After fourteen years I have been forced to leave the high school teaching position I loved. I have left other jobs, of course, but this separation is bitterly hard. The grief comes in waves: relief, anger, pain. It reminds me of the same empty hurt I felt when my mother's death set in. Not as intense, nearly, but of the same sort.
Colleagues -- friends, dear friends, I acknowledge, and am overwhelmed by the realization -- call to express their support. And their fear. "Could this happen to me? " they wonder aloud. " I have been doing this or that with my students." "A few years ago some or another incident occurred." "Could it happen to me?"
My responses are both reassuring and alarming to them. I tell them how much more extreme I have been in my teaching methods than they are. But I also tell them that I don't think that it really matters. It is a question of whether or not they are targeted. If they are targeted, it doesn't matter whether they have been pushing the envelope or not.
My story begins several years ago.
I was teaching a high school course called Physical Science, which included elements of both chemistry and physics. A student, who seemed to especially like me, brought me offerings of articles and essays by creationist proponents almost daily. She called these proponents scientists. She frequently raised her hand during class to inform me that my presentation of big bang hypotheses and findings was unfair, since I didn't teach creationist ideas about how things came to be. Polite and patient, her manner seemed almost motherly -- like one applying gentle but relentless pressure upon an errant child. She never presented arguments, merely restated her simple position.
At first, her classmates supported and admired her for taking the risk of challenging a teacher. But gradually, the climate changed. The other students interest changed to tolerance, and then to impatience, and finally to irritation. Some students expressed belligerence, which I quelled, insisting that everyone's questions merited respect.
And I responded to her challenge. I painted the complex canvas of how we have come to define knowledge in Western society. I shaped science and religion as separate but vitally important systems of knowledge. I shaded in the particular richness of each and drew the sharp boundary between them.
A new and fascinating sub-unit of the course emerged: The Ways in Which People Know Things.
The only student who failed to derive value from what she had helped to create was my inquisitor. Her manner became hard. She seemed frustrated and unhappy, and the intensity of her attacks increased. She no longer expressed tolerant affection for me. I watched helplessly as she became the tragic victim of a charade she seemed compelled to act out. She could not support her position, even minimally, in argument with her own peers. She could only state absolute truisms. I assumed that she had been sent forth, ill prepared, by powerful figures unknown to me, to do battle in my classroom.
Eventually I learned more about her situation. I was summoned to a meeting with the vice-principal -- and her parents. The meeting began in a friendly manner. Her parents had brought a sheaf of creationist material that they wished to persuade me to include in my curriculum.
I did not ask them -- as I might have done -- whether any of their documents included the generation of a single testable hypothesis, such as "it is hypothesized that on, or about, the following date, the following creature will be created." Nor did I point out that big bang and evolution theory generates scads of testable hypotheses. If some don't hold up, it does not matter because science proceeds from wrong guess to wrong guess. It stumbles and fumbles its way along. But without testable hypotheses, even fumbling and stumbling are impossible.
What I said, simply, was that public school teachers are required to teach science as it is, not as they might independently wish to define it. For practical purposes, in our society "science" is what is published in peer review journals, such as Science, Scientific American or Nature. I told them that if any of the creationists they wanted me to include in my curriculum were publishing in peer review journals, I would be obligated, and happy, to teach students about them and their work.
Conversation stopped dead for perhaps half a minute. They stared at their laps, as though in prayer, but when they looked up their faces were firm with resolve. The mother pulled a small notepad from her purse. Her notes were neatly written, I could see, in blue ink.
"On such and such a date," she read, "you blasphemed in front of the whole class. On such and such a date, you called our daughter 'Little Miss Christian' in front of the entire class. On such and such a date, you told the class that you are an atheist and urged them to become atheists as well." When she had finished, she closed the note-pad and returned it to her purse. Both parents sat blank faced and silent.
I glanced at the vice-principal. His jaw had fallen open. Literally. He stared incredulously at the couple, who strenuously ignored us both. After a pause I stated for the record that none of what the mother had "documented" had, in fact, occurred. The only charge containing even a shred of truth was the "Little Miss Christian" taunt, which had been hurled by a fed-up student. I had told the student that if he, or anyone, made such a comment again, they would be sent out of the class with a discipline referral.
After relating this, I asked the parents if they wanted their daughter to be transferred to another class. "That's what we want," the father replied. The vice-principal said nothing. There was another long pause. At length, I stated quietly that it was okay with me. And it was done.
The next morning, the principal, a fairly new arrival to our school district, met with the vice-principal and me. The principal asked us why we had given in so easily. "I would have supported you," he told us.
The vice-principal and I shared a brief glance. I explained to the principal that we believed that the parents' true intention was not to express concern over their child's education, but to send a message -- not just to me, but to all the teachers and administrators who would hear about the incident. The heart of this message was that these parents represented a group -- one that would use whatever means necessary to accomplish their goals.
On this particular occasion they had told outrageous lies -- lies so flagrant that the teacher in question -- me -- was in no real danger of censure. However, if challenged or crossed, their future lies might be far from harmless. If they had claimed, for instance, that I had sexually molested their child, there would be virtually no way for my administration to protect me. The principal admitted that I was right. He acknowledged that in some school districts teachers live in perpetual fear of such a charge. And that even when the charge fails to hold up -- as is usually the case -- the damage to the teacher in question, especially when that teacher is male, is permanent.
During the following months, evidence continued to pile up, confirming that my run-in with the parents who wanted me to teach creationism was part of an ongoing campaign aimed at teachers and administrators throughout the district. At inter-school workshops, teachers I had never met before recounted my experience with the creationist parents, not knowing that I was the teacher in question. They told stories of similar encounters involving other teachers. I learned that the cumulative effect of these attacks was an epidemic of self-censorship. Biology teachers stopped teaching evolution theory for fear of attack, even though it was still a required part of their curriculum. Physics and chemistry teachers neglected to mention big bang theory, even when discussing the creation of atoms.
Once, while gathered around the coffee urn at a workshop, a new teacher noted some recent victories of what she called rational people over extremists, on the public battlefields of textbook adoption, school board elections, and curriculum revision. But the old-timers only shook their heads cynically. In their opinion, the public simply failed to perceive what was happening, they explained. Though the extremists may lose the little public skirmishes, they were winning the larger war as teachers, afraid to do otherwise, revised their curricula -- voluntarily -- and administrators observed passively. I did not self-censor. From time to time a student would advise me that I should either stop teaching big bang theory or should teach creationism as well. I always agreed to transfer an unhappy student, and felt lucky that that was all that was demanded of me.
Another facet of my teaching approach that disturbed some students -- and parents -- was my lack of strict adherence to the school's mandated textbook for my course. All students were required to take this, or a similar course, as part of the required curriculum. Rarely did one of my students indicate an intention to major in physics or engineering or mathematics in college, and most stated that they would not have signed up for this physical science course voluntarily. Aware of these facts, I endeavored to make the course meaningful within the context of their interests and concerns, as well as pertinent to the State mandated curriculum.
In order to accomplish these goals, I found it necessary to "stretch" the textbook. The first stretch always involved describing to my students how any discipline which attempts to explain the cause and effect relationships among any variables endeavors to apply the methodological principals first developed by physicists. Such disciplines include psychology, sociology, political science and anthropology, in addition to the "hard" sciences.
I also mentioned that, while my bachelor's degree was in a "hard" science, chemistry, my Ph.D. was in the "soft" science of sociology. My doctoral minor was in social psychology and, as a graduate student, the sociology of science, of religion and of inter-group relations (including race relations) had been of special interest to me. This information was important because I felt that students should know in what ways I was qualified to lead them in directions that might depart somewhat from the conventional physics curriculum.
I then asked students to identify issues they wanted to investigate, whether or not they fell within the scope of "hard" science. I explained that we would devote a small but substantial amount of time to exploring these topics. Any question was acceptable as long as it had greater significance than merely the potential to satisfy narrow curiosity; and as long as everyone in class felt comfortable with it.
I gave examples of questions students had asked in the past, such as: "What are Black Holes?" "Are there aliens in space?" "Is time travel possible?" "Are Nostradamus' predictions true?" "Do flying saucers exist?" and, on a different note, "Why is society racist?" "Why did Columbine occur?" as well as "Why do people abuse drugs?" "Why are boys only interested in one thing?" "How can we protect ourselves against AIDs (without giving up sex)?" and "Why are some people homosexual?"
It was allegedly parents' discomfort with my willingness to include such "controversial" topics that caused administration suddenly to redefine my pedagogical freedom. This was the same administration that had demonstrably accepted my "deviations" for years, that had occasionally chided but never condemned me for being controversial and that had encouraged parents to meet with me to openly discuss my methods.
On this occasion, I was informed that parents had already been informed that my classroom methods would not be tolerated -- before administration even met with me. I was ordered not to depart from the official curriculum in future -- not even one iota. I was told that this requirement was for my own good as well as the administration's. These things were said in a manner that projected frustration and anger, but also desperation. I felt only a deep sadness at the time, and responded that I was not certain that I could do what was required.
The next day, I was summoned to a meeting with members of both my school and district administration. The atmosphere was not friendly. They immediately asked why I felt it necessary to depart from the technical "hard" science curriculum in teaching my classes. I explained that I felt (and shall always feel) committed, both as a professional educator and as an ethical person, to enhancing young people's ability to communicate openly and honestly in a non-confrontational way. This is one of the most valuable and precious skills my students can learn, I asserted.
The extracurricular, sometimes controversial, discussions that I held with my students never interfered with their mastery of the textbook material. On the contrary, I believed that these discussions substantially enhanced their mastery of "hard" science challenges. More than any technique in my repertoire, allowing students to choose to use logic, rather than attempting to force them to use it, seemed to break through their resistance to using it (a resistance that plagues many teachers).
The discussions allowed my students to choose to use logic creatively, toward ends they themselves decided were important. They challenged one another's most deeply held ideas, and, as a result, thought their own ideas through more fully. This, to me, had always been what learning was all about. And valuable information came to light -- questions such as "can some people predict the future?" as well as "are people of color really inferior to white people?" allowed students, logically and systematically, to discover from each other -- and from me -- why we come to believe certain things in our society, even when they are not true.
I felt the administrators were hearing me. There was a long pause before one of them stated that they might be willing to go along with some of this, but not the discussion of sexual topics. I replied that for many of my students, perhaps most, these classroom discussions were the first time they had communicated certain of their most private thoughts and fears to anyone, whether peer or authority figure. For example, many boys felt pressured by their peers and the culture to pressure girls to have sex with them. It was a relief for many boys to discover that other boys were also feeling this pressure and that they were not alone among their male cohorts in wanting intimacy even more than sex. Since the threat of AIDs is perhaps the greatest threat to our young people today, strengthening teenagers' ability to resist pressures to have casual sex would seem to be a rather important educational goal, I concluded.
The administrators all regarded me quietly for awhile. I felt I had reached them. The next day I officially received the conditions I must satisfy in order to keep my job. I had to state unequivocally, in writing (1) that I would stay strictly within the most narrowly defined confines of my curriculum, and (2) not to teach in a manner than anyone could consider controversial. I resigned.
I am not certain which puzzles me more: the swiftness, the suddenness, and the harshness with which my fall from grace occurred, or the fact that I was tolerated for as long as I was. One possibility that occurs to me is that, until recently, I was most valuable to my attackers as a working maverick -- a sort of convenient, always-available target. Every time a student was transferred from one of my classes other teachers knew about it and became more afraid. However, somehow, I don't feel that this was the reason -- or at least not the main reason.
In the end, I believe I was tolerated because I was a good teacher.
I strengthened students' ability to deal with issues that, when ignored, often destroy lives and families. In the final analysis, I was, among other things, an effective role model; an advocate and a motivator of ethical behavior, sexual restraint and resistance to drug abuse. Most parents allowed their children to remain in my class. Some checked me out, from time to time, but did not ask me to stop what I was doing.
On the other hand, perhaps I walked a line that grew thinner and thinner over time -- until I finally overstepped it. I know that each year I became increasingly aware of my students' need to be treated as people of value in the present -- as people with pressing educational needs that exceeded the school's formal curricula -- rather than merely as future candidates for this honor. As I became more competent at reaching my students, did I also become more threatening to the community that paid my salary? Or did something in the community change, causing what I was doing to become more threatening?
During the last two years, one particular change has struck me as dramatic. The number of students who expressed discomfort when I discussed big-bang or evolution theory increased significantly. In the past, an average of one or two per class were unhappy during discussions of these subjects; but lately, in some classes, more than half the students present insisted that science constituted a belief system in competition, and conflict, with their religion.
Like the student whose classmates had all finally became irritated with her, the students who were challenging me now vigorously displayed their position as though it were a banner inscribed with a slogan which they assumed was true, although they seemed to have no idea what it implied. A very small amount of questioning was sufficient to reveal that they did not know enough about science even to make assumptions concerning how it approached issues of knowledge. However, a diminishing number of their fellow students expressed irritation with this authoritative position. Like my earlier student, those loyal to the slogan appeared to have been shallowly indoctrinated by sources invisible to me, sources which somehow commanded everyone's respect, if not allegiance.
Sometimes, when I found myself confronted by a group in rebellion against big-bang theory I would say to a class, "All right, we won't deal with this subject this year in this class." The dissenting students would invariably insist that I explain how I could subscribe to a belief that was wrong. I would ask them what belief they were referring to. Big-bang theory, they would state. I would reply that I was not aware that any scientific theory could be classified as a belief. I understood scientific theory to be something quite different from religious belief. Then I would attempt to change the subject, and pursue a physics topic not related to big-bang theory.
They would not, however, accept the victory they had apparently achieved in dissuading me from presenting big-bang theory. They insisted that I explain how I viewed it, if not as a belief. I was always impressed by how powerful their essential curiosity was. And the fact that their intelligence and fundamental love of learning seemed stronger than their indoctrination. I explained that during the last several hundred years in our society, scientific theory and religious belief evolved into entirely separate and different ways of knowing things. The cause and effect logic of a scientific theory does not require it to be true in the religious sense, merely testable. For example, Newtonian theory, which physicists consider to be false in its basic premises, is still the tool that everyone uses -- scientists and devout believers alike -- to create new mechanical devices.
The students affirmed that according to the rules of their religion, the testing of beliefs according to the criteria of science would be inappropriate -- blasphemous, in fact. They fully agreed, however, that failure to test a scientific theory would be equally inappropriate -- it would be irrational. They usually concluded, therefore, that the rejection of big-bang scientific theory on religious grounds is unsound, from the perspective of either logic or belief. Nevertheless, many persisted in holding tightly to this rejection.
When I examined this paradox (which I found startling) I discovered that my students were more worldly than I had realized. Some openly stated that their opposition to science on religious grounds was a result of their need to remain solidly connected within their community. Unless one was very very wealthy, they pointed out (often quoting me), one needed a support group in order to make it in the real world.
The support group they referred to was not just any group. The students who rejected science tended to be aggressively Caucasian. In class after class, some students insisted that white people needed all the reinforcement they could get, because white people were presently the most victimized group in American society. Examples were given of fathers, uncles and older brothers who had been passed over for jobs because they were white.
Oddly, the same students who argued that American employers systematically ignored the intelligence and competence of white people and used completely different criteria by which to determine upon whom to bestow economic reward, also tended to be the very same students who insisted that weak academic performance was almost always due to low native intelligence.
In other words, if students performed poorly, it was because they were not smart enough to do better. These students made their academic choices, such as their selection of courses to take, of colleges and universities to apply to and of occupations to strive for in later life, based on their estimation of their own ability -- which was usually much lower than my estimation of their ability.
The opposite tended to be true of the minority students I taught. Often a black or hispanic student expressed exasperation, even despair, but I would rarely get the impression that the student believed that he or she lacked basic potential. In the minds of my minority students, poor performance most often was the result from poor preparation or lack of motivation, not an innate inability to do better.
When I spoke with the parents of low achieving students about their children's performance in class, I encountered the same sets of assumptions. The parents of minority students often assumed that their kids were not trying hard enough. The parents of white students, especially of those who thought of science as a religion, tended to believe that my high standards might be unrealistic when applied to their children. Implicit in this, I felt, was their conviction that education was not the key to getting their children to where they needed to be in life.
I learned through discussions with colleagues that I was not alone in observing that many of our students' parents failed to assign to education the same value that we teachers did. And that, in addition, intellectual growth as a primary life goal, seemed to be losing ground as a strong value in the community we served. Some members of the community seemed to prefer to instill in students a brand of religious piety that rejects discovery and imagination, offering, in their stead, indoctrination and dogma.
How, I agonized, could caring parents accept these substitutions? How could they allow their children to grow up ignorant in a society that has made such advances in information technology, and whose best employment opportunities require good logic skills? How could they reject sound thinking in favor of non-rational mysticism?
Logic dictated what my next question must be: "Is it possible that an educational philosophy which makes no sense intellectually, might nevertheless possess some practical value for the people subscribing to it?" It frightened me to realize there was some evidence that this might be the case.
Support for this hypothesis came to light during a discussion about racism, always a favorite topic among my students. At some point, in almost every class, someone would suggest that different racial and ethnic groups might really differ genetically with respect to basic intelligence -- this would explain why some groups fared better than others in our society. The counter argument, that racial discrimination exists and that not everyone has the same opportunity for social mobility, almost always immediately followed the question of genetic superiority.
This issue almost always led to heated debate, usually with no end in sight. After awhile I would interrupt the vocal class argument to ask how we might approach resolving this question. What I wanted my students to observe was that the rational way to resolve important issues was not through passionate verbal conflict, but through logical analysis and systematic research. The discussion that followed my question often led students to conclude that one way to logically approach the issue was by attempting to assess the intellectual abilities of poor people from minority backgrounds as opposed to poor people from non-minority backgrounds. If the former group tended, on the whole, to be brighter than the latter, this might indicate the existence of racial-ethnic discrimination. I offered bonus points to students who would dig up any existing studies pertinent to this question, and said that we would continue the discussion at that time.
What next happened -- with increasing frequency over the years -- both surprised and disturbed me. Certain of the same students who, earlier, had insisted that people of color receive preferential treatment over white people in the present day United States -- the same students who argued that learning science conflicted with their religious beliefs -- would now state that white people must stick together in order to keep from losing out in the competitive struggle for good jobs. I checked and double checked to make sure that these students meant what it sounded like they were saying -- that they would lose out in competition on an open playing field, where all players have equal opportunity.
My attempts at verification led to the response that this was precisely what was meant. In addition, many of those students who so attested, admitted that this viewpoint was also the outlook of their immediate and extended families and friends. This information left me to conclude, with sadness and alarm, that many of my non-minority students, as well as the significant other people in their lives, apparently believed themselves to be at a disadvantage in our society not because they lacked political clout or opportunity, but because they lacked the ability to achieve. Perhaps even more disturbing, however, was the perception that, concerning my apparently most religious students, the meaning of "belief" for them may have become very substantially colored by the perceived need of their community to achieve pragmatic adult political goals: white solidarity within a fundamentalist framework.
What has changed in this community, I fear, is the degree to which the consideration of the welfare of children has been overwhelmed by other considerations that have also been present all along: considerations of economics, politics and group solidarity, all packaged together as religious piety. Commitment to both the emotional and intellectual growth of children has been overwhelmed by adoption of the ideology of anti-intellectualism. This ideology rejects all systematic forms of knowledge, and with them, the obligation to be systematic at all.
If I am correct, then teachers like me probably can no longer exist in communities like this one. If this community expands, then perhaps there will be no place in our society for teachers like me. I feel no animosity for the people who want to destroy true education. I sense that they do so out of desperation.
I find it difficult to accept that those who advocate fundamentalism really believe that science is evil and that their form of religion has the potential to purify our society. What their children manifest appears to be a fear of forces too strong to negotiate with, much less struggle against. The "little" people of society, including themselves, can only fight over the crumbs left behind by the "bigger" people. The way to be certain of getting the most crumbs for one's own family is not through personal achievement, but through superior group strength.
Religion for them, I feel, has become the focus for organizing such strength. In the process it would seem to lose much of its capacity to nurture young people in ways that enable them to develop a sense of their own strength and beauty.
It seems to me bitterly ironic that if the group that may eventually come to dominate in the struggle to control education is the group that most devalues it, they will nevertheless be the only group in a position to receive any education at all. I feel, however, that this tragic possibility is indeed the crisis we face.