A Presentiment of Annoyance

Today was a brief orientation for parents and kids before the first full day of school. I’ve always followed debates over K-12 education from a fairly austere distance. Now I can see that I’m probably going to get drawn into the nitty-gritty specifics. I managed to hold my tongue and not start a major disagreement with another parent during a small meeting with our daughter’s very nice and engaging teacher. But now I’m wondering just how much of this kind of thing I’m going to be seeing in the months and years to come.

This kind of thing is the question of religion in the schools. Parents can volunteer to read to the kids in the class later in the year, once a week, choosing their own age-appropriate reading. That’s a great way to involve parents, I think. The teacher mentioned parenthetically that around Christmas time, readings can’t be overtly religious. One of the other parents batted her eyes innocently and pressured the teacher about the restriction. The teacher clarified: parents could potentially bring a religious reading, though the principal would like to be consulted, but the teacher herself could not read overtly religious material in the classroom. Really, said the parent, simulating surprise and confusion, as if she was hearing this strange, mysterious and entirely standard public school policy for the first time. How can that be? What a bizarre idea. I just don’t know what the world is coming to.

Considering that she later on made it clear that she had several older children in the school district, count me a skeptic.

If it weren’t for that kind of disingenuous activism, that sense of religious fundamentalists poking and prodding at public institutions, looking for an opportunity to capture them for the sake of their promoting their own private and particular beliefs, my hackles wouldn’t go up at all over the modest presence of religious symbols and activities in public education. I wouldn’t object to a class singing “Silent Night”, or to public prayers before football games. All of that would just be a kind of civic politeness, a recognition of the nature and outlook of communities and individuals that feed into schools. But dealing with someone who feigns innocence and acts as if there is some hideous moral conspiracy afoot because an elementary school teacher is not allowed to get up and read from the New Testament every day, I’m disinclined to concede even the smallest possible foothold. This is why this issue has to go back to a really foundational assurance of rights, of constraints on what can and cannot be done by government within public institutions.

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11 Responses to A Presentiment of Annoyance

  1. Sdorn says:

    For a number of years, I’ve tried to convince my own students in the undergraduate social-foundations sections I teach that the conflict over religion in schools is a fascinating conflict of two incompatible worldviews about religious expression, what I have previously called the Coffee Pot v. Muzak conflict. One side sees religious expression akin to a coffee pot in a workroom, a resource that’s entirely voluntary. The other side sees religious expression akin to piping elevator music into the workplace at a volume just high enough that it is both annoying (and distracting) and non-ignorable.

    Students don’t understand my metaphor, for the most part, and several have then argued why it’s really like a coffee pot or really like elevator music.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I get the metaphor. I suppose I even understand the conflict that someone is in when their ethical commitments demand that they prosletyze. Even as a fundamentally secular person, I don’t like to cast religion as a consumerist accessory, the sort of smug way that secularism can cast religion as a kind of optional thing that people can do or not do, like you’re choosing between chocolate and vanilla. It’s why I’d be perfectly happy in a world where kids in a public school got to have very heartfelt, exploratory discussions about whether God exists, or what it means to go to church. It’s why I’m sympathetic when someone says, “Are you asking me to hide or conceal the thing about myself that matters most to me?”

    But I’m not going to be a chump, which is how trying to chart a middle position sometimes feels to me–an open invitation for people who are not acting in good faith (so to speak) to take advantage. This little conversation today, for example, wasn’t the right place or time for this parent to raise the issue. The dissembling performance was in many ways a far greater aggravation than the sentiment expressed, a clear declaration of long-term corrosive intent, of someone exploring loopholes to get their way. A sneakiness.

  3. “I wouldn’t object to a class singing ‘Silent Night,’ or to public prayers before football games. All of that would just be a kind of civic politeness, a recognition of the nature and outlook of communities and individuals that feed into schools. But dealing with someone who feigns innocence and acts as if there is some hideous moral conspiracy afoot because an elementary school teacher is not allowed to get up and read from the New Testament every day, I’m disinclined to concede even the smallest possible foothold.”

    A chicken or the egg problem. Were there people “feign[ing] innocence and act[ing] as if there is some hideous moral conspiracy afoot” back in the days when public school classes could unproblematically sing “Silent Night” and there were no constitutional objections to public prayers before high school football games? Does sneakiness characterize the Christian right agenda because it reflects their response to prior aggrevation, or does it part of the structure of their agenda, and thus was identified as a threat that had to be responded to in the first place? Or were wholly separate factors responsible for the development of the current standoff? Lots of evidence each way.

    In any case, harassing a teacher with leading questions is rude and insulting whatever the cause. She’s just trying to do her job. Even if I agreed with the parent’s general point (which I may or may not have; I guess it would depend on what the teacher and the principal might have characterized as “overtly religious material” in practice), her incivility undermines it for me.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Right, for me too. If someone, in all sincerity, at the right time and place, says, “I would like it if the kids could sing a few religious carols around Christmas time”, I’d say, “Sure.” If they said, “Would you mind if the New Testament was read?” I’d say that I might, but I’d be willing to talk about it. But the context for me is everything, and in a non-trivial way: it signals to me some larger lack of principles.

  5. jim says:

    This is in the Philly Mainline suburbs? What’s it like a bit further out?

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    We’re well south of the Main Line. Delaware County is fairly mixed in its income profile and its political makeup, and in recent years has been a fairly “safe” Republican Congressional District.

  7. Western Dave says:

    I have a big problem with singing Silent Night in lower elementary school. In third or fourth grade, I believed that if I said it, I meant it. Thus I mouthed the objectional lines from those carols we sang in non-optional chorus. The music teacher never put me on the spot and said “why did you stop singing in the middle of the song.” But she did make me and the other Jewish kid in my class (a girl) sing the driedel song for everybody which was pretty much a fate worse than death.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Look, I’d rather that people not sing overtly religious carols, for that kind of reason–the whole point of politely secular content is to avoid the situation where some kid feels awkward and weird because they don’t want to do what the teacher is asking the class to do. But I’m also trying to figure out a middle way where you can take utterly seriously the faith of children, when that faith is important to them, and not make secularism into the complete and utter lack of the inner and outer life of the religious.

  9. greglas says:

    Tim — this seems odd. You encounter one person who plays coy on the Establishment Clause and now you are “disinclined to concede even the smallest possible foothold?” And that’s because, I guess, if you don’t polarize your view on this, all hell will break loose in Delaware County?

    There are plenty of people who are unreasonable about plenty of things — yet the reasonable ones manage to deal with them. I’d say you should stick with your original instincts on this as much as you would in any other situation. What’s so special about this case and this person?

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    Greglas: Because I think there’s ample evidence that she’s part of a nation-wide movement that practices very similar tactics, similar ways of insinuating and undercutting. It was interesting to see it up close and in person, at a moment where the sheer inappropriateness of it kind of took my breath away, but it’s very apparent from a wide range of cases that she’s not alone. One good recent example not too far from here involves a Delaware school district where a Jewish family was hounded out of the area after objecting to open prosletyzing within the public school district.

  11. miz_geek says:

    Did you see this – http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=46828?

    Conservative Christian guy moves to Hawaii and discovers what it’s like to hear the wrong type of prayer at a football game. On the one hand, it’s nice to see him experiencing the same thing, but on the other, his lack of tolerance, the utter repulsion he feels at listening to the Buddhist prayer, is kind of disappointing. It’s also sad that it took this experience to give him the tiniest bit of empathy and understanding.

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