A worthy goal — neutrality without censorship

A worthy goal — neutrality without censorship

Fresno Bee, September 24, 2011

A math teacher in San Diego County, Bradley Johnson, hung posters on his classroom wall that displayed religiously oriented statements from American history. The posters included phrases such as “In God We Trust” and “God shed his grace on thee.” Johnson claimed that he intended this as a patriotic celebration of America’s heritage.

The school district removed the posters, claiming that, “because they were taken out of context and very large” these phrases “became a promotion of a particular viewpoint that might make students who didn’t share that viewpoint uncomfortable.” This month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in support of the school district. It found that Johnson’s display was not “neutral”– as required under the First Amendment. The court agreed that the school district was enforcing “neutrality” by removing Johnson’s posters.

Neutrality is an important ideal. Religious dissidents came to America in order to escape the power of the state-sponsored churches of Europe. Today, there is more diversity of belief, with growing numbers of nonbelievers and non-Christians. We need state neutrality with regard to religion.

But we should be careful that as we pursue neutrality, we don’t end up stifling debate. This case can be understood as a call for improved public discussions of religion. It is obvious that genuine philosophical debate is not conducted by hanging posters on the wall. We need to find better ways to discuss our most fundamental differences.

I discussed this case with Doug Fraleigh, chairman of the communication department at Fresno State. Professor Fraleigh — an expert on freedom-ofexpression issues — agrees that Johnson’s posters violated the First Amendment. But Fraleigh is concerned with a growing trend toward government regulation of speech. He worries that the court seems to think that “teachers are paid to convey the government’s message.” Fraleigh said, “While some control of classroom speech can be warranted, excellent teaching is an art which cannot flourish when lessons are subject to inflexible government control.”

According to Fraleigh, this decision extends a precedent in which the government attempts to “broadly regulate government employee speech.”

The court reasoned that the government can limit an employee’s speech at work, so long as it does not interfere with that employee’s right as a citizen to speak freely outside of work. Fair enough: Johnson remains free to discuss his religious views after work.

But there is a silencing effect, nonetheless, when teachers fear that they will run afoul of the authorities.

More extensive academic freedom — along with more civil public discourse — could be part of the solution. A truly open and tolerant discussion of religion would be useful in our diverse society. We would have to listen to one another and learn about other points of view. And we would have to understand our own beliefs well enough to defend them.

This may be too much to ask for in an elementary school context. But if teachers felt free to discuss religion in an open and inquiring fashion, school would be a more lively place: a place in which important ideas are considered and defended, instead of simply ignored in the name of neutrality. Such lively exchanges — if they were conducted with a genuine spirit of inquiry — would open student’s minds, stimulate curiosity and create a love of learning.

The philosopher John Locke said, “Truth would do well enough, if she were once left to shift for herself.” But our tendency sometimes points in the other direction. Our justifiable fear of the establishment of religion can lead us to limit freedom of discussion. The danger of this approach is that it prevents us from engaging in those sorts of vigorous debates that help us understand what we believe and why we believe it.

Johnson’s posters may violate the spirit of the First Amendment. But they are also weak as teaching devices. We need open-minded and inclusive discussion of our diversity, not simplistic posters and competing bumper stickers. In our increasingly diverse world, we need more and better discussions of religion and our religious differences.

Reflecting on Sept 11

Silence will offer space to reflect on 9/11

By Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2011-09-10

Memorial activities dedicated to 9/11 have continued to create controversy. Critics on the right complained that when President Obama called for national service in honor of 9/11, he was slipping “socialism” into Patriot Day. And on the left, critics worry that the name “Patriot Day” is itself too nationalistic and militaristic.

This year the dispute is over the place of prayer in the dedication of the 9/11 memorial in New York City. The plans for the event do not include public prayer. In response, the Family Research Council has circulated a petition that concludes: “This nation needs prayer more than politics.” But public prayer is political. Public prayers would inevitably include some and exclude others.

All public speech is political. Perhaps what we need is more silence and less squabbling. The 9/11 ceremony in New York will, in fact, include several moments of silence. This is the best way to proceed in a diverse society in which religion is politicized. Indeed, silent reflection is welcome, in a culture that is filled with speech. In silence, we can sort out our own thoughts — apart from the incessant bickering and chattering of public life.

Our desire to give speeches and offer public words of prayer is connected with our need to make sense of things. We want a story in which events have some meaning. But our stories are tendentious. We always reconstruct the past based upon our present concerns. Over time, as our memories fade, we establish memorial rituals, as an attempt to preserve the past against the corrosive power of time. But these ritual memorials are partial and biased. They skate on the surface, while lacking the complexity of serious history.

For several years, the images and emotion of 9/11 were seared into our memories. Those who were directly involved in the horrors of that day may never be able to forget. But for many, the memories fade. And events that were once so vivid, now become episodes in a story that is being told to the next generation, which has no living memory of the event.

Ralph Waldo Emerson explored the problem of memory in his essay, “Experience.” Emerson was troubled by the fact that he could no longer feel the same grief for his dead son as he did in the days and months immediately after his son had died. Emerson worried that forgetting was disloyal to the past. He concluded: “The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is.”

But forgetting is natural and normal. It is healthy to turn the page and allow the past to become a story. And we should admit that these stories cannot touch the reality of what is past. Even atrocities are forgotten and we are left with stone memorials and ritualized ceremonies. Emerson said that things “slip through our fingers when we clutch hardest.” The more we try to hold on to the fading past, the less we grasp it.

As we pause to remember 9/11, it is important to recognize the complexity of the process of remembrance. It is easy to be swept away by maudlin spectacles and sentimental speeches. There is pleasure in the emotional excess of public ceremony. It is comforting to belong to a community that remembers and grieves together. We need these ceremonies to reassure us and to express solidarity with those who are still suffering from trauma.

We want to belong, to share a common story, to celebrate a common past, and mourn a common loss. But somehow public speeches don’t go deep enough. The staged emotion of public ceremony is too shallow to reach the reality of a past that is slowly fading away. And oratory offered in commemoration is always colored by present purposes. The controversy about prayer at the 9/11 event is, after all, as much about the politics of the present as it is about the past.

There is a time for speeches and for prayer. But silence is also useful. And we don’t have nearly enough of it. As Thoreau — Emerson’s disciple — put it, “silence is the universal refuge.” Silence allows us to think on our own terms, outside of the din of public life. And silence offers a common refuge for each of us, whatever our religious or political inclination.

Teachers need, deserve support to do their jobs

Teachers need, deserve support to do their jobs

 By   Andrew Fiala

 Fresno Bee 2011-08-27

This summer, the Atlanta public schools were caught up in a cheating scandal that involved 44 schools and 178 educators. While the scope of the Atlanta scandal is appalling, such scandals are not new. Cheating scandals have plagued schools across the country for many years. If teachers cheat — either by coaching students or by erasing and correcting student answers — then we’ve got a serious problem. Even the most rigorous system of education is only as good as the educators who control it.

It is not difficult to imagine how the pressures of today’s high-stakes testing environment create a recipe for moral failure. In a low-performing school, in a context in which job security depends on easily manipulated standardized test scores, it is not surprising that some teachers are tempted to cheat.

This is no excuse for cheating. And we should establish safeguards to prevent cheating. But we also need to consider cheating as a symptom of an environment that is not conducive to moral development. If we expect teachers to teach better, we must change these conditions so that teachers can thrive.

I discussed these issues recently with Jack Benninga, the director of the Bonner Center for Character Education at Fresno State. According to Benninga, the key to moral schools is a safe, nurturing environment. Indeed, he argued that there is a connection between a supportive moral environment and academic achievement. Students learn better when they are not worried about being bullied or assaulted.

The same idea applies in the lives of teachers. Teachers teach better when they are provided appropriate support, mentoring and a sense of job security. Benninga pointed out that the moral and professional development of teachers depends upon a caring and humane environment. He explained, “A significant problem in schools today is that the environment is less focused on the development of children than on the skills needed to score well on high stakes tests. The U.S. Department of Education that mandated this approach in 2001 now realizes that its direction was a wrong turn for children and the adults who teach them.”

In a forthcoming article that he shared with me, Benninga and his co-authors conclude that classrooms today, “are tightly controlled, focused on students’ skill development, and are places where teachers are regularly monitored and publicly held accountable for student performance on high-stakes tests in just a few skill areas. This is not an atmosphere that encourages moral sensitivity or moral judgment.”

We do need to hold teachers accountable. Educational and behavioral standards do matter. The key to excellent performance in any field is to create conditions that make success possible. Cheating is more likely to happen when the stakes are high, when resources are scarce, and when caring and sustained mentoring relationships are replaced by a mechanical system of rewards and punishments.

This is true in sports, in science, in business and in academics — each of which have seen cheating scandals. Athletes use steroids and scientists fudge data. The individual athlete or scientist is obviously to blame. And so is the social environment that encourages winning at any cost or that demands “publish or perish.” We want athletes, scientists and teachers to strive for excellence. But competition leads to cheating when success is emphasized without proper training, mentoring and moral support.

Aristotle suggested that teachers deserve more honor than parents. Anyone can give birth to a child. But only an excellent teacher can prepare that child for a good life. And only an excellent society can train and nurture excellent teachers. Indeed, one test of a society’s well-being may be to consider how well it treats and trains its teachers.

Shrinking budgets and increasing class sizes do not help teachers; and they do not reflect well on our values as a society. Teachers do the essential job of nurturing the next generation. We need to create conditions that, in Benninga’s words, encourage educators to develop “moral sensitivity and moral judgment” as well as academic proficiencies.

Fortunately, there are many more excellent teachers than there are cheaters. Most teachers are sincerely dedicated to the academic achievement and moral development of the youngsters in their care. As the school year begins, let’s make sure that they have the support they need.