This may not solve anything regarding the recent conflict between a school district and a teacher over religious material posted in a classroom, but as a former teacher and current school district technology director, I do sympathize with the superintendent and the science teacher’s positions. Schools cannot use public funds to promote a state religion, as we know from the Bill of Rights, but the teacher seems to be attempting to expand her students’ knowledge of ethics and responsibility, in addition to sharing “how to pass the state test.”
In another district long ago, while I was resolving a tech issue in the Library Media Center, a hard-working little student came up to me. He was completing a Historical Scavenger Hunt, and was quite stuck on the remaining piece of his Ancient World puzzle. He asked me if I had ever heard of the Great Flood.
I replied, “Sure, Sparky. [I’m not very good at names.] That flood is recorded in multiple historical documents, including the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh.” Since the library was fresh out of Sumerian stuff, I suggested he look in the Bible. “Take a shot at the Book of Genesis,” I recklessly advised.
He casually stated, “I asked, they don’t have one here.”
“This library doesn’t have a Bible?” I replied in disbelief, violating at least three of Timmy’s civil rights.
It was then, in a New York State school district, that I realized how many federal, state and civil laws I had just flouted. I assumed, since I was in a room full of books, surrounded by life-sized Harry Potter merchandise, that this haven of 21st century Western learning would have a Bible (Judeo/Christian), a Quran (Islam, carefully maintained), a Diamond Sutra (Buddhism, the world’s oldest printed book) and the Upanishads (Hindi sacred texts).
I realized that the poor kid was trying to understand world history, with the five major world religions eliminated, carefully hosed down in an up-and-coming lawyer’s driveway.
Here’s the first sentence of the First Amendment from our Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
It sounds like the first sentence of our nation’s freedom blueprint protects the Cheektowaga superintendent and the teacher who placed Christian inspirational quotes in her classroom.
This deal won’t be solved by the right and left slingshot organizations involved, because they already mortared up their walls and are ready to start slinging. What is reasonable, for the sake of a more complete education, and for a foundation for basic tolerance (which is allowed, according to the Taylor Swift poster in the cafeteria)?
Districts should allow educationally relevant religious expression, if Judaic, Christian, Islamic, Hindi and Buddhist values are up on that wall, as well. If the teacher is not pushing personal beliefs on students, this should be fine. If the district wants a comprehensive educational experience for students, this should be fine. And don’t give me the “… thousands of religions out there, we’ll run out of wall space” angle. I’m talking about the five major league religions, with utility bills and a long history of charity and/or violence.
And if you want to go the other way – take on a real cultural force to prove my point – remove all religious statements in the schools, take down all those Harry Potter and Twilight posters from the state-funded school libraries, since Witchcraft and Vampirism are religions (though certainly not non-profit religions). And yes, Greek Mythology is a religion (talk to an ancient Greek) and mythology existed in my school libraries, though I felt no pressure, as a child, to sacrifice my pudding cup to Poseidon before swim class.
As far as that poor kid who wasn’t allowed to look up the Great Flood in a U.S. school system, I wonder how many other tapioca history lessons he had to memorize? If a teacher cannot mention religion in a classroom, one cannot possibly lead an objective lesson on the Holocaust, the Italian Renaissance, the Puritans, Gandhi, the Moors, China, India, women’s rights in Afghanistan or Palestinian-Israeli relations.
Religion is a driving force in history. Humane and inhumane religious events have directly determined the national borders of Pakistan, Turkey, Spain, Tibet; the list goes on, but don’t tell little Timmy, you may end up in court.
If a U.S. school library or classroom cannot acknowledge the first printed book in the world, or the first mass-produced printed book in the world, then call them “carefully strained and ethically bleached, partial book storage areas,” not libraries.
Religion is already embedded in the historical curriculum. I am not suggesting religion be taught in public schools as a belief system, which is why the Founding Fathers were so ingenious to prevent establishment of a state religion, while at the same time including wording that prevents suppression of personally held beliefs or speech.
On the erasure of religion in education, it sounds like little Timmy got cheated. Now he thinks the Great Flood is an unpublished Harry Potter book, the Renaissance masterworks were about a flying bearded man and the Holy Roman Empire began because Constantine became Kristen Stewart on the field of battle. I’m just relieved little Timmy didn’t ask me why they all sing songs to a mutant reindeer and his pine tree every December. I do not need that kind of trouble.
Alan Kryszak is a technology director at a Western New York school district and a composer of film and concert music. The views expressed do not represent the school district.