Curriculum Opinion

World-Religion Assignment Sparks Fury

By Dave Powell — December 18, 2015 6 min read
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Schools are closed today in Augusta County, Virginia, and you might say it’s because of an act of terrorism.

Before you get too worked up, let me explain. No, this is not the same kind of terrorism we’ve been hearing about in the news so frequently. But, no, I don’t think I’m being too dramatic either. In this case, a group of parents (or maybe, as it turns out, a single disgruntled parent named Kimberly Herndon, aided and abetted by some anonymous citizens making phone calls) managed to get the local public schools shut down because a social studies teacher asked her students to do some calligraphy.

What’s wrong with that, you may ask? Well, the teacher’s choice of text was the shahada, which, for anyone who may have skipped social studies back in high school, is the first of the Five Pillars of Islam. This really is your everyday, garden variety, run-of-the-mill high school social studies content. To acknowledge the fact that one of the Five Pillars is a statement of faith, and to even ask students to produce a work of art representing it, hardly amounts to indoctrination—especially when the point of the lesson was, apparently, to appreciate calligraphy. But that’s exactly how this parent saw it: “I will not have my children sit under a woman who indoctrinates them with the Islam religion,” she declared, fully exercising her freedoms.

Is this really indoctrination, though? To indoctrinate someone is to teach a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically. By that definition, you could say that any time a teacher gives a homework assignment and does not explicitly encourage students to question any beliefs contained within it the teacher is guilty of “indoctrinating” her students. On the other hand, if a teacher instructs her students not to accept a set of beliefs uncritically, or instructs her students to accept a set of beliefs but do it critically, then, technically, that’s not indoctrination, and therefore should be okay. (Either way, something tells me we may be overstating the power of teachers; I know if I had the power of mind control to exercise on students I’d probably use it to get them to turn in their papers on time and proofread them more diligently, not convert them to Islam.) So the lesson here is: either add a disclaimer to everything you teach—just to let students know that it all must be questioned—or get ready to do some seriously Orwellian word parsing to ensure that your hind quarters are properly covered.

There are, of course, teachers who do precisely these things in their classrooms. They offer up disclaimers to explain away the significance of what they’re teaching (disclaimers that, by the way, should not be confused with trigger warnings—that’s a separate, but related, issue, and one with a great deal more complexity). They rush past topics in the hope that no one will notice that they may be controversial. They excise contentious elements from the curriculum they teach—and let me just add here, again, that there really should be nothing controversial at all about copying some calligraphy for homework, even (or especially) if that calligraphy represents one of the pillars of Islam—or they employ pretzel logic (and not the good kind) to confuse their students about what they are really studying, even if they don’t mean to.

But here’s the thing: if we let any parent object to even the most benign topic taught in social studies class, then, well, we let the terrorists win. If that sounds like hyperbole to you, consider this definition of terrorism, which I pulled right out of the New Oxford Dictionary: terrorism is “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” Fortunately, nothing violent has come out of the phone calls that caused school to be cancelled in Augusta County today. But the intimidation surely worked. And make no mistake about it: the goal of Kimberly Herndon and parents like her is a political one. It is to control what is taught in schools, not just for one child but for everybody. Herndon may be genuinely worried that her child will grow up to become a Muslim if he copies the shahada in social studies class, but it’s hard to believe her quest would have garnered the attention it did if lots of other people, many of whom have no doubt never even been to Augusta County, Virginia, didn’t see this as an opportunity to make a political point.

If you know your history, this tactic will look familiar. In the 1950s and ‘60s, after the U.S. Supreme Court began “interefering with states’ rights” by declaring that all children have a right to a decent education (the counterclaim was that states have the right, apparently, to deny children such a thing), activists organized a response that came to be known as “massive resistance.” In fact, Virginia’s own Senator Harry F. Byrd was the politician largely responsible for organizing efforts to circumvent the Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education by doing whatever it took—including shutting down schools—to thwart integration. It took several years, and a number of court cases, to come to a conclusion that should have been clear all along: states, and individuals, do not have the right to ignore a decision justly made by the U.S. Supreme Court, and they don’t have a right to deny something to their fellow citizens just because they object to it on ideological grounds.

Turns out the dragon was not slayed; it only went dormant, if it ever went away at all. Now we’re facing another retrenchment, a return to the same politics of obstruction, distortion, hyperbole, ignorance, and hatred that marked that dark era in American political history. The targets of hatred may have changed, but the tactics being used are eerily similar. Massive resistance really was not much more than a right-wing co-optation of the tactics and strategies that worked so well for civil rights activists—only with violence and intimidation substituted for non-violence and peaceful protest—twisted to accomplish very different ends. The fact that these ends focused on exclusion rather then inclusion should make anyone who really believes in freedom and demoracy know exactly which side to be on.

We have to do better than this. We can’t let our public spaces be taken hostage by people who would like nothing better than to see them shut down for good. Who needs social studies? Obviously we all do. To the claim that this Islam calligraphy lesson is offensive all I can say is this: if anything about this activity is offensive, it’s that it doesn’t actually require students to do any real thinking at all. A truly powerful lesson would have asked students to compare the shahada to the pledge of allegiance they probably hear and recite on a daily basis when they get to school. Imagine what they might learn about loyalty and political allegiance and solidarity from a lesson like that. For the record, I doubt it would turn them all into Muslims.

But I don’t blame the teacher for not teaching that way. This was social studies boilerplate; it’s what social studies is. I imagine the teacher who assigned it is completely bewildered by the brouhaha that ensued. We need to protect teachers like this one, and the schools they teach in, from ridiculous attacks like the ones we see here, and give them the support they need to teach about society and culture in truly powerful ways.

We could start by reaffirming the place of social studies—a robust, reimagined social studies—in the school curriculum. The last thing we should do in the face of such threats is close our schools; the thing we should actually do is open them further—to more ethical, honest conversation, to thoughtful discourse and discussion, to new ideas and ways of seeing the world. If we don’t, we let the terrorists, who thrive on ignorance and hatred, win. We can all agree that we don’t want that, can’t we?

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