My Heroes Have Always Been Teachers

Now I just don’t know what to think. I have long admired heroic teachers like Susan Epperson and all the less-famous Susan Eppersons out there. Our ILYBYGTH conversations lately, though, have me wondering. Are teachers heroic if they buck the rules to teach the way they should? …what if they think they should teach Christianity or white supremacy? Or if they’re gun-toting rage-aholics?

Maybe people don’t remember Susan Epperson anymore. She was a science teacher in Arkansas in the 1960s. Due to a law passed during the 1920s evolution/creation battles, she was legally barred from teaching her students about evolution. She did it anyway.

Instead of just keeping her science subversion quiet, Epperson took her case all the way to the Supreme Court, where the anti-evolution law was tossed out.

Epperson has always been a hero of mine. Not only her, but all the teachers out there who go against idiotic system rules to teach children the way they deserve to be taught. It can be as simple as ignoring an order to focus only on test-related content and instead help a student discover what she thinks about a poem or painting. It can be as fundamental as introducing students to the real, ugly history of race relations in the USA, even though a school principal advises against doing anything “controversial.”

But with recent stories about white-supremacist teachers and the history of left-wing teacher purges I’m not sure what to think anymore. If teachers are heroic for teaching “what’s right” instead of what’s in the state-approved curriculum, how can we police creationist and other teachers for breaking the rules to teach their own peculiar moral visions?

reclaim your school

Can my heroes out-sneak your heroes?

After all, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found, the most important influence on most high-school biology teachers is not the state curriculum. It is the values of the local community. If teachers think creationism is the right thing for their students, they’ll teach it, no matter what the curriculum says.

And activists on both the right and the left encourage teachers to ignore the rules and teach “what’s right.” Brad and Susanne Dacus, for example, have published a handy-dandy guide for teachers who want to inject more Christianity into their teaching. As they put it,

Worrying about your public schools changes nothing. . . Knowing how YOU can make an impact in your school can change everything!  Public schools have dramatically changed over the last several years.  Now is not the time to give up on your school.  Now is the time to stand up and be heard!

For those of us who want secular public schools, these promises sound worrisome. Yet we can’t help but recognize that the same heroic impulse to fight the system underlies both Epperson’s pro-science activism and the Dacus’s pro-Jesus work.

Is there any way we can encourage heroic teachers, but only the kinds we agree with? Sounds pretty hypocritical to me. As Professor Clarence Taylor argued recently in these pages, do we need to defend ALL teachers’ rights to political activism, even if we hate it? Or is there some way to support teacher activism for “our” side while fighting teacher activism for “theirs?”



Formal education must include moral values.  In some subjects that fact is overwhelmingly obvious.  History and literature, for instance.  At the most basic level, the selection of literature reveals an entire worldview.  What counts as a good book?  Is it Holden Caulfield trying to pick his way through the field of phonies to discover an authentic life?  Or is it Abraham pulling Isaac up to the top of the mountain to fulfill God’s cruel command?

But such moral values are embedded in every subject, even those that seem to be mere delivery of information.  Some people might suggest that schools should simply teach students academic skills: reading, writing, arithmetic.  But what would such a value-free classroom look like?  Will women and girls be allowed to participate?  Will there be tuition?  Will there be an authoritative teacher at the front of the room dispensing knowledge, keeping order, and evaluating student work?  Or will it be a collective effort, each student responsible for his own learning?  Will students vote to decide policy?  The classroom and school structure dictate a comprehensive set of values, even when the subject matter is limited to such seemingly neutral subjects as geometry and plane mechanics.

Schooling these days is in a woefully chaotic moral condition.  Officially, most public schools are meant to be ruled by a value system of pluralism.  Not verging into the choppy waters of cultural relativism, in which all cultural values are deemed equal, pluralism hopes to insist on a moral code of tolerance and acceptance.  Every type of culture and belief will be celebrated.  Diversity will be embraced as the new path to moral relevance.

All well and good.  From the traditionalist perspective, however, pluralism has the crippling internal flaw of claiming to welcome all cultures, while in fact it often belittles or even criminalizes traditionalist beliefs.  Just recently, a spate of legal cases involving teachers’ religious views has illustrated this trend.  First, from the San Diego area, Bradley Johnson was ordered to remove large signs from his math classroom containing such slogans as “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God,” “God Bless America,” and “God Shed His Grace On Thee.”  The California Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Johnson did not have free-speech rights to keep such signs in his classroom.  The Court reasonably concluded that such slogans, though they came from well-known songs or foundational historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence, created an atmosphere that unacceptably breached the wall of separation between church and state.  They implied that the school endorsed Judeo-Christian belief.

It seems as if that was exactly Johnson’s intent.  Johnson was not merely a patriotic teacher with a yen for big banners.  He was also the faculty leader of the school’s Christian Club.  When the school offered to replace his banners with reproductions of documents such as the Declaration of Independence, Johnson refused.  When another teacher suggested that his signs could shock students from other religious backgrounds and make them feel unwelcome, Johnson allegedly replied, “Sometimes, that’s necessary.” 

Johnson wanted to make the point that although his traditional religious message was prohibited, the district allowed other teachers to display messages from a wide array of other religions and value systems.  He conducted visits to the four other high schools in the district and found a wide array of displays to confirm his charge, including a Tibetan prayer flag, a John Lennon poster with the lyrics from “Imagine,” a poster of Malcolm X, and posters of Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama.

Johnson provoked this court case to make his point.  Schools, in his opinion, promoted every value system except that of traditional Christian patriotism.  Another recent teacher controversy came about more accidentally.  In Union Township, New Jersey, special education teacher Viki Knox came under fire for criticizing the school’s support of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History month.  The school had put up displays that celebrated prominent homosexuals.  Knox complained on her Facebook page that, although she loved those who were gay, her religious beliefs taught her that homosexuality was “against the nature and character of God.”  Furthermore, Knox argued that a public high school was “not the setting to promote, encourage, support and foster homosexuality.”

Now her job is on the line.  Not technically for her religious beliefs.  But she is accused of being unable to perform her duties—duties that include defending every student from bullying and harassment—because she does not agree with the moral values of the school.

Time will tell what lies in store for Ms. Knox.  But the story illustrates the cluster of values that public schools actively promote.  The large banner that offended Knox promoted the notion that all people have equal value.  It attacked the idea that homosexuals could or should be discriminated against.  For the record, I agree with those notions.  I think people have equal value and sexual orientation must not be used as grounds for discrimination.  The important point here, however, is that those values themselves discriminate against certain religious traditions.  They would make students from fundamentalist churches and families feel just as excluded as Bradley Johnson’s banners would make atheist students feel excluded.

Supporters of such pro-homosexuality values in public schools might argue that such students ought to feel excluded.  Students who do not embrace the equal rights and status of all fellow students, regardless of race, creed, or sexual orientation, must be forced to change their beliefs.  That is a tricky perspective.  Especially if, as did Knox and as do many other conservative Christians, religious students advocate love for homosexual students, but not for homosexual behavior.  Such religious folks do not suggest violence or even ostracism for homosexuals.  But they also do not recognize their sexual orientation as legitimate.  Can public schools force such traditionalists to change their religious beliefs?  Doesn’t that violate the wall of separation between church and state?

Finally, consider another recent court case that illustrates this bias of public schools and courts against traditional religion.  As I noted in a recent post,  we don’t have to merely imagine that anti-Christian statements by teachers might be treated with less severity than pro-Christian statements.  The California Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the same Court that ruled against Bradley Johnson, decided that James Corbett could not be held to account for statements that belittled traditional Christian belief.  In his Advanced Placement European History class, Corbett had created a hostile atmosphere for any student who might have believed in a young earth or in the special creation of humanity by God.  Corbett repeatedly ridiculed such belief.  Like the New Jersey posters supporting the notion that homosexuality must be celebrated, such an environment breaches the wall of separation of church and state, by attacking one set of beliefs.

Yet the Court let Corbett off the hook.  Corbett, they decided, could claim “qualified immunity” for offending religious students.

The wider picture is clear: Public schools do promote a certain set of moral values.  Most of those values are hard to argue with.  Who could deny the value of teaching young people that every person deserves equal respect, regardless of race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation?  Who could deny that students should learn to question their own belief systems; that schools must force students to learn to think deeply about such notions?  But we must also recognize that religious notions are embedded in those laudable values.  Students and teachers from traditionalist Christian backgrounds will feel excluded.  They will feel that public schools are hostile environments.

Public schools and school law have a very difficult time wrestling with these moral conundrums.  Their value system of pluralism and acceptance does not recognize itself as one system among others.  It claims, rather, to embrace and celebrate all cultures.  It is incapable, though, of embracing and celebrating any value system that insists on a set of immutable, transcendent values.  In America, that excludes a very large number of families.  It creates a hostile religious environment for all those who believe in the foundational truth of Biblical teachings.  Even worse, it does so while claiming to be opposed to the creation of a hostile religious environment for anyone.  Since it claims to be a neutral arbiter of moral values, it is incapable of easily recognizing its role as a moral agent.

Ignorance and Evolutionism

In a recent commentary, First Amendment Center pundit Charles Haynes noted that teacher “neutrality toward religion cuts bothways.”  He examined two recent court cases. In the first, math teacher Bradley Johnson had been forced to remove pro-Bible, pro-Christianity banners from his classroom.  In the second, history teacher James Corbett had been accused of anti-Christian, anti-creationism bias in his lectures.  However, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that Corbett had not done anything to infringe upon the First Amendment rights of his religious students.

Haynes made the salutary point that such court decisions reflected an unfair court bias against religion.  He argued, “In my view, the 9th Circuit was right to bar promotion of religion in the classroom. But fair is fair. If religious people are to accept that their faith cannot be privileged in schools, then they need to be assured that hostility to their faith will not be tolerated, either.”

But the Corbett case deserves a second, and even a third look.  Court documents noted that Corbett had sent home letters to the families of students in his Advanced Placement European History class.  He had explicitly warned students and their families, “Most days we will spend a few minutes (sometimes more) at the beginning of class discussing current events . . . . Discussion will be quite provocative and focus on the ‘lessons’ of history.  My goal is to have you go home with something that will provoke discussion with your parents.” In this letter, which the accusing student and his family received and acknowledged, Corbett
insisted that all students “may offer any perspective without concern that anything they say will impact either my attitude toward them or their grades. I encourage a full range of views.”

In addition, the course description for the Advanced Placement European History class, designed and tested by the College Board, mandated the inclusion of such topics as “[c] hanges in religious thought and institutions,” “[s]ecularization of learning and culture,” “[s]cientific and technological developments and their consequences,” and “[c]hanges in elite and popular culture, such as new attitudes toward religion, the family, work, and ritual.”

Seen from this perspective, it would be irresponsible of Corbett to refrain from challenging the creationist views of students.  Such ideas are inherently challenged by the history of the Reformation and Scientific Revolution.

But Corbett was more than an earnest historian hoping to spread enlightened ideas in his discussions of the Enlightenment.  The court record indicates that he was a dedicated and determined culture warrior.  Almost twenty years previous to this case, he was embroiled in another creation/evolution case at his high school.  A science teacher at the school had been accused of teaching creationism as science.  The school had demanded that the science  teacher, one John Peloza, refrain from teaching creationism.  Peloza sued the school and Corbett as adviser of the school newspaper for five million dollars.  When the school attorney advised Corbett to refrain from making any further derogatory comments about Peloza or
creationism, Corbett refused.  As Corbett recalled, “At that point, I stood up and said, ‘I’ll tell you what. I will sign a statement giving you — you do not have to defend me, but I will not leave John [Peloza] alone to propagandize kids with this religious, superstitious nonsense.’”

The goal to avoid propagandizing students and to bravely defend against attempts to do so is a laudable one.  But Corbett then fell into a very similar trap.  His discussion of science clearly took an excessively hostile, anti-creationist tone.  He used the language of the anti-creationist movement, as when he disparaged the notion of a literal six-day creation as
being as ridiculous as the notion that a spaghetti monster that lived behind the moon had created the universe.  That language, as the lawyers for the aggrieved student pointed out, came from ardent anti-creationists.  Creationist students and their families were familiar with such accusations.  They had heard such things, and they connected it, reasonably enough, to an attack on their religious beliefs.

Some of Corbett’s other classroom statements from the court record also indicate the creation of a resolutely hostile environment for a creationist student.  Consider the following examples:


[T]hink how humbling it’s going to be, you know,

whenall these people who have been talking about

Adam and Eve and creation and all of this stuff for

all that time when eventually something happens,

and they find out that there are people on another

planet, six billion light years away, who don’t look

like us, worshipping huge geckos. (Students laughing.)


How do you get the peasants to oppose something

that is in their best interest? Religion. You have to

have something that is irrational to counter that rational

approach. No problem. . . . [W]hen you put on

your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.


It’s okay for religious people to, you know, or a

magician (inaudible). There may be a distinction, but

there is no difference. What was it that Mark Twain

said? “Religion was invented when the first con man

met the first [fool].”


This kind of language goes beyond treating history or science in an authentic way.  These
quotations, along with Corbett’s history, suggest a sustained bias against creationist belief, or even against any deeply held religious belief.

Let’s be as clear on this point as possible: Teachers must be allowed, and even encouraged, to make provocative statements about religion and science.  They must challenge students to examine their own beliefs and articulate their reasons for those beliefs.  But a teacher should never accomplish those goals by belittling, humiliating, or demeaning students.  Not only is it cruel, it is also ineffective.  As in this case, it merely forces students to retreat to a wholly defensive posture.  It does not draw them out to think deeply about science, history,
religion, and their personal beliefs.

I don’t know James Corbett.  But my hunch is that he would not want to belittle students or
discourage them from learning about science and history.  My hunch is that he is intelligent, brave, and self-sacrificing.  My hunch is that he is so deeply entrenched in his own position on evolution and creation that, like Richard Dawkins, he cannot imagine that an intelligent, informed, well-meaning person could possibly believe it.  From that perspective, there is no more harm to be found in mocking creationism than there would be in mocking flat-earthers or other kooks.

The problem is not only that James Corbett—and those like him, whether teachers, journalists, scientists, or involved citizens of other professions—showed sustained hostility to religion.  The deeper problem, in my opinion, was that he displayed an utter ignorance of the harm he was inflicting.  He hoped to be controversial and thought provoking.  He hoped to be humorous andengaging.  But his jokes and disparaging tone proved deeply offensive to at least one of his students.

The best parallel here is not the Bradley Johnson case, in which a teacher displayed Biblical and religious slogans in his math classroom.  The better parallel would be Michael Scott, the loudmouthed, offensive boss from TV’s “The Office.”  Scott told all sorts of offensive, sexist,
racist jokes.  When challenged, he would just throw up his hands and smile and say, “I didn’t mean to offend anyone.  I thought it was funny.”  Some people on either side of this evolution/creation divide are just that ignorant about those on the other side.  They don’t understand how people could really be offended to have their deepest religious beliefs mocked.  They don’t understand how deeply offensive it can be to compare belief in a creative God to belief in a giant spaghetti monster.

The deep irony is that some crusades against ignorance fail to consider their own deep ignorance about the people they hope to enlighten.