The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.
OPENING WORDS: Immanuel Kant - Thoughts on Education:
Children ought to be educated, not for the present, but for a possibly improved condition of man in the future; that is, in a manner which is adapted to the idea of humanity and the whole destiny of man. Parents usually educate their children merely in such a manner that, however bad the world may be, they may adapt themselves to its present conditions. But they ought to give them an education so much better than this, that a better condition of things may be brought about in the future.. (Cahn, 201)
READING: Martin Niemoeller
First the Nazis went after the Jews
but I wasn't a Jew, so I didn't react.
Then they went after the Catholics,
but I wasn't a Catholic, so I didn't object.
Then they went after the worker,
but I wasn't a worker, so I didn't stand up.
Then they went after the Protestant clergy
and by then it was too late for anybody to stand up.
The joke that we Quincy Unitarians are more like a book club than a church alludes to our reading habits and value of education, so I don't really need to tell you how important a broad and comprehensive education is for your children. We all appreciate that already, and we shake our heads when we hear that certain books are banned in Biloxi. We cluck our tongues when we hear that teaching evolution is extinct in El Paso. And we roll our eyes when we hear that sex ed is suppressed in Savannah. We heave a sigh of relief that we don't live in those places where people allow those things to happen. We're complacent with the illusion that we are too enlightened to let it happen in our school districts. Those of you who have followed local school news this year may realize that we cannot really afford complacency these days. As Martin Niemoeller's words might indicate, just shaking our heads, clucking our tongues, and rolling our eyes isn't enough.
Niemoeller's words also hint as to why this topic is relevant, even to those of you who don't have school age children. We all need to care about the 5-year-old girls in Biloxi, the 10-year-old boys in El Paso, and the teenagers in Savannah. Philosophical reasons for caring about all children are reflected in the meditation and the opening hymn. "No man is an island." "We would be one." Moral reasons are reflected in traditional maxims such as "love thy neighbor," the Beatitudes, the golden rule. We could talk about philosophical and moral reasons for hours, as we Unitarians love to do. But many people are convinced only by selfish reasons. That's unfortunate, but there are practical, selfish reasons for caring about and helping our fellow man. Perhaps the most basic of those reasons is reflected in the words of Martin Niemoeller. For many people, the moral reasons intermingle with the selfish reasons, producing what they see as "win-win" situations - as in: I help my fellow man, not because it's the right thing to do, but so I can go to Heaven or come back in my next life as something higher on the food chain than a newt. Anyway, whether or not we categorize our reasons for caring about others, they exist.
So how does this relate to today's topic of the morality of a broad and comprehensive education?
First, let's define morality and the purpose of public education. I will use the term "moral" to mean what is right and good. And let's assume that the improved condition Kant talks about in today's opening words is indeed the purpose and goal of education. Let's also look at the original goal of American public education. The forefathers of American education had a slightly more concrete goal than Kant's "better condition," but it was similar in concept. The original intent of free public education in America was to perpetuate the democracy. The idea was that an educated citizenry was necessary to elect the right kinds of leaders, and to maintain our system with its peaceful transfer of power and separate branches of government to provide checks and balances.
When I ask my high school students what the purpose of education is, they invariably respond "to get good jobs." It disheartens me to hear that teenagers see jobs as the only benefit of education. Unfortunately, teenagers are not the only segment of the population who feel that way. Many school districts across the country are developing school-business partnerships which can be wonderful resource tools, as well as good public relations. I applaud people who get involved with schools, but I worry that too many of these partnerships are misguided, that too many of these well-intentioned adults see the schools' job as simply providing an adequate employee pool. An adequate employee pool is beneficial, but is certainly a secondary result of a good educational system.
Kant, I think, would agree with me. He says, "Man may be either broken in, trained, and mechanically taught, or he may be really enlightened. Horses and dogs are broken in; and man, too, may be broken in. It is, however, not enough that children should be merely broken in; for it is of greater importance that they shall learn to think. By learning to think, man comes to act according to fixed principles and not at random. Thus we see that a real education implies a great deal." (Cahn, 202)
British philosopher John Stuart Mill also speaks on this issue in his inaugural address at the University of Saint Andrews (given in 1867). "Men are men before they are lawyers, or physicians, or merchants, or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men, they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers or physicians. What professional knowledge men should carry away with them from a University, is not professional knowledge, but that which should direct the use of their professional knowledge, and bring the light of general culture to illuminate the technicalities of a special pursuit. Men may be competent lawyers without general education, but it depends on general education to make them philosophic lawyers - who demand, and are capable of apprehending, principles, instead of merely cramming their memory with details.Education makes a man a more intelligent shoemaker, if that be his occupation, but not by teaching him how to make shoes; it does so by the mental exercise it gives, and the habits it impresses." (Cahn, 225)
We can settle for training, or we can strive for enlightenment. Training is easier to achieve, and is certainly easier to measure and report, but if Kant's improved condition is our goal, then limiting our children to training is not moral. We must strive for enlightenment, and thus education must encompass many components and diverse curricula. Some say we should stick to the basics, the 3Rs. Others say focus on arts and sciences. I say we need all content areas. As Mill says in his St. Andrews address, it's like deciding whether a tailor should make coats or trousers. They are not mutually exclusive, and Mill asks if anything can be called a good education that does not include both science and literature. (Cahn, 227)
The study of literature, which has caused some local controversy this year, provides, among many benefits, an avenue for students to examine the world outside the classroom, a world which is frequently quite different from their own. Literature deals with issues that are eternally significant - issues such as the nature of humanity, good versus evil, our habit of preaching individuality while practicing conformity. Through literature we learn how people cope with difficult situations, how people treat others, how people think. Obviously we also learn these things by living, but we most of us will not experience the range of circumstances and emotions that we can read about. Literature can complement our own experiences. It can help us learn to deal with our experiences and those of the people around us. I cannot imagine how narrow the world is for people who don't read. I am blessed to have been born into a family of readers and think I would be claustrophobic without books.
But this vicarious experience is what frightens some people about literature. Some people are afraid that if their children read about values which differ from their own, they will be led astray, they may adopt these different values. Some people are afraid that reading bad language will cause their children to use bad language. Some people are afraid that reading about terrible trauma will; well, I don't really know what they're afraid of. I guess they want to protect their children from the evils of the world. But if we withhold information which we find distasteful or with which we disagree, we aren't truly educating our children. Education by definition involves exposure to previously unfamiliar material.
A couple years ago, the Illinois Education Watch, which is a conservative Christian watchdog group, sponsored a conference in Quincy. The featured speaker was a woman from California who warned area residents about the dangerous trends in education, such as teaching subjects with a multi-cultural content. She claimed that schools are "teaching multi-cultural experiences instead of history," for example, and she referred to students reading stories about Greek mythology and Native American spirituality in English class. What kind of education is that which includes only those ideas to which we already subscribe? I guess it would be safe, in a sense. But I don't think it is moral. It's not moral because it doesn't enlighten, it doesn't foster growth; it denies, it places limitations.
People who want to maintain the status quo place limitations. They depend upon ignorance. In John Steinbeck's The Pearl, for example, the powers-that-be depend on the subservience of the lower class and they shamelessly use fear, ignorance, and religion to maintain their boundaries. Kino dreams of using this great pearl as a means to obtain, among other things, an education for his son, because only the wealthy can go to school. Of course the haves don't want the have-nots going anywhere. In a conversation about leaving the village to sell his pearl, Kino's brother reminds him of the priest's annual sermon about leaving to find a better life. Kino remembers. "It was a good idea but it was against religion, and the Father made that very clear. The loss of the pearl was a punishment visited on those who tried to leave their station. And the Father made it clear that each man and woman is like a soldier sent by God to guard some part of the castle of the Universe. And some are in the ramparts and some far deep in the darkness of the walls. But each one must remain faithful to his post and must not go running about, else the castle is in danger from the assaults of Hell." (Steinbeck, ch 4) Using the threat of damnation to keep people submissive is not only restrictive, it is immoral. Unfortunately, the practice is not limited to fiction.
People who want to maintain control over others depend upon ignorance. A classic story of someone wanting to control is that of Julius Caesar. One of my favorite lines from William Shakespeare's play about Caesar is Caesar's comment to Antony regarding Caius Cassius. He says Cassius "thinks too much. Such men are dangerous." (Act I: scene ii, line 195) One of the reasons Caesar doesn't trust Cassius is that Cassius "reads much." (Act I: scene ii, line 201)
The National Council of Teachers of English has published an open letter to the citizens of our country about the right to read. It says, in part: "The right to read, like all rights guaranteed or implied within our constitutional tradition, can be used wisely or foolishly. In many ways, education is an effort to improve the quality of choices open to all students. But to deny the freedom of choice in fear that it may be unwisely used is to destroy the freedom itself.The right of any individual not just to read but to read whatever he or she wants to read is basic to a democratic society." (NCTE, 5) This letter goes on to discuss the various considerations teachers use in selecting works to be used in the classroom, which I won't go into today, although I'll be happy to answer questions about that later if anyone is interested.
I've spent too much energy this school year on the issue of students' right to read and the need for decisions about reading material to be made in the classroom rather than the board room. First of all, because there are so many considerations in selecting material, it is best left to those professionals who have been trained to do it. Secondly, the danger of adding red tape to selection of materials is that it leads to stagnation. If it becomes too much hassle to order new books, teachers, crunched for time, will just stick to what they already have. And if we only stick to what we already have, then we go nowhere but where we already are. That may be comfortable, but it won't lead to that improved condition we've been talking about.
I've been told this year that we need to save people the hassle of complaining about any particular book by weeding out those books which could potentially offend someone. I'm sure we all agree that the concept of what we call "political correctness" is a step in the right direction, a sign of increasing tolerance. We know that derogatory terms for whole groups of people are unacceptable. None of us here would call a grown black man "boy," or a lesbian "dike," even though we may read books in which characters use those terms. We don't use those terms because they are offensive, to ourselves, as well as to others.
But I keep thinking about Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 in which society's preoccupation with not offending people causes them to just stop reading. In part of a conversation, Beatty says to Montag: "Don't step on the toes of the dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico.." Beatty explains that books stopped selling because they had turned to dishwater and magazines became a "nice blend of vanilla tapioca." (Bradbury, pt) I can't imagine that having our children just not read is the answer. It's not what I want for my children and I doubt if it's what you want for yours. To find the balance between offending people, and vanilla tapioca, we need to keep sight of basic common sense.
Common sense tells us that the act of reading about an idea is not tantamount to ascribing to that idea. Most of us make that distinction unconsciously, and yet many book challenges are based on the lack of that distinction. The Illinois Education Watch speaker I mentioned earlier had a problem with Greek mythology and Native American spirituality stories because, according to her, those stories teach children values and beliefs that don't conform to a Christian perspective. I don't think that exposing our children to others' beliefs is the same as teaching them to share those beliefs. I see a huge difference between information and indoctrination. But some people must see indoctrination conspiracies everywhere they look. This woman warned her audience to be wary of attempts to form partnerships between schools and parents because even though they may sound good, they really train parents to teach students the new value system rather than the traditional value system. She said to be especially wary of terms like "conflict resolution, higher-order thinking skills, and world-class education." She bemoaned the idea that schools are preparing students for world citizenship.
When I first read the Herald Whig article which gave this information, I laughed and groaned at the same time. I groaned because I can't believe that in a free country in the 1990s, people still expect public education to limit its curriculum to that which is Christian-based. I laughed because I thought it was too ridiculous to worry about. After all, how can anyone seriously have a problem with teaching children to resolve conflicts? Especially anyone who claims to follow the teachings of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. But I'm not laughing now. This year has been an eye opener for me. Not only have I seen a censorship controversy arise, which I never would have expected here, but other incidents are cause for concern as well. For example, at a directive from the Board president, a book was pulled from a classroom at Junior High without following established procedure or even talking to the teacher using it. It has since been returned and the teacher did receive an apology, but the incident is indicative of the current climate of shoot first, aim later. One of my colleagues told me of a call he received from a parent complaining about a passage in a John Steinbeck book. This parent was upset about a passage in Travels With Charlie in which a character makes an irreverent, tongue-in-cheek comment about feeling good about his sins. She didn't like the irreverence and said we should use only literature which purports that Jesus is the savior and the only path to God. My friend said he thought that would offend his Muslim and Hindu students. Her response was, "Well, they're wrong."
The significance of incidents like these is in the atmosphere they can create. And the danger of an atmosphere of intimidation and suspicion is illustrated in this statement made by U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in 1952: "Where suspicion fills the air and holds scholars in line for fear of their jobs, there can be no exercise of the free intellect. A problem can no longer be pursued with impunity to its edges. Fear stalks the classroom. The teacher is no longer a stimulant to adventurous thinking; she becomes instead a pipe line for safe and sound information. A deadening dogma takes the place of free inquiry. Instruction tends to become sterile; pursuit of knowledge is discouraged; discussion often leaves off where it should begin." (NCTE, 5) Again, this is not what I want for my children, and I can't imagine that it's what you want for yours.
Here, in the Quincy Public Schools, a board committee denied teachers' requests to purchase The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild. One committee member didn't okay Into the Wild because he just doesn't think it's a very good book. Literature is not his field of study, but apparently he felt qualified enough to override a recommendation made by the Quincy High School English department and the district's Language Arts Coordinator. Another committee member rejected it because, according to her, it portrays drug use in a positive light. The author tells of his own failed attempt to climb a mountain. He smokes a joint he had intended to save for celebration when he reached the top. As a result of smoking this joint, his tent is destroyed, leaving him without shelter in sub-zero temperatures. Personally, I don't see that as positive, and it implies bizarre criteria.
If we limit reading to books in which characters don't do anything wrong, then we're left with Bradbury's vanilla tapioca. This criteria would eliminate not only most contemporary literature, but classics, as well. We certainly can't let impressionable high school students read Romeo and Juliet or they may think we're teaching them to commit suicide. We don't want them to read The Iliad. They might seduce their siblings. Taken to the extreme, we won't even allow our toddlers to hear Goldilocks and the Three Bears. They might break into strangers' homes and raid refrigerators. I hope this sounds ridiculous. I hope it makes you think, "Well, for pete's sake, just use some common sense."
Common sense tells us that when reading potentially offensive material, we deal with it. We show our children how to deal with it. We discuss the choices characters make and how different choices would produce different results. Our children will encounter people throughout their lives with whom they disagree. They will encounter difficult situations and face difficult decisions. If we don't show them how to handle these disagreements and situations, then can we cannot claim to have educated them and we certainly cannot expect an improved condition.
I happen to think that the best way to protect our children from the evils of the world is to make them aware, so that they learn to make conscious decisions about their beliefs and their behaviors and so they are not easily led astray. I believe that sometimes we have to know what we don't believe before we can articulate what we do believe. We have to be able to distinguish between reason and propaganda. We have to know what our choices are before we can make wise decisions. I believe that knowledge is power and that the more we know, the more control we have over our own lives.
So why should those of you who don't have kids in school care? And what about those of you whose schools, to your knowledge, are not facing these issues? Let's go back for a moment to the issue of caring about other people's children. And we'll start with the selfish reasons for caring.
First there's money. Many people mistakenly believe that education costs too much money. What these people don't seem to realize is that spending money on education now will save more money later in other areas, like welfare services and correctional systems. Research shows a correlation between education level and criminal activity, so it follows that a correlation would exist between spending in those areas also. For example, according to an article in The Chicago Tribune , the state of New York's spending on education since 1988 has decreased by $615 million while its spending on prisons has increased $761 million. So those people who see education only as a financial drain need to look again. We'll pay one way or another. Call me simple, but I think the moral course of action would be to educate our children now rather than imprison them later.
Now let's move beyond the money reasons. Think about all the people in this country who make decisions which affect our lives here in the greater Quincy area. Our federal legislators were once 5-year-old girls in Biloxi, 10-year-old boys in El Paso, and teenagers in Savannah. So were researchers at the Center for Disease Control. So were executives of the Social Security Administration and Wall Street analysts. So were journalists. So were the soldiers who now control weapons of mass destruction. We do not live in a vacuum. "No man is an island." It is in our own best interest to care about the quality of education for children everywhere.
So please, care about the quality and the morality of education, and show you care. It's not enough just to shake your heads, cluck your tongues, and roll your eyes. One thing you can do is to carefully consider and cast your votes in school board elections. But voting every few years isn't enough, either. Once you have voted, let school board members know how you want them to lead your district, and what kinds of people you want them to hire to operate your schools. Don't let the right wing be the only voice your school board hears. Let yours be that voice which guides others in the direction of Kant's improved condition. And lest you think you can be vocal only in complaint, when things go right in your district, don't take it for granted. Let teachers, administrators, and board members know you're happy. We all know that we don't hear often enough that we're doing a good job, no matter what our profession.
It's not just possible to make your voice heard, it's necessary, it's moral. If you start to feel that it's someone else's job, remember today's reading from Martin Niemoeller. If you start to feel that your vote doesn't make a difference, remember this comment a Christian Coalition activist reportedly made to The Phoenix Gazette. "We don't have to worry about convincing a majority of Americans to agree with us. Most of them are staying home. They are not involved, they're not voting, so who cares?" (The Interfaith Alliance) And if you start to feel that someone else can be that guide toward an improved condition, remember these words from John Stuart Mill: "Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing. He is not a good man who, without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name, because he will not trouble himself to use his mind on the subject. It depends on the habit of attending to and looking into public transactions, and on the degree of information and solid judgment respecting them whether the conduct of the nation shall be selfish, corrupt, and tyrannical, or rational and enlightened, just and noble." (Cahn, 250-51)
For the moment, let's let our voices be heard singing our closing hymn, #124, "Be That Guide."
CLOSING WORDS - John Stuart Mill
"Let us strive to keep ourselves acquainted with the best thoughts that are brought forth by the original minds of the age; that we may know what movements stand most in need of our aid, and that, as far as depends on us, the good seed may not fall on a rock, and perish without reaching the soil in which it might have germinated and flourished. " (Cahn, 259-60)
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballantine, 1953
Cahn, Steven M. Classic and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Education. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997
National Council of Teachers of English. The Students' Right to Read. Rev ed, 1982
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Julius Caesar
Steinbeck, John. The Pearl. New York: Viking Press, 1945
The Interfaith Alliance. Dr. Philip J. Wogaman, president. Washington, D.C.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.