Something is wrong. Commitment is a thing of the past. Love that is longsuffering has been replaced by divorce on demand. Charity is dead. We have ceased to instill our children with virtues and then we are shocked that they grow up to be reprobates. Materialism and hedonism are the philosophies of the masses because their education has not empowered them to define either. Our modern world has left us dissatisfied and disillusioned. We search for something lost. Classicism is on the ascendancy.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Bible, Public Education, and the Separation of Church and State

"It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment." Justice Tom C. Clark in Abington v. Schempp

Organize your arguments. File your briefs. Clean and press your best suits. We are going to court.

The administrators of the former Nampa Classical Academy, in Nampa, Idaho, are taking their case to the Ninth Circuit Court of appeals. You may remember the Idaho Public Charter Schools Commission refused to allow the NCA to use the Bible as a literary and historical text as part of their curriculum. The commission, supported by the state Attorney General's Office, cited Article IX, § 6 of Idaho's own state constitution as justification for their ban on the Bible. That section reads in part, "No books, papers, tracts or documents of a political, sectarian or denominational character shall be used or introduced in any schools established under the provisions of this article...." NCA disputed the ruling, the fight turned public and ugly, and ultimately resulted in the revocation of NCA's charter amid accusations of financial improprieties. Advocates of NCA claim the school was singled out for elimination due to the fight over its plan to use the Bible as a literary and historical text.

At first glance, it seems reasonable that the charter schools commission would deny the NCA's plan under Article IX, § 6; however, the waters quickly muddy after even the most cursory analysis of the section. Notice texts of a "sectarian or denominational character" are not the only texts of concern here: the section actually prohibits "books, papers, tracts or documents of a political... character" first (emphasis added.) Let that marinate for a moment: "no books, papers, tracts or documents of a political... character." If interpreted strictly, this constitutional provision would prohibited reading the Declaration of Indepedence, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address, the Federalist Papers, and yes, even itself. Clearly the authors of the provision had something else in mind.

Moving to the actual part of the provision which the Public Charter Schools Commission claims prohibits the Bible from being read in public school, the first thing we might examine is what the provision does not say. The authors of Article IX § 6 did not prohibit texts of a "religious" character. If their intent was to forbid the Bible from being read in schools, that would have done the trick; instead they chose some specific language: texts of a "sectarian or denominational" nature. To interpret the provision and why its authors did not use the more inclusive terminology of texts of a "religious" nature, we need to know what these words - "sectarian or denominational" - mean.

"Denominational" is the easier of the two, so let us start there. This is a word common to the English vernacular, and used regularly in American culture to describe subgroups within a whole. It is commonly applied to money: $1, $5, and $10 bills are subcategories of the group "money." For example, if I go to the bank and withdraw $100 from my account and ask for it in "denominations" less than $20 bills, they will give it to me in some assortment of $10, $5, and $1 bills. In the context of Article IX § 6, religious denominations are subgroups within a religion that operate under a common organization, distinct set of beliefs, and identity. Some denominations commonly found in the U.S. are the Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, etc. So in this regards at least, we can confidently say when the authors of Article IX § 6 prohibited texts of a "denominational character", they were forbidding texts particular to these specific denominations and not the Bible itself.

"Sectarian" is only slightly more difficult to define, and in fact is very similar to "denomination." It too is a word we use often. Conveniently Senator Dianne Feinstein recently provided us with an example: she used the word "sects" to describe different subgroups within the Islamic religion, specifically "fundamentalist" ones. Merriam-Webster defines a sect as "a group adhering to a distinctive doctrine or leader," or even "a religious denomination." By my lights, the only difference between the two words is that "denomination" is more formal: it seems to apply to officially established religious groups, whereas "sect" could apply to any group united under some principle or leader. Regardless, what we can confidently decide is that the authors of Article IX § 6 were not prohibiting the reading of the Bible in schools when they used the word "sectarian." They were referring to texts used by subgroups within a larger whole.

As incredible as it may seem, none of the above is even the greatest difficulty with the strict interpretation of the provision being applied by the Charter Schools Commission. Title 33 of the Idaho State Statutes, the title which in fact creates the State Board of Education in Chapter 1, has a fascinating provision in Chapter 16. 33-1604 reads in part, "Selections from the Bible, to be chosen from a list prepared from time to time by the state board of education, shall be read daily to each occupied classroom in each school district." That is right: the Idaho Statutes approve reading of the Bible in schools, while the Idaho Constitution prohibits the very same thing - at least if we are to accept the interpretation of the Public Charter Schools Commission and Attorney General's Office.

So how are we to interpret this apparent contradiction? As one might assume, if we advance in our analysis just a bit, the waters settle and become much clearer. The last part of statute 33-1604 reads, "Such reading [from the Bible] shall be without comment or interpretation. Any question by any pupil shall be referred for answer to the pupil’s parent or guardian." The legislators responsible for 33-1604 - and, most likely, the authors of Article IX § 6 - were clearly concerned about interpretations involved in sectarian and denominational differences, and not the Bible in a general sense.

The interpretation of the Public Charter Schools Commission must, therefore, be summarily dismissed as absurd. However, if Idaho constitutional law does not prohibit the Bible being used in public schools, what about federal law? Supporters of the Charter Schools Commission will be sorely disappointed. The Supreme Court has interpreted the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution to prohibit compulsory reading the Bible (see Abington v. Schempp.) However, several problems arise from trying to apply the decision in Abington v. Schempp to the NCA case. First, attendance at NCA - or any charter school for that matter - is not compulsory; ergo, reading the Bible cannot be said to be compulsory. Second, NCA could not be said to be "preferr[ing]" one religion over another because their plan was to include many religious texts in their curriculum, including the Christian New Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, the Quran, the writings of Confucious, the Book of Mormon, etc. And finally, the plan of NCA was to use all these religious texts as literary and historical sources and not as weapons to dogmatize and proselytize. The distinction is not subtle. There is a profound difference between teaching "Jesus, a man born in the first century Roman province of Palaestina said x, y, and z," and "you must believe x, y, and z because Jesus, who we know to be God incarnate in the flesh, said a, b, and c." Even the Schempp-Murray decision, as penned by Justice Tom C. Clark, recognized this distinction. Justice Clark wrote:

[I]t might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment.

Clearly this is a serious topic, and it raises the question: if it is so controversial, why would anyone even want to use the Bible or any other religious texts in public school? Fortunately, that is a question easily answered. As Justice Clark wrote, no education is complete without it. There can be no doubt that the Bible has been the most influential piece of literature in the western world. It remains today the most read book in the world, surpassing the second place book by 3.9 billion copies sold to 820 million, a margin of almost 5 to 1. Its influence on the music, art, literature, political theory, and philosophy of western civilization cannot be overstated. Biblical literacy is essential for interpreting Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Dante's Divine Comedy, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Michelangelo, Bernini, Kant, Descartes, Pascal, Locke, Hobbes, C.S. Lewis' Narnia, and so on ad infinitum. It is also essential for understanding the history of western civilization, including the fall of Rome in the west, the rise of Byzantium in the east, the Christian synthesis of the 4th century, the rise of medieval Catholicism, the Reformation, the Founding of the New World, the end of the Slave Trade, and the American Emancipation,and the personalities who drove these events like Constantine the Great, Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas, Columbus, Martin Luther, Washington, Jefferson, William Wilberforce, Lincoln, and many more.

The same can be said for other religious texts: their impact on the geopolitical environment cannot be overstated. Without understanding the Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures, the Quran, and comparative religions more generally, students cannot even begin to understand the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, Puritans and Anglicans, Israelis and Palestinians, Al Qaeda and the West, Sunnis and Shiites, Serbs and Albanians, Burmans and Karen, and so on. To provide an education to students without even some cursory knowledge of the religious texts that motivate groups like these is to not provide an education at all. We do our students a disservice by graduating them without the knowledge requisite to make sense of the world around them.

One point of interest before I end this: I have attended a state university for both undergraduate studies as well as graduate studies, a span covering roughly a decade. During that time, I have been assigned to read the Bible as part of my coursework at least a half dozen times for classes in both the History and English department. My university is a public university, supported by public funds. Yet no one seems to care.

This conflict over whether or not religious texts have any place in public education is not one that will likely go away any time soon. Two occurrences this week serve as great examples of that. First, on a national scale, the Kentucky Senate  passed a law by a 34-1 vote that would standardize an elective course centered on some combination of the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures. Other states may follow suit. Second, on an anecdotal level I recently experienced the vitriol which public educators in general have for religious texts in the public school curriculum. One of the instructors in a college teacher education class I am currently in, who is also a principal at a local middle school, brought up the NCA case during one of his lectures. He mentioned that the NCA wanted to teach the Bible, which he deemed to be "damn wrong." One of his co-instructors, a teacher at his school, made an obscure reference to the First Amendment and he followed  with a similar remark about "the separation of church and state"; I have already shown that the Supreme Court does not take either to prohibit teaching the Bible in public schools. Furthermore, the polemical attack was not related to the subject of the lecture at all - which was on No Child Left Behind - revealing their acerbic sentiment for the larger idea of teaching the Bible in public schools. Sadly, they were misinformed on all points; worse yet, a whole class of future teachers is none the wiser for it.

The debate rages on, and will hopefully be decided by the Supreme Court once again. The responsibility of informed citizens is to keep the discourse honest and civil, something my college instructors failed to do on both accounts. Unfortunately, being a product of the public school system myself, I was not properly informed to correct them. But I am now, and so are you.

Friday, February 4, 2011

In Defense of the Humanities

"Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, "O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless... of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?" Answer. That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.... That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse." Mr. John Keating, Dead Poet's Society

If you watched last week's State of the Union address, you could not help but notice President Obama's heavy emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math education (or "STEM" for short.) In what he termed our "Sputnik moment", President Obama called for a renewed emphasis on STEM in order to drive invention and create more jobs here in America (in the context of his call last year to train 100,000 new STEM teachers, one might wonder what is "new" about this year's emphasis; but I digress.) In this poor economy, one can excuse the President's focus on creating new jobs for Americans. However, we need to be careful about being overly reactive to the needs of the moment to the detriment of our nation's long-term health, particularly as it pertains to education.[1]

What do I mean? One must look at our system and wonder if our falling math and science scores are at all related to a lack of emphasis on STEM. I propose that they are not. For example, at my alma mater, the largest, newest buildings on campus are the engineering and technology buildings; the oldest and most dilapidated are the liberal arts buildings. The History department is located in a single hallway in the back of the library. You would not even know it was there if you were not looking for it. Need another example? At my university, a rough estimate shows that roughly two-thirds of the students in any given teacher education class are STEM majors. The remaining third are English majors, which if you paid attention in algebra class, you would recognize that does not leave a whole lot of room for the rest of the humanities.

By my lights, we are fully focused on STEM education. We are throwing the kitchen sink at it, and yet, according to our politicians at least, we are lagging behind the competition. So maybe our neglect of STEM is not the problem; perhaps we are administering the wrong medication. Perhaps we are administering penicillin when amoxicillin would do the trick. But if our neglect of STEM is not the problem, then what is? I propose that our focus on STEM is the problem.

If that last statement did not cause you to write me off as a kook and you are still with me, let me explain what I mean. I think most people with some cultural perspective would agree that our young people generally have a motivation problem (not all young people, mind you; just generally speaking.) Who can blame them? They have an unprecedented number of distractions pulling at them: technologies that demand immediate attention and response like smart phones and iPads; increased access to their peers afforded by social networking media; instability in their homes severe enough to incapacitate most adults involved, who are (ideally, at least) better equipped emotionally to handle the instability; immersive video games the likes of which the world has never seen before; romantic relationships with increased sexual activity and the related emotional duress; and all the normal stresses of adolescence like biological changes, balancing school, extracurricular activities, and a social life, etc. It is a lot to expect young people to manage.

On top of all this, we as a society are force-feeding them subjects like chemistry and pre-calculus, subjects that perhaps 2% of the population might use in the course of their life (I made that number up; contest it if you like.) Not that there is anything wrong with these subjects in and of themselves; what I am addressing is the emphasis being placed upon them by our society. I propose that these subjects do not generally cultivate a love of learning. Few things about math and science evoke passion in students to better themselves, to challenge themselves in ways they might not otherwise. They do not necessarily drive students to think critically about important issues of life: love, personal fulfillment, the meaning of happiness, etc. By over emphasizing them, we are in effect running a risk of quashing a love of learning in students that are required to create the captains of industry that our nation so needs. It is part of what Mr. Keating was getting at when he said that they are "necessary to sustain life... but [not] what we stay alive for." Education needs to be a goal in and of itself; students need to be encouraged to pursue an education in order to become a certain kind of person, to find what they "stay alive for."

But what kind of education can provide this kind of self-actualization for students? Students need to be exposed to humanity in a way that I fear is not currently happening: in order to realize their own potential - for both good and evil - students need to be exposed to the great heroes - and villains - of human history. A liberal arts education, one with a strong humanities emphasis, provides the kind of immersion in the human experience requisite for this kind of self-actualization. By reading of Odysseus the man who was never at a loss and of arms and mighty Aeneus, by studying the ethical philosophies of Jesus of Nazareth that changed the course of world history, by examining the genius of Beethoven's 9th Symphony or Shakespeare's sonnets, by learning of the founding of a great nation, by analyzing the diabolical mind of Adolph Hitler and the stalwart defiance of Churchill, and much more, students can come to realize that all of human history is what Mr. Keating described as "a powerful play" in which they too "can contribute a verse." 


[1] None of this should be taken as a partisan political attack on President Obama. I take the Republicans to be equally culpable in what I perceive to be a miscalculation in the purposes of education.