One of the most emotionally difficult parts of becoming a
scholar for me has been finding myself face to face with places where my
previously deeply-held values suddenly left me in a quandary. I’ve been
bumping up against one of those areas lately and finding that in order to not
be a hypocrite I have to take a position no one would ever expect.
I have an essentially libertarian set of values. I believe in individual
liberty, tolerance and that you can do whatever you want as long as you don’t
interfere with me doing whatever I want. I’m not religious (frankly I
think its all superstition) but if it helps you get through the day then I’m
happy for you. I’m happy with the way the framers set up this country and
cringe every time the Bush administration chips away at the Bill of
Rights. I think my core beliefs are best expressed actually in the
contrast of the establishment clause (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….) and
the free exercise clause (…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof).
Worship how you want, just don’t try to make other people worship that way with
you. I’m good with that.
Where I’ve been stumbling over this whole thing is in the concept of religion
as a form of diversity. Our multicultural society has taken to heart the
idea that all forms of diversity must be respected, and I think a strong case
can be made for religion as a form of diversity. (Some might make the
case that diversity only applies to things about which an individual has no
choice; gender, ethnicity, etc. However a child has no choice in the
religion of their family when they are growing up, so I’m not sure that
matters.) We go so far as to teach tolerance in public schools, which has
caused some parents (often fundamentalist Christians, but not always) to object
on the grounds that the value of tolerance of certain groups (most often
homosexuals) is not consistent with the teachings of their church and the
parent’s teachings at home. Some groups have accused the public schools
of trying to indoctrinate all children into a secular religion.
Let me give you an example of why this is all a stumbling block for me. Most
researchers believe that Native American students will learn best if they are
in a culturally consistent environment. As such a number of promising
public schools are teaching the language and culture of the tribe to the
students in those schools with the goal of proving that the achievement for
those students is higher than it would be for students educated
elsewhere. In discussion, however, it became clear that language and
culture include spirituality in this context. They celebrate the
holidays, participate in rituals and ceremonies and otherwise are indoctrinated
into that set of spiritual beliefs.
So, why is that OK but a white parent who wants their child taught in a manner
consistent with their form of fundamentalist Christianity that believes
homosexuality should not to be tolerated cannot be accommodated within the
public school system? Would it matter if it were a black parent who
wanted their child taught in a way that conformed to southern Baptist
teachings? What about an Asian family who wants their child taught in a
non-violent spiritual tradition and thus not exposed to dodge ball in gym
I don’t want to take something away from the Native American students.
If, in fact, it is proven that those students do better academically in that
environment (and particularly if it has a large effect size), though, I would
expect other religions to make the claim that teaching their
“culture” and spiritual traditions would improve their children’s
education as well. And I’m not sure they would be wrong about that.
I believe that teaching your child that the Bible is the literal word of God
and that Jesus is coming back to damn the sinners and raise up those who
believe in this specific version of a religion borders on child abuse. It
is illogical, irrational, and bad for society as a whole. While many
forms of religion are open and accepting the ones that would jump on this
opportunity are the ones that are intolerant and actively hostile to other
beliefs. That is bad for society as a whole.
But if I value personal liberty, tolerance, and the core of the constitution,
don’t I need to tolerate those beliefs? Don’t I need to support that call
from parents for the right to educate their children in a way that is
culturally consistent with what the child is getting at home? Particularly
if it improves that child’s academic performance and therefore many of their
life chances? Regardless of what culturally consistent may mean?
Frankly, I’m still struggling with this and have been for months. I have
determined that it comes down to the order in which I place my values;
- If I value individual liberty
or tolerance above all else, then I have to tolerate these beliefs no
matter how harmful or foolish I consider them. The condition under
which I could reject those ideas forces me to see myself as smarter than
all those other people AND possessing the right to tell them what to
do. I may do the former but I have never done the latter.
- If I value the constitution
above all else (specifically how separation of church and state has been
understood by constitutional scholars) then I have to reject interventions
that could improve student performance because they involve teaching
prohibited subjects and implicitly establishing a religion within that
particular school. OR I have to fight for a way to change
the common interpretation and allow public schooling that is
“culturally consistent” for each individual subgroup as long as
no specific subgroup is denied its chance.
- If I value parents rights
above all else, than they should be able to educate their children however
they choose and that should include in a way consistent with whatever
whack-job religion the parents follow.
- If I value the child’s rights
above all else, than I must support whatever can help them learn
more. If that is proven to be this “culturally consistent”
education, then I have to work to make it possible. However is
academic achievement truly the child’s overriding interest when they are
getting straight As in a biology class that teaches that dinosaurs lived
alongside humans and that the earth popped into being in a week about 6000
- If I value society above any
individual, however, can I really support allowing parents to educate
their child in a way that goes against society’s best interest? Intolerance
to other subgroups and members of society is never in society’s best
In my head I find myself still valuing individual liberty
first; that people have the right to be as stupid and foolish as they want to
be. But I really am struggling with how that applies to children.
Children are formed by their family and acquaintances. The child picks up
their belief systems and may never get away from it.
So who should decide what is best for them? Their parents? The
state? Society at large? And what do we do when the society is SO large
that it can’t agree on whether the sun will come up tomorrow, let alone what
values are best?
Or should we sacrifice some potential achievement to ensure that children are
at least exposed to discordant ideas? Even if that could mean keeping a
disadvantaged group down?