet Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., Jimmy Stewart, Elton John, and a hundred other celebs), 26 (when I pursued and stole their mother’s affections from the Air Force pilot she was allllmost engaged to), what happened on the days they were born, and everything — eventually just about everything — in-between.

They know how I tricked a friend into quitting pot (for a night anyway, at 15), the surreal week that followed my dad’s death (13), how I nearly cut off two fingers by reaching under a running lawnmower (17, shut up), my battles with the administration of the Catholic college where I taught (40), the time I was nearly hit by a train in Germany (38) and nearly blown off a cliff in a windstorm in Scotland (42).

Age stories can also open up important issues in an unforced way. Delaney happened to ask for 11 — my age when my parents moved us from St. Louis to LA — right before we moved her from Minneapolis to Atlanta. It was a very difficult time for her. I described my own tears and rage at 11, and the fact that I held on to my bedpost the day of the move — and how well it turned out in the end. I wasn’t surprised when she said “11” again and again during that hard transition in her own life.

We’ve talked about love, lust, death, fear, joy, lying, courage, cowardice, mistakes, triumphs, uncertainty, embarrassment, and the personal search for meaning in ways that no lecture could ever manage. They’ve come to know their dad not just as the aging monkey he is now, but as a little boy, a teenager, a twenty-something, stumbling up the very path they’re on now.

And they keep coming back for more.

Give it a try. Make it dramatic. Include lots of details and dialogue. Have fun. Then come back here and tell us how it went.

Venus envy

When I was 10, my dad tried to show me Comet Kohoutek, which was unfortunately a fizzle, at least where we were. But we saw a lot of other cool things over the years, and he taught me to watch the sky.

My daughter Delaney is now 10, and she’s been a skywatcher from the start. I wanted to show her the last transit of Venus for 105 years, which happened yesterday, but it rained pretty much all day. Which reminded us both of something I told her years ago.

Guillaume Le Gentil was part of one of the most unimaginable scientific undertakings ever. Somebody in the 17th century, I can’t even remember who or how, realized that Venus crosses the disc of the Sun twice, eight years apart, then repeats the pair about 105 years later. Then somebody in the 18th century — Ed Halley, I think it was — figured out that viewing the transit from different parts of the globe, and taking accurate measurements of when Venus enters and exits the disc, and comparing the readings, could help us figure out the distance from Earth to the Sun, which could then be used to figure out every other astronomical distance in the solar system. And that the next opportunity to do this would be in June 1761.

May I just say this about myself. If I’d been sitting in the bar with Halley, and I’d heard this, I would have found it very interesting, then gone back into me pint. “If only this weren’t the bleedin’ 18th century,” I might have funk to meself.

Fortunately, better folks than I were there, and they started chanting the Nike slogan, then made plans to dispatch over 100 observers all around the planet, in the 18th century, to figure out how far away the Sun is.

One of the dispatched was a French astronomer named Guillaume le Gentil, who left Paris a year before the transit and headed for a spot on the southeast coast of India called Pondicherry. He was delayed in landing by an extended naval skirmish, part of the Seven Years’ War. Weeks passed, then Transit Day came and went with le Gentil trapped on a rocking ship, unable to take useful measurements.

Instead of returning home, he decided he might as well hang out until the next transit eight years later, on June 4th, 1769. He killed some time mapping Madagascar, then returned to Pondicherry, built himself a little observatory, and bided his time.

June 4th dawned bright and clear, and le Gentil sat with growing excitement in his observatory, waiting for the transit.

Moments before it began, a cloud rolled over the sun. The view remained obscured for the duration of the transit, then cleared nicely when it was too late. Le Gentil nearly lost his mind. Honestly, who wouldn’t.

Then things got worse. He decided to return home, but first got dysentery and had to miss his ship. He got better, then caught another ship, which wrecked off the coast of Réunion. He made it to shore, then eventually caught a Spanish ship home. He arrived in Paris eleven years after he left, only to learn he’d been declared dead and had lost his coveted seat in the French Academy of Sciences. His wife had remarried — although seriously, can you blame her? — and everything he owned had been sold off.

He essentially sued everyone, got his stuff back, got back into the academy, got him a new wife, and did just fine. But he never saw the transit of Venus. And after about 18 hours of clouds and rain, it looked like we wouldn’t either.

But then, then, just as the transit began yesterday at 6pm, I saw a sudden brightness outside. I jumped up from the dinner table, threw together a pinhole camera and ran out to the front yard with Laney in tow. Sure enough, after about five minutes of focusing and refocusing, Laney and I saw that tiny magic dot and screamed.

We walked back inside. My wife was still there, and no one had eaten my tilapia. In the history of transit-watching, that counts as a win.

Just regular

Remember this story from a few weeks back, when Erin (13) overheard another girl being gently grilled by a couple of peers about her atheism? It’s apparently ongoing. Fortunately the tone is much more inquisitive than Inquisitive. Here’s a bit from the middle school cafeteria earlier this week:

BOY: So what’s it like to be an atheist?

GIRL: What do you mean? It’s just regular.

BOY: But — what do atheists do?

GIRL: What do we do? We do regular stuff.

BOY: I mean like what do you do on Sunday?

GIRL: Probably about what you do on Saturday. But I get two.

(Who IS this kid? Somewhere in 1976, my 13-year-old self just wet himself in shame.)

BOY, after a thoughtful pause: So you can do anything you want then because you don’t have to obey God’s law.

ERIN, interjects: Well…you still have to obey THE law, you know.

Oh how I love these things. I think this kind of low-impact conversation between peers has incredible power to rock preconceptions and give kids permission to think independently. It’s also about 30 times more bloody friggin’ interesting than most of what gets itself talked about, no matter what your age.

Kids vary in their desire to do this, which is fine. As I’ve said before, Connor (16) has no interest at all, while Delaney (9) has done it continuously since she was four. Erin is just beginning to toe-dip and finding out how cool it can be.

I know this can be dicier in some areas and situations. But I also know that we often falsely assume that’s the case. We’re in a pretty conservative area here, both religiously and politically, and still (the occasional brief freakout aside) the conversations my kids have had across belief lines have gone really well. I’ve heard the same from score of parents in places you’d think would go the other way. It almost always goes better than you think it will.

I suggest raising kids who love to engage ideas and know how to do so in a way that respects the people who hold those ideas — then let them decide whether and how to have these conversations.

An unreliable Witness (Part 2)

(Read Part 1 first.)

Previously on The Meming of Life: I expressed concern to a Jehovah’s Witness over my (allegedly) disobedient son. She confirmed that the Bible is completely reliable and accurate, and that its advice applies even today. We now return to our story, already in progress.

“I’m relieved to hear you say that,” I said. “You brought the answer to our problem right to our door, and I’m so grateful. It’s in Deuteronomy, chapter 21, verse 18.” I reached for my NIV Bible, strangely close at hand, and flipped to it. “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town….Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death.”

Her reaction was immediate — a loud nervous laugh. “HAHA! Well we don’t want you to do THAT!”

I blinked. “But Jesus does.” I flipped open to Matthew 5:17 and pointed.

“I…I’m not so sure about that. I don’t know what translation you’re using there.” She pulled out her own bible — most likely the New World Translation, a JW version published in the 1950s — and flipped to Matthew. “And I see yours is in red letters,” she said. “I’m not sure what that indicates…”

“The words of Christ.”

“Oh, okay.” She scanned her own Mt 5:17. “Okay, yes, it’s basically the same. But it’s important to read the Deuteronomy verse in context. It is not suggesting that you can kill your son.”

“You’re right, it doesn’t say I can. I says I shall. I don’t see that I have a choice. In fact, in Mark 7:9 *flip flip flip* Jesus specifically criticizes the Pharisees for not killing their children as the Old Law commands. What context are you talking about?”

“You can’t just look at the words and say, okay, I’m done, I’ll do that. God was speaking to Ancient Israel. Our time is not the same.”

“I see. So you can’t read the Bible exactly as it is, you have to interpret it.”

“Yes. Well no! It’s a matter of context, not interpretation.”

“And in the context of Ancient Israel, it was moral to kill your disobedient child.”

“Yes. But not today.”

“So God’s moral law has changed.”

The eyes of the moon-faced boy were becoming enormous white craters. Voldemort was apparently toweling off. The smile was unchanged.

“No. God’s law is eternal. Only man’s law changes.”

“And Deuteronomy is whose word again?”

She looked down and nodded once. “I can see you’re struggling with this…”

“Ma’am, if one of us is struggling, I don’t think it’s me.” I dropped my pretense. “Look — I’m not planning to kill my son. It’s immoral now, and it was immoral in ancient Judea. The Sixth Commandment covers that. There’s no ‘context’ that makes it okay to kill a disobedient child. It’s also a bit of a problem to say that a book including such a clear instruction is to be followed to the letter.”

She paused. “Okay,” she said quietly. “Let me just say this. When I discovered the Bible many years ago, when I learned that this is the Truth” — she pressed her hand into the cover with soft intensity — “it made such a difference in my life. It helped me, and it can help you. We cannot possibly know what is right without it.”

I shook my head. “What you just said is not true. You’ve just shown that you are better than that.” I held the Bible up. “There’s a lot of really good stuff in here, but there is also a lot of absolutely wretched, immoral stuff. And you recognized that it was wrong to kill my son, despite what the Bible said. You used your own moral reasoning to sort that out. That’s a really good thing. It’s what we should all do.”

No reply.

“If you had come to my house two weeks ago and handed me a letter that simply told me to kill my son, I would have been justified in calling the police. Of course you would never do that. But you essentially gave me that same letter with a lot of other pages around it, and told me it was the perfect word of God.”

It was obvious that she had never had an experience like this. Though the boy was hard to read (or even to look at directly at this point), the Talker was clearly intelligent and seemed intrigued. We talked for another ten minutes at least. She asked if I wasn’t astonished by the perfect fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in the Gospels. I asked if she was astonished by the perfect fulfillment of predictions from the first Harry Potter book in the seventh Harry Potter book. The gospel writers had the OT in their laps and shaped their retelling of the life of Christ to fulfill those prophecies — a common practice in Mediterranean religious literature. We talked about midrash and syncretism, which she had never heard of. I told her about the Jesus Seminar, which she had also never heard of.

“Do you believe in God at all?” she asked at last. I do not, I said, but I’ve always been fascinated by ultimate questions. The people I don’t understand are the ones who are indifferent to those questions. She agreed.

“Well,” she said, “I guess we can leave it there.” I apologized for keeping her so long, and she said, “My no. I’m the one who wanted to stay. This has been so interesting.” We shook hands, and off they went. I’d like to think they’ll remember it, and that it will nicely complicate their task from now on.

That night I told the story at dinner. While Connor (who is not, by the way, a difficult child) and I were clearing the table (see?), he said, “I can’t believe what you did to those people.”

Uh oh. Yeah, I wondered about that. Remember the cross necklace story a few weeks ago? Connor is a classic apatheist, and the collision of religious ideas makes him uncomfortable.

“Con, don’t worry, I was very gentle about it.”

“No no, that’s not what I mean. I mean…it was awesome how you did that. I can’t believe it.”

Well that did it. Now the stoning is off for sure.

An unreliable Witness

I don’t often fence with doorknocking evangelists. They always (always) interrupt me in the middle of a much more interesting thought that I’m eager to get back to, and the more I engage, the more my brain is distracted for the rest of the day by all the witty things I should have said.

I also don’t like to embarrass people, even when they’ve come to my door asking me to please do so. In most cases, these are decent, harmless folks trying to do what they think is right, however misguided, and influencing few others. Many former doorknockers confirm that the practice is mostly about making yourself feel good about “carrying out the Great Commission,” and that slammed doors are taken as evidence of your own Christ-like conviction in a fallen world. “Each slammed door helps us come closer to our Savior,” wrote one Mormon missionary.

I don’t want to be part of someone else’s martyr complex, but it’s hard to avoid getting testy when somebody knocks on my door and says something deeply silly, then asks for my thoughts. Still, I usually manage to thank them for their time and suddenly remember that soufflé.

But earlier this month, something quietly snapped as I listened to two Jehovah’s Witnesses at my door. Actually, I only listened to one — there’s always a Talker and what I guess you’d call…a witness. The Talker had started by reading me a weirdly mundane verse from Psalms, then asked for my reaction. What follows is as close to verbatim as I can recall.

“To that? No particular reaction.”

She nodded, handed me a booklet titled WHAT DOES THE BIBLE Really TEACH?, and asked if she could come back to discuss it with me later in the month.

Well sure, I said.

Last week, she bested Jesus by coming back when she said she would. I was ready with a new twist on a very old approach.

“So…Dale, was it? Hi Dale. Did you have a chance to look at the booklet I left last time?”

“Oh yes!” I said with a bit too much enthusiasm. “I did. It was very interesting.”

She seemed pleased. “What was interesting to you?”

“Well it’s just full of answers, and it has these, these footnotes that point to places in the Bible. Did you know that?”

She did!

“So I started looking through the Bible because…” I paused for effect and lowered my voice. “Well, my family is having some difficulties, and we could really use some answers right now.”

The quiet one was different this time, a strange, moon-faced boy, about sixteen, with that mixed expression that always unsettles me. The mouth smiles, but the eyes seem to be looking at Voldemort in the shower.

“What kind of difficulties?” asked the Talker.

“It’s my son,” I said. “He’s sixteen. He’s stubborn and rebellious. When we discipline him, it just doesn’t seem to make a difference.” I looked up cautiously, expecting a change of expression as she figured out where I was going. Nothing. “And as I was looking for answers in the Bible, boom! There it was!”

“That’s how it is sometimes!” she said, eyes sparkling. “Boom!”

“Yes, boom! And I knew I could trust the advice, because the booklet you gave me said the entire Bible is ‘harmonious and accurate,’ with no contradictions. All the inspired word of God.”

“It is indeed.”

“That’s important to know, because the answer I found is in the Old Testament. I have this friend who said the Old Testament doesn’t count any more. He said the New Covenant of Jesus Christ replaced the Old Law.”

She shook her head. “Your friend is making a very common mistake,” she said. “He is interpreting the word of Jehovah God. You have to read the Bible exactly as it is, NOT interpret it. Otherwise there’s your interpretation, there’s my interpretation, and somebody else’s.”

“Right, we can’t have that,” I said. My porch was suddenly a barrel stocked with two fish, both of them dressed for a funeral for some reason. “So I went back to my Bible after I talked to this friend…and it fell right open to Matthew 5:17.”

I waited, nodding expectantly.

She smiled uncomfortably. “I’m not…too familiar with that passage.”

“Matthew 5:17, really?” I said, with honest surprise. “Right between the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer?” She smiled weakly. This was disappointing. If nothing else, JWs are usually scripturally literate. And this is not some passage tucked away in the Bible’s sock drawer — it’s from the Sermon on the Mount.

I closed my eyes and began: “Do not think I have come to abolish the Old Law or the Prophets…this is Jesus speaking…I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not the least stroke of a pen shall by any means disappear from the Old Law until everything is accomplished. Now I looked up ‘Old Law,'” I said, “and it means the first five books of the Old Testament.” I gestured around. “I don’t know about heaven, but Earth hasn’t passed away yet. So Jesus said the Old Testament is still relevant today.”

“That’s exactly right,” she said. “Every word is of Jehovah God.”

“And Jesus said, Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. I don’t want to be the least in heaven, and I’m sure you wouldn’t teach me anything that would make you the least in heaven, right?”

“Certainly not.”

“I’m relieved to hear you say that. You brought the answer to our problem right to our door, and I’m so grateful. It’s in Deuteronomy, chapter 21, verse 18.” I reached for my NIV Bible, strangely close at hand, and flipped to it. “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town….Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death.”

On to Part 2

Dash of cynicism, pinch of hope

Many thanks to those of you who contacted the Fulton County School Board regarding the proposed rescission of the district’s church/state policy and procedure. As expected, the Board voted to rescind anyway. But read on — after a dash of nauseating cynicism, there’s a metric pinch of hope.

Thanks to a well-connected friend, I finally learned why the rescission was proposed in the first place. This friend cares as much about the district and this issue as I do but has a much better idea where the bodies are buried. So she picked up the phone, called the right person, and got a straight answer. It turns out that attorneys for the district advised the school board to rescind the policies so the district can sidestep culpability in the event of a church/state lawsuit.

Read that again. Feel like taking a shower? Me too. But that is apparently the (unstated) reason. If the district has a clear church/state policy and allows it to be violated, they can be held liable. If there is no clear policy, they can shrug and point upstream to state law.

Never mind that no one, including the Board, seems able to find any clear state law on this important issue.

As I said last time, church/state separation is a complicated subject that teachers and principals are constantly stepping in. If that cynical explanation is true, instead of helping teachers and principals make their way through the minefield by educating and informing and supporting them, it seems the Board is choosing to turn out the light entirely and walk away whistling.

Or, if the email from my board member this morning is accurate, things might not be quite that bad. Even though the policy itself is being scotched, she said, “the School District plans to provide staff helpful training and guidelines during the 2011-2012 school year to assist schools in handling religious issues appropriately.”

Now that could actually be good news. Active, mandatory teacher training is likely to be more effective than a static policy that employees may or may not ever see. I’d rather have both, but actual in-service training could be the best option of all.

In the coming months, I plan to make myself as persistent as necessary to see that this promise is kept. I began by sending each board member and the new district superintendent a pdf copy of Americans United’s outstanding booklet Religion in the Public Schools: A Roadmap for Avoiding Lawsuits and Respecting Parents’ Legal Rights. Equally important going forward, the Board is now aware that an awful lot of people are paying very close attention to the church/state issue.

Special thanks to Jeff Selman, Ryan Hale, and Beth Corbin of AU, each of whom offered helpful advice. Onward.

Help save a good district from itself

My kids are having a great public school experience. We’re in a very strong district, and our three immediate schools are highly ranked and award-winning, with brilliant, professional teachers and administrators.

Though bad things do happen, the bad is hugely outweighed by the good. And when things do go south, a thoughtful approach usually gets a good result.

But now I’m dealing with a spot of unpleasantness at the top — the school board.

In seven days, the Fulton County (GA) School Board will vote on a proposal to rescind the district’s excellent and clear church/state separation policy and procedure, as well as the equally good Teaching of Religion policy (for full text, click the links). Not revise, not replace, but erase entirely.

I contacted my board member to ask what the reasoning was. “These items are covered by state law,” she said, “and therefore redundant. Hope that helps.”

It didn’t.

Countless district policies mirror state law. I’ll bet the policies stating that “students may not threaten to plant a bomb” and “may not knowingly make false calls to emergency services” are at least hinted at somewhere in the law.

Teachers and principals run into church-state issues all the time. When they need guidance in this complicated area, teachers and admins turn not to state law but to district policy. My wife Becca, a schoolteacher, assures me that she wouldn’t have the foggiest idea where to look for the law. I gave up myself after 30 minutes online. And I practically Google for a living.

I thanked the board member for her reply and asked if she might point me to the state law in question. No reply after 17 days. Apparently she has no idea where to look, either.

Though it might cover the same general territory, state law is unlikely to include the helpful details present in those policies: the difference between devotional and non-devotional religious symbols in class projects, for example, whether a religious song can be included in a school concert, whether prayers or religious references are permissible at school-sponsored events and in what context. Good and helpful stuff.

This issue should worry religious parents every bit as much as the nonreligious. In the absence of clear guidelines, most teachers and principals overcompensate, disallowing even permissible religious expressions and activity. The result for many districts has been expensive free exercise lawsuits by religious parents whose children have been inappropriately muzzled. Lose clarity and accessibility and everyone loses.

It would be easy to ring the theocracy alarm here, but despite appearances, I don’t think that’s what’s going on. It’s more banal. For one thing, several unrelated policies are also on the chopping block in what looks to be a periodic barn cleaning. And although some district or state boards are packed with zealots or fools, ours seems to consist of decent people whose occasional cluelessness has more to do with the amount on their plates than any dark intentions. But whether it’s cluelessness or malice, the result is potentially the same. I can’t stand by and watch them casually sweep away policies that many other districts — including some recently or currently embroiled in church/state lawsuits — would die for.

I wrote to another board member who gave the same state-law answer. I gave my arguments for retaining the policies and asked what I could do to prevent the rescission. Again, no reply. So after consulting with the Georgia chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, I’m going over the school board’s heads, to the public. (Psst…that’s you.)

The vote on rescission is scheduled for June 14. Here’s what you can do to help:

If you are a resident of Fulton County, Georgia and agree that these policies and procedure should remain in place, find out who your board member is and write a concise, reasonable but firm email expressing your strong conviction that these two policies and one procedure should stay right where they are. If you have kids in school, name the school.

If you are not a resident of Fulton County GA, please share this post. You just might have a friend or two who is.

If you are in a district that has been embroiled in church/state messes, you might drop a note to tell my district how helpful clear policy can be. It means less head-butting, fewer lawsuits, and fewer distractions from the education of our kids.

Thanks in advance for whatever you can do.

Links to the three items
Teaching of Religion Policy
Separation of Church and State Policy
Separation of Church and State Procedure

Fulton County School Board email addresses (Please be civil so our tone doesn’t become the issue.)

The incredible shrinking woman

[Continued from Part 2, “The Empire Strikes Back“]

The day before the meeting with the principal and Ms. Warner, Becca made my year by insisting on going as well. She took a half day off work, on short notice and with difficulty. I was so grateful — helps me feel less like a lone loon.

After talking with hundreds of parents over the years in dozens of different situations, I’ve worked up a few guidelines for approaching this kind of thing. It works not just for church-state issues, but any similar conflict:

1. Know your main objective and keep it in focus. It would have been easy, and gratifying, to focus on the first three of our objectives (abject apology, school-wide statement, head on platter). But if it came right down to it (and it often does), the last two were most important: damage control for Delaney, and a greatly-reduced chance of this kind of thing happening to another student in the school. Ever.

2. Frame in terms as broad as possible. It’s almost never just about my child or our family’s rights. If a teacher leads students in a Christian prayer, for example, and I respond as an offended atheist, I’ve drawn this tiny circle around my offended little feet. If instead I defend the constitutional right of all kids and families to freedom of religious belief, I’ve drawn a much larger circle with a much firmer foundation.

3. Don’t let your tone become an issue. This keeps a laser-like focus on the real issue.

4. Find allies with common goals. They’re almost always there. If we treat them as co-perpetrators, we’ve robbed ourselves of powerful leverage.

5. Position yourself as a resource, not a problem to be avoided or contained. When it comes to the issues at hand, as well as district policy and legal precedent, make yourself the most knowledgeable one in the room, then offer your help in navigating that maze, now and in the future.

becca3The meeting began with the obligatory chit chat, then Becca took the floor — not as a parent, but as an appalled educator. For five minutes, in a voice laced with emotion but entirely under control, she explained why Warner’s action violated the central responsibility of educators to their students. She ended by quoting the framing concept in the elementary curriculum. They are the Habits of Mind — four characteristics all Georgia educators are expected to engender in their students. “A CONTENT STANDARD IS NOT MET,” says the science standards document in bold caps, “UNLESS APPLICABLE CHARACTERISTICS OF SCIENCE ARE ALSO ADDRESSED AT THE SAME TIME.”

The four principal characteristics:

Students will be aware of the importance of curiosity, honesty, openness, and skepticism in science and will exhibit these traits in their own efforts to understand how the world works.

In a single ill-considered sentence, Ms. Warner had managed to violate all four. Then there’s this further down — hard to beat for spot-on relevance:

Scientists use a common language with precise definitions of terms to make it easier to communicate their observations to each other.

I made a mental note to marry Becca all over again.

warner1skinner1Ms. Warner responded with an apology of the “I’m sorry if you were offended” variety. “If I had known you felt this way, I would certainly not have said what I said.” It was all about a wacky breakdown in communication. If the principal hadn’t dropped the ball, went the implication, we wouldn’t be in this pickle. Lucy, you got some splainin’ to do. Cue laugh track.

I’d expected that. “Yes, I do wish we’d been able to intercept this extremely bad idea you had,” I said. “But that’s irrelevant. I want to know why you had the bad idea in the first place to censor Delaney’s accomplishment.

“You claimed evolution wasn’t in the curriculum, when in fact it’s deeply embedded in our curriculum from seventh grade on. And if a third grader were to master calculus and win a national contest, I doubt we’d say, ‘Well shoot, I wish we could celebrate that, but it isn’t in the elementary curriculum.’ So let’s agree that’s silly and not the reason anyway. Now I’d like to know the real reason.”

She nodded and shrugged. “I wanted to avoid conflict.

To paraphrase what Huxley supposedly said before he gutted Wilberforce, the Lord had delivered her into my hands. I produced a summary of that deeply depressing Penn State study showing that conflict-avoiders “may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists.”

But there’s an even more interesting context for this in Georgia, I said — a specific history of removing the word “evolution.”

“Yes, there is!” said Mr. Robinson, nodding enthusiastically and leaning forward. Principals tend to know what’s going on in the educational world outside of their own skulls. Even better, he clearly cared. Warner’s blank smile showed that she neither knew nor cared. She was counting the minutes until this annoyance was over.

warner2skinner2It was at this point that Ms. Warner began to shrink from view, and Mr. Robinson began to grow. We could exhaust ourselves trying to get a genuine apology from this person, trying to get her to understand that she was an embarrassment to her profession and why, trying to let the school community know exactly what had happened so they could take sides and put Laney in the uncomfortable middle.

Or we could turn the focus toward this nodding, well-informed, well-placed ally.

I gave a five-minute capsule history of the issue in Georgia, complete with handouts, starting with the D grade the state science curriculum had earned from Fordham in 1998. Why the low grade? Largely because in the interest of conflict avoidance, the word evolution had been removed:

Like many Southern states, Georgia has problems with the politics, if not the science, of evolution. In the biology course, the euphemism “organic variation” is used for evolution, yielding such delectable bits as the following:

“[The learner will] describe historical and current theories of organic variation . . . describe how current geological evidences [sic] support current theories of organic variation . . . explain that a successful change in a species is most apt to occur when a niche is available.”

The purpose of this approach, of course, is to insulate the study of science from the inroads of politics. But for all its good intent, it makes it difficult or impossible for all but the most gifted students to understand the profound importance of evolution as the basis of the biological sciences. It also isolates biology from the other historical sciences, geology and astronomy, and thus wounds the student’s understanding of the unity of the sciences. [Lerner 1998]

Fast-forward to 2004. State Superintendent of Education Kathy Cox is reviewing Georgia’s new and greatly improved proposed science standards, which include an impressively straightforward approach to evolution. And what does she do? She red-lines every occurrence of the word “evolution,” changing it to “biological changes over time,” which does NOT mean the same thing.

Why did she do that? Conflict avoidance, she said later.

There was an impressive public backlash. Jimmy Carter lashed out in the press: “As a Christian, a trained engineer and scientist, and a professor at Emory University, I am embarrassed by Superintendent Kathy Cox’s attempt to censor and distort the education of Georgia’s students.”

Cox reversed herself. In an interview last year on the occasion of her retirement, she remembered the issue as the biggest mistake of her career:

It was a great lesson for me….The standards are more than a classroom teacher. They represent something to the larger public [and the] entity of the nation. And that was a great lesson for me, that I needed to step out of my shoes as a teacher sometimes and see the bigger picture. And even though I was trying to make it so that our science standards could be such that a teacher anywhere in the state could teach what they needed to teach, it wasn’t the right decision from the bigger picture. And, boy, did I learn that in a hurry – and kind of had it handed to me in a hurry.

Robinson continued nodding. None of this was new to him.

The standards went on to full approval, unbuggered, earning Georgia a B for science overall in the next Fordham review and the highest ranking possible for evolution education.

“So we’ve learned this lesson already, over and over,” I said. “But it just doesn’t get through. And the messages we as parents and educators send these students, both inside and outside of the classroom, affect the way kids will encounter concepts and content later in the curriculum.”

warner3skinner3Mr. Robinson was continuing to exhibit not just agreement, but enthusiastic engagement. Warner at this point was too small to be seen clearly.

“We have these extraordinary standards, but because of ten thousand things like this” — I gestured toward Warner’s last known location — “they aren’t finding their way into the actual education of our students, especially in science. I’d like to help get a larger conversation going in the district. We need to help parents, teachers, and administrators get more comfortable with the great standards we already have.”

Mr. Robinson was nearly out of his chair. “Yes. This is great. I would love to see this happen.” He began scribbling notes. “I want to put you in touch with Samantha Burnett, the director of science curriculum for the district. I know she’d love to connect with you and get this going. This would be a very positive thing.”

He added that he wanted to be sure Delaney was taken care of as well. “I want her to know that this school encourages all of her ideas and accomplishments.”

Becca then shared Laney’s heartbreaking response to Mr. Hamilton, her beloved first grade teacher, and his expression of interest (“I don’t know what I should tell him and what I shouldn’t.”)

“Well there’s an opportunity,” said Mr. Robinson. “I’ll get in touch with Mike and see what we can work out. Maybe instead of just explaining it to him, she could give a presentation to his whole class about the contest.”

That would help a lot. She would be over the moon.

That night we learned from Delaney that Mr. Robinson visited her classroom later that day to congratulate her again on her achievement in the “Evolution & Art contest.”

In terms of vengeance, the meeting was mostly unsatisfying. But in terms of positive progress, it was immensely satisfying. We’re working our way toward two conversations, one large and one small. By being reasonable and well-informed, by leaning forward instead of back, it looks like some lasting good could come out of this.

I’ll keep you in the loop as we go.

The Empire Strikes Back

[Continued from When science goes south]

monkeylukeDelaney was all butterflies the morning of the broadcast. I assured her she’d be just fine.

“But I’m talking to THE PRINCIPAL!” she said in mock horror. “In front of the whole school!”

She was secretly adoring the whole idea, we both knew that, but the nerves were no less real. She’d never done anything like this before.

I drove her to school early, then sat in the front office to watch the show on the monitor. After the Pledge of Allegiance (No, Luke — stay on target!), the camera panned to my daughter and the principal.

“I’m here with Delaney McGowan today who won first place in a national contest,” said Mr. Robinson. “This is amazing, Delaney! Tell us all about it.”

“Well,” she said, “I won an art contest.”

Hmm.

I grinned and shook my head. After all that, she called it an art contest. That’s fine, of course — she can call it whatever she wants. But I did think it was a bit odd. She’d never called it that before, for one thing. And I never mentioned Ms. Warner’s phone call to her. What an odd coincidence.

She went on to describe the contest with the kind of engaging, articulate poise she’s always had, but somehow got all the way through without ever saying any form of the word “evolution.” Extremely hard to do, given the nature of the contest. The closest she came was the word “adapted,” which she used once or twice. Again, it’s a non-issue…if she’s choosing her own words.

When she ran off the school bus as she always does, I engulfed her in a hug. “You…were…AWESOME,” I said. “I could never have been so clear and calm when I was nine! Did you think of all that yourself, or did anybody help you with what to say?”

(Subtle bastard.)

“Well, there was one kind of weird thing,” she said. “About two minutes before the interview, Ms. Warner told me I shouldn’t say the word ‘evolution.'”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“Dad?”

“Well…huh. You uh…you did an amazing job, that’s all I can say.”

(I think that’s what I said. It may not have included any actual human sounds.)

“What’s wrong? Something’s wrong.”

“No, nothing, I…well, I’m, I’m, I’m…I’m kind of just wondering why Ms. Warner would say such a silly thing, is all. Why not say ‘evolution’? That just seems weird.”

“Yeah, it does.”
eaglenews2
“Didn’t Mr. Robinson say anything to her when she said that?”

“He was out in the hall right then.” Her face knotted up. “But it made me so nervous! During the whole interview, I kept worrying that I was going to say the Word.”

The Word.

Despite my silly graphics in this post — an attempt to keep things from getting too dark — this hit me like a ton of bricks. I’d gone out of my way to keep Laney from getting a negative message about her accomplishment. I’d been low-key and reasonable, and the thing had happened anyway as if I’d never left my chair.

What really hurt was hearing Delaney’s sudden anxiety. My fearless thinker, the one who loves nothing more than a good-spirited tête-à-tête over a plate of theology in the school cafeteria or politics on the playground or current events at the dinner table, who chose freedom of speech as one of the things she’s most grateful for at Thanksgiving, this amazing and unique girl had heard from an educator in her school that one of the great concepts in science was in fact a word she should not use, and by implication, a thought she should not think. Evolution, a perpetual source of wonder to her, had become The Word, a thing to avoid, something vaguely dirty.

Even worse, this woman chose Laney’s moment of excited triumph — of scientific triumph — to display her own likely ignorance of the concept that Laney understands better than most adults in any given room.

Now to fully grasp the complex challenge of that moment for Delaney, a thought experiment: Imagine you’re nine years old. You’ve won the Pillsbury Bake-Off. You are invited to speak to your school principal about it on camera in front of 1,000 of your peers. You’ve practiced what you want to say, over and over. You’re nervous and excited. Then two minutes before you go on, an Authority Figure leans over and says, “By the way: don’t mention baking.”

(Only because the confectionery arts aren’t in the elementary curriculum, you understand.)

At bedtime that night, Laney told her mom something that simply broke our hearts. Mr. Hamilton, Laney’s dynamic and gifted teacher from first grade, a HUGE favorite of hers, had popped into her classroom late in the day. “He said he saw me on the Eagle News,” she said, “but his class was too loud and he couldn’t hear what I was saying. So he wants me to come by his room and tell him all about it some time.” Her eyes watered. “But…I don’t know what I should tell him and what I shouldn’t.”

I hope we’re agreed that this is a very big deal.

I gave myself an hour to calm down, then wrote an email to the principal, still careful with my word choice. For one thing, I was “surprised and disappointed” that this had happened. Why? Because I do not want to waste a milligram of effort defending my tone. “Disappointed” is the go-to word in these situations. If you’re “furious,” the other person stops listening and starts defending. Disappointment says, “I expected more from you, and you let me down.” When someone expresses disappointment in me, I’m mortified and immediately begin trying to make it right. It’s an action word.

I also amended my desire to see Warner slowly strangled with the strings of a thousand Steinways (in the email, if not in the darkest corner of my heart). I made it clear that I was very unhappy and asked to meet with them both, very soon.

As I expected, Mr. Robinson was completely mortified when he heard what had happened. He had not spoken to Warner after our meeting, he said in his reply, “because I assumed that I would be the only staff member discussing the broadcast content with Delaney.” A reasonable assumption. Instead, he had used my input to be sure his interview questions gave Delaney the maximum ability to openly express her ideas. He simply hadn’t counted on Warner taking advantage of the two minutes he stepped into the hallway to push her agenda. There was still only one real perp in this and one clear ally.

No matter how the meeting went, I knew this would make a serious mark on her next performance evaluation. Of course we wanted a whole lot more than that.

We wanted an abject, unequivocal apology from Ms. Warner.

We wanted a school-wide statement explaining what happened and describing the real nature of Laney’s accomplishment.

We wanted Ms. Warner’s head on a platter.

We wanted damage control for Delaney.

We wanted a greatly-reduced chance of this kind of thing happening to another student in the school.

But wants are not the same as needs, and that’s where we sometimes go off the rails. Focusing too much on punishment of the perp shifts attention away from getting changes made and repairing damage. It’s a mistake I have made. It can also put your child in the middle of a struggle between adults in which the original point is completely lost.

Those first three wants would be so satisfying, but we knew we couldn’t allow them to get in the way of the last two.

It was going to be a challenge to keep our heads where they belong — especially when we had such a firm idea of where HERS belonged.

Next time, the meeting. (SPOILER ALERT: it goes well.)