July 20, 2008

Irrelevant by Association

Justin Katz

It occurs to me, while reading through the comments to last week's post on religion and evolution, that a bit of common, subconscious legerdemain infects those making the secularist argument. By way of context, here is my lone statement of intentions with respect to my own voting intentions:

I'll vote every time for children to have at least the sense that such a reality is plausible, and I submit that a society that insists that children receive only the cold, hard lessons of the skeptics would be doomed.

That statement bears on my own community. Elsewhere, I hold that, down to the community level, regions ought to have a wide degree of latitude to shape the education that their children receive. Yes, the United States needs well educated scientists, but who am I, as an overeducated New England carpenter to judge for a town in rural Mississippi that the utility of scientific knowledge outweighs the utility of religious faith — even if we exclude spiritual well-being from the judgment. A person who believes that there is no child in the country who would not be better served by an accurate, if rudimentary, understanding of evolution than by an affirmation of some particular religious worldview is a prima facie zealot and, unless claiming to know every American child, ought to cede stronger authority to those closer to them.

Beyond those civic principles, my writing on this topic presents merely my own view of God, offered with the intention of honestly conveying the personal intellectual foundations on which I construct my specific policy suggestions and illustrating what I feel to be at stake. I'm not, in other words, presenting Bible passages to be included in public policy or in classroom instruction.

Unfortunately, discussion of religion has worn deep ruts into our society's intellectual habits. For example, the statement is commonly made (often with strains of condescension) that humanity has manifold understandings of God, creating a necessity to exclude Him from public discourse. It is inappropriate — the case in point argument goes — to mention God in the context of evolution because various religions have offered various competitive explanations for the development of the universe, which, being of a religious nature, are beyond our ability to judge.

This is a clear non sequitur — one directly related to a process whereby many people wrongly conclude that God does not exist. Having once labeled something as "religion," which requires some degree of faith, the person asserts the assumption that all such thinking must be wholly based on relativistic "myths" and therefore tainted by indecipherable criteria. One needn't possess much faculty for reason to spot the faith-based taint in such a conclusion: namely, the underlying belief that there is no God and, therefore, no more or less accurate understanding of Him.

Ported to discussion of public school curricula, it can seem as if the secularists are arguing that government schools cannot suggest the compatibility of God with evolution for the reason that some religions are clearly not compatible with it, thus triggering a violation of church/state separation. The consequence becomes that the lessons develop a decidedly atheistic tone, given the impression that no theology can account for the mechanical process. It becomes science versus religion because we lack the cultural confidence to stand our religious traditions beside our scientific accomplishments.

The only constitutionally reasonable way to address this sort of conundrum is to allow maximum freedom across the nation. As may be inferred from my willingness to make suggestions about societal doom, I'm of the opinion that a society that allows intellectual progress fully in a reciprocal relationship with theological development is most likely to prove successful in every way about which we should be concerned. Allow people to hone their local societies according to their beliefs and some will thrive while others languish, providing valuable lessons for our broader collective as we move forward.

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I feel that, as it is not the place of The Church to teach your children mathematics, the schoolroom is not the place to teach spirituality.

That you would even WANT the same incompetent boobs that are graduating idiots that can't read and write to try to teach your kids about God scares me more than almost anything else.

Posted by: Greg at July 20, 2008 2:42 PM

In keeping with my central point in this post, you've dragged my argument where it didn't go. I'm not arguing that public school teachers should "teach about God" in any extensive sense. I'm suggesting that they shouldn't be implicitly teaching that God is incompatible with science and other topics.

If God exists — particularly with the omnipresence that my beliefs attribute to Him — then it creates a conspicuous hole to attempt to give children complete educations without coming across Him from time to time.

As for what I want my children to be taught by whom, it's relevant to note that they're leaving the public school system for Catholic school this coming school year.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 20, 2008 3:41 PM

Why, by the way, is it any of your business whether my Church teaches my children mathematics?

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 20, 2008 3:43 PM

For the same reason that I don't ask my auto mechanic to diagnose my cough.

Posted by: Greg at July 20, 2008 3:51 PM

That might explain why you wouldn't turn to a pastor to teach your children math, but it doesn't address the question of why it's your business whether I trust an institutional church with the responsibility of teaching it to my children.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 20, 2008 4:10 PM

I've got no problems with Catholic schools if that is your question. But I don't relate a Catholic school to 'church' any more than I relate government-run schools with the Pentagon.

I'm just glad to hear that your kids won't be taught by the Pat Crowley Goon Squad anymore.

Posted by: Greg at July 20, 2008 5:19 PM

Hey, Greg, relax with the teacher digs, okay? There are plenty of good teachers out there.

Justin, I understand your point and think that, ideally, teaching students to form their own opinions and how to respectfully debate one another is an invaluable skill. I think schools should teach students ways of thinking, not what to think. That would be indoctrination.

However, I also understand the reticence to address spirtuality in the classroom. Respecting all belief systems as equal, it can be hard to please everyone and there is a reason people are generally told to avoid politics and religion if they don't want to get into an argument.

In the end, teaching students about theories, what a theory is, and how competing theories view various phenomena, prepares students to make informed judgements and ultimately to arrive upon their own opinions about how the world works and why. I would be willing to accept a paper that clearly backs up why a student believes in a purely creationist theory as well as one that supports a purely secular evolutionary theory,as long as the argument is strong, supporting evidence is provided, and counterarguments are considered. But, then, my training is in English education, not science, so perhaps that is just the thinking of my field.

Posted by: Tabetha Bernstein-Danis at July 20, 2008 5:57 PM

Hey Tabetha,

You and your band of brothers will start to get some respect when you stop sucking so badly. Right now we're paying for good champagne and we're getting Natural Light.

And every one of you that isn't loudly pushing for Crowley The Teamster's removal from the RINEA is considered a rabid supporter of him and his thuggish behavior.

Posted by: Greg at July 21, 2008 7:50 AM


You suddenly display a very defensive and, dare I say it, libertarian tone when it comes to the education of your children. Is it any of Greg's business whether your parochial school teaches your children math you ask? Hmm. Since when have you abandoned the "social good" line of argument? You know, the one you use whenever you are justifying some governmental intervention in the culture or personal lives?

As for your points on God and evolution, you dodge the real issue that is actually debated in school districts. Should some form of intelligent design theory (call it what you like) be taught alongside evolution in the science classroom? I don't understand what you mean by "mentioning" God in the context of evolution.

Why not "mention" God in the context of teaching the theory of gravity? Or when teaching the mechanics of a lever? Or when explaining the rules of geometry?

The fundamental issue of debate is whether it is appropriate to introduce a religious concept when teaching science. It will come as no surprise that I think the answer is definately no.

Posted by: Pragmatist at July 21, 2008 9:57 AM

Greg-my daughter(Tabetha)was never an NEA member when she taught in public school.Therefore Crowley was not representing her.She was in the AFT.Nowadays,she's teaching at a university,which is a lot different.
The NEA doesn't represent all RI teachers.
My wife is a non-union teacher at a charter school.What I have gotten from speaking to both of them is that a lot of the problems with low-performing schools are outside the ability of classroom teachers to have a seiuos impact on.
They have to contend with students constantly moving,curricula imposed by federal mandate,illegal aliens with no schooling showing up unannounced,and students who live in homes where the parents or parent can't be bothered to come in to discuss problems the student has,or worse,refuse to participate in IEP's which are required for special ed students.
This is like blaming cops for the crime level in Providence when they are following the orders of a dilettante social(ist)engineer dressed up as a police chief.
Or blaming ICE agents for the failed policies at a national level that permitted a flood of illegal aliens to enter and remain here for over 30 years.

Posted by: joe bernstein at July 21, 2008 10:14 AM

Thanks for the support, Dad.

Greg, unfortunately it seems that your obvious prejudice against teachers is so strong that my entire post suddenly became irrelevant once I mentioned I was a teacher. You did not respond to my post at all, but merely attacked teachers in general and made broad and untrue generalizations. I am sorry if the handful of teachers you know happen to be people you don't like, but don't criticize all teachers for that. All teachers do not "suck", as you so eloquently stated. I don't know what you do for a living, but I am sure you would not appreciate it if someone were to dismiss your statements because of your line of work. What do you do, by the way? Whatever it is, I think it's a safe bet to assume that you would not be where you are today without the support of at least a few teachers along the way! (Don't worry - I will extend you a courtesy you did not extend me by not stereotyping you because of your chosen profession.)

Posted by: Tabetha Bernstein-Danis at July 21, 2008 10:31 AM


I only addressed your jumping on me because that's all I gave a damn about. The rest of this thread is largely about spirituality gibberish that isn't going to change.

What was 'untrue' about what I said? This state sucks wind in the 'graduating kids that aren't morons' department. Maybe if we spent less time focusing on making them feel good about themselves and a little more time teaching them to READ we wouldn't have these problems.

As for your being exempt because you teach at a university, I certainly hope it isn't the idiot factory at URI... I work with a lot of those graduates and all they know how to do is act better than everyone else despite having few, if an, competencies.

Posted by: Greg at July 21, 2008 11:08 AM

That(promoting reading competency)was my daughter's main job her last two years on the job.She teaches out of state at the present while working on her Phd-she worked her way through college with such cushy jobs as security guard in public housing and transporter for autistic adults.She is a proponent of very traditional learning,having grown up in a home devoid of left wing BS where work and responsibility were respected.The university she is at is not a commie thought control mill.I know she can speak for herself as she is her thirties and married,but I have to say she was an easy kid to raise and if she taught your kids you'd have nothing to worry about.

Posted by: joe bernstein at July 21, 2008 3:42 PM

I jumped on you? No. All I said was to relax with the teacher bashing. That was not a personal attack. If you have gripes with the current educational system, I would be glad to engage in a sincere intellectual debate with you. Perhaps we even agree on a few things. There are certainly many obstacles and challenges which absolutely must be addressed. I took issue with you referring to teachers in general as "incompetent boobs" (name a profession that does not include a few "incompetent boobs" among its ranks) and then implicating me in situations with which I have no involvement. (NEA? I never belonged to the NEA. Crowley? I don't know the man. Maybe this is a personal issue between you and him...)
As for your other points:
1)Everyone agrees that students should not be graduating from high school without being able to read. If you log on to the RIDE website, you can read all about the current movement to implement statewide graduation standards.
2)Teaching students to read is a priority in just about every school these days. Funding is dependent upon test scores (NECAP in RI) and therefore literacy and math skills are actually at the forefront of all current major reforms. Busy making the kids feel good? What do you mean by that? I don't think too many teachers have any time in the day to have kids sit around and talk about their feelings, if that is your fear. As for the whole language movement, which you may be (rightfully) criticizing, the so-called reading wars are over (at least in the research community) and everyone has basically come to agree that kids need both decoding skills (e.g.phonemic awareness) AND comprehension and interpretation skills (e.g. analyzing plot).
In my current position I am teaching pre-service teachers and find these students to be overwhelming enthusiastic, competent, and dedicated to creating change in the lives of kids. I think they represent a vast majority of incoming teachers. As for the teachers I worked with during my years in Providence, most of them WERE competent, dedicated, hard-working folks committed to helping students reach the highest standards, some were just mediocre and a few were "incompetent boobs". Unfortunately, it seems only the "boobs" ever get any attention. I don't know what you do for a living, but I am sure there are some people you work with who you would consider to be incompetent. Do you think this reflects upon you and others who work hard and excel? One final point - unless you were home-schooled or completely self-educated, you must have learned SOMETHING from at least some of your teachers over the years. Don't you remember any them? The good ones? If you have children, do you homeschool them or do you send them to be taught by teachers in schools? Are all those teachers terrible? What if your son or daughter is inspired to become a teacher someday? Will you support him/her? How would you react?

Posted by: Tabetha Bernstein-Danis at July 21, 2008 8:09 PM

Most of the people who bash teachers (be it on blogs, talk radio, etc.) make no distinction between the NEA and AFT. I attended Catholic school for 13 years, and had some terrific teachers (and the occasional complete boobs). In my professional life, I got to know some fine public school teachers and a couple of real idiots (I'm not a teacher, but past employment has brought me into contact with plenty). You'd probably find NEA and AFT in both groups.
Tabetha, I hope you're teaching your students to be proud of their profession, and to effectively counter the sludge that gets flung in their faces by politicians and opportunists in these education debates.

Posted by: rhody at July 21, 2008 9:44 PM


Only via inapplicable simplification and the withdrawal of context does your "gotcha" even have the appearance of validity. Take marriage: I don't think it's anybody's business to control who marries whom, but the definition of marriage is significant, and I'm not the one making it a social contrivance; it is by its nature.

Regarding the question of evolution, I can only restate that I think the limits of evolution's implications ought to be a topic of discussion. Appropriately, I'd suggest that evolution doesn't disprove God any more than gravity does, and as you suggest in your backhanded way, there's no need to mention God with gravity because gravity doesn't touch on existential matters.

Lastly, I have to point out how atheism is implicit in your assertions: if God exists, then He isn't purely a religious topic. We study inventors in science class; we study forces in science class; mention of an inventive force would hardly be beyond the bounds.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 21, 2008 9:46 PM

Thank you for your fair-minded support on this issue. I think it is fair to say that there are good and bad teachers, just as there are good and bad cops, doctors, lawyers, business leaders, etc.
I do teach my students to take pride in teaching and I believe that most of them are quite resilient and know that they are entering a noble profession, even if many out there say differently.

Posted by: Tabetha Bernstein-Danis` at July 21, 2008 10:08 PM


Your analogies of the evolution theory to gravity or geometry are not applicable. Gravity and geometry are scientific/mathematical facts. The introduction of any non-scientific concept has no meaning in the context of those theories. Evolution is one of those issues where science has an explanation as does faith. And I don’t think that faith is an out-of-bounds topic in science class anymore than it is out-of-bounds for s sociology or psychology class.

But you are correct in that the real debate is whether it is appropriate to introduce a religious concept when teaching science. I agree with you that the answer is no. But where we disagree is that discussing alternatives or even inclusions in the theory of evolution where the word ‘God’ is used, makes it a religious topic. I don’t believe it does.

Justin is correct when he says that your assertions imply an atheistic view. What is unfortunate to me, is that the Judiciary has been heading down the path that any public speech that is not implicitly atheistic in nature, is ‘out-of-bounds’ on the grounds of separation of Church and State. It is my view that this path is incorrect in its interpretation of the 1st Amendment.

Posted by: msteven at July 22, 2008 2:41 PM
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