In the same discussion I mentioned a few posts back, a particular quote from Christopher Hitchens came up, which was basically, “Religion poisons everything.” This kind of statement is fairly hard for many people to accept, and it is often treated as hyperbole, senseless exaggeration to make the case seem stronger. But I maintain that there is, instead, a veneer of respectability laid over religion, to the point that criticism of any aspect is often considered extreme, if not taboo. It is a veneer that is decidedly not warranted, and does in fact hide from us the damage that can be done. And is done. I present an example to you, one that is not unique in any way.
First off, the original post with the whole story has been pulled by the author, specifically because of the reaction it caused and the repercussions that were being received by her former employer. What I am about to link to is a mirror site of that post, and I have some reserves doing so – the reader must use critical, exacting judgment before engaging in a response, on their own honor. I was infuriated upon first reading it, so I do understand the reactions. So, at the very least, wait, absorb it for a day or so, let the initial emotional reaction die down a bit before making any actions you may feel inclined towards. You are more than welcome to remark here all you want, however.
That said, the story lies here [link updated after the old one vanished]. Please also read the author’s follow-up post regarding the removal of the story here as well.
It is a compelling, detailed story, told from the heart, but in the event that you have not taken the time to read it through, I’m going to do it a great deal of injustice by offering a synopsis. The author is a schoolteacher, and for anyone who has dealt with the lack of decent, motivated teachers within our public schools in the US, I can tell you she is exactly the type that will make you feel so much better about it. She makes it clear that she is motivated, intelligent, and above all, driven by both results and the enthusiasm of her students. This should be the prerequisite of all schools when hiring, not simply looking for a teaching certificate.
She instituted a reading program among her students, with full complicity of the school system, and created a new book club. And the results supported these efforts distinctly. The scores improved, the kids ate it up, and the teacher was fully involved in their progress. She applied for and received a prestigious literature grant, took her book club to Virginia Tech for a writing workshop, received recognition in numerous newspaper articles, and was asked to chair the school’s Literary Committee because of the way she had changed the approach within the entire school.
Then came the first parental complaint, an e-mail sent to the school board and principals as well as the teacher, because a book dealing with teen sexual abuse was considered “soft pornography.” And the school system, despite requiring a filed complaint before taking action (which it did not receive,) stopped all programs and pulled all of the books from the classroom to be reviewed. The teacher, having rebutted the e-mail to the school officials who had received it (but not the parent herself,) was treated as if she had crossed the line by defending herself. She was required to construct a review process for each book proposed for the young adult literature programs, which included a teacher- and parent-staffed committee, and with this oversight process in place, was allowed to continue the program. The students’ interest, having faltered during the review process, was reinvigorated. The offending book, by the way, passed review without issue.
The next complaints came from parents leading a program called, “Fields of Faith,” sponsored by the Fellowship of christian Athletes. Does this come as a shock to you? The complaint, rather than being handled by the principal who had the committee’s approval of the new book in question, was fobbed off to the teacher; she sent the principal’s request for another review to the committee, who wisely refused. They, at least, knew that the system was already in place specifically to handle such scenarios.
Naturally, this escalated, with parents lodging complaints of books with which they were unfamiliar, parents with no children in the teacher’s classes or even grade level. Letters to editors were written, and students repeated the comments they were told by various parents, including the “pushing of a gay agenda.” Hmmmm, yeah, that’s not a religious wolf-at-the-door at all, is it? And of course, it was perfectly reasonable to involve the students in the accusations the parents were making because, you know, kids make the bestest christian soldiers.
Eventually, after much fucking around and the imminent threat of the release of this teacher, the program collapsed. The teacher resigned at the end of the school year. The scores, having jumped up significantly during the program, dropped back down again. Children that had tasted what it was like to enjoy learning went back to the old system, doubly-crippled because now they knew that it didn’t actually have to be this way. Moreover, they understood none of the ridiculous bullshit that had destroyed the program.
Now, there are two key features here. The threatening books were not manifestos, screeds, or controversial publications by world leaders bent on domination or destroying the social structure – they were books aimed specifically at young adults, to increase both their interest in literature and their awareness of adult issues. Adult issues, ones they will face shortly – in other words, real life. Whoa, scary!
These books, mostly openly-admitted works of fiction, threatened the religious values of these parents so much they had to be banned from the classroom. Yes, indeed, that’s censorship. Apparently, an omnipotent god with everything under control can be threatened by a work of fiction. Now, it’s not me saying this – it was those religious parents, by their very actions. What does that tell you about their faith, and their trust in their lord? It tells me that they’re terrified and fragile. But that isn’t even the point. Regardless of their own motivations, censorship has no place in our society. When you hide ideas from the people, you hamper their understanding of what society even is, and most especially, you deny them the knowledge of how it can go wrong. We study the bloodier aspects of history not to glorify them, but to inform us of how volatile and capricious human beings can be. It’s the only way for us to improve this. Moreover, censorship all throughout history has only been practiced by those who are threatened by knowledge.
The second, and much uglier, aspect of this whole story was the reaction of the school. They had an entire system in place to handle this situation, and written policies. It was reasonable, showed due diligence, and remained informed of the teachers actions – this was not a case where a teacher introduced her own crazy ideas into a classroom, but instead implemented a tried-and-true, results-driven program, one that got excellent results. But the school caved, without even trying to determine what percentage of parents actually had an issue with the program, nor how many were strongly, decidedly in favor of it. They caved, because it wasn’t individual parents that were complaining – it was a religious issue.
Why? Because religion is the concern of the public school system? Not at all. Because religion has shown that it takes precedent over education? Please don’t make me laugh.
Because you don’t have any right to question religion. People get upset, whiny and bratty. Seriously, replace “religion” as a description with any other adjective you want: “liberal” parents complained, or “engineers,” “Hispanic” parents were offended, or the “import-drivers” didn’t like it. In any other case whatsoever, you’d stand up and demand to know why such a particular group should be the ones deciding what education the children received, and why the school system kissed their asses. That’s the poison that Hitchens spoke of. It’s not born of being a better set of values, or of having a greater impact on the children. It doesn’t even have anything to do with education – the parents remain free to teach their child values as they wish.
This arrogant, self-righteous aspect of religion, however, was used to leverage the school over how it taught all of the children in its care, despite the fact that this issue was decided decades ago in courts. The school principal, board, and superintendent all violated those decisions, and even their own safeguards and structure, and let the religious whiners have their way. Of course, this means that those nice, upstanding, moral and ethical religious folk will settle down and let everything else run as it had before – yeah, right. Simply instructing their own children wasn’t enough, and neither was the unquestionable authority of their god. Imagine, if you will, a god brought down and eradicated by a novel. Are you impressed?
People sometimes ask why atheists are angry, as if this implies something emotionally wrong with us. Hopefully, now you have some idea. A working program and a good teacher were both trashed over some petty, insecure religious attitude. Seriously, was this a victory for god? Do you really believe the ideas in highly-rated young adult literature can possibly be this subversive? But there it is, and the school bought it entirely. People with actual educational experience, having already approved the program, abandoned it in favor of bitchy parents. Keep the kids stupid, as long as they have the good values that have been demonstrated by religion throughout history. Just in case there are some devoutly religious people reading, that was indeed sarcasm. I’m happy to provide these crib notes.
To be sure, there are potentially other factors involved, not the least of which might simply be overprotective parents, as well as school boards that want to avoid confrontation. But even if you ignore the involvement of the Fellowship of christian Athletes (and don’t think I missed the idea that this was an English teacher, not an athletic one,) the hallmarks of religious activity are there, including the idea of a “gay agenda” and the escalation of the campaign to include local media – these are very common tactics. And by now, public school boards should know that education is not up to popular vote. Public schools are secular to provide education based on facts, experimentation, and results (as well as non-discrimination.) There are private schools aplenty for the parents who are threatened by this concept.
There’s a lot of debate right now about the levels and actions of those who describe themselves as religious. For instance, many religious parents see themselves as separate from the fervent, often fundamentalist people who promote actions such as what took place here. Those are fringe elements, they may claim, not the bulk of the faithful. Now, I can certainly tell the difference, but here’s the question: who’s letting the fringe elements get away with it? Who allows them to identify themselves as representing religion? Who accepts their proclamations about morals and ethics without argument or correction?
Perhaps I should ask instead, who spoke up to the school system and said, “No, that’s just silly, books are not threatening to our faith, and the kids can read whatever has been approved by the committee”?
Silence is complicity.