Friday, September 28, 2012

Right to pray?

Did my fifth-grade teacher, in public school, cross the line when she taught a lesson about the story of Palm Sunday?

My parents thought that she had. So did the parents of the two other Jewish students.  On the other hand, my parents didn’t object to the school’s having a Christmas tree, as long as we weren’t instructed in the Christmas story.
This happened when school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading were still permitted in public schools; the Supreme Court ruling that ended them was a year away.

The situation today is different. Many Jewish parents are pleased if a teacher asks them to teach the class about Hanukkah. (It is rare to be asked to teach a class about Passover, Rosh Hashanah, or any other Jewish holiday.) In general, we support multicultural education as long as it doesn’t become indoctrination.

Some states, in fact, require multicultural education and have set curricula for it. Where multicultural education is required, school children will be taught a certain amount about each of many cultures whether or not there is a child of that background in the class. Ideally, the presentation is accurate and neutral: it should be a form of social studies, not a form of religious education.

A different issue arose recently in Missouri, where the legislature has voted to place a “right to pray” measure on the November ballot. On the surface, this seems unnecessary, because the right to pray is already guaranteed.
The Missouri measure includes something else: in essence, the right not to learn. It would exempt children from having to learn anything that was contrary to their family’s religious belief. They could be excused from attending certain lessons and, presumably, from being tested on that material.

The issue, of course, is evolutionary biology, although it could extend to other subjects. A friend who teaches classical mythology at the college level has had problems with students who wrote Biblical rebuttals of the myths instead of answering the questions on her tests.

I have toyed with the idea of creating a religion that is opposed to division (in mathematics) and, therefore, to any mathematics that might require it. The reasoning goes like this:

  1. The Bible says, “Be fruitful and multiply.”
  2. Nowhere does the Bible command humans to divide.
  3. God, however, divides (for example) the light from the darkness.
  4. Therefore, division is reserved for God and humans aren’t allowed to do it.

Accordingly, children brought up in this religion should be excused from math classes beginning in the grade in which division is introduced, and should be allowed to graduate without knowing any math beyond multiplication.

Does this sound ridiculous? I hope so.  But I don’t see science education as indoctrination, nor does my classicist friend see mythology classes that way.

Similarly, I don’t see a grave threat if our children are required to learn a bit about other religions. I would object if they were required to practice any part of another religion or if a school requirement interfered with their practice of Judaism.