Discussing Religion

Discussing religion in public schools is obviously controversial. Religion (and opposition to religion) is very close to the core of many people’s understanding of reality and so must be treated with sensitivity and awareness. There are also constitutional and legal constraints.


Although the implications of the first (and fourteenth) amendment are still argued in some circles, the purpose is to protect a citizen’s right to freedom of speech and religion. It forbids congress from promoting one religion over another. It states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Thomas Jefferson and before him, Roger Williams, spoke of a “wall of separation” between church and state. The prohibition against religion in public institutions is a prohibition against combining church and state, or making church the state.


But does this mean that religion should not be discussed in schools at all except in very limited circumstances? Circumstances such as world history classes, where history textbooks give relevant dates, name important people, central practices, teachings and terminology? These references are usually very superficial, dry, and do little to help students understand or learn about religions other than their own (if they have one).


I think religion must be discussed in schools. For one thing, students have many questions. It is in the headlines, often in very negative terms. We hear about religion fighting religion, about religious extremists and terrorists. A report by Media Matters, in 2007, found the coverage of religion oversimplified, with a consistent bias in coverage in favor of conservatives. “Combining newspapers and television, conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed in news stories 2.8 times as often as were progressive religious leaders.” Some students have no experience with religious teachings at all. Others go to a church, synagogue, mosque, center or whatever but rarely do they get to ask questions or think about religion from a perspective of someone not a member of their community. Students need a deeper and more inclusive picture. A reality ignored or oversimplified is a reality distorted and abused and we have enough of both in our world.


The questions about religion that concern secondary students most and I think should be predominantly examined in schools are psychological and philosophical or ethical. What is religion? Why has it been part of human life, history and culture since the initial days of humanity? What is the place of reason and doubt in the face of belief and faith? Discussing religion easily leads to deep questions and concerns, about purpose, morality, mind, soul and death, about truth and how you know what’s true, about compassion and love. Throwing out religion as a topic of study often leads to throwing out what is crucial to the lives of each and every human being. Do we want to empty schools of the deepest and most meaningful questions and concerns? If so, we know why many think of school as a wasteland. In fact, is religion another way to speak about one’s central concerns in life? Is religion so tied to culture that the two can barely be separated? If you can’t discuss religion, at least discuss these philosophical questions and how to humanize and respect those with views other than your own.


The discussions need to be real and in-depth, the questions mostly open-ended, with no one right answer. There are not “two sides” to any deep religious or philosophical question (or maybe any important question) but multiple sides. There are also factual questions that need to be researched and reliable “experts” in the field interviewed (historians, psychologists, philosophers of religion, theologians, and spiritual leaders, in person, or through YouTube and books). For example, students told me that in many classes when religion was discussed, it was portrayed as a way to explain the unexplainable or to give people comfortable answers to uncomfortable questions. Although I think there is some truth to this, this explanation of the “why” of religion is woefully inadequate. It might even be a way to sneak in a dismissal of the religious as lazy or poor thinkers. Anyone who argues this has never read the writings of, or listened to, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr., Karen Armstrong, the Dalai Lama or others. Also, it is untrue. Some religions do not give comfortable answers. One example is Buddhism, which speaks of the suffering common to most people’s lives. Overcoming suffering does not come easily and is not from belief but through an almost scientific examination of how the world is, of mind and awareness.


Of course, I am arguing this viewpoint with some trepidation. Open-ended discussions of religion can be difficult to lead, very personal and require great trust on the part of students in the teacher and the classroom community, a trust that has to be earned. And schools are already being attacked from many sides and often unfairly so teachers might feel themselves vulnerable to attack. Religious groups pushing their particular doctrines and corporate groups doing much the same assault them.


But schools are the closest we have to common places where, maybe, perhaps, wisdom might be found and encouraged, even taught, along with compassion and understanding. Or where there are people, namely teachers, who are deeply committed to developing such attributes in themselves and young people. It’s about time to let schools attempt such a mission instead of being bogged down with test prep and superficial knowledge. And discussing meaningful questions might actually increase engagement and learning in the classroom.


Next week: How do you foster and lead such discussions without distorting the discussion with bias? What do you think?



**The photo is of my wife, Linda, in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.


Fearing Science #2 and The Value of Money in Distorting Understanding

In the last paragraph of my latest blog, I spoke about needing the “intention, the commitment, the care” as well as a clear mind in order to act constructively to limit or slow global warming—or to take any effective ethical action. We act according to what we value. Valuing the earth, and our intellectual understanding of human caused climate change, is purposely undermined by corporate and other parties creating false, frightening countervailing claims. Claims such as “addressing global warming is too expensive, cost massive job layoffs, increase energy dependency, and so on.” We’ve all heard these claims, all largely false. (See George Lakoff.) How is it that people who make and believe such claims don’t consider that an uninhabitable earth would really undermine the economy? Why don’t they consider (or admit they are already considering) the growing economic and personal costs we are paying now for extremes in climate change, costs of increasing droughts, floods, fires, loss of animal habitat, maintenance of infrastructure stressed by climate extremes, etc.?


As George Lakoff put it, “… when the wealthy control what appears in the public media, they can control public discourse and public thought mechanisms through the control of language and imagery.”


Mirriam Webster defines money as a medium of exchange and the storing of value. Viewed psychologically, it is a reification of value or value symbolized in matter. What is labeled as costing one million dollars is more valuable than what costs ten dollars; or someone being paid one million or more annually is more valued in our culture than someone paid ten thousand dollars annually. Money can be invoked to distort our understanding and caring.  I hope we, all of us, can learn how to better discern and control its influence. Lakoff says that, “Global warming is the greatest moral issue facing our generation” and increasing concentration of wealth in the few runs a close second. “Together, they present a clear and present danger, not just to the United States, but to the world.”

Why Deny Science? What Do You Do When You Don’t Know?

I was reading a great article in the latest issue of National Geographic, by Joel Achenbach, on the modern movement against science. Actually, I can’t stand calling it a movement. There should be a better word for it, maybe collective delusion. The cost of denying science is incalculable. Science shows the state of the environment, for example, is degrading rapidly. Yet, if the article is correct, only about “40% of Americans accept that human activity is the dominant cause of climate change” and thus realize we can and must do many things to improve the situation. I encourage everyone to read the article.


The article shows that strong sentiment against science is not new. The persecution of Galileo is one good example. There was a great outrage against Darwin, that partially continues even today. The novel Frankenstein is in many ways an expression of the fear against not only technology but science. You might think that by now, when we’re in the age of information technology, which depends on science for its very existence, there would be more trust in science. But as the deniers of  global warming prove, as people who argue against teaching evolution in schools prove, scientific thinking, and maybe critical thinking, is clearly misunderstood and probably feared.


Why is this true? It’s certainly a great question for teenagers to think about. My students in the past had theories. Maybe the dependence on science makes the fear of it more potent. It’s easy to fear what you depend on but don’t understand. Is there a general anti-intellectual bias in American culture? Is it, as has been argued in books like The Closing of the Western Mind, a phenomenon arising originally from uniting Christianity with imperial power, or religious belief with politics?


Many people I know hold religion responsible for this lack of understanding. Certainly, scientific and religious explanations often disagree. And there have been countless examples of delusion by religious people claiming to act out of faith or belief. But the same could be argued regarding adherents to political and economic theories or analyses. Without any fact checking, I think I can reasonably argue that for the last 150 years, adherents of Fascism, Communism, and Capitalism have caused as much delusion and suffering as has any religious belief system.


The article conjectures not knowing what evidence is, which I interpret as not knowing how to critically examine evidence and bias, contributes to science denial.  I agree. However, I think the problem is also due to not knowing how to deal well with not-knowing and uncertainty. Achenbach says “our brains crave pattern and meaning.” The craving for an answer can be overwhelming; the more basic and important the reality, the stronger the craving. You perceive something and in microseconds you assign meaning. You need to know that the earth under your feet won’t give way when you step on it or you won’t be able to walk. You learn early on that certain uncomfortable sensations in your midsection are hunger pains. The good taste of food was originally there to tell you that the food you’re tasting is not poison. Uncertainty is hunger for certainty; it’s uncomfortable. How do you understand discomfort? Is it “bad”? Does it mean you are in danger and must do whatever possible to end it, including believing in what restores comfort instead of what is best supported by evidence? Achenbach talks about a “confirmation bias,” the “tendency to look for and see only evidence that confirms what they already believe.” In that case, you will not do very well with adversity or stress or anything requiring complex thinking.


And science demands complex thinking. The National Geographic article points out that “scientific results are always provisional,” subject to change;  “Uncertainty is inevitable at the frontiers of knowledge.” How do you hear that? Do you want truth to be absolute, simple and forever? If so, I doubt that many “truths” are like that. For example, the good taste of food indicating something is safe to eat depends on where and when you’re talking about. 10,000 years ago it might have been true. Today, thanks to pollutants and pesticides, the taste of raw foods can’t be counted on to indicate safety. Even something like the boiling point of water is dependent on elevation, amount of salt and other contents in the water, etc.. The relativity and provisional quality of truth can be disturbing. Achenbach points out how difficult it is for us to look beyond our intuitions, to see the evidence for the curves of the earth despite the everyday assumption of flatness. Although scientific studies can be distorted by funding sources and bias, the very fact that science is recognized as provisional makes it possible and mandatory that critical minds engage with it.


To live with discomfort and uncertainty and be able to think and act with clarity, you need first to understand that discomfort is part of learning. It is there to wake up your attention so you can consider whether to say yes, no or maybe to something. You need to know about neuroplasticity, a word meaning that the brain changes, you change, with every experience. Who you are is not set in stone; if it was, learning would be impossible.


You need to know how attention and perception work. Back in 2003, I started using a book called Multimind, by Robert Ornstein, in my psychology class unit on perception. Ornstein theorizes Mental Operating Systems in the brain, which process and assign value to information according to specific criteria. Information that meets these criteria is given attention and other information is ignored. The MOS has an “extreme sensitivity to recent information,” to what’s new, what’s changed. It values relevance to you and everything becomes meaningful through comparison. Something that changes gradually is lost. Global warming is gradual, so gradual that most of us don’t perceive it until the tidal wave or tornado or six feet of snow or extreme hot or cold temperatures hit you. Actually, we don’t perceive it unless we carefully study it, unless we value such studying and thus know the relevance and power of the information.


But intellectual knowledge is not enough. You need the intention, the commitment, the care. You need an experiential method to calm your mind and clearly observe and learn from whatever is present to you, even discomfort and pain. Constructive action is likely only when you perceive the situation clearly. Somehow, we all have to get better at cradling information, cradling the world in our arms so we can feel depths of meaning without hiding from or reacting against it.


*See the addendum to this blog.

**The photo is of the Temple of Athena in Delphi, Greece.

Education is Fun

I repeated the title of this blog to myself, “Education is Fun,” and heard in my mind all these inner responses. “Yeah, on what world?” “When I was three, it was fun. Then I went to school.” “It should be fun, but only with the rare teacher.”


Play and exploration are the earliest forms of education. They are fun. They involve the mind and body’s natural curiosity and drive to grow, develop, survive. So many people have written about this. I remember reading John Holt in the late 1960s, who said learning, for young children, “is as natural as breathing.” There’s John Dewey, A. S. Neill, etc..


But in the U. S. having fun in school is too often considered “frivolous.” We have too many important issues to deal with, too many failing schools. There are no Common Core Standards for fun (thank God)! Concentration, focus, oh, and discipline are our priorities, and memorization. Yet, this is ridiculous.  A joyful or happy brain is one that learns efficiently. Joy involves the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system gets us ready for fight-freeze-flight, a quick response to danger. The parasympathetic system involves a ‘rest and digest’ response, cools the readiness to fight-freeze-flight. It also allows us to feel attraction, love, to digest food and ideas. It allows our eyes to focus for deeper overall vision. So it can make learning more efficient. A brain readied for fear and threat is ready to fight or run, not stay and learn. Joy and happiness are our brain and body’s signal that great learning is occurring.


And fun and joy improves the quality of our life. If education is about living a good life, why isn’t it more concerned with fun? We live not only to achieve and make the world a better place, but to love and be happy. In fact, making the world “better” means decreasing suffering, increasing happiness. Yet, what do we see in the headlines? More testing! More threats.


So, how do we bring fun into a classroom? There are four ways I can think of right away: Games, creativity, depth or meaning, and flow. These four are so interwoven that I can hardly stand to separate them.


Games: In English classes, writing can easily be made a game, even without going onto the internet. And it utilizes your own creativity as well as that of your students. For example, to teach story writing, I would write short stories of about 10-15 sentences. I remember one popular story was about being home alone at night. It began with a description of my hearing an unexpected sound and went on to describe what I discovered. After I wrote the story, I broke it down into individual sentences, made copies, cut them out. Each student or pair of students got the whole story in the form of unorganized sentences. Their job: to put the sentences together into a coherent story. A great lesson in logic, pacing and plot development. Another game: write the beginning of a story and have students finish it. I taught grammar sometimes by finding very short stories, taking out the punctuation, and having students fill it in. We could then discuss the story and how different ways of punctuating it would change the meaning. Or you’re preparing for a test or other assessment of learned material in science or history, so create a game of jeopardy. There are so many possibilities.


Creativity: Besides writing stories and creating games, for student assessments, include creative presentations. Have students in English classes play the characters they read about. Or in a science class, they can create their own fantasy interviews of scientists or design an experiment. In history, they can create fantasy journeys back in time. Depth, Meaning, Relevance, and Flow: There is joy in going deep into a topic or question, especially one that arises naturally in your life. Ask students where their interest and questions lie and then guide them in researching and answering the questions. Have students engage in meaningful, real life projects in their community. Flow is a natural joyful state. It involves getting involved in a project that is a great challenge, but one you can handle. It is self-motivating and means getting so engaged that you forget about time and the possibility of failure. It is very much like play, very meaningful play.


And your attitude toward fun, meaning, engagement, your kindness and valuing of your students, and prioritizing their well-being as people, not test scores, brings all these together.


So, instead of using standardized tests as assessments, use projects that induce flow. Then you’ll witness a generation of dedicated and successful learners.



Improving the Environment for Teachers

According to an NPR report, 40-50% of new teachers leave within the first 5 years. Every school year 15% of the teaching force leaves or moves. The cost of this to each state is about $2 billion dollars. The situation is worse in high poverty areas.


The high turnover rates are listed as due to layoffs, dissatisfaction, inadequate support, isolated working conditions. One recommendation by the Hechinger Report, which reports on innovation and conditions of inequality in education, is mentoring, on the job training and administrative support. Let’s look at what this all means.


A public school is a peculiar world. It is filled mostly with young people of the same age group.  Humans evolved to live in mostly smaller, mixed age groups, where each person is well known. Most schools, by contrast, are large institutions where many students and teachers feel isolated and unknown. Most schools are very hierarchical, and the new teacher is near the bottom of the hierarchy. They often feel powerless. A new teacher coming in to any school often gets the teaching assignments other teachers don’t want. Because the students and other teachers don’t know them, they are often severely tested. All this in addition to the stress created by entering any new situation.


Some critics of education argue that teacher college standards are too low and admit too many unqualified people.  They propose tougher standardized tests to determine who gets in to an education school and who gets out with a teaching degree. This clearly assists test providers but not necessarily anyone else. Character is greatly important in teaching and no standardized test measures that. Education schools need to prepare teachers to be in a room with a diversity of real people in a rapidly changing social world. Teachers need an education in dealing with emotion as well as rationality, different cultures as well as different texts. (See my blog on suggestions for educating teachers.) They need to understand what understanding means, as well as how to teach it. They don’t need to waste time on taking or learning how to give inferior assessments such as standardized tests.


Other people have been calling for more stringent controls on teachers and more accountability. The New York State Board of Regents, for example, developed its own supposedly objective teacher evaluation system. I think such systems are counterproductive. These systems are so “objective” that, just last week, when last year’s results were made public in New York State, the Board of Regents’ own Chancellor questioned the results. Why? Only one percent of teachers were found “ineffective” or deficient. You’d think officials would be happy over the result. Is this a catch-22?  Is a rating system objective only if a higher percentage of teachers are shown to be deficient? Is the system not scary enough, not punitive enough if only one percent is found lacking? What percentage is good enough for these education officials? Is this just another manufactured attack on teachers, as if they are the cause of the problems in education?


One of the best proposals to help ameliorate the situation is mentorship and staff support for new teachers. But if a mentorship program is enacted without other substantive changes, the program is just a superficial add-on. Support and mentorship must be part of the overall climate of a school. Everyone, students, administrators, experienced teachers as well as new ones, need to be supported. I think new teachers leave not because they’re not talented enough or not mentored, but because the whole environment is too stressful, unnatural and unsupportive.


Everyone, to feel comfortable in a situation and handle stress well needs control, commitment, and to feel creatively challenged. To develop control, teachers need a voice. For schools to educate students in democratic decision-making, schools need to be models of such. Teachers need a voice not only in setting policies and running the school but also in choosing what they teach. Everyone has different interests and skills and the more teachers teach what they love, they will love what they teach, and the more successful they will be.


When teachers have a voice in what they teach and how they teach, they can meet the diversity of student needs with creativity. Feeling creative turns a stressful situation into an opportunity. Creativity is, in a sense, its own reward. One of the worst elements of the proposed teacher-evaluation systems, and using standardized testing to rate students and teachers, is that the tests undermine creativity. It makes a teacher fearful of taking chances. Failure can mean loss of job. Such tests are based on punishment and rewards, instead of fostering trust and intrinsic motivation. Students take them not because the tests are interesting and naturally compelling, but because authorities threaten them with poor grades or not graduating. Teachers give the tests largely for the same reasons. Inculcating fear as a mechanism of instruction interferes with learning and undermines the use of empathy. Fear blocks empathy. As I asked in an earlier blog: Is fear what we want students and teachers to associate with learning?


Creative challenge and having a voice leads to commitment. The teacher commits to the job and the students because they feel recognized as a person and trusted as a professional. By being recognized, they are more able and ready to recognize who the students are and, thus, more likely to be successful teaching them.


I imagine some people might respond to my argument by saying that there’s little chance that teachers will be given substantive power over school policy or that decisions in a school will be made democratically. There is almost as little chance of giving teachers a democratic voice as giving the same to students. And that’s the problem.