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Religion and Public Education, pt.2: "Church and State" (Non-)Issues

I have inserted a link here to a song from Steven Colbert's Christmas special. It serves as a good introduction to some of what I am talking about in this post. Keep in mind that the views of Toby Keith do not necessarily reflect those of the author.

Every year, several controversial issues are raised (or dredged up once again) which raise questions about the meaning of  “separation of church and state.” Often, these seem to deal with questions about religious language, objects, and symbols. For some, monuments of the Ten Commandments placed in court buildings, crosses on gravestones in public cemeteries, and Christmas trees on government property are examples of “an establishment of religion” which are forbidden by the First Amendment. For others, these religious symbols represent a vital recognition and defense of our country’s Christian heritage. Often, these church and state questions relate to public education. Should all references to any specific religion, and all practices that could possibly be described as religious, be completely banned in any public school?

Back in the 1980’s, I used to hear fairly frequently about a movement to establish prayer in public schools. Even when I was an evangelical Christian, I never understood the logic of this movement. If people want to pray in school, why don’t they just go ahead and do it? It’s not like the school prayer police is going to show up and use some kind of mind-reading device, a sort of spiritual Geiger Counter, to intervene and stop people from praying. Even now, I tell my students that they can pray any time that they want to. If they do not study for a test, they should feel free to do some bargaining with God in hopes of a better score. After all, students should be encouraged to use all of the resources at their disposal. Of course, I tell them to do this quietly so that they will not disrupt anyone else’s learning (or praying).

Apparently, promoters of this idea, if they are still out there, do not think that spontaneous, quiet, personal prayer is good enough. Instead, they want to implement some kind of communal prayer time that students are encouraged to engage in during a specific part of the school day. Now it does not take a theologian or a genius to figure out that there are many practical problems with having some sort of mandated communal prayer time in a public school. First of all, to whom or what will students be encouraged to pray? Some would say that you could theoretically use spiritual language that is vague enough to both avoid offending students and stay in line with the First Amendment. But even if you use generic terms like God or Higher Power, you have done potential offense to adherents of religions that are not monotheistic. Even the word prayer creates problems. Some people do things that are closer to chanting or meditation than prayer. Will these practices be allowed or encouraged? So I guess that when you tell students that it is prayer time – or chanting, meditation, or whatever practices people are accustomed to time – you would tell students that everyone will have their daily opportunity to engage in the spiritual activity of their choice in which they direct these actions to the god, gods, goddesses, or spiritual forces of their choice. (I guess that atheists get to take a short nap.) Now a Unitarian would be cool with this, but it is not quite the communal time that advocates of school prayer probably had in mind. It is hard to have a prayer time that can be considered truly communal when the people in the room do not share the same beliefs. So why bother? Beats me.

I imagine that if some kind of generic spiritual activity was ever implemented, it would probably degenerate into what typically occurs during one of the classic school rituals: the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance. This opening moment of the school day always reminded me of the Catholic masses of my youth. You had a bunch of people in both cases often reciting words that they probably stopped listening to in the third grade (if they still said them at all). Of course, the Pledge of Allegiance is the subject of another church and state public school controversy: should the words “under God” be in the pledge? Personally, I could care less. As I said before, I don’t think that most of the kids think too deeply about these words that they are reciting. (What does indivisible mean anyway?) Still, I can understand why some people take offense. Some may be bothered by the apparent assumption that all Americans believe in a single god. Others may be offended by the subtle notion that our nation has some sort of a special relationship with this God that entitles us to receive special treatment and to tell other parts of the world how to live. But why are other people so deeply committed to keeping those words in there?

For the past thirty years, one of the most powerful political movements in the United States has been the so-called “Religious Right.” This term, which is often applied to several different religious groups and denominations, refers to people who believe that political action needs to be taken to make the United States a more Christian (as they define it) nation. One of the basic tenets of this movement is that “liberals” have taken the concept of “separation of church and state” too far, and this includes, of course, wiping out whatever is left of religion in public schools. They seem to believe that if references to God are stripped completely from public life, then our nation’s Christian heritage will be lost, and we may lose whatever is left of God’s favor.

In a future post, I will both describe and poke fun of this political movement in more detail. For now, I will simply point out a basic problem with the Religious Right’s ideology. The Religious Right gets their name because they generally take a conservative – a “right wing”- position on political issues, whether it be gun control, taxation policies, or business regulations. Now conservatives are supposed to be people who generally distrust big, overly intrusive government. So I find it strange that they want to use government institutions to promote religious ideas and practices. Using public schools to push a religious agenda seems particularly misguided. If you want people to engage in behaviors like prayer, and you want people to recognize their position as being “under God,” then the last thing you should do is have a public school promote these activities. After all, the quickest way to have a young person not do something is to have a school tell them to do it. (This reminds me of anti-smoking ads, the ultimate examples of advertising genius. Telling teenagers not to smoke is a guaranteed way of encouraging them to do it.) When public schools or government in general get into the religious promotion business, it probably does more damage to religion than good, and it may even turn people off to government as well.

Still, I think that trying to eradicate completely all religious references and practices in public schools is kind of silly. Take Christmas, for instance. Some would argue that all references to Christmas should be avoided in public school settings, and instead they should use generic phrases such as “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays.” Christmas break should also be referred to as Winter Break in order to avoid offending members of other religions. I can understand the logic of this, but promoting the illusion that the word “Holidays” in the phrase “Happy Holidays” refers to something other than Christmas is ridiculous. Without the Christmas tradition that is a major part of the cultural heritage of our largely Christian nation, there would be no major winter holiday to be happy about. Of course, nativity scenes and plays describing the birth of Jesus that overtly promote the Christian message are inappropriate. However, a play that simply tells the story that Christmas is based on – and a Christmas tree or two on a school campus – are not a problem in my view. Of course, to be fair, the stories and traditions of non-Christian faiths should also be told and celebrated on public school campuses. The key is to avoid promoting any of these stories as absolute truth. (I wonder how the Religious Right would feel about the performance of Hindu stories on Diwali or a demonstration of the tradition of ancestor worship in China.)

As a Unitarian Universalist, I am not particularly offended by Christian (or any other faith’s) religious imagery. I still celebrate Christmas, and the holiday is as meaningful for me now as it was when I was a Christian. The important thing is to focus on the deeper meaning behind the imagery. Is the story of Jesus’ birth told accurately in the New Testament? I don’t think so. After several readings, I eventually came to the conclusion that the nativity stories in the books of Matthew and Luke contradict each other. Still, I find a lot of beauty in these stories of hope, redemption, and of a God willing to come to earth as the child of an average, everyday family. Too often, we get stuck on the imagery and lose sight of the deeper meaning. After all, it is relatively easy to use spiritual language or to display religious symbols. Compassionate service of humanity and true adherence to ethical principles, the things that spirituality is supposed to be about, are just so damn hard.

Religion and Public Education, pt. 1: My Spiritual Journey

Here is an Indigo Girls song that relates to some of what I talk about here. (Although I liked college and have never been much of a drinker.)

Many people judge ideas more by their source than by the merits of the ideas themselves. This is why political and religious discussions in particular are often unproductive. People who are comfortable with their particular world view find it relatively easy to reject outright anything that is said by someone with a different perspective. Therefore, in the interest of saving certain people time and trouble, I am going to begin my series of posts related to religion in public schools by laying out my personal spiritual beliefs. This way potential readers can determine for themselves if I am a person with ideas that are worth any consideration.

I was raised in the Catholic Church, and like many people who are brought up in a particular religious belief system, I more or less accepted without much questioning the basic tenets of my faith. The only problem was that I did not know very much about the faith that I was supposed to believe. I knew the basics: there is one true God; Jesus was the Son of God (whatever that meant); Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead; and there was an afterlife in which all people would be judged. I knew that I was supposed to do my best to be a decent human being, go to church every week, fulfill the sacraments, and pray regularly for forgiveness and guidance. But I never read much of the Bible on my own or spent any significant time studying Catholic theology, and this was basically fine with me.

Then I went to college, and for both social and spiritual reasons I began going to meetings and Bible studies that were put on by different Christian student groups on campus. Now, before I knew it, I started to study in depth this faith that I believed but did not know much about. Over time, I became convinced that certain Catholic Church doctrines and practices conflicted with some of the things found in the Bible. I was then forced to consider the possibility that the faith I was raised in might actually be flawed. This was an extremely difficult process to go through, and I can understand why so many people do their best to avoid even considering the possibility that their world view could be incorrect. First of all, you have to deal with the “fear of God.” Was God mad at me for questioning him, and would I be punished in some way for my unbelief? When the idea of a just God – and of his enemy, Satan, who was always trying to drag people down – is thoroughly ingrained into your consciousness, it can be very hard to even allow yourself to experience certain thoughts. In addition, there is the sense of disappointment that you might create in family and friends who are watching you being “led astray.” Still, there were certain “truths” that I was confronted with in the Bible that I could not deny, so I overcame these fears somewhat and was baptized as an evangelical Christian during my freshman year. Over the next five or six years, I would attend and lead numerous Bible studies, go on retreats, read lots of books on theology, and even spend a summer on a missions trip in Africa.

There was a problem, however. Once you allow yourself to question your basic world view in a significant way, it is difficult to avoid pushing yourself even further. I had already rejected one version of Christianity for another, but what if Christianity itself was untrue? I knew very well that I had been conditioned to believe in a single God who had a son named Jesus, and I also knew that the majority of the people on earth did not accept the basic tenets of Christianity. What if they were right and I was wrong? Had I ever even seriously considered that possibility? It seemed silly to settle on a world view as a twenty-year-old, a world view that I had been largely conditioned to believe, without even seriously considering other possibilities. And when I switched to Social Science after my first year of college, I was exposed to a mass of information that fed into these doubts and questions. Of course, this may have been information generated by liberal, godless scholars who were trying to drag me down with them. Fear, once again, could be a powerful force working to keep my beliefs intact. But does it make sense to continue believing something out of fear?  In addition, if the Christian belief system had any merit, it should be able to hold up in the face of doubts and questions.

So even as I wholeheartedly devoted myself to various Christian activities during my college years, the doubts were always there. I tried to fight them off in various ways - reading books, talking to Christian friends, prayer – but they never went away fully. I did not want to reject Christianity. It seemed more plausible than other alternatives that I was familiar with. I was also having a great time with many of the fun, thoroughly devoted Christian friends that I had made. But when I graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and switched to Cal State Long Beach in order to get my teaching credential, that social tie was not there so much any more. I then felt more free to stare these doubts in the face and ask myself if I really believed this stuff. I managed to hang on as a Christian for a few more years, but eventually I concluded that the Bible was probably not literally true. I now had a new problem, however: What did I actually believe?

For the next several years, my wife, who went through a similar experience, and I were not involved in any kind of organized religion. Then something happened that caused us to revisit spiritual questions that we had been brushing aside: we had our first child. Now we had to think about the beliefs and values that we would try to instill into our kids. And we both agreed – my wife in particular – that children should be exposed to some form of spirituality. But what the heck did we actually believe? After a couple of years of pondering this question without taking any real action, our second daughter was born, and now it was time to get more serious. We then turned to the resource that is the source of all wisdom in our culture – the internet – in order to discover our religion. There are a few web sites – I can’t remember which one we chose – where you can take a multiple choice quiz which will determine your spiritual beliefs. For both of us, the test told us that the religion we were closest to was called “Unitarian.” The only problem was that we did not know what the heck that was.

So we turned back to the internet, and we eventually found a web site for the “Unitarian Universalist Church in Fullerton.” My wife listened to a few sermons that they had posted, and she told me that they sounded interesting. (She was still more “gung ho” than I was.) So, after many years of hardly setting foot in any kind of church, we went off for the good of the kids. There, to my pleasant surprise, I finally found a place with people who reminded me of me. This church was filled with other doubters and questioners, and instead of discouraging this type of behavior in the name of adhering to the proper creed, this church celebrated doubt. What a strange concept: a church without a creed.

When I tell people that I go to a Unitarian church, there are a couple of typical responses. First, there is the standard question: “So what do they believe?” Second, there is the response of people who think that they know something about Unitarianism: “Aren’t they the people who believe that all religions are true?” Both of these responses indicate a lack knowledge about Unitarians. So what do we believe? The simple answer is that Unitarians do not share any single theology. Instead, Unitarians share a belief in certain core principles. We think that people should treat others the way that they would like to be treated, that you should be tolerant of all beliefs and behaviors that do not infringe on your individual rights, and that people should be encouraged to seek truth from as many sources as possible. In other words, Unitarians share beliefs about how people should behave, not beliefs about theological ideas that no one can be sure of anyway. Theological ideas, after all, are only significant if they impact a person’s behavior. So if a person’s spiritual beliefs lead them toward positive behavior, then Unitarians would argue that those beliefs are a positive thing. If beliefs do not lead to positive behavior, then they are a bunch of words, and if beliefs lead to negative behavior, they may need to be altered. The key is the behavior, not the theology.

Here is a simple way to find out if you are a fellow Unitarian. Imagine that you knew a Muslim and a Christian who clearly believed and lived by certain core beliefs and ethical principles that led them to live out the golden rule. Then, imagine that you knew two Christians (or two Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims) who would recite the same creed if asked but lived completely different lives. One clearly lived out his or her faith, and the other was a complete ass hole. Who has more in common? Is it the Muslim and Christian mentioned in the first sentence who share a lifestyle but not a theology, or would it be the two people who claimed the same faith even though only one actually lived it out.  I don’t think that I have to tell you what the Unitarian answer would be.

So do Unitarians believe that all religions are true? If you are still asking yourself that question, then you have not read very carefully. As I said earlier, there is no single Unitarian answer to that question. Unitarians believe different things. I think that most, however, myself included, would argue that none of the major religions are completely true. They all have valuable insights, but they also, inevitably, have a “dark side” as well. Unitarians by and large would argue that different religions should be studied in order to learn as much as possible from people of various cultures who have grappled with the same great spiritual questions. It would be foolish to not tap into as many resources as you can. But are any of them – or all of them – literally true? Our minister has used a great line a few times that grows in meaning for me as time goes on: “It’s not the facts that matter; it’s the truths.”  All religions, like great literature, express great truths through stories and metaphor. Asking if the Bible, Koran, Bhagavad Gita, or Tao Te Ching is true is similar to asking if the works of Shakespeare or The Illiad and The Odyssey are true. They all contain valuable insights, some semi-historical fact, and, of course, some occasional pure garbage. There is no question, however, that they are worth reading.

All that you can do when trying to explain the unexplainable is use various metaphors that might capture some aspect of the truth. The problem is that most human beings want straightforward answers described in literal terms. For years, I was one of those people. I did everything I could to try and achieve some degree of certainty, but I never came close. Eventually, I learned to embrace the inevitable uncertainty that seems to be part of the human condition. Personally, if I was the creator of the universe, I would have made things easier. I would have identified myself in some clear way and told people what to do. For years, part of the reason that I stuck with Christianity was its teaching that God clearly revealed himself through scripture and by coming to earth as a human being in the person of Jesus. Of course, if I was the creator of the universe, there are a lot of things that I would have done differently. I would have created a world in which there was no possibility of hurricanes, earthquakes, tapeworms, smallpox, rape, torture, child abuse, starvation, dysentery, and all sorts of other horrific things. I cannot base my beliefs on how I think the world should be. I have to face the world as it is. And if religious metaphors are the best we can do, and if uncertainty is apparently an unavoidable fact of life, then I need to learn to live with it. And if more of us human beings truly came to this realization, there would be a lot more humility in the world, and we might listen to each other a little more.

Less is More

One of the most valuable things that I learned when I was getting a teaching credential many years ago was the concept, “less is more.” Sixteen years of teaching have further strengthened my faith in this key concept. The idea is as simple as it sounds. When students are expected to learn a large amount of information in a short time, they may become overwhelmed and end up learning very little. On the contrary, if a teacher breaks things down to a few essential ideas and covers these concepts thoroughly, students will have a better chance of retaining the information. Less material covered can lead to more material actually learned.

This concept is particularly important in a History course. One of the reasons why many people dislike history is because they view it as a mass memorization exercise in which they are expected to absorb various facts about famous events and (mostly dead) people. It is apparently nothing but a training course for either completing future crossword puzzles or impressing your friends while watching Jeopardy. So if a college History professor dumps a one hundred question multiple choice test on his or her students, it will reinforce students’ frustration with this subject. Of course, memorization is an inevitable and essential part of any type of learning, and History teachers should expect students to memorize certain key facts. The trick is separating the key facts from the trivia.

So here is a simple example of how “less is more” can work. World War II may be the most studied and discussed topic in American History. One can easily spend a lifetime studying nothing but this subject. I have met several people over the years, in fact, who could tell you practically everything about World War II and very little about anything else. (The History Channel used to be nicknamed the World War II channel.) We don’t have a lifetime in a community college History class, of course; in fact, we only have three or four hours to spend on World War II. So how do you narrow down the mass of material that could be talked about into just a few hours?

For every topic I cover, I try to break things down to a few key questions. My Power Point outline is then built around these simple questions. For World War II, the core questions are similar to those of every major war I cover, from the American Revolution to Vietnam. First, who was fighting and why? We then do a quick overview of the motives behind German and Japanese expansion. Second, how did the United States respond when World War II started, and what circumstances eventually led us to enter the war? We then talk about the reasons why the United States initially stayed out of the war and the process by which we gradually became involved, culminating in Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor. Third, who won this war and why? We then talk about the advantages that the allies had in the war, focusing primarily on their ability to produce more than the Germans and Japanese. Next, we discuss the impact that the war had on people living in the United States, discussing its impact on the economy, federal government power, and social change. Finally, we finish this topic by discussing issues that the United States had to deal with when the war ended, with the most important being the threat posed by our former ally: The Soviet Union.

So there you have it: World War II broken down into a single paragraph. And if you think that is impressive, you should see what I do during test reviews. Typically, during the class before a test, I go over everything that will be on the test in about ten minutes. Obviously, this is not done in tremendous detail, which is kind of the point. I want students to get the big picture straight in their minds before they worry about memorizing some of the details. They need to see that history is a story, and if you break it down to certain key questions, it is much easier to make some sense out of that story. On most of the tests that I give, half of the points are determined by two essay questions. After conducting our review, I encourage them to predict what these questions will be. All they have to do is look at the essential questions that we have covered for each topic. They are right there in the class notes. They just need to take the main headings in the Power Point outlines and turn them into questions.

Now I could give other, more detailed examples to explain the concept of “less is more,” but I think that I will stop at this point. Less, after all, is more.

Do Americans Have a Right to an Education?

Throughout our history, Americans have struggled with the question of which human needs should be met as human rights and which should only be met by the privileged. In other words, are there certain rights and basic necessities that all people deserve by virtue of being human, or are there certain things that should only be enjoyed by those who can afford them? (Of course in America, we tend to insert “have earned” for the phrase “can afford.”) This is a core question in some of the most difficult political issues of our time, issues like health care, welfare reform, homelessness, and I would argue, education.

One of the first attempts to clarify the rights of Americans was the adoption of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, most commonly known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments were basically an attempt to set limits on the newly formed, much more powerful national government that had been created by the Constitution. These are essentially political and legal rights, with some amendments guaranteeing the rights of individuals to voice political dissent and most of the others ensuring that the government could not indiscriminately arrest and punish people. Freedom of religion and the right to bear arms were also implemented in order to make sure that the government did not impose a certain belief system, aided by a monopoly on gun ownership.

What you have with the Bill of Rights, then, is a list of things that the government is not allowed to do, and I, like most Americans I assume, am glad that they are there. What you do not see in the Bill of Rights, however, is a list of things that the government is obligated to do. So the Constitution guarantees a right to freedom of speech, the press, religion, a fair trial, and gun ownership. It does not guarantee, however, a right to have food, a house, adequate health care, and an education. So if you were to ask most Americans to make a list of their most basic needs, they would probably find that there is no legal guarantee of being able to meet those needs.

When our country was formed, most Americans did not expect or really want the government to do very much. Government basically existed to maintain order, defend the nation, and lay the basic groundwork for a functioning economy - transportation, stable currency, communication, etc. Today, government at all levels takes on responsibilities that people in early American history could hardly imagine. The federal government provides various forms of aid with Social Security, provides medical insurance to the poor and elderly, and distributes some welfare benefits to the poor. State governments, in addition to contributing to this newly emerged “welfare state,” spend enormous amounts of money providing free and mandatory public education, something that was unheard of in early American history. In a sense, this paragraph has answered the question that I started with. Apparently, the people of the United States have come to the conclusion over time that Americans have a right to meet their basic human needs. Well, we have sort of come to this conclusion.

Compared to the majority of industrialized nations, the welfare state of the United States is still fairly limited. We are the only industrial nation that does not have a national health care system for all. The government will help you out if you are poor enough, old enough, or disabled, but if you do not fit these categories, and you work in a job that does not provide insurance, good luck. Welfare benefits may be available, but they are generally more limited than those provided by other countries, and in recent years, welfare reform laws have set limits on how long a person can collect benefits. Our nation does provide public education, but only up to a point. When you get to the college level, the free ride (sort of) ends.

Until fairly recently in American history, college was a luxury largely enjoyed by a privileged elite. Today, some sort of higher education degree is increasingly mandatory for a person who wants to find a decent job. In a sense, this is nothing new. Public schooling originally developed in the 19th century in response to our country’s gradual transition from an agrarian to an industrial society. Our country needed more white collar workers – engineers, office workers, professionals – who needed to master at least some basic academic skills to do their jobs. When we were a country of farmers and manual laborers, there did not seem to be as much of a need for an educated work force. (Remarkably, however, American literacy rates were extremely high in spite of a lack of mandatory public education.) I always tell my students that school was not made free and mandatory to do citizens a favor; it was done to make sure that we did not have a bunch of useless people running around in this increasingly industrial society.

Initially, people were only required to go to grammar school. Then, as the accumulated knowledge of society grew and as parents increasingly found themselves working away from home, public high schools became increasingly common and mandatory. (Schools are, after all, effective baby-sitting institutions.) This trend toward the average American spending increasing time in school continued through the 20th and 21st century, and now many Americans see college as absolutely mandatory. Does this mean that government has taken on the responsibility of providing a college education to everyone who wants one?

To a certain degree, the government has taken on this responsibility. Public universities are common throughout the United States. And while these institutions are by no means free, in comparison to the costs of attending a private university, they are a pretty good deal. An even better deal is the ultimate example of the government funded college education: the community college. In California, community college fees were recently raised to $26 per unit, which is remarkably cheap. During this time of state budget deficits, however, there is increasing concern that in my state and throughout the nation governments may increasingly move away from the concept of a publicly subsidized college education. In California, not only have fees been going up, particularly in the Cal State and UC systems, but schools have been admitting fewer students. This has led many students to turn to community colleges, where fewer classes are being offered. Demand for low-cost classes has outstripped supply, and there are no simple answers.

Some Americans who question the whole idea of a publicly funded college education would argue that this “crisis” is not really a problem. After all, why should some Americans pay taxes to subsidize the education of other Americans? Some make the same argument about public education at all levels. Why should parents whose kids either go to private school or are home-schooled pay taxes to support public schools? Essentially, this is the same argument used by Americans who complain about all aspects of the welfare state. The United States, after all, has a long tradition of believing that individuals must be personally responsible for meeting their basic needs. At the same time, however, there is the more recent tradition of government being held responsible for guaranteeing, to a certain degree, that Americans have these basic needs met. This American ambivalence toward government aid can be seen in many of the most intense political debates in America today, and it is not at all clear how this will be playing out in the next few years.

Public education advocates can use a variety of arguments in their attempts to maintain or increase government investment into education. They can compare the amount of money spent on education to other government programs, arguing that priorities may sometimes be out of whack. They can appeal to people’s love for children, mixing this with good old fashioned guilt through questions like, “Aren’t our children worth it?” They can also use the human rights argument, claiming that a just society is obligated to meet this basic human need.

These education advocates should probably avoid these types of “bleeding heart,” “liberal,” emotional arguments. Any argument that does not recognize Americans’ historical ambivalence toward the whole idea of government aid will not be particularly effective. Instead, they should go back to the original practical benefits of public education. Investment in education not only leads to a more productive economy for everyone; it also reduces the number of unproductive, potentially dangerous people in our society. Americans have always been comfortable with the idea of a government that promotes economic development and provides security for its citizens, so why not emphasize these functions of government that almost everyone agrees are legitimate. In the long run, education may even save the government money. It is cheaper, after all, to educate someone then it is to house that person in jail for decades.

So is education a right? I must admit that I am somewhat ambivalent on this question, just as I am with all questions involving government aid. I don’t know if certain members of society should be obligated to pay taxes in order to help meet the needs of other less wealthy individuals. In the end, however, I find this question regarding human rights somewhat irrelevant. When dealing with political questions, it is best to not get bogged down in discussions about general ideals and abstractions. I prefer to be practical. And when I look at this question in practical terms, I conclude that a society that provides the opportunity for people to become educated and successful is probably a nicer place to live than one that does not. I am willing, therefore, to have some of my tax dollars go to this purpose. Is this an entirely fair and efficient way to do things? Probably not. But it is better than any alternative that I have heard of, and in politics, that is the best that you can do.

Problems With the Concept of School

It is a natural human tendency to accept as normal most aspects of the society that one is born in. This is a positive thing in many respects. Human beings, after all, have demonstrated over time a remarkable capacity to adapt to a wide variety of settings and circumstances. We do this essentially without even thinking about it, beginning virtually on the day that we are born. It can also cause us, however, to both think and do things without asking if our behavior makes any sense. We often buy things that we do not really need, believe in things that we actually know very little about, and accept our society’s techniques for getting things done in a certain way without much questioning.

To modern Americans, going to school is both an inevitable and perfectly natural stage in the human experience. Going to school is as natural for a child as learning to walk, becoming potty trained, or discovering the joys of consuming food with a high sugar content. As a history teacher, however, I am well aware of the fact that school as we define it is a pretty modern human invention. Schools in some form or another have been around for thousands of years, but the overwhelming majority of human beings in both civilized and non-civilized societies did not attend them. And yet, somehow, people learned the things that they needed to survive in their particular society.

I cannot deny that schools perform some very important functions in modern society. For one thing, public schools are excellent baby-sitting institutions. This is an essential function when parents are required to leave home to go to work. Schools also socialize our kids, teaching them basic rules for how people in our culture are supposed to interact with others. I always laugh (inside) when people complain that schools no longer teach values. (What they are often complaining about is the lack of religion in schools.) Teaching has always been about teaching values: don’t cheat, don’t hit your neighbor, obey authority figures, perform tasks on a schedule, etc. It also prepares kids for functioning in the world of work, a world in which their day-to-day reality will require them to obey authority figures, live by the clock, and focus for many hours on tasks that are not necessarily fun. Finally, schools also, unfortunately, play the role of ranking people in society. Through the process of handing out grades and issuing standardized tests, schools separate people into academic categories. These categories may be officially defined by terms such as advanced, intermediate, and remedial, but what is essentially happening is a subdivision between the academic “winners” and “losers.” Students are then prepared for the competitive world they will face as adults, and society gets to pick out the individuals who will most successfully fill the high skill level, high status occupations.

If people stop and think about it, almost everyone would agree that the tasks mentioned in the preceding paragraph are important functions of schools. However, if you ask people why we have schools, their first answer most likely will have something to do with helping kids learn. And when they say learn, they are not talking about socialization. They are most likely talking about academic learning, such as Reading, Math, Writing, and, sometimes, even Science and History. (Sorry, I mean “social studies.”) And since most Americans went through some type of school system, we assume that schools are the natural place for kids to absorb all of this information.

Having spent years working in schools, I have come to the conclusion that schools as academic institutions have some serious flaws. Schools may be effective tools for socialization, baby sitting, and ranking people in society, but they are not set up in a way that is necessarily conducive to academic learning. Having made this statement, I can imagine different reactions that people might have. Some might wonder why a person who thinks that schools do not really work would be working as a teacher. Some might think that I am just another jaded educator frustrated by years of failure who is looking for something or someone other than myself to blame. I suspect that many, however, would be dumbfounded by a statement like this. After all, where else could a person learn vital information other than a school?

In order to avoid being labeled as a frustrated educator counting down days to the next vacation, I better support my argument that the American concept of school is fundamentally flawed. To make my case, I will start by going back in time to societies in which few or sometimes none of the people spent any time in school. Schools were rare or non-existent, but few would doubt that education took place. But how did people learn anything? The answer, of course, is pretty simple: people learned things on a one-on-one basis. If you lived in a hunting and gathering society, you would learn basic survival skills from the elder members of the clan. If your parents were farmers, you would learn agricultural skills from your parents. People who went into manufacturing trained for several years as a journeyman and apprentice under a master craftsman. A person pursuing a more “academic” career field would often work under a private tutor.

This one-on-one system of learning had several advantages. First, students were able to learn things at their own pace and receive instruction specifically designed to meet their particular needs. These lessons could also be adapted somewhat to appeal to an individual’s learning style. Second, people typically learned skills by doing things, not by simply having a person or book impart information to them. Finally, a student often would get the undivided attention of the person instructing them. School as it is traditionally defined, of course, cannot replicate this experience. Students are expected to move at a pace dictated by the teacher or by some standardized guideline defining what a student at a certain grade level is supposed to be doing. They often sit “passively” while the teacher instructs them and are forced to work with a teacher who is unable to focus on any individual for a significant length of time.

When I look back at the many education courses I have taken and seminars I have attended over the years, I recognize how well aware many educators are of the inherent weaknesses of schools. They talk about the importance of individualized instruction, of active learning techniques, and of small class sizes. While I applaud these efforts, I am also struck by a simple fact: these “modern” teaching techniques and reform efforts are simply trying to recreate on some level the educational experiences of people who lived in the days before schools were common. And since schools can never fully replicate these experiences, why do we continue to use the modern school model?

Some people have decided to move away from the school model. Millions of Americans have chosen to home school their kids, and from talking to people I know who have made this choice, home schooling has taken on the qualities of a political movement. My wife and I, after strongly considering home schooling for some time, have finally decided to take the plunge with our youngest daughter. Then, after trying this for the remainder of the school year, we will look back and decide what to do with both kids next year. I hate to say it, but my reasons for keeping my kids in traditional schools until this time have little to do with education. I continue to have this nagging sense that school is important for the development of my kids’ social skills. There is also the more selfish desire to have a little more time to myself than would be possible with home schooling. Under the right circumstances, however, I think that the home school model is more effective academically than traditional schools.

For many Americans, however, the circumstances are not right for home schooling. Many parents, of course, cannot devote the time necessary for home schooling because they are working full-time. Other parents do not have an academic background that qualifies them to teach their kids. In the past, when teachers primarily educated their kids, all that was required was a knowledge of their child’s future occupation. Given the explosion of information that has taken place, particularly over the past 125 years, it is almost impossible to have even a basic knowledge of the many specialized fields that we assume are a part of a well rounded education. Many kids, of course, have parents who lack basic English speaking skills. Some kids have no parents in their lives at all.

Schools, then, are the only practical option for many of the kids in our society. So if we are stuck with schools, then people like me should stop complaining about their weaknesses and make the most of the situation. And as I mentioned earlier, it is no secret what needs to be done. Nearly everyone agrees that it is a good idea to give students more freedom to move at their own pace, incorporate active learning strategies like cooperative learning, use portfolios to provide a more comprehensive assessment of student progress, and utilize a variety of teaching strategies to appeal to different learning styles.

The basic problem is that it is very difficult to incorporate these strategies in a classroom with between 30-40 (and sometimes 50) students at a time. It is difficult to assign portfolios and various projects because there will be so many things to grade. Coming up with assignments that are adapted to individual student needs becomes increasingly difficult as the class size grows. Creative, cooperative learning exercises can easily turn into mass chaos in a classroom with lots of students. I know from past experience as a junior high and high school teacher that I was often scared to experiment with more interactive teaching activities because of classroom management concerns. Anyone who has ever worked with children, or even young adults, knows that classroom management often becomes a bigger concern in lesson planning than academic effectiveness. At the college level, some of these problems become even more daunting. My classes generally range from 45 to 140 students. How can a college professor individualize instruction when working with so many individuals at a time? How elaborate can student projects be when the teacher wants to have some semblance of a life beyond grading papers? It is no wonder that we college teachers so often fall back on traditional education models and give out multiple choice tests.

The answers, then, seem simple: keep class sizes low so that teachers can then utilize educational techniques that research has shown are effective. This is why there has been a big push, particularly for students in the early grades, to cap class sizes at twenty students. So why not do this at all grade levels? The answer is once again simple: money. It costs far less to pay one teacher to teach 40 students than two teachers to teach 20. And since most American students attend public schools, the money issue is essentially a political issue.

Explanations for why schools cannot provide enough money to maintain small classes vary depending on one’s political ideology. Many democrats would argue that schools are not funded enough. They might also throw in some of the stereotypical “bleeding heart” liberal statements about our society not valuing the education of children enough because we apparently have other priorities. A conservative republican, on the other hand, would argue that the lack of money is more of a problem of mismanagement than it is a lack of funds. This is a part of their general argument that the government as a general rule spends money foolishly and inefficiently. Why should they spend money wisely in an attempt to provide a quality service if they are going to be paid through tax dollars whether they perform well or not? This is why conservatives are often supportive of school voucher programs which will give individual citizens money to spend on the school of their choice. If schools are forced to compete, they will provide a better service.

I am tempted at this point to pour myself into research to find out how well schools are actually funded or how successful school voucher programs have been in places where they have already been implemented. I know, however, the extent to which statistics can be manipulated to make a certain argument. I also know that I will probably end up in the same place where I fall on all controversial issues: somewhere in the middle. Like democrats, I do not think that education in our society is as high of a priority as it should be. So much of what both the government and individual citizens prioritize in our society seem wasteful in comparison to education. However, I also sympathize with the frustration republicans feel toward American public education. Too much money often goes into administration rather than education, and both teachers and schools are often not held accountable for their poor performance.

Too often, however, the wrath of the general public is directed toward teachers. In some cases, this may be deserved. But before people start yelling and screaming about teachers, they need to look at the setting in which a teacher is expected to operate. What is remarkable is that there are so many teachers out there who are often able to be effective in a classroom where they are almost set up to fail. Of course, there are probably more who are unable to find this level of success. A large number of teachers end up leaving the profession after a very short time. Others start with high hopes and eventually get burned out, but stay on the job, learning to lower the expectations that they have of their students and themselves. Virtually every student in this country has probably had a teacher who seemed to have stopped trying years before, but he or she kept teaching either because they could not think of anything else to do or because they liked the vacation time.

This may sound overly optimistic, but I tend to think that most of the people who go into teaching genuinely want to do something positive in their student’s lives. Not all of them are extremely talented, and some would probably be better suited for something else. But these teachers of average talent whose heart is in the right place would generally be successful if provided with the proper resources and classroom environment. Teaching in a school setting is a challenge under the best circumstances. It is almost impossible in some of the situations that our society throws teachers into. I don’t know if this is the fault of politicians, school administrators, or the general public. When a teacher is standing in front of a big group of students, it doesn’t really matter. I would love to see some of our society’s teacher bashers stand up there and try to do better.

How and why did I start writing this stuff?

I wrote this more or less on the spur of the moment on August 17, 2009. I did some minor touching up before posting it today:

Yesterday, I decided to begin the semi-annual cleaning of our home office. In addition to all of the layers of dust that had accumulated, we had finally managed to fill up all of the space on the bookshelves and in our file drawers. So I decided that it was finally time to clear the file drawers of papers that I had not looked at for years and was unlikely to ever read in the future. These consisted of class notes and papers that were sometimes more than twenty years old, coming from classes that I had taken as both a graduate and undergraduate student.

While going through all of this stuff and chucking a lot of old class notes, I was struck by a couple of things. The first was that I apparently did a lot of hard work at times during my college career, and somewhere along the line I was able to become a good student. I also read several papers that I had written in various classes and rediscovered the fact that I was actually a pretty good writer. It also struck me that on some level, I actually enjoyed the whole process of creation way back when. The main thing that I did not like about college was the pressure of that constantly lingering deadline. To this day, the stress of that due date or upcoming mid-term has left me with little desire to enter a college class once again as a student. The older I get, in fact, the less desire I have to ever go back to school. I guess that I have reached a point where I feel that I have no need for school. If I want to learn something, I will go out and find a book or run a Google search. What do I need a teacher and all of those annoying assignments for?

The problem is that my current job no longer requires me to do some of the more difficult tasks that I was forced to do as a student. I have not, for instance, written anything of any significant length in years. The only things that I seem to write these days are e-mails, Facebook posts, power point outlines (most of which are already written), test questions, occasional handouts, and even more occasional cover letters for full-time teaching positions which come up every few years or so. Those skills that I developed as a student, then, are no longer being utilized.

At this point in my life, it is very tempting to just sit back and enjoy the fruits of my past labor. My teaching skills have developed to where I can more or less walk in to class, ask students where we left off, and proceed to teach a three-hour class with only my rough power point outline as a guide. I will then have plenty of time to hang out with my family, improve my racquetball game, keep up with the Lakers, fulfill my monthly allotment of music downloads, maintain my scrabble skills, and keep people informed about these daily activities by keeping that Facebook status updated. Why would I ever again choose to struggle with the incredibly difficult activity of writing?

It is very easy for a teacher to stop being a student, and in some sense I feel that this has happened to me. I don’t read as much as I would like, and I barely write anything at all. The curse of going to school, I guess, was also a blessing; school keeps you accountable, and it forces you to do things that are difficult. Teaching can also keep you accountable to a certain degree. You have to show up to class, take attendance – we still do that in community college – keep up on the grading, stay somewhat up to date on current events, read as much History material as you can, and touch up that power point outline every once in a while. Most of these activities, however, do not require that much in the way of higher level thinking skills, and with the exception of those already written outlines, they do not require the act of creation. In other words, they are relatively easy, much easier than a lot of the stuff I did as a student.

Do not get me wrong, I am not arguing that teaching community college is easy. Those early years getting the material straight in my own mind and fine tuning the presentation were very difficult. But after nine years of community college, and the previous, much more difficult task of dealing with junior high and high school students for seven years, my teaching skills are pretty well honed. I am obviously not perfect. There is always more material to learn and fine tuning to be done, but I can do a pretty good job for the next thirty or forty years – the retirement pension, after all, may dry up in the future – with a limited amount of effort.

So now what? I have had this sense for some time that something was missing, and I needed to find some way to mentally push myself. And as I thought about writing once again, ideas for what I could write quickly began to flood my brain. After all, these years of teaching experience must be worth something, and the most basic thing I have learned about education is that the only way to learn to educate is go out and do it. Why not keep a journal of some of the struggles I have faced and insights I have gained from doing this for so many years? If nothing else, it could be therapeutic for me. And given the fact that community colleges and universities are filled with average, every day adjunct instructors like me, maybe these “freeway flyers” can have one of their own sharing his stories and insights. Book writing seems to be monopolized by so-called experts, which is not entirely a bad thing, but maybe we should balance things out with the thoughts of a Cal State graduate like me without a PHD next to his name. After all, people like me are actually out there on the front lines teaching a large percentage of the students who take general education courses at the college level. Or maybe I will just write a bunch of stuff that sits on my flash drive, waiting for me to dig it up twenty years from now.