Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Religion, Education, and Harry Potter

Michael, at Atheist Perspective, writes a series of rhetorical questions in condemnation of a teacher who was disciplined for refusing to listen to a student read Harry Potter. The teaching assistant believed that the books promoted witchcraft and objected to the book on religious grounds.

The teacher later resigned and is suing the school on the basis of religious discrimination.

Against this, Michael asked:

Isn’t teaching about what’s best for the child and not what’s best for the teacher? What right does a teacher have to supersede the wishes of the parent in what they wish for their child to believe? If your faith is such that you believe Harry Potter to be the work of the devil then you have no place in education. A teacher’s beliefs are secondary to a child’s development. As a teacher your job is to educate the child as the school wishes.

There is every reason to believe that this teacher thinks that these actions are in the best interests of the student, and that resigning is an act of self-sacrifice of a person who puts the (alleged) welfare of the student first. So, these accusations are out of line.

Furthermore, the counter-claim to this is that the state is forcing the teacher to do that which the teacher holds to be immoral. Would a Jewish teach be required to listen to a student read Mein Kampf? What about a black teacher listening while a kid reads some fiction that his racist father gives him where the "hero" of the story is out to rid society of "niggers"?

It is perfectly acceptable for a teacher to declare that these attitudes are wrong. Any offense given to Nazi or White Supremacist parents by a teacher's refusal to present this material in class is irrelevant.

We can't get by with saying that a teacher must listen and promote in class every viewpoint that some parent or other might embrace. Some picking and choosing is necessary.

Clearly, I do not hold that Harry Potter is in the same category as Mein Kampf and white supremacist literature. However, this teaching assistant did believe this - and believed it because her religion told her so.

The Essentials of Education

Speaking bluntly, the purpose of an education system is to fill a child’s brain with true beliefs and good moral values (to build good moral character).

For any who claim that values should not be a part of education – that values should be left up to the parents – I would like to mention the values. Don’t cheat; Don’t lie; Wait your turn; No fighting; Don’t interrupt; Be to class on time; Don’t disrupt the class; Don’t rape your classmates; Don’t destroy school property; Don’t take that which belongs to the school or to other students.

A school that did not teach virtue along with truth would not be a school anybody would choose to go to. In fact, it is logically impossible for a school not to teach values, because even a school that says “it is wrong to teach values in public schools” involves teaching the children a particular attitude towards the teaching of values in public schools.

There is simply no getting around the fact that the public school system is to devote the bulk of its efforts to teaching children which propositions are true, which propositions are false, which desires are virtuous, an which are vicious.

Inevitably, we are going to disagree over which propositions are true or false, and which desires are virtues and vices. In order to live in peace, we must consent to a set of institutions which we will use to resolve these differences – those institutions involving legislatures, courts, school boards, and teachers. We agree to go along peacefully with whatever these institutions decide, while at the same time struggling to make those institutions better.

History tells us that religious disagreements are all too likely to promote bloodshed and civil war. In order to get the people to peacefully agree to what will be taught in public schools, we have reason to support a set of institutions whereby the most important religious propositions are simply going to be ignored. We are only going to teach those propositions where there is a sufficiently broad agreement, and leave violently divisive propositions off of the curriculum.

This is not only true when it comes to teaching the truth or falsity of the propositions within a religion, but also a religion’s most important values – teaching children what to desire.

In order to keep the peace, we must mutually agree to respond to decisions made over what is to be taught, in terms of propositions believed or desired, with campaigns to change the system, rather than through force of arms.

Final Analysis

Given these propositions, I would need to know some additional information before knowing how to react to the case of this particular teacher. The most important part of this case as I see it is the teacher’s claim that, “I cannot listen to the expression of views that I do not agree with.”

We are not talking about a case in which a teacher was being required to engage in a religious ritual or practice that she disagreed with. Nobody was drawing pentagrams on the floor and asking the teacher to repeat the words in some ritual or other. All she was being required to do is to listen to and evaluate the report of some student.

“Exposing me to points of view other than my own while at work is religious discrimination and shall not be permitted.” This is the principle that this teacher’s assistant wants to introduce into our system. However, if we were to adopt this principle, then our school system itself will come to a dead stop. The same rule that demands that she not be exposed to the views of others also requires that others not be exposed to her views – which effectively implies that no person shall be permitted to say anything.

A civilized society requires that each individual at least be able to be exposed to views that are not their own. There are simply some principles that a civilized society needs that transcend ‘freedom of religion’. A prohibition on killing others simply because they do not believe the same religion is one. An willingness to be exposed to others who do not share the same beliefs is another.

An atheist teacher who requires that students talk about their favorite book must be ready to sit and listen to the student who talks about the Bible. Similarly, Christian students in the class would be obligated to sit and listen while somebody brings in the Koran.

In fact, it should be a part of the mission of any school to give children an opportunity to learn about other people with whom they are going to have to live. A huge number of possible professions that the child might want to enter as an adult will require knowing something about systems of belief other than his or her own. If he wants to be a police officer or a physician, he will need to understand how others live. If she wants to be a legislator, she will need to understand the various ways in which the people she represents live. Writers, speakers, advocates, lawyers, even good neighbors need to understand different ways of life.

Those who prevent a school from doing this, prevent the school from giving a child a quality education.

1 comment:

Sheldon said...

Might I interject something here, a little twist if you will.

The teaching assistant I don't think is actually claiming she is being forced to listen to something she disagress with. She is claiming something much more serious. At least according to her beliefs.

Some Christians believe that things like Harry Potter or Oiujui boards etc. actually invite the influence of the devil and demons into ones life.

Now you and I, most people who read this blog, and even substantial numbers of Christians think this is silly.

However, school districts and other government agencies give reasonable religious exemptions for some things. Jewish holidays for example.

The person in question was a teaching assistant, that is significant, and I wonder if it would have been better to just re-assign her for this activity?