Sunday, August 25, 2013

Fact and fiction on Minneha's "Islam" bulletin board

Today's editorial cartoon in the Wichita Eagle, drawn
by cartoonist Richard Crowson
Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary School is very close to where I live in Wichita, Kansas. The name "Core Knowledge" comes from the belief that there are culturally common things that students should learn about in order to be successful in life, which sort of makes you wonder why every school isn't a Core Knowledge school.

Apparently some of what Minneha considers Core Knowledge is an understanding of the world's major religions. I agree with that wholeheartedly, as did the Supreme Court in the famous 1963 case Abington School District v. Schempp, when Justice Tom Clark wrote for the Court:
[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 consistently with the First Amendment.
The purpose of the dual religion clauses in the First Amendment is to prevent government institutions from advancing or inhibiting religion. The government, from the president down to the public school teacher, may not push religion on the public, and it may not prevent members of the public, private citizens, from practicing their own religions as they so choose, provided that such practice does not violate the law in any other regard.

Let's keep this in mind while considering the flap at Minneha, where a bulletin board displaying the Five Pillars of Islam (five central acts of devotion for Muslim practitioners) was on display as part of the school's effort to educate students on world religion...until a photo of the bulletin board was posted on Facebook apparently without context and with some very questionable comments. The bulletin board was then taken down until such time as the unit on Islam will be taught during the school year, when it will be....hung back up in the same place, with the same content?  A different place, and/or with different content? It's hard to say at this point. I'm not sure Minneha knows. What's cool about this case, though, is the fact that it presents an opportunity for Minneha to pass on some of that core knowledge to an audience that goes far beyond its student body-- to their parents, to Wichita, to the members of our state governing bodies, and to the internet itself-- about church/state separation and what it means. So in that spirit, let's review some of the things that have been said about this event and sort them into two categories-- fact and fiction-- for the sake of education.

1. From the Take America Back Facebook page:
Verdict: Fiction
Seriously, guys, you couldn't even spell the city's name correctly? Wichita. Wichita. 

Yes, this is in fact an image of the bulletin board at Minneha. However, that's where the truthy part ends. Minneha did not "ban all forms of Christian prayer." No public school in America has "banned all forms of Christian prayer," or all forms of any kind of prayer. It is perfectly legal to pray to Jesus, Allah, or Thor in public school if you want to. What isn't legal is doing so on behalf of the school, using the school's authority.

Abington v. Schempp was about this latter sort of prayer, more specifically about a ceremony Ellory Schempp's school district held every morning in which students were required to hear or read from passages from the Bible. This effectively combined the school's authority to educate with authority to indoctrinate, the latter purpose more appropriately belonging to Sunday than public school. Students may pray-- or read the Bible-- in public school of their own volition, if their doing so is not disruptive. The school may not do so for them, or encourage/compel them to do so.

2. From State Representative Dennis Hedke:
If you’re going to talk about Islam and make it sound like it’s another one of those religions that needs to be understood and contemplated by mankind, there’s a serious misunderstanding.
Verdict: Fiction.

Islam is a) a religion which b) needs to be understood and contemplated by mankind. At least, as much as any religion whose adherents make up about 20% of the world's population does. Contrary to what Hedke seems to assume, it is in fact beneficial to understand belief systems which you yourself to not share. Firstly because they affect the behavior of others in the same way that your own beliefs affect your behavior, and secondly because every belief you currently have, you once did not have. If you had begun life with a strict policy against understanding belief systems you don't currently share, you would literally believe nothing.

Most importantly, of course, the SCOTUS verdict I quoted above highlighted the difference between teaching religion and teaching about religion. Comparative religion is teaching about religions-- saying "Here is what these people believe. Here are their rituals. Here are their traditions. Here's the origin of their faith, according to them, and according to other people. This is a religion. This is a belief system which has causal effects in peoples' lives, and therefore in our world. You need to know about it." All of this is just as true of Islam as it is about Christianity, and yet I don't think you'd hear Rep. Hedke complain that Christianity is not "one of those religions that needs to be understand and contemplated by mankind."  I highly doubt that if the bulletin board had been about the Sermon on the Mount, it would have ever been posted on Take Back America's Facebook page. The first big hurdle of comparative religion is, I suppose, acknowledging that there are people who believe in other religions as fervently as you might believe in yours. It's definitely an important thing for mankind to understand.

3. From a hand-wringing blog post on PJ Media:
The questions presents themselves: First, why would a school in the middle of the Bible Belt present something like this? Second, will they give the same pride of place to Christianity? Judaism? Mormonism? Zoroastrianism? Third, where is the ACLU? They have been quick to sue over so-called establishment clause issues in school in the past, so why are they not hammering Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary School for this outrageous promotion of religion?
Verdict: Ignorant.

Sorry; I can't declare these questions factual or fictional because they are, after all, questions. However they're certainly leading questions, and they lead to an ignorance of how church and state separation works, and how the ACLU works. See, the ACLU is more than aware of Schempp, and they support it:
The history of religion, comparative religion, the Bible (or other scripture)-as-literature (either as a separate course or within some other existing course), are all permissible public school subjects. It is both permissible and desirable to teach objectively about the role of religion in the history of the United States and other countries. One can teach that the Pilgrims came to this country with a particular religious vision, that Catholics and others have been subject to persecution or that many of those participating in the abolitionist, women's suffrage and civil rights movements had religious motivations.
Presumably the "same pride of place"-- that is, bulletin board space-- will be given to Christianity when that religion is discussed in Minneha's instruction on religion. Judaism as well. Mormonism and Zoroastrianism probably not, because they are not considered among the big heavies of world religion. Zoroastrianism, no offense to Zoroastrians, barely exists at all at this point. It would be impossible to teach about all of the world's religions, so Minneha teaches about the most significant ones worldwide. Seems reasonable to me.

Why would a school in the middle of the Bible Belt present something like this? Gosh, can't you at least be pleasantly surprised that we did something right?

4. From the Wichita Eagle's editorial board:
No, the misunderstanding is all Hedke’s. As President Bush said so often and so well after Sept. 11, Islam as practiced by the vast majority of people is a peaceful religion that respects others.
Verdict: Fiction.

Wait, wait, hear me out on this. I'm not saying that it's fictional that Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a "peaceful religion that respects others." I'm saying that this is not a defense of teaching about Islam in public schools, because it's irrelevant. Public schools do not restrict themselves to teaching about egalitarian, ecumenical, "respectful" (whatever that means) ideologies. They teach about relevant ideologies, which depending on the course in question could include forms of racism, sexism, fascism, nationalism, etc.

If you want to teach about an ideology, you must make students understand why people believe (or believed) in it. That's what it means to understand an ideology. It doesn't mean that you must present the ideology as true or good, so it doesn't matter whether the ideology is true or good-- just that you represent it accurately and fairly. And do the same for Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, which I assume are the other religions to be taught.

There are two very good letters to the editor on the Wichita Eagle's editorial page today on the matter of Minneha's bulletin board, and I'll conclude by quoting from them:
How does suppressing the study and understanding of the religion of about one-fourth of the world’s population, the majority of whom are not radicals, help our case? Aren’t we trying to expose our youths to all the knowledge they might need to critically consider the many facets of a problem? 
 William C. Skaer
 I’m sorry the school had to take down its display depicting the five pillars of Islam. I hope it will be able to replace it soon. The school staff and students know better than many adults that learning about different religions is a great way to move toward a peaceful world. They know that pretending religion doesn’t exist is a prescription for ignorance and bigotry later in life. They know that learning about a religion is not the same thing as believing. And the teachers know that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right of public schools to provide education about religion at the same time that it rightly prohibits proselytizing. 
 Noelle Barrick

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Barney Frank, atheism, and representation

So Barney Frank came out last night-- again. This time as a "pot-smoking atheist" on Real Time With Bill
Maher, when Maher gave himself that label and Frank responded by jokingly asking Maher which one he meant:
Bill Maher: … you were in a fairly safe district. You were not one of those Congresspeople who have to worry about every little thing. You could come on this show, and sit next to a pot-smoking atheist, and it wouldn’t bother you…
Barney Frank: [Pointing back and forth to himself and Maher] Which pot-smoking atheist were you talking about?
Maher was saying this in the context of asking whether Frank felt "liberated" now that he's no longer in Congress, which is apparently the only time a congressperson can be liberated-- when he/she is an ex-congressperson. Presidents can be liberated when they're ex-presidents. They can start claiming to honestly believe and support things they should have openly believed and supported while in office, but it was too "dangerous" to do so (read: it might damage their chances of re-election). Gay equality. Ending the drug war. Secularism. Etc. It can leave a person wondering if "no taxation without representation" still applies when elected officials will only represent you when they're no longer in office, that is, when it no longer matters.

Okay, yes, there has been only openly atheist sitting Congressperson-- Pete Stark, who was actually the second longest-serving congressman until he lost his seat last year to another Democrat. But given that people without religion are believed to comprise roughly 10-20% of the American population, depending on how you define things, shouldn't we be at least a little better represented than that? Among 535 voting members...maybe?

Whenever discussion of representation of demographics in government comes up, there is an inevitable argument which comes from people who-- quite frankly-- seem to oppose a particular candidate and everything he/she stands for, regardless of whatever demographic is applicable, which goes something like this: elected officials should represent the people, which means they should represent everyone. We shouldn't want officials who represent only those like themselves, which means that demographic shouldn't matter which means...basically, shut up and be happy with more old white heterosexual Christian men. (I'd say "wealthy," but that's so beyond being a given it's already given before it was given.)

When you hear people talk about the "other" or "othering," and they're not talking about Lost, this is what they're referring to-- the unspoken assumption that there is a default, and the default represents everyone, whereas everyone else, that is everyone who is not the default, represents only their specific factions-- whatever those may be.  Women can only represent women, black people can only represent black people, gays can only represent gays, secularists can only represent secularists, but straight white old religious guys? They are generic; they are Everyman; they can represent all of us.


In reality, we all have experiences, and those experiences teach us. And those experiences are shaped by our demographics. Our race, our gender identity, our sexual orientation, our religious affiliation (or lack thereof), our class. Etc. No matter how empathetic a white man is, unless he's John Howard Griffin, he doesn't know what it's like to be a black man. Griffin did not know what it's like to grow up as a black male. The reason that colorblindness is misguided and actually racist rather than racism-alieving is that it ignores the experience conveyed to a person growing up as a human being in their particular race. Experience gives perspective; colorblindness pretends that it has all of the perspective (or that perspective doesn't matter) without the experience.

Wanting to be represented is wanting people who have shared your experiences, and therefore have the ability to understand your perspective, standing for you. Representation is standing-for. When it comes to government, it is also making-decisions-for.

Unfortunately when it comes to politics, the populist trend pretends that we only want people who have had similar experiences to ours (or at least, what we would like to pretend our experiences have been) representing us, and so you get ridiculous feats of pretension like George W. Bush dressing up as a cowboy. We often use the word "pretension" to refer to elitism, but actually it's closer to just pretending, in this case pretending to be just folks. To, of course, white heterosexual Christian middle class folks. They want to be represented. In regard to three out of four of those attributes, they always have been and always will be. It would be nice if they'd notice and pay attention to the fourth, as well as the equal need and desire for representation by the rest of us.

Or at least...stop saying that it doesn't matter.

It matters.