The Real Wall of Separation

At ILYBYGTH, we’ve been following stories in Missouri and New Hampshire about religion, authority, and public schools.

Today in a guest post on Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post Education blog, I argue that these kinds of laws just won’t work.  In this post, I allow myself to get a little more strident than I usually do on these pages.  I argue that rules allowing parents and families to opt out of school rules a la carte just won’t work.  Nor are they new.  In the 1920s, anger at and fear of a steamrolling anti-religious curriculum drove the first anti-evolution campaign.  In the 1970s and 1980s, in places such as Kanawha County, West Virginia, and Hawkins County, Tennessee, battles over school curriculum led to a new generation of conservative school activists.

The maturation of that generation can be seen in laws and amendments such as those in Missouri and Tennessee.  I am deeply sympathetic to parents who don’t want schools to dictate hostile ideas to their children.  But putting up a wall of separation around each individual student just won’t work.

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  1. Hi, Adam: I wonder, though, if you could consider the experiences of teachers and staff in schools. In Canada, exemptions are often made in the context of civics education for children who are Jehovahs Witnesses. However, until recently, such exemptions did occur on the school or board level and could be subject to judicial action. Therefore, the Alberta government, in 2009, passed legislation to set up a process for exemption. In some ways, the process protects teachers and staff from “hit and run” attacks by parents. If parents object to curriculum, then there are processes for them to follow that do not involve criticism of the teacher. While we think of children and youth, we must also consider teachers and staff. Cheers!! Jon

    • @ Jon, I hear you. Some sort of release valve might be a good thing. It could give dissenting parents–no matter what their reason for dissent–a pathway to resolve those problems within the normal bureaucracy of the school. But as a former high-school teacher and social-studies department chair, I shudder at the possibilities of these kinds of laws largely because of their horrifying potential for teachers and staff. All ideology or theology aside, just as some of the new teacher-evaluation policies enacted in many US states will surely founder on the rocks of administrators’ time constraints, so the possibility of creating a body of individual curricula for a large number of students must run into insurmountable practical difficulties. Imagine trying to craft not one curriculum map for ninth-grade “World Studies,” but one hundred different ones, all to meet unspecified parental objections. Even if I thought these laws were basically a good idea, I would object solely on the grounds of impracticability.


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