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Religion in Schools: Authors Respond

To the Editor:

In recent letters to the editor, Brant Abrahamson, the director of The Teachers' Press, and Edd Doerr, the executive director of Americans for Religious Liberty, each take aim at our recent book, Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum (the subject of a previous news article), fire several salvos our way--and miss by a mile ("On Adding Religion to the Curriculum," Oct. 21, 1998; "Public Schools Should Treat Religion More Seriously, Book Argues," Sept. 30, 1998).

Mr. Abrahamson suggests that while our book is "sprinkled with anti-bias platitudes," deep down we are committed to promoting Christianity. He cites as evidence the number of sections in our book where we discuss the Bible--which he finds to be excessive when compared with our discussion of other sacred texts. Yes, we do give more attention to the challenges of teaching about the Bible in a public school. But this is because of the influence and significance of biblical literature in the history and culture that students typically study. Moreover, much of our discussion of the Bible is designed to show how difficult it is to teach about the Bible neutrally (as a recent court challenge in Florida demonstrates).

We repeatedly argue for including a variety of sacred texts and religious traditions in the curriculum--and recommend resources for doing so. And, in our chapter on religion courses, we advise that the best way to teach about the Bible is with other sacred texts in world-religions courses.

Mr. Doerr argues that there is no "public clamor" for teaching about religion in public schools, only "a theoretical agreement by a dozen or so organizations that such instruction might be a good idea." It's well more than a dozen, and the list includes the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the American Association of School Administrators, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the National School Boards Association, the American Jewish Congress, the Christian Legal Society--hardly minor organizations. It is true, as Mr. Doerr claims, that there is little agreement about what it means to take religion seriously in the curriculum. That, of course, is why we wrote our book--to put a concrete proposal on the table for discussion.

Mr. Doerr claims that we don't "come close to proposing ways to guarantee that such instruction will be fair, balanced, objective, accurate, and comprehensive." Needless to say, guarantees are rare in the field of education, but we do carefully and explicitly argue for significant reforms in teacher education, new certification requirements, "common ground" religion policies in school districts, and much better teaching materials.

We are also criticized by Mr. Doerr for not saying what should be "shoved aside" to make room for serious study of religion in the curriculum. Actually, we do say a little about this, but in the end weighing priorities is a matter for relevant elected officials, not for us; our concern is to make the case for taking religion seriously.

Finally, Mr. Doerr takes a potshot at the social studies curriculum Living With Our Deepest Differences: Religious Liberty in a Pluralistic Society (of which Charles C. Haynes is a co-author). In response, we can only point to the fact that the hundreds of teachers using these lessons rate them very highly. Written by renowned historian Timothy Smith, noted religious-liberty attorney Oliver Thomas, and others, this curriculum helps students understand the meaning and significance of religious liberty in American history.

Neither letter engages the core arguments of the book about the meaning of genuine neutrality and fairness under the First Amendment, or about what it means to offer a truly liberal education that includes a variety of ways of understanding the world.

Warren A. Nord
Program in Humanities and Human Values
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, N.C.

Charles C. Haynes
Senior Scholar
Freedom Forum First Amendment Center
Arlington, Va.

Politicians' Expertise Affects Child Care

To the Editor:

According to your recent article "Pa. Gov. Proposes Internet Access for Day-Care Centers," Oct. 21, 1998, Gov. Tom Ridge wants to spend $1.6 million for a program called "Cyberstart" to develop software for children 3 and 4 years of age, and to connect day-care centers to the Internet. Mr. Ridge's proposal suggests to me once again our society's desperate need for standards of knowledge about child development that politicians should be required to meet before they can propose anything that would affect children. Just as we insist on standards for K-12 students, politicians, who are so enamored of standards, should hold themselves to similar measures.

Gov. Ridge's proposal ignores the greatest need of young children in day care--to be cared for by educated, knowledgeable, and compassionate adults who are paid well enough to remain in their jobs for more than six months, so young children can experience secure relationships with them--and violates the developmental needs of young children to engage with the material world, not a virtual one. Mr. Ridge fails to meet any standard for knowledge of child development I can imagine, and thus should be disqualified from proposing measures that affect children in his state until he can better educate himself and demonstrate his improved performance.

If Gov. Ridge really wants to help young children, he could work to enact a significant state subsidy to raise the pay of Pennsylvania's day-care workers--or at least raise their pay above the poverty level.

David Marshak
Associate Professor
School of Education
Seattle University
Seattle, Wash.

Tinkering Counselors: A Techno-Nightmare?

To the Editor:

Kenneth E. Hartman opened Pandora's box in his recent Commentary, "Technology and the School Counselor," Oct. 28, 1998. Guidance counselors are not computer specialists. One of my mentors (who's now a school district automation director) once told me that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing when it comes to tinkering with computer technology. Allowing a guidance counselor to personalize his or her workstation is akin to letting a baby play with razor blades.

I supported administrative and instructional computer systems in local school districts for almost 13 years. Many of the competencies the author would like to see counselors possess are a technician's worst nightmare. Enforcing standardization policies and system integrity becomes impossible when users are permitted to change prescribed configurations.

I wonder if Mr. Hartman has ever worked in a high school guidance office before. Being an idealistic college professor, he may not realize that a counselor or social worker's day mainly revolves around assisting youngsters interpersonally–not through the manipulation of a computer.

I agree that knowing how to use available technology tools (the Internet, e-mail, word processing, databases) is essential for most educators today. But counselors don't need to know how to service and program computers to perform their jobs effectively. Maintaining department hardware and software systems is the responsibility of a district's computer-support staff, not guidance-office personnel.

Thomas J. Seitzinger Jr.
Fairport, N.Y.

'Bistate' District Is Not the First

To the Editor:

I am writing in response to your article on the establishment of a bistate K-12 district between New Hampshire and Vermont ("Voters in 4 Towns Approve K-12 District That Crosses State Lines," Oct. 28, 1998). The article notes that this is "believed to be the nation's first K-12 public school district to cross state lines." The Delmar School District in Delmar, Del., is part of a bistate district that will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2000.

The Mason-Dixon line runs directly through the center of Delmar. Our elementary school is located on the Maryland side in Wicomico County. The middle and senior high school is located on the Delaware side in Sussex County. We have a bistate agreement between states for tuition payments and other governing factors that affect our system. The town of Delmar is extremely proud of its bistate district, and any efforts to reorganize by either state have been consistently met with resistance and thwarted. And, with the approval of and start of construction on a new $19 million middle and senior high school, our survival seems guaranteed well into the future.

Delmar Elementary also houses Maryland's first year-round school program and has been highly successful. We welcome any questions from the new Rivendell district in New Hampshire and Vermont.

George E. Stone
Delmar School District
Delmar, Del.

Parents Still Matter (Despite What You May Read at the Bookstore)

To the Editor:

The new book titled The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do; Parents Matter Less Than You Think and Peers Matter More depressingly confirms for me today's astonishing child-rearing ignorance ("Child Experts Doubt Theory Behind Book Questioning Parents' Influence," Sept. 30, 1998).

Author Judith Rich Harris' judgment is obviously colored by her own experience in raising an adopted child--a particularly difficult process for American parents to grasp, I have found. My own view is colored, too--I believe the most important thing I have ever done was helping my wife raise three children to become better people than their parents. But my judgment is based primarily on deep involvement with some 5,000 families over my 48 years of teaching.

In 1966, I founded the Hyde School in Bath, Maine, specifically to explore the process by which teenagers become successful and fulfilled adults. My previous experience as a teacher/coach and then a headmaster had convinced me that our mainstream educational system was failing kids everywhere, and that there simply had to be a better way to prepare youngsters for life.

We built a new education centered on this premise: Each of us is gifted with a unique potential that defines a destiny, which we sought to support with a curriculum based on the development of character, specifically courage, integrity, concern, curiosity, and leadership.

To me, the only true measure of this concept (or any other) is how students fare in life, so I began to trace the progress of our graduates in college and beyond. The results were sometimes disappointing. I couldn't understand why some promising graduates seemed to level off in life, while some, who hadn't gotten their act together at Hyde, eventually seemed to soar.

Finally I made this startling connection to student success in life: Parental growth is the key.

When a parent demonstrated personal change and growth, the student inevitably excelled in life, regardless of how well he or she did at school. All this was a very depressing realization, because as a teacher I had thought I could reach any kid. What I was painfully learning was that the school's best would seldom undo a parent's worst.

I reluctantly accepted that if our school wanted to truly help students prepare for life, the best way would be helping their parents. So in 1974 Hyde started accepting families, not students.

That began our exciting Family Learning Center program--the most fulfilling experience I have had as a teacher. Parents of students at our (now two) boarding schools meet regularly in 30 regions nationally. They also spend 12 days each year at the school, focusing on their personal growth and family issues, including such things as family wilderness trips, a high-ropes course, community service, and performing arts.

Character development is a fundamental force in why children turn out the way they do. Parents matter more than peers because in character development, they are the primary teachers. Their own growth is critical because character is taught by example.

That parents matter the most may be seen in the astonishing inability of all of us to "let go" of our parents, even after we start our own families. In our school's family program, we seek to help parents let go and move beyond their own childhood attitudes toward their parents--adulation, awe, resentment, anger, approval-seeking, and so forth. Why? Because hanging on to these childhood attitudes will curtail their own growth--the key to parenting success.

It pains me to watch parents today labor with the most important and most difficult of all human tasks--that of raising successful and fulfilled children--and then, like a one-armed paperhanger, to have to do it in a society that has lost its vital family support system: extended families, neighborhoods, and communities. It's no wonder parents have seized upon this new book. It seeks to relieve them of a responsibility that today seems like a huge burden.

I have a dream that one day this nation will finally realize that its schools absolutely depend upon its families and that it must fully integrate the two.

Joseph W. Gauld
The Hyde School
Bath, Maine

Vol. 18, Issue 11, Pages 43-44

Published in Print: November 11, 1998, as Letters to the Editor

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