Monday, December 28, 2015

Curmie contenders: Christianity in Public Education Edition (part 1)

One of the most predictable themes come Curmie-time is the pervasive intrusion of specifically Christian ideology into the public sphere. Curmie isn’t talking here about the ethical system: “thou shalt not steal,” etc., but rather the evangelical “you’re going to hell unless…” stuff. It is more than reasonable that many people in positions of authority are Christian—they make up the majority of the population, after all. But when teachers and administrators impose conformity on those they supervise, then we’ve got a problem.

So here’s a sampling—only a sampling, mind you—of what’s been happening across the country in an especially abundant year for attempted indoctrination. This will still take two posts, lest Curmie be forced to officially change the page’s name to TL;DR. These are presented in the order they came to Curmie’s attention.

Jack Hawkins: should be looking for another job.
Last winter, as a New Year’s greeting, Troy University Chancellor Jack Hawkins sent an e-mail to, apparently, everyone at the university—students and employees—in which he attached a video of Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen. In the video, Christensen reports on a conversation with a Chinese economist who said that, prior to spending time in the US, he “had no idea how critical religion is to the functioning of democracy.” Christensen then laments the decline of religion in American society, links religion to obedience to the law (!) and wonders aloud, “where are the institutions that are going to teach the next generation of Americans that they, too, need to voluntarily choose to obey the laws.” He concludes by arguing that “if you take away religion, you can’t hire enough police.”

Curmie thinks Christensen is full of crap, but he’s free to believe what he wants and to make a video about it if he chooses. Hawkins can, as a private citizen, agree with Christensen. What he cannot do is to use his position as a Chancellor of a public university to endorse an argument that religion and obedience are inherent goods. Hawkins, of course, as pusillanimous toads do, issued an unapologetic apology, which in fact doubled down on his arrogance: “As Chancellor of Troy University I have the obligation to share information with students, faculty, staff and alumni which I deem helpful in building a stronger community. In sharing the New Year's message for 2015, information was presented which I believe will be helpful to all of us.” Let’s ignore the hideous grammar (always a good sign when a university Chancellor can’t write at the high school level) and move on to the substance: The obligation? Are you freaking kidding me? To argue, in his capacity as Chancellor, that only religion can save us from anarchy? The initial e-mail was kind of dumb, but he could, as is said of everyone’s least-favorite uncle, have meant well. The follow-up should get him fired. It won’t, of course, because: Alabama.

Next up: Swainsboro (GA) Primary School, a public school where teachers Cel Thompson and Kaytrene Bright led their kindergarten and first grade charges (respectively) in prayer and responded to parental complaints by sending atheist kids out to sit in the hall. That would be creepy even if it weren’t blatantly unconstitutional. Wow. Just wow.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) ultimately sued on behalf of anonymous parents John and Jane Doe. As FFRF co-president Dan Barker said at the time:
It should not be necessary for FFRF to sue over such an obvious violation of specific Supreme Court decisions barring devotions from our public schools. No child in our secular school system or their parents should be subjected to prayer, or stigmatized when their parents speak up to defend the Establishment Clause. But unfortunately, it appears a lawsuit will be the only way to protect the freedom of conscience of these young children.
Well, duh.

The FFRF ultimately settled with the Emanuel County School District: Emanuel County teachers reportedly received educational training on their obligations not to promote religious beliefs in their classrooms, and the family has been financially compensated. Any settlement that allowed Thompson, Bright, or Principal Valorie Watkins to remain employed means the district and those particular employees got off far too easily.

Ah, Georgia. 35 miles to the west, in Dublin, middle school teacher Nancy Price Perry told her students that President Obama isn’t Christian and that if their parents voted for him, then they aren’t, either. She also challenged her students to “prove their Christianity.” WTF??? Then, when someone complained, she brought her husband—a local conservative radio personality and member of the school board--to the meeting. Because that’s not inappropriate at all.

Perry apparently continues to argue that the story is “untrue.” One thing is clear. Either Superintendent Chuck Ledbetter is a craven buffoon, or he doesn’t believe her. Well, probably both, but he can choose one. He claims to have met with Perry to explain the perils of discussing religion or politics. Of course, that ought to be self-evident, and there’s no indication that Perry was disciplined in any way. (Her husband’s on the School Board, after all.) Moreover, if the NAACP is involved, there’s at least potentially a racial element to the story.

Look, it’s almost inevitable that a teacher will say or do something that reveals a political or religious position. But saying things that are demonstrably untrue or intentionally insulting to the students themselves, proselytizing in the classroom… that’s beyond the Pale anywhere but in a Podunk town in the south. (If the powers-that-be in Dublin would like to show they’re not an appropriate subject for ridicule, all they have to do is fire Nancy Price Perry’s ass and impeach hubby from the School Board).

Marshall students also painted a rock in
support of their transgendered classmates.
Of course, religious zealots and spineless administrators are not specifically southern phenomena. In Marshall, Michigan a bulletin board promoting transgender equality created by the Gay-Straight Alliance in recognition of Transgender Visibility Day was removed by school officials, in an attempt to defuse (not “diffuse,” as the article says) a controversy. A group of parents complained that the poster didn’t “exhibit Christmas values.” Reason #114,227 Curmie is not a high school principal: he’d have said “so the fuck what?” and moved on with his day.

Apparently there was an initial attempt to spin the removal as related to a policy about how long the poster was displayed. The same comments from Superintendent Randy Davis were interpreted by local television station WWMT to mean “the negative reaction from some parents is not what prompted them to take down the board,” and by Scott Kaufman of Alternet to mean that Davis “acknowledged that parental complaints did play a role in the removal of the bulletin board.” Here’s what he said; you decide, Gentle Reader:
We have had complaints once in a while from a parent about that. We talk about the fact that our students have a right to freedom of speech and equal access, and each of those times we didn’t take the posters down, we didn’t change what the kids were trying to do…. In our environment, it doesn't feel like there’s any controversy at all; in the world of Facebook, it seems like it’s on fire.
Certainly the administration could have been a little more transparent, to say the least. It’s hard to tell whether Davis is a good guy, standing up to those who would suppress students’ ideas, or a craven bureaucrat bowing to the slightest pressure, or a pragmatist just trying to keep the peace. Curmie’s bet is on the “craven bureaucrat,” but in the absence of real evidence to that effect, there’s no Curmie nomination here.

There’s nothing craven, just a little hypocritical, about the “school director” (where do they get these titles?) at Aloma Methodist Early Childhood Learning Center in Winter Park, Florida. As the name suggests, Aloma Methodist is a specifically Christian school, but it still receives a boatload of public money because Florida legislators are more interested in Christian zealotry than in upholding the Constitution they provide voluntary prekindergarten. Like charter schools in many parts of the country, then, they’re able to do whatever the hell they want, without consequence.

What that means here is that Jaclyn Pfeiffer could be fired for her “lifestyle choice” of having a girlfriend. School director Barbara Twachtman said in the letter to parents that “Ms. Jaci” was leaving “due to personal reasons,” that she was a “wonderful teacher… very gifted with children.” Moreover, “I know we serve an awesome God and that He has great things for Jaci….”

Puh-leeze. You fired her because she’s gay, you hypocritical ass. If you actually had the courage of your convictions, you’d say that. But you’re afraid that parents who don’t obsess over their kids’ teachers’ private lives might think you’re a sanctimonious cow. That shoe seems to fit perfectly. Yes, what you did is probably legal, which is a long way from making it moral or ethical. Tell the truth, and I’ll think you’re a bigoted jerk, but at least an honest one. But this little song and dance makes you as mendacious as you are imperious.

Curmie wrote an article a few years ago about La Dame aux Caméllias (a.k.a., Camille) by Alexandre Dumas fils. The central character in that play, Marguerite Gautier, is a “fallen woman” who sacrifices her own happiness for the family of her lover. At the end of the play, the lover’s father, hearing she is dying of consumption, visits her to apologize for the way he treated her… whereupon she dies. As she must. It’s okay to praise “those people,” as long as they are never allowed into society. Dumas knew that; Barbara Twachtman, the living embodiment of those bourgeois ideals of the French Second Republic, knows that. So congratulations, Ms. Twachtman, you win Educator of the Year. In France. For 1849.

More to come… watch this space.

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