Satan Enters Through Your Loins

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Ohio Christian school tells student to skip prom (AP via Yahoo! News)

Just when I thought this part of the country couldn’t get more bad press after dealing with "Joe the Plumber" for the past six months, something like this has to pop up. In all seriousness, this is a news story I would expect to see in a newspaper from forty or fifty years ago, not in 2009. I’m not trying to be disrespectful of religious beliefs here, but at the same time, there is no doubt in my mind that, in this instance, Heritage Christian School is severely overstepping its bounds here by threatening to suspend Tyler Frost for engaging in legal activities on his own time. If the school wants to ban dancing or rock music on its own property, as much as I may disagree with their reasons for doing so, I can respect that as their right. When they threaten to punish a student for things he does off of campus grounds on his own time — again, this is rock music and dancing we’re talking about, not illegal drug use or drunk driving — and even withhold him from his class’ graduation procession, then I get angry and nauseated.

This was kind of a big issue for me growing up. I began having political leanings around the time I was in my junior high years, and some of my classmates from those years stopped going to the private school I went to after junior high, transfering to the various religious high schools around here. In almost every instance, when I saw the students later, they had become severely withdrawn, and their willpower and self-identity had nearly vanished. (One of the schools some students transfered to, Notre Dame Academy, was the same school Katie Holmes went to, to give you a reference point.) Children’s rights became a big issue for me then, as these episodes cemented in my mind that children should have the right to practice their own religions, irrespective of their parents’ beliefs. I was lucky enough to live in a household where my parents never pushed religion on me, except to learn about what was out there and make my own determination about what would work best for me. I think that’s a right every young person should have, and this news story just reinforces, to me, the reasons for that.

Although I haven’t thought too much recently about the episodes from my own youth, this is a topic I definitely deal with as a teacher. I try not to talk about my own beliefs — religious, political, or otehrwise — when I teach, and I always make a point to say on the first day of class that I grade based on the strength of an argument, irrespective of its position. I’ve assigned countless As to papers whose positions I wholeheartedly disagree with, because even though I disagree with the positions, the papers were written very persuasively, and deserved As. I often argue against my own beliefs in class when the need arises, because I want to encourage my students to think through opposing viewpoints, the whole Socratic Method thing. What I’ve noticed, though, is that for many students who come from these religious schools, who have had religion pounded into their heads from such an early age, when confronted with beliefs that are contrary to their own, not only do they show the same refusal to accept that people can hold different views that so nauseates me about modern conservative discourse, but some of them are even blown away by that fact, and get a glazed-over look in their eyes as I or other students explain the rationales behind the opposing viewpoints.

This just makes me worry all the more about our future as a country, because right now our education system is failing on all levels. No Child Left Behind and the rash of state proficiency exams that started twenty years ago have taken education out of the hands of the teachers, with education’s goals and the methods taken to get there being put in the hands of people who have no training in education at all, no concept of how young people learn and what they need to know to function in our society. The financial "race to the bottom" has not only destroyed the arts programmes of countless schools to give students no creative outlets (because, after all, creativity encourages free thinking), but to cut costs students are often evaluated only by Scantron tests; you don’t want to know how many students I’ve had who literally were never expected to write anything in high school. Corporate America has already trampled public schools with its sponsorships, further taking control away from teachers and further indoctrinating young people into consumer culture, and the charter schools that some (including President Obama) promote are about a thousand times worse in that regard.

One of my missions as a teacher is to open my students’ minds to the realities and possibilities that are out there in this world. On the secular level, that’s already being made painfully difficult by how high schools are turning into places where students are expected to do nothing but rote memorization of rules and nuggets of information deemed important by people who have no connection with the reality of today’s youth, and hardly any connection at all with greater reality. Religious schools are even worse, as many students from those schools actively resist being exposed to beliefs and views that are in opposition to those they’ve been indoctrinated in for all of their lives. If we don’t allow young people to vote until they turn eighteen because we don’t think they have the capacity to make sound decisions until then, how can we say that they have the ability to choose their own religion? We need to take a serious look at the role religious schools play in this country, because it seems like a strong case could be made to banish those schools. How am I to be expected to open the mind of a young person whose parents, church, and teachers have been welding that mind shut for eighteen years?

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