In 1996 the world religion class I created and had started to teach in the fall of that year fell under attack by conservative Christian parents, pastors, and students. The local newspaper broke the story with a bold banner headline on December 18 (see below). What followed was a long and controversial school year for me. Over the next few months letters poured into the newspaper and threats of legal action against the school were made by pastors and parents.
The school district immediately called an emergency meeting to resolve the crisis. Attending the meeting were school administrators and twenty-two local pastors and ministers. Tension filled the room. Some ministers argued that my class was offensive to Christian students and thus violated the separation of church and state clause of the United States Constitution and they wanted the course cancelled immediately. Others pastors strongly disagreed.
About fifteen minutes into the discussion tempers started to flare. One pastor yelled “why can’t you just tell the students what other religions believe, why do you have to make them think!?” The room spontaneously erupted into a verbal brawl. A young pastor sitting behind me leaned forward and sarcastically whispered in my ear “It would be horrible if schools made students think, Jim.” I smiled. It was clear he was on my side.
My critics were upset because I was not just teaching about what other religions believed, I was daring to put religion under the lens of critical examination. Some were furious because I was teaching and encouraging my students to understand the difference between religious dogma and factual information based on physical evidence and research. Others were upset because I had the “audacity” to tell my students that resurrection stories and virgin birth stories are a dime a dozen in the ancient world and are not viewed as historical truth by everyone. To my critics this kind of “nstruction” was/is offensive, and consequently I was accused of injecting my own ideas into the course, misinterpreting the Bible, and generally being offensive to Christians (see below).
The last paragraph in the above excerpt is important: “I want to know the facts… I don’t want to know people’s ideas.” When I read this sixteen years ago I sympathized with the student, and I understood where he was coming from. People often fear and experience discomfort with things they don’t understand. And facts can certainly “clear things up” and bring the comfort of knowing. I get that! Public education is committed to “fact-finding” and critical investigative thinking. However, in the area of religion facts are hard to come by. As a teacher I spend most of my time teaching about ideas, not facts. In other words I teach the idea that Jesus rose from the grave. I teach the idea that Muhammad was the “Final Prophet.” I teach the idea that the Buddha had a miracle birth. I teach the idea of reincarnation. Religions are collections of ideas and beliefs. They are belief systems. And like all beliefs, they are open to debate, discussion, and interpretation.
Discussions and debates about Jesus and religion are popular cover stories in American magazines. And I strongly believe that students should be aware of these debates and discussions, especially given the fact that religion can easily spill over into politics and law.
The below magazine covers (and many more) are on display in my room. My point in putting these magazines on display is to show students that religion is culturally debated and discussed. As an educator I want my students to understand the facts and reasons behind these debates and discussions. However – as I quickly learned in my first year of teaching my religion class – some people oppose any discussions in public schools that challenge a student’s fixed religious beliefs.
Secular public schools are dedicated to “factual knowledge” and the scientific method of reasoning. And it is no coincident that the biggest critics of secularism, the religious right, are also the biggest critics of public education. The tension between religious faith and factual reasoning is over four hundred years old and clearly evident in our modern society.
Last summer at the Republican State Convention in Texas, republicans voted to include in their official party platform a plank to oppose the teaching of “higher thinking” and “critical thinking skills” that challenge a student’s “fixed beliefs.” Don’t believe me? See the actual wording below (um… needless to say, I won’t be teaching in Texas).
The idea of “opposing the teaching of higher thinking skills” and “critical thinking skills and similar programs” that “challenge the student’s fixed beliefs and undermine parental authority” makes no sense to me. It has been proven that challenging your own beliefs is healthy for brain development (for more information on this see my post “Thinking outside the box. Literally!”). Plus, some children need their fixed beliefs challenged! We all know that parents have the power to instill in their children ideas and beliefs that can become fixed at a young age. Militant KKK parents can raise their children to hate as surely as Christian parents can raise their children to love.
Here are my questions: Is it okay for public schools to teach children to challenge their fixed beliefs? Is it ever okay for schools to teach things that go against what parents want their children to believe?
Oh… and if you want to see some comical and satirical commentary on the Texas republican position on critical thinking, click on the below link. Colbert rocks!