Anti-woke education wars and democratic schools

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The anti-woke education wars are a symptom of a broken community. We don’t agree about schools because we don’t agree about the value of education or about what it means to be American. This is a fraught time to be a teacher, as polarization and distrust reach into school board meetings, libraries, and classrooms. It’s also a difficult time to be a parent and a student, in a world where schools are a focal point of political divisiveness.

The anti-woke school movement

The Trump era was a time of polarization, and Donald Trump’s divisive message has not abated. The former President recently warned that American schools have been “taken over by radical Left maniacs.” He announced that if he were re-elected, he would ban federal funding for any “school or program pushing critical race theory, gender ideology, or other inappropriate racial, sexual or political content onto our children.” Trump’s anti-woke alarmism seems to echo and amplify what we are hearing from Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis, has been waging a war against woke.

Trump took this to another level, however, when he suggested in his recent speech that what was being taught in the schools was antithetical to “Judeo-Christian values.” He said that woke ideology resembled, “an established new religion.” Trump concluded, “If we have pink-haired communists teaching our kids we have a major problem.”

I doubt that many pink-haired maniac teachers are trying to establish a new religion, or subvert Judeo-Christian values. The teachers I know, and have worked with, are acutely aware that we live in a diverse world. They often avoid discussing race, religion, and gender because they know that these things are divisive in a world that is increasingly polarized.

The shifting First Amendment

Most teachers are aware that the First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits them from imposing a religion at school. The Establishment Clause of that amendment means that Judeo-Christian values cannot be pushed in schools. Nor can any other religious ideology.

Yet recent Supreme Court rulings make it easier for educators to bring religion into school. A recent case (Kennedy v. Bremerton) involving a Christian coach leading a prayer at a football game was decided in favor of the coach, who claimed that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause gave him the right to pray with students. In an essay about this for OnlySky, I suggested that this opens the door to a contest of religious views in the schools.

That’s not an optimal outcome. It would be better if the Establishment Clause were interpreted more firmly to keep religion out of schools. But in the present legal environment, the result appears to be that conflicts of religion will creep into the educational space.

Are Trump’s warnings about “woke-ism” as a religion a case of the chickens coming home to roost? Hardly. I doubt many teachers are actively pushing any religion, woke or un-woke. But our legal system is shifting and the world is becoming more polarized, making conflict more likely.

What are schools for in a democracy?

None of this will be resolved easily or soon. The Court has shifted its understanding of the First Amendment, and polarization makes it harder to find common ground. This is especially true with regard to questions about the purpose of education in a democracy.

This politicized debate includes the fundamental question of whether schools exist to teach what parents want them to teach or serve some other social purpose. A school board member in Iowa got lots of pushback when they said, “The purpose of a public ed is to not teach kids what the parents want. It is to teach them what society needs them to know. The client is not the parent, but the community.”

Despite the pushback, this idea is not absurd. It can be traced back to Plato, who thought that education was about the well-being of the whole community. Plato went so far as to suggest taking kids away from their parents in order to give them a proper education. This proposal should be read in light of the fact that Plato’s ideal republic is more dictatorship than democracy.

But defenders of democratic education have made a similar point. John Dewey, America’s most important philosopher of democracy, put it this way:

Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife. Moreover, it is only education which can guarantee widespread community of interest and aim. In a complex society, ability to understand and sympathize with the operations and lot of others is a condition of common purpose which only education can procure.

John Dewey, “The Need of an Industrial Education in an Industrial Democracy”

Dewey’s point is that in modern democracies, education brings diverse people together, helps them to understand each other, and encourages them to discover a sense of common purpose and identity. Parents may want their children to be protected from this. But it is good for society for kids to become citizens of a broader community made up of diverse others.

Our broken community

Of course, the problem is that the American community has been corroded by polarization, identity politics, disinformation, and distrust. What after all, is the American community? We don’t seem to know anymore. And if we don’t know what the community is and what it stands for, then we will not be able to agree about the value of education.

There is a paradox lurking here. The solution to our broken community is an education that can help us understand our shared values. But that solution will only work if there are shared values to be understood. And it is becoming apparent that we don’t agree: about who we are, what we value, and what we want our kids to learn. The next generation will pay the price of more polarization and fragmentation unless the adults can agree about what it means to be an American, and why American schools exist.

To live well, find the zest

If you want to live a happy and healthy life, stop being a spectator. Get enthused!

Fresno Bee, January 29, 2023

Life is an adventure. Passivity breeds boredom. Enthusiasm is contagious. And activity is the zest of life.

A recent study of thousands of people found that zest is essential for health and well-being. The study defines zest as “vitality, vigor, and being energized and eager to engage in work and life.”

The word “zest” comes from cooking. It is the tartness of citrus. Like a lemon in winter, zest wakes us up and invigorates us. Zest also includes “love of life” or what the French call joie de vivre. Lovers of life see it as a continual opportunity for inspiration and delight.

This new study confirms a fairly obvious point. It’s not surprising that enthusiasm and vitality are connected. But how do we cultivate love of life? That’s a difficult question in a world hungry for drugs, potions and therapies. But zest doesn’t come in a can. Rather, it is found in action.

Passion is not external to activity. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that passion is a “powerful spring.” He also said, “nothing great is ever achieved without enthusiasm.” But this makes it seem that first we set the spring, and then we get to work.

In reality, this happens the other way around. First, you get to work. And in action, you discover satisfaction. In another place Emerson said, “activity is contagious.” The point is to get going. If the work suits you and you stick with it, passion will grow.

And there are lots of ways to get energized. The psychologist William James saw “eagerness” as central to the meaning of life. James explained that eagerness “is the zest, the tingle, the excitement of reality.” James understood that many diverse activities can give us purpose. We can be eager to learn, to play music, to make love, or to serve others. What matters is staying active and engaged.

James’ colleague at Harvard, George Santayana, celebrated the creative energy of artists and poets, who are absorbed with the creative act. The artists of life say, “life is an adventure, not a discipline … and the exercise of energy is the absolute good.” He explains, “The zest of life becomes a cosmic emotion; we lump the whole together and cry, Hurrah for the Universe!”

That zesty attitude seems in short supply these days. The world is awash in anxiety, moodiness, fatigue, and apathy. Some of this may be traced to the lingering disruption of COVID. There is also the drumbeat of bad news about war, climate, corruption and crime. Our diets, lack of physical exercise, and other environmental factors are also to blame. Screens, sofas, and soft bellies are part of the problem of our low energy.

Certainly, chemical and hormonal imbalances need clinical treatment. But the bigger problem is our cultural malaise. The critics constantly complain. And everyone has a list of grievances. When have you recently heard anyone say “Hurrah for the Universe”? When has reality caused you to tingle?

It can help to hear stories about the enthusiasm and passion of others. It is inspiring to see other people get fired up. Such stories can come from entrepreneurs, athletes, social justice warriors, scientists or artists. But watching others act is ultimately boring. Spectating is no substitute for doing. It is the creative act that gives birth to passion.

Now, a critic might object that this is naïvely optimistic. Energy, she might add, can’t simply be willed into existence. But the American philosophers don’t teach us that energy is the result of wishful thinking. Rather, they tell us that enthusiasm is the result of action.

The American tradition views the world as an experiment. American thinkers see the human spirit as an adventurer. Nothing is fixed and there are infinite opportunities for action. We are free, intelligent, and imaginative beings. To be human is to use our creative energies. Passivity breeds apathy and discontent. Energy is created by action.

Enthusiasm is an attitude, an orientation and a habit. Like a muscle, it grows when we exercise it. And it is contagious. Enthusiastic people inspire us to be more enthusiastic. If you want to live a happy and healthy life, stop being a spectator. Get busy squeezing the lemons and making lemonade.

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Secular freedom, compassion, and controversial spiritual symbols

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A recent controversy over Islamic art raises the question of how we ought to deal with art and images in a world of deep diversity. At Hamline University in Minnesota, Erika López Prater lost her job teaching art history because she showed students artistic representations of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed. A Muslim student took offense. The University’s Dean of Students accused the instructor of Islamophobia. And she was not rehired. How should we deal with controversies involving art, including Islamic art, and other controversial symbols?

Academic freedom and the study of religion

This case has prompted critical commentary, including on OnlySky by Hemant Mehta and Barry Purcell. In my contribution to this discussion here, I suggest that we need to think more carefully about the spiritual power of art and images. The secular principle of freedom of expression allows us to disagree about symbols and their spiritual power. But the symbolic realm is a place of controversy because art and religion are ways that we imagine who and what we are. Controversial symbols require us to respond with compassion, as we work out what it means to be human.

Academic freedom is central to this. So we should applaud those who responded to the Hamline case by calling for greater respect for academic freedom. Indeed, academic freedom is good for the study of Islam and other traditions. Without that kind of freedom, we would not be able to learn that there is diversity within Islam and that not every Muslim was offended by the Hamline case. Recent commentary also teaches us that despite a common canard about Islam, it has not always been considered blasphemous to represent the Prophet. 

One expert in Islamic art, Christiane Gruber, analyzed the artwork in question, explaining that the image was created by medieval Muslim artists as part of a Muslim art movement in which it was not uncommon to portray Mohammed. Professor Gruber concluded that these artworks are not Islamophobic but are in fact “Islamophilic.” She points out that these Islamic artworks are not equivalent to anti-Muslim cartoons that have been condemned as Islamophobic.

It is fascinating to learn more about diversity within the Muslim world. It is academic freedom and freedom of expression that allows this lesson to be learned.

The magic of words and images

Behind this lesson is a deep question about the power of symbols and how we ought to manage that power. Are some words and images so important or powerful that they should not be uttered or seen? And how should we handle controversial symbols in a world in which people disagree about their meaning and power?

There is no doubt that words and images are powerful. Poetry, music, and art transform the world and move our hearts and minds. The Greeks thought that art and poetry were divine gifts, associated with the Muses. Many people still believe that sounds and objects possess magical power. Prayer and worship can be understood on a continuum with spells and incantations. Some people hold on to good luck charms. And political life is pervaded by flags, pledges, and anthems, which unite and inspire.

Social life rests upon a kind of symbolic magic. Consider the power of a wedding ring to define a whole web of relationships. Some words (“the n-word”) are so offensive that they should not be spoken. Political imagery can provoke emotions and empower violence and hate (for example, the swastika). And religious imagery can give meaning and purpose to life.

Religious belief tends to trace the power of words and images to some divine source. Religious texts are often supposed to be gifts of God. And religious words and images are thought to possess spiritual power. Some think it is blasphemous to spell out the name of “G-d” or to “take the Lord’s name in vain.” People venerate icons and holy books. And religious violence is linked to the desecration of those symbols.

A respectful humanistic explanation of symbolic magic

Atheists often roll their eyes and scoff at all of this. Humanists tend to think that there is no such thing as magic. Words are simply sounds. Art is form and color. And prayers and pledges are merely hot air infused with wishful thinking. From this perspective, the magic of words and images is entirely human. It resides in our brains and in the way that symbols work in human cognition and social life.

But humanism cannot deny the powerful emotional, social, and cognitive force of the symbolic realm. Poems, books, and songs move people and unite them in social groups. So do representational artworks, monuments, and film. There is indeed “magic” here: the magic of thought and imagination.

This can be explained in terms of cognitive processes, the evolution of which is connected to our existence as social beings. Cooperative social animals like ourselves communicate across distances. A raised eyebrow has meaning, as does a raised fist, or a sob, or a shout. Human beings have supplemented visceral, vocal, and immediate communication with technologies such as art, writing, and electronic media.

This humanistic explanation does not appeal to divine powers. But it reminds us of the need to respect the cognitive and social processes that inspire art, religion, and other works of the human imagination. Even if words and images are entirely human, they are nonetheless of fundamental import. Symbols matter. They give shape to social life and are deeply embedded in human psychology. That’s why we should do our best to understand and respect the values that different people place in words and images.

A compassionate secular response

So, what about the case of Islamic art with which we began? Well, we’ve seen why academic freedom is important. Compassion and understanding develop when we are able to explore the symbols of the world.

Furthermore, it is disrespectful simply to ignore the claims of those who are offended by certain uses of images or words. The mystical tendency to venerate symbols is a natural and near-universal occurrence in human thought and culture. Words and images move us. We ought to take that fact seriously. 

And if some people are offended by certain symbols, let’s try to figure out why by inquiring more deeply. This does not mean that those who are offended get the last word on the matter. Freedom of expression is a basic value in a world in which people who inhabit different symbolic orders must live together. But the project of secular living-together works better when we are generally more attentive to the power of words and images.

It is always a good idea to be careful in what we say and considerate of the responses of others. Freedom of expression needs to be supplemented by principles of civility and compassion. Disagreement is inevitable. The power of symbols to inspire and unite is linked to the way that symbols also divide. And if someone is offended, let’s listen to them and try to understand why.

Human beings will never agree about the significance of our symbols. That’s why we need secular principles of freedom of thought, expression, and religion. Those freedoms allow us to coexist in a world in which the mysterious power of the human imagination is always busy making meaning. And compassion helps us build bridges of understanding among the diversity of symbols that structure the human world.

Keeping the merry in Christmas. Humanism in the cold of winter

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I understand the inclusive spirit of saying “Happy Holidays.” But holidays are still “holy days,” which leaves out the non-religious. At any rate, what we need most in the dark of winter is mirth and merriment. The cheerful exuberance of making merry is not the sedate joy of Christian salvation. Rather, it’s the laughter of children looking for Christmas loot. It’s the exuberance of skiing down a slope. It’s the pleasure of giving gifts to those you love. I have no problem with Christians keeping Christ in Christmas, if they don’t force the idea on others. But humanism teaches us best how to make merry at Christmas time.  

Christian joy and sorrow

Donald Trump often suggested that to win the “war on Christmas” people need to say “Merry Christmas” again. This is nonsense. No one stopped saying “Merry Christmas.” And why should we? Christmas means all kinds of things, including cookies, Santa Claus, and Christmas trees. For most Americans, “Merry Christmas” means “Have some fun this winter.”

The culture warriors forget that Christmas is not in the Bible and that the nativity story is contested by Bible scholars. Christmas is a human creation that combines myth, pop culture, and family traditions. Only the stiffest Christian thinks it only means “a messiah is born to save you from Hell.”

That bit about Hell may sound extreme. But Christian salvation is a response to sin. Christmas carols make this theology clear. “Silent Night” says “Christ the savior is born.” “Joy to the World,” tells us that “the savior reigns.”

With all of the good news about salvation, Christians often insist that Christianity is not the morbid religion that Nietzsche suggested it was. But Christian joy is not merry. C.S. Lewis said Christian joy is more than pleasure. It comes from a metaphysical desire that is unsatisfied with ordinary merriment. Pope Francis explained the “joy of the gospel” as salvation from sin. Francis said, “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness.”

Francis and Lewis are focused on the joy. But the back story is gloomy. Joy to the world means that you are saved. But to be saved, you first had to be lost.

Humanist merry making

Humanists think otherwise. Some melancholy humanists may maintain that life is unsatisfactory. But a merry humanist would say that life is pretty good. Sure, there is death and grief and loneliness. But there is also friendship and books, electricity and modern medicine. Human life is better today and more enjoyable thanks to human ingenuity and inventiveness.

Christmas is one of those human inventions. We decorate our homes with electric lights. We eat fruitcake and drink mulled wine. We go sledding or watch old movies. The point is to fill the winter with fun. Sin and salvation are far from people’s minds when they drink eggnog or build a snowman.

Life is not perfect or permanent. An asteroid could wipe us all out. And death comes for each of us, as surely as every snowman melts. But here we are, playing on a watery planet swinging around a minor star. As the solstice nights grow cold and the waters turn to ice, we turn up the heat and party. It’s a tribute to the human spirit that we can feel jolly even in the bleakness of winter. This is not eternal salvation. Loneliness and sorrow are never completely defeated. But we can make merry. And for humanists, that’s enough to get us through the winter.

Merry humanism in the ancient world

Such a merry humanism, has roots in ancient Epicurean philosophy. Epicurus explained that pleasure is easy to find and that evil can be endured. He suggested that the gods are indifferent to us and that death is like a dreamless sleep. He encouraged us to stop worrying and start living.

And the ancients liked to party. The Romans warmed the winter with their wine-soaked Saturnalia. Of course, excessive carousing can cause a hang-over. So, we need wisdom in making merry. The Epicureans suggested simple pleasures and moderation.

One inspiring source is the Roman poet, Horace. In one lovely poem, Horace sits beside a fireplace in winter, observing a snow-covered peak. He is an older man, with snow white hair. He tells his young servant, whom he calls “Master of Revels” (“Thaliarchus”), to stoke the fire and tap a keg of wine.

Dissolve the cold.
Throw another log on the fire
And be generous with the old vintage,
My good Thaliarchus, you Master of Revels,
The gods will take care of the wind, the snow, and everything else.

Horace, Ode 1.9 (my translation)

Horace goes on to encourage his young servant not to fret about tomorrow. Winter does not last forever. Nor does life. But none of that is in our control. The gods take care of the seasons. Our role is to tend our hearths and make this life worth living.

Don’t worry about the future, seize the day

Merry humanism embraces the fragility of the present. As the poem continues, Horace advises, “Don’t worry about the future.” He encourages his young servant to enjoy what fortune brings.  Make love before the green sprouts of youth are covered in snow. And in old age, you can find solace, sipping wine by the fire and sifting through your the memories of spring.

Horace is also famous for coining the phrase carpe diem. In the poem (Ode 1.11) where he suggests that we should “seize the day,” the poet reminds us that this winter may be our last. We never know when the end may come. So be wise, he suggests. Drink some wine and live in the moment. We are here, now, on a rock in the vastness of space. We don’t know what tomorrow may bring. But rather than fearing the cold, we can light a fire and make merry in the darkness.

What does it mean to believe in Christmas?

Someone recently asked me, “Do you believe in Christmas?” We were talking about religion. As we wandered in the depths of theology, my friend said, “But what about Christmas? Do you believe in that?”

This struck me as a strange question. What would it mean to believe in Christmas? Is the question about the virgin birth and the metaphysics of incarnation? Or is it about Santa and the elves? Or is it about something else, like love and hope? Maybe it is all of these.

Skeptics have criticized the traditional Christian narrative. Jamie Carter, a science writer, recently asserted that there is no such thing as a supernatural star. Carter suggests the Christmas star may have been a bright conjunction of planets or a passing comet. But that deflationary account ignores the star’s symbolic value. To ask if that star was really a supernova is to miss the point of the story.

Scholars have debunked many aspects of the Christmas story. Bart Ehrman argues, for example, that we don’t really know the year, the date, or even the season of Jesus’s birth. But one need not be a skeptic to understand that Christmas includes myth and legend. Ten years ago, Pope Benedict XVI published a book explaining that there were likely no animals present at Jesus’ birth. The animals were added to the story for symbolic value and dramatic effect.

The current Pope, Francis, wrote about the nativity scene a couple of years ago, recounting the creation of the first Christmas creche by Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis wanted a symbolic representation of the Biblical story. According to the pope, the nativity scene is a symbol that brings light into the darkness.

So were there really three wise men, shepherds, and a baby asleep on the hay? The Bible’s Gospels don’t agree about the details of the nativity. And when I visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, our tour guide told us that Jesus was born in a cave, not in a wooden stable. As the years pass, stories are repeated and embellished. Churches are built atop ancient grottos. And tales are retold and repackaged for the present generation.

Much of what we enjoy about that Christmas has been adorned by art and imagination. Christmas includes “Silent Night” and “White Christmas.” There’s also Charlie Brown, Scrooge, and the Grinch. In the shopping malls, Santa gives out candy canes. We hang lights on the outside of our homes and bring trees into our living rooms. None of that is in the Bible. But Christmas is all of this, and more.

But is there a kernel of truth that we might believe in? The theologians tell us it is about the incarnation of God. But what exactly does that mean? And how are we supposed to get our heads around that singular and mysterious event?

Maybe the attempt to nail things down points us in the wrong direction. Human culture and religion are expansive. They grow and develop. New songs, images, and interpretations appear and add to our experience. This creative, hospitable, and joyful spirit is surely part of what it means to say that the angels are singing about goodwill toward all.

Christmas bears witness to the creative spirit. Saint Francis contributed to it. So did Franz Gruber when he composed “Silent Night.” So did Charles Dickens, when he created Scrooge and Tiny Tim. We also witness the Christmas spirit in “White Christmas”, a tune by Isaiah Berlin, a Jewish immigrant from Russia. Charles Schulz showed us Linus caring for Charlie Brown’s sad little tree. And Dr. Seuss reminds us that the Grinch can be redeemed.

And each family has its own traditions and stories, ornaments and favorite foods. When we celebrate Christmas with our loved ones, we renew that creative and joyful spirit. This is what the exchange of gifts is all about. It is a process of sharing joy, hope, and love.

December is cold and dark. Without Christmas, these days would be bleak. But we warm our hearts by filling the night with laughter and song. The Christmas star is more than a passing comet. It is a symbol that reminds us to seek light in the darkness.

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