Sunday, October 21, 2007

Teaching Sorcery

In this recent surge of questions from the studio audience I received a new type of question. This one asks for advice – “This happened to me, and I do not know how I should feel about it.”

The situation:

ET is an English teacher who has come up with a vocabulary exercise in which students were given a list of latin ‘word parts’ that they could use to construct ‘spells’ – like those that Rowling used in the Harry Potter series. They then used these spells in a ‘mock’ duel. However, a parent apparently complained to the school that ET was teaching witchcraft to the students.

In this context, ET wrote:

Now, I write to you about this situation because, while I am upset, I'm not quite certain to what degree I have the *right* to be upset. Nor am I sure about where my indignation should be directed.

Okay, ET, if you have read much of my blog you know that I forego short and oversimplified answers in favor of detailed answers. So, I am going to start with a couple of distinctions.

The first is a distinction between matters of practical decision making, matters of law, and matters of morality.

If someone were to describe a situation in which they had been hauled into an alley by somebody with a gun and demanding his money, I would of course write that the robber was behaving immorally. However, that should not be confused with practical advice that the victim should not turn over the money. The teacher threatened with the loss of a job can find himself in a situation like that of the person hauled into the alley by the robber, coerced into doing something that, morally, he ought not to be coerced into doing.

Also, I do not even pretend to offer legal advice. There is often a significant difference between what the law is and what the law ought to be. The question of obeying or disobeying an unjust law is sometimes a difficult question to answer. When the Nazi soldiers show up asking if you know of the location of any Jews, the decision to disobey the law and refuse to report the Jews hiding in a neighbor’s attic is not an easy decision to make.

I am also going to add a third caveat, simply because it is a point that a concerned reader or writer must consider. These types of questions are necessarily one-sided. They are like the prosecutor offering evidence to a grand jury – who has absolutely no opportunity to hear the other side. No fair and just verdict can be rendered under these circumstances. However, the case can be used to discuss the principles under which a fair and just (moral) verdict can be rendered by those who have more information.

With these caveats in mind, the direct answer to this question is that there is a reason to be upset over these events. Let us be honest about what has happened here.

A teacher has discovered a way to communicate certain ideas to students that would help those students in the art of communication. The understanding of Latin prefixes and suffixes makes it easier to determine the meanings of words and phrases that they have never heard before, by understanding the meanings of these parts. The very art of understanding the meanings of terms by understanding its parts is what this lesson aims to teach.

However, because of the foolish beliefs of some parents of some students, no student is permitted to obtain the benefit of this plan. There is no such thing as a magic spell, no consorting with demons, no way for the utterance of words to affect the world by altering the laws of physics. Words are powerful tools. However, their powers work according to the laws of physics allow one person to alter the physiological structure (usually brain structure) of another by promoting certain beliefs on the part of the listener or reader. None of this involves the use of supernatural powers.

Pandering to these types of idiotic beliefs directly violates the function of a school (and the objectives of a teacher) in two ways. The first is because it prevents the teacher using tools that effectively teach the relevant concepts to students. The second is that it panders to superstition – telling the students in effect that unfounded superstitious myth such as belief in magic spells is something that one has to take seriously. In both cases, students end up dumber than they would have otherwise been. This, as I said, runs contrary to the primary function of the teacher and the school in which he teaches, which is to make students smarter than they would have otherwise been.

In counter to this, it is sometimes argued that we need to respect other people’s beliefs. However, the idea that we should respect other beliefs also runs counter to the primary function of the school. Every time a teacher marks an answer as incorrect, and degrades (lowers the grade) of the student who gave that answer, he is showing a lack of respect for those who might hold that the answer is correct. Those who put down the answer marked wrong are, in some sense, of a lower grade than those who put down the correct answer.

If we take the idea of ‘respecting’ other answers too seriously, we have teachers giving ‘respect’ to the students who believe that 12 * 12 = 140 and who think that the sum of the angles in a triangle equals 212 degrees.

There have to be some wrong answers in an education system (or there is no need for or purpose to education) – and those answers must remain wrong even if there is a parent out there who thinks that it is correct. Parents who think that these answers are correct must recognize that there is a distinction between believing something and holding it to be something that should be integrated into a school’s task of educating children.

I hold that desire utilitarianism provides a better account of morality than any other theory. Yet, my believing this is not sufficient to demand that it be a part of the school curriculum. Making it a part of the school system requires that it adopt enough ‘street credibility’ that there is sufficient public backing to make it a part of the school system.

Until then, teachers are free to teach theories other than desire utilitarianism, giving each theory whatever measure of respect it has in the intellectual community.

In this, our government was written to make an exception for whatever is classified as ‘religion’. Our government is prohibited from passing laws that seek to promote the idea that a specific set of religious beliefs are ‘true’ and others are ‘false’.

Side note: Some individuals, proving themselves to be amazingly skilled at deception – including self deception – hold that a national Pledge to ‘one nation under God’ and a motto of ‘In God We Trust’ – does not violate this restriction. Yet, both presume that the proposition ‘God exists’ is true. So, both involve teaching children that the official government position is that the proposition ‘God exists’ is true.

Anyway, at least with the blatant exception of atheism which the government may coerce its citizens – including (as especially children) into pledging to reject – the government is not permitted to adopt policies that promote any religion over any other. The reason for this is because religious beliefs can neither be defended nor attacked through the force of reason. They can only be defended and attacked through the force of arms. To the degree that the government takes it upon itself to promote one religion over another, it puts itself at risk of creating a conflict of arms that, as our founding fathers knew particularly well (given the Catholic/Protestant wars of Europe for the last two hundred years) is detrimental to the well-being of any nation.

I can think of no clearer violation of this peace treaty among the different religions than for members of one religion to say, “You must send your children to our church, to say there 6+ hours per week, where they will be told that our religion is correct and yours is mistaken.” This is not a relationship among equals. These are the terms under which masters impose their will on subjects.

This agreement states that the parent who believes in a real Satan that one can negotiate with through magical powers that are triggered through the use of Latin prefixes and suffixes on words shall not be required to send their children to an institution that tells her children, “Your religious beliefs are a bunch of nonsense.”

So, yes, the terms of this peace treaty say that the proper ends of a school system (education) must be frustrated in some cases for the purpose of keeping the peace among religious factions. This means that education, in some areas, must be prohibited in government funded schools.

This does not imply that there is no reason to be frustrated or upset. It means that we need more out-of-school activities to make up for the forms of education that public schools are not permitted to give.

We need organizations outside of schools – a ‘private supplemental education system’ that will fill the education gap that this peace treaty among religions requires that we exclude from school curriculums. It is an outside system where a teacher such as this can volunteer some time to teach students without worrying about public-school restrictions on religion.

In the mean time, to the degree that religions that believe in witchcraft become less common, to that degree public schools and public school teachers can better do their job of educating students. However, the defeat of these religions must come outside of school, by the private confrontation of those who hold such absurd beliefs using peaceful methods of private words and private actions, until a sufficiently large number of people have abandoned this absurdity that it is no longer a threat.


Doug S. said...

This agreement states that the parent who believes in a real Satan that one can negotiate with through magical powers that are triggered through the use of Latin prefixes and suffixes on words shall not be required to send their children to an institution that tells her children, “Your religious beliefs are a bunch of nonsense.”

Said parent can choose to send his or her child to a private school or attempt to provide homeschooling. Schools can and do teach things that are inconsistent with various religions. They are still supposed to teach evolution in biology class even though it contradicts many religions. They also teach that the Sun is a star composed primarily of hydrogen and helium, which also contradicts many religions. The school administration would be well within its rights to tell the parent to shut up.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

doug s.

Yes, I am aware of the need in science classes for teachers to say things that contradict certain religions. I said as much in the post Science vs. Religion

However, we are not talking about a science class here. And, if an English teacher can tell this parent to 'shut up', they can say the same to the Jewish parent who protests that an English teacher uses the New Testiment to 'inspire' her students, or a school board that uses tax revenue to turn public schools into, effectively, 'church' - run schools.

We could, of course, drop the restriction on public schools being used to promote a particular religion - and see where that gets us.

Doug S. said...

I just don't see that this example is equivalent to promoting a particular religious belief any more than, say, reading The Odyssey, clearly a religious document, in literature class. I'm not sure exactly where the line falls, but I think this teacher is on the safe side of it.