It Happened To Me

I just didn’t get it.

I thought I was open-minded and experienced, but this woman’s attitude made no sense to me.

It happened to me in my first few years of teaching English and history at a high school in Milwaukee.  It wasn’t my student, but a parent complained about one of the books we all assigned in our freshman English classes.  The book had never seemed very objectionable to me.  Like a lot of the books for high-school English classes, it was a coming-of-age story, the story of a boy wrestling with his Catholic faith.  He is torn between his ardent church faith and the competing faith of his grandmother.  She relies on a more indigenous faith, a mixture of Christianity, Native American religions, and animism.  As the boy bungles his way through adolescence, he finds too much in Catholicism that doesn’t make sense, and a lot more in his grandmother’s earth religion that does.  Seemed pretty innocuous to me.  What teenager—at least what sensitive, intelligent teenager of the sort we wanted our students to be—didn’t have to wrestle with those questions of faith and doubt?  

One of my colleagues spent most of an academic year going back and forth with this parent.  She found the book outrageous.  She was Catholic, her son was Catholic, and she thought that the book was nothing more than an attack on her faith.  Nothing could be more despicable, in her opinion, than a school in which students were taught to question their beliefs.  A school in which students were expected and encouraged to investigate and possibly abandon the verities of their religion.

As I remember, the parent made these points in a particularly unpleasant way.  She was personally hostile to my colleague, suspicious and accusatory toward our principal, too.  Her attitude was one of a self-righteous pioneer in an ugly and evil land.

Nevertheless, the adults worked it out.  The student didn’t read the book.  But there were a lot of bad feelings all around.  The whole encounter made me examine my own assumptions.  First of all, it made me realize that I had been operating with an implicit “progressivist” world view.  That is, I believed without thinking about it that our society was moving in a more and more secular direction, and that our society was getting more and more equitable and just.  Not that it was perfect, but that we were moving away from an ugly past of witch hunts and white supremacy.  I noticed that I was surprised that there were “still” parents like this one, who expected to raise her kid free from confronting fundamental questions about his faith.

I also had to admit that she had a point.  I had taught the same novel in my classes, and it really did encourage students to see traditional Catholic faith as a kind of racket, a bill of goods that intelligent people shouldn’t fall for.  I had to admit that if I had shared that version of the Catholic faith, I would certainly not want my kids reading that book.  Plus, I noticed for the first time my own implicit mission as a teacher.  I had assumed without thinking much about it that my goal was to help my adolescent students wrestle with such questions in a productive way; a way that helped them to understand the moral ambiguity of the world.  Again, I realized that a parent who didn’t want that kind of education for her kids would be correct in thinking that her son’s teachers was trying to accomplish some sort of brainwashing.

Looking back, I assume that one of the reasons why this parent was so hostile and personally aggressive may have been because she had been reading and listening to folks telling her horror stories about the aggressively, insidiously secularizing schemes of “progressive” teachers like me and my colleagues.  And we certainly must have seemed at best condescending when we spoke to her.  I remember our faculty chats about the incident, and I believe people used such terms as “nutjob” and “wacko.”

Now, looking back, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a parent to be involved in the kinds of literature her kids will be reading.  At the same time, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to try to expose high-school students to ideas that will challenge their comfortable preconceptions.  Even in this particular case, we managed to work it out.  But only with angry feelings and hostility all around.

At the root of the problem–and at the root of this blog–was the fact that we just don’t agree on the point of schooling.  For me and my progressive friends, school is about expanding minds, challenging stereotypes, exposing false presumptions.  For many conservatives, school is about acquiring knowledge, firming up traditional morals, and protecting students from falsehood.

Who’s right? It depends on who you ask.

In these pages, we’ll explore these tricky questions.

Leave a comment


  1. Ed

     /  August 28, 2011

    Damn right we’re smack dab in the middle of a culture war. I’d been dating my girlfriend (now my wife) for several years when we ran headlong into it.

    Shannon had a family friend and neighbor–a married man about our age who I will call Billy Bob–who was always friendly to me and supportive of her and her family. He would often babysit her two sons so we could go out, and he seemed pleased that Shannon found someone who made her happy. We never became friends, but were on good terms.

    One day, after Billy Bob watched the boys, he informed Shannon that I was “evil,” and she needed to leave me immediately. He was adamant, and angry that she didn’t heed his advice. My wife’s family got wind of my transgressions, and a major rift was created that lasts to this day. On one side are the Christians in the family, on the other the more secular members.

    My crime? One of the boys mentioned that he overheard me say that I’m an atheist.

    Billy Bob never spoke to me again, and continues to remind my wife that I am evil, that I will end up hurting her and her family, and that atheism equals satanism in his mind. It doesn’t occur to such “pious” people that if one doesn’t believe in heaven, they most likely don’t believe in hell, either, and Satan probably doesn’t factor in too heavily.

    The most interesting aspect of this to me is that Billy Bob and most of the family that now hate me don’t even go to church. They throw out platitudes about “God knows my heart” and “I don’t need to go to church to prove my faith.” Plus Billy Bob served time in prison, something the “evil” atheist has managed to avoid to date.

    The moral of the story as far as I can tell is this: If you are–or claim to be–religious, it’s okay to be public in your beliefs. If you are an atheist, keep your mouth shut and everything will be fine. Or to take your smoking analogy a step further, smoke all you want, just don’t blow it in anyone’s face.

  2. A friend of mine asked me to post this experience, since he wanted to remain anonymous. His story is one a lot of people can relate to, I think, and it shows how tricky it can be to remain loving and open-minded when confronted with an opposing vision of proper morality. So here it is:

    Last summer, my brother married. His wife is a Catholic school teacher and so they were married in a Catholic church. The week before the wedding, my brother called me, drunk, to tell me that his wife to be, XXXX, loved me but to remember that the following weekend was her special day. The priest who had been responsible for marrying them was quite liberal and did not have any problem with same-sex couples being present at the wedding but three weeks prior to my conversation with my brother, he fell in love and left the church. XXXX, my brother, told me that the new priest was from the Phillipines–I still don’t know what he meant by this point because he would not elaborate on it (i.e. as scholars, we need to “flush” out these vague references). Needless to say, the message was clear: don’t be “too gay” with your partner at my wedding! I felt terrible–it seems as though Catholics deal with people who are LGBT in their families as people to be ashamed of, to be quiet, which is exactly how I felt. My family, being liberal Protestants, was quite appalled and later, my brother denied the whole conversation happened. Oh, yes, he was drunk when he called, and I believe that XXXX couldn’t stand communicating XXXX’s requests to me while sober. And, of course, when we entered the church, there was a huge mural dedicated to all the children who lost their lives to abortion.

    It is stories like the above that I think justify the need for your blog, Adam, but I would also add that while some Christians “do battle” among themselves over which interpretation of scripture, etc. is “correct,” there are many people, including many nominal Christians, who don’t care! I consider myself to be spiritual, in the wholistic sense, striving for balance of heart, brain, body, and emotions, a reflection of my own research in Indigenous spirituality and lifelong learning–I live what I research and don’t care much for the interdominational Christian conflicts, even though I am confirmed into the XXXXXX.

  3. @Ed: Thanks for sharing your story. It sounds dishearteningly typical of the way these so-called “culture war” issues make real differences in the lives of real people. Two elements of your tale really jumped out at me. The first might be called the “friendly guy” fallacy. Whatever our cultural position on religion, some part of us assumes that when we meet intelligent, friendly people that they generally share our outlook. So Billy Bob assumed that you were at least vaguely Christian. After all, you were pleasant, upstanding, etc. I know I’ve fallen for this fallacy at times. I assume that people who have a sharp sense of humor will share my taste for the hilariously offensive, a la Family Guy. But a lot of them don’t. They might be conservative religious folks, or conscientious multiculturalists who don’t approve of using racism and sexism to get a laugh.
    The other part of your story that stood out to me was the fact that Billy Bob was not particularly observant, yet he was deeply offended by your atheism. This goes the other way a lot of times, too. People who go to church and consider themselves vaguely religious often get nervous around people who are real “Bible thumpers.” A lot of politically liberal Catholics that I know have this attitude toward the anti-abortion-focused Catholics in their lives. It seems people can be averse to atheism or hypertheism even when their own religious attitude is fairly ambivalent.

  4. willbell123

     /  December 22, 2011

    I found out about this blog from a lecture of yours on the cultural reason for maintained creationism but I can’t find it again.

  5. Agellius

     /  November 26, 2013

    Very interesting post.

    You write, “Now, looking back, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a parent to be involved in the kinds of literature her kids will be reading. At the same time, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to try to expose high-school students to ideas that will challenge their comfortable preconceptions.”

    But why is it the job of a teacher of other people’s children to challenge their religious preconceptions? What business is it of yours?

    I suspect the Catholic parent might have objected less if the “anti”-Catholic book were balanced by one that portrayed the faith in a positive light. The beef we conservative Catholics and Christians think we have, is that the challenging seems to be all in one direction. If Christian kids need to be challenged with progressive ideas, then shouldn’t progressive kids also be challenged with conservative and Christian ideas?

    I realize this very thing may actually happen in some places, but I can say that nothing remotely like it ever happened in the schools that I attended (in Southern California).

    • A reciprocity of challenges is a good thing, but it destroys education (and the social order) if you make it open to all comers. There has to be a way to referee and winnow down the top challengers, otherwise you get too much chaos. Some people will always try to cheat their way in by attacking the standards and rules. Someone has to set them, but who? Forced to a crisis, this question will be settled by whoever has the most power.

      • Agellius

         /  February 8, 2016

        I agree that this is what it must come down to if the educational system is to be government-run. There can only be one dominant paradigm, and we are doomed forever to fight over what it will be. But it’s a problem that could be solved to a large extent by letting schools be privately run, even if government-funded. Let each school challenge whatever views it wants, and let parents decide what school to send their kids to. Liberal kids can go to schools that glorify gay marriage and condemn Halliburton to hell; conservative kids can choose those that glorify Halliburton and condemn gay marriage. This is what looks most like freedom to me. Having a majority impose its views on the minority (or minorities) is fine where it’s unavoidable; there can only be one law of the land. But doing this in the educational arena seems like an attempt to discourage plurality of views and impose uniformity.

      • The education you need is any that questions this inane identity politics defined by reductive, stereotyped positions. If you understood conservatism at all, you would know both traditional isolationist, states-rights conservatives and neoconservatives would object to the alignment war profiteering with homophobia. Dick Cheney himself is a great example of why there is no home among conservatisms for a homophobic, militaristic interventionism.

        As for your suggested policy it already exists, and the pressing problem is the unavoidable need for “one law of the land” on civil rights with regard to gender and sexuality. This is what many religious conservatives have steadfastly resisted.

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