…but God IS My Hero

“But God IS my hero.” That’s a dramatic reconstruction of what ten-year-old Erin Shead told her teacher in October. Her teacher had asked her to do a writing assignment about a hero. When Erin turned in an essay about God, her teacher told her she couldn’t write about God, she had to write about her personal hero.

Source: WRCB Chattanooga

Source: WRCB Chattanooga

The resulting kerfuffle pushed Tennessee lawmakers to pass the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act. According to this bill, which now goes to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam for a signature to become law, students must be allowed to voluntarily express religion viewpoints “on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner [the school] treats a student’s voluntary expression of a secular or other viewpoint.” In other words, students must be allowed to write about God as their hero.

Here at ILYBYGTH, we have to wonder if this sort of law might represent a powerful new conservative tactic in America’s ongoing educational culture wars.

Tennessee is not alone in passing this sort of school rule. Texas has such a law on the books. Missouri has a similar rule enshrined in its constitution. And Oklahoma is considering something along these lines.

Today, I’m not going to argue the merits of these sorts of laws. In short, though, I’m against them. As I’ve argued in places such as Education Week and the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, these kinds of bills threaten to impose an utterly unmanageable free-for-all in our nation’s classrooms. IMHO. Other commentators, too, have worried that these laws will impose a renewed theocracy in public schools. If students can use class time to make religious statements, some worry that religious students might turn classrooms into religious battlegrounds. What if a creationist student insisted that she could answer questions about evolution with references to Genesis? What if a Muslim student made a speech in which he denied that Jesus was God? It’s not hard to imagine dicey situations these new laws might encourage.

Today, though, instead of arguing against these kinds of bills, I’d like to make a different point. It seems educational conservatives can win politically by protecting students from a perceived overreach by educational leaders. In the case of Tennessee, the senate bill passed unanimously. In the assembly, only two representatives voted against it.

Why did this bill have such overwhelming political support? Two reasons. First, there is not much new in these laws. Students already had the right to engage in self-directed religious activity in public-school classrooms. Erin Shead already had the right to write about God as her personal hero. Second, conservative educational thinkers and activists have long worried about school as a potential threat to young people’s faith. Anything that looks to support religious young people from what many people see as an aggressively secularizing public-school establishment will win political points among religious conservatives.

So liberal-leaning lawmakers can vote for these laws as mere clarifications of already-existing rules. And conservative-leaning lawmakers can promote these votes as an effort to protect religious youngsters from the sinister aggression of secularizing teachers and schools. Together, that is a powerful political coalition.

If I were a conservative activist, I would be watching very closely. Bills that underscore the religious rights of students in public schools have a powerful symbolic effect, if nothing else. And politically, they may be hard to stop.

Why shouldn’t conservatives push these sorts of school laws all over the country?

 

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13 Comments

  1. I wonder if it would help going forward if teachers were more careful to define their parameters – Erin’s teacher could have specified a human hero for better comparison to her peers’ assignments (or whatever). In high school my humanities teacher told us that we were going to study the Bible AS LITERATURE (and that’s exactly how she said it, too).

    “What if a creationist student insisted that she could answer questions about evolution with references to Genesis?”

    I would tell the student that I need to evaluate their understanding of the theory of evolution as compiled and summarized in their textbook; they are of course free to believe whatever they like, up to and including the idea that evolution was invented out of whole cloth by the Vast Secularist Conspiracy(tm).

    “What if a Muslim student made a speech in which he denied that Jesus was God?”

    Great! Happy to hear it. I’m not sure how this would be a problem.

    “Conservative educational thinkers and activists have long worried about school as a potential threat to young people’s faith.”

    That’s because of the way conservatives(*) raise their children. As you noted in a previous post, conservative education is all about memorization and dumping large quantities of information into a kid’s head. Critical thinking and learning how to evaluate information is completely absent. So when these same kids go to school / college and are presented with information that’s different from what they were raised with, they have no basis to evaluate the integrity of what they were raised with as opposed to what they are learning at school. It all just gets dumped into their head without question.

    On top of that, when kids get to the higher levels of education and are guided to actually think analytically for the first time, they turn that thinking on what they were raised with, only to find that their parents can’t answer any probing questions (because they themselves were also raised on unquestioning memorization). So the kids quite reasonably abandon something that doesn’t seem to hold together.

    (*) in general, based on my experience and observations

    Reply
  2. Donna

     /  March 26, 2014

    So it is okay for a student to write about God in an assignment as long as it is just for the teacher to read, and as long as it falls within the parameters of the assignment?

    Reply
    • In general, it has always been okay for students to express their religious beliefs privately in public schools. Also to do so in prayer groups, etc., as long as they were student-initiated and student-led. And not disruptive of class time. Of course, it would be possible for a teacher to have an instructional purpose in limiting the range of acceptable subjects. For example, a teacher might ask students to write about a prominent figure from the Civil Rights Movement. If the teacher was hoping students would demonstrate their understandings of this historic period, it would have been legitimate for a teacher to tell a student she couldn’t use “God” as her prominent Civil-Rights figure. And the Tennessee bill is clear on this topic: such limitations will still be part of teachers’ purview.

      Reply
  3. Didn’t the student win in this case? Didn’t it end up that she was permitted to submit the essay about God, after all? Do we need legislation to clarify the First Amendment? The assignment was to write about one’s PERSONAL hero. That some people have personally held religious beliefs apparently never occurred to this teacher. Duh. Word the assignment in a different way, and there would be no problem. The whole kerfuffle might have been avoided with a specific instruction. This kind of debate makes my head hurt.

    Reply
    • This is why I would push laws like this if I were a religious conservative school activist. I’m not, but if I were, I would push these laws exactly for the reasons you describe. Students have the right to be religious. Public schools have no right to interfere with students’ private beliefs. This reminds me of a 1942 teacher survey I include in my coming-soon book about the history of controversy over evolution education. At that time, a significant proportion of teachers told researchers that they couldn’t teach evolution since it was illegal to do so. Several states had banned the teaching of evolution in the 1920s, but these teachers didn’t live in those states. A clarifying law at that time would have helped establish the true contours of educational law. Here, too, if I were a religious conservative I might be eager to symbolically emphasize the rights of students to pray independently in public schools.

      Reply
      • I’m not a conservative, but it seems to me that any sincerely held, private religious belief should not be suppressed within a school setting. Private speech is protected, right? We still have a right to our conscience, right? You don’t even have to be religious to exercise your conscience. I think that adherence to the First Amendment is why those school children were permitted to wear the “I ‘heart’ Boobies” bracelets: they were expressing their solidarity with breast cancer patients, and it was a matter of conscience for them.

        When is your book going to be published? I am so looking forward to reading it!

  4. Agellius

     /  March 27, 2014

    “As you noted in a previous post, conservative education is all about memorization and dumping large quantities of information into a kid’s head. Critical thinking and learning how to evaluate information is completely absent.”

    You don’t think religious parents teach their kids to think critically about the dominant secular liberal paradigm?

    Reply
    • I’ve heard from commenters who were raised in conservative evangelical Protestant homeschooling environments that they were taught to be extremely critical–suspicious, even–of mainstream cultural information. Obviously, I think all families are different, but it makes sense to me that conservative families would teach their children to think critically about certain issues. The comment here, I think, referred to a post about Anthony Esolen’s defense of memorization. And, to be fair, I agree that historically social conservatives have often been more sympathetic than social progressives to a style of education that consists of delivering information from teacher to student. But I think it’s also only fair to note that I see a sadly large number of public schools in which the main education on tap seems to be a training in showing up on time and shutting up. Students in purportedly “liberal” public-school environments only rarely seem positively encouraged to do any thinking that is authentically critical of their own schooling.

      Reply
      • Agellius

         /  March 28, 2014

        “… I think all families are different, but it makes sense to me that conservative families would teach their children to think critically about certain issues.”

        And not about others. Fair enough. But are we to believe that liberal/progressive families teach their kids to be skeptical of all things equally? No bias whatsoever?

        I grew up in a liberal household. My parents took me to anti-war rallies in the late 60s/early 70s. At one point my mom had an “Angela Davis For President” bumper sticker. I think I can confidently say that my political and religious indoctrination was a tad one-sided.

        That’s fine, that’s what parents are supposed to do: Teach their kids as best as they know how. I just think the idea that it’s only conservative parents who indoctrinate their kids, religiously and politically, is preposterous.

      • Agreed.

    • “You don’t think religious parents teach their kids to think critically about the dominant secular liberal paradigm?”

      There’s a difference between teaching kids to “think critically” and teaching them to “be critical of” something. Religious parents (again, in general) seem to dump info into their kids’ heads so that their kids become critical of anything outside their bubble, rather then teach them how to think critically.

      Reply
  5. Agellius

     /  March 28, 2014

    Athena:

    I think, based on my own experience (see above comment), that atheist and liberal parents in general do precisely the same.

    I think that liberals like to think of themselves as critical thinkers, because they think that liberalism is virtually equivalent to critical thinking. This is because liberalism is built on the premise that the “received wisdom” needs to be questioned and ultimately discarded. So by raising their kids to be liberal, they feel they are automatically teaching them to be critical thinkers. But it ain’t necessarily so.

    It wasn’t until I was 16-17 that I began to question the liberal dogmas that I had been raised with. This was upon my first exposure to the Christian writer C.S. Lewis. Never during my liberal upbringing, or my public school education, did I ever encounter such rigorous thinking as his.

    I’m not saying that liberals don’t think rigorously. A lot of them certainly do. But Christians are every bit as capable of rigorous thought and of teaching their kids to do the same.

    Now, you have well educated and thoughtful liberals, and ignorant liberals, and the same goes for Christians. Certainly, a lot of Christian parents neglect to teach their kids the virtues of critical thinking and the skills to do it. But again, the same goes for liberals, as my experience attests. I have met any number of liberals to whom the word “syllogism” is a head-scratcher.

    Reply
  6. Agellius

     /  March 28, 2014

    Regarding memorization, Esolen wasn’t talking about memorizing what things you should believe and what things you should reject. He was talking about taking information into your brain, information such as the multiplication table and poetry.

    This is an educational technique, and not a matter of critical versus non-critical thinking. The idea (to the limited extent I understand it) is that in order to think, you need to have information in your head to think about.

    My kids have gone to a school that uses what they call the “classical curriculum”. Memorization is emphasized in the earlier grades, and critical thinking in the later grades. This corresponds to the building blocks of thought in the mind: Moving from simple to complex, these are, the concept, the proposition and the argument. Kids are taught concepts (facts, figures, ideas) first. This is where memorization comes in. Then they’re taught things about the concepts (propositions). Then they’re taught to reason and argue about propositions: fallacies, valid and invalid syllogisms, etc.

    Reply

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