A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Saturday, March 22, 2008

What would you do?

The class was talking about the beginning of the Cold War. We were describing the basic tenets of Communism, and on the topic of personal freedom ( or actually the lack of personal freedom), it was mentioned that Karl Marx famously stated: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."

We discussed the official espousal of atheism by the Communist party, and defined the word. We then were talking about how the freedom of religion was one of the most important freedoms to have, and when one of my students remembered it was one of the Four Freedoms listed by FDR against Fascism, I will tell you I almost burst into tears from joy.

But then one of my students suddenly burst out with this: "What if you don't believe in the devil? What does that mean? Am I an atheist?"

Be assured that I went back over the definition of atheism as the lack of belief in God, and explained that the refusal to believe in Satan did not make one an atheist. The kids then chimed in about how I wouldn't tell him what to believe nor what I believe because this is a public school (this is from my opening day speech). I suggested that he talk to his parents or a clergyperson, if he had one, and we moved on.

Because I am a religious person and try to be a faithful person, I am very careful not to inject my religious beliefs into my classroom. General ethical behavior, absolutely, but theology, no. Anywhere where students are taught, values are being transmitted, regardless of whether the students think they are picking up the signals or not.

I had a teacher in junior high who actively shoved her beliefs down our throats, including persecuting the Jewish kid in our class, and I ended up getting in trouble when I finally lost it and politely contradicted her. Of course, in one of my classes, one of my students attends my church, so it's not like it's a secret that I go to church. I consider the work I do with kids to be part of my ministry, but in a general improving- the-minds-and-upholding-the-spirits-of-my-students kind of way.

But this incident haunts me. He was obviously still thinking about it. What would you have done?

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At 3/22/08, 3:19 PM, Anonymous Magistra said...

I'm wondering if the question was asked from legitimate concern/confusion, or if the student was trying to push to see how far his teacher would go with this discussion and if he could get you to talk about your beliefs. Not being there to see the context, it reminds me of how some students will try to ask me about partying, drinking, drugs, etc. I think I get that because I'm young, and perhaps you got this question because they know you have a religious life. And if I'm being too cynical, and this was an honest question, I think your response was appropriate (and how nice to have students back you up!).

At 3/22/08, 3:57 PM, Blogger Friar said...

Either as the appropriate respone to a genuine question or as the deflection of a provocateur, your answer seems like pretty much the right thing to say.

At 3/22/08, 6:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe I've missed the issue, but it *sounds* like the kid in your class was asking for a definition. What is the problem in providing one?

-Mark Roulo

At 3/22/08, 6:21 PM, Blogger Rose said...

I think you answered it as well as I would've hoped to answer it in your situation. You answered it in the framework of the lesson by pointing back to the lesson, and then encouraged him to seek answers on his own, including some suggestions. The student's question certainly sounded like a good one to have a very thought-provoking discussion with a clergyperson or even with family and friends. It sounds like you didn't shut his curiosity down, but instead provided options that were alternatives to discussing it further with you, since that gets too close to discussing theology -- something that, because of the setting and power dynamics at play, I also disagree with.

On a personal note, the most influential advice regarding spirituality that I received was from a public high school teacher, who said something along the lines of no one can tell you what you believe, you have to just keep asking questions. We did not discuss it further, but that was enough to have a profound impact on me.

At 3/22/08, 7:36 PM, Blogger McSwain said...

You handled this very well. Even in my fourth grade class, things come up with some regularity. I have a strong Christian faith (I am a preacher's kid) and I also consider teaching to be a ministry. In these situations, I usually say the same as you--we all have different beliefs, please discuss it with your parents. But in the case of a definition of atheism, you gave the dictionary definition. Nothing wrong with that.

At 3/22/08, 8:01 PM, Anonymous La Maestra said...

I would tell him that that was a very good question. I would ask the class what they thought. I'd ask the class if they knew of any religions that didn't believe in the concept of hell. I would ask them about images of the devil throughout history. I'd probably direct it back to Greek mythology and Hades (although he wasn't the devil as Christianity sees him) and ask them to make comparisons there.

Usually at that point in my class discussions, students have come up with so many other questions that I'd branch out on one of those before returning to the discussion at hand, and we'd move on. But if the kid kept coming back to it, then I'd push them to examine it closer for themselves and ask a clergyperson.

I think it's a great question, and I'd deflect that student's question back to the class as a whole to see what they came up with. My students frequently astound me with their insight, and they've answered questions that I hadn't even begun to ponder, and I've learned from them.

I love class discussions.

At 3/23/08, 7:51 AM, Blogger Mrs. Chili said...

You did exactly the right thing and I would hope, in a similar situation, I would do the same. It will be interesting to see if the topic comes up again in class...

At 3/23/08, 2:01 PM, Anonymous Zipi said...

I think you did the right thing. I am curious as to where this comes from. If you stated that "atheism = lack of belief in god", then it is clearly independent from believing in the concept of the devil. The only thing I can think of is that this kid was battling with some false dichotomy, something like having to choose between:

1) a very particular branch of Christianity = good = religion, and

2) everything else = bad = atheism. (And maybe even = communism).

At 3/23/08, 3:34 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

One lesson from this, after I got over my surprise at his question, is that this just goes to show how you never know what kids are taking away from your lessons and discussion. That's why, when I am discussing anything particularly sensitive, I specifically ask students to attend to what is being said. The worst thing in the world is when a kid claims that you said something in class that you didn't just because they were busy thinking their own thoughts and listening and interpreting in a half-tuned-in manner.

We had already talked about having a choice to believe or not believe is freedom. Being told what to believe-- or not to believe-- is tyranny.

At 3/24/08, 9:54 AM, Anonymous Betty said...

I think you did the right thing. Teaching in a public school is different from teaching in a religious, private school. The kids know that teachers have to be careful about what they say and do. I also agree that the parents are the ones that should answer specific questions about religion.

At 3/24/08, 9:33 PM, Blogger Rita said...

I think that was a very interesting question from the student. I think I may have answered it pretty much as you did, but also pointed out that the question itself is very philosophical -- can one believe in something and not also believe in its opposite. Depending on the kid, I might also have pointed him at some Aristotle.

As a very religious person myself (who also considers teaching a form of ministry -- a ministry of presence), I agree that it is a very fine line -- especially as a teacher of literature, where we deal constantly with religious symbolism, themes, and allusions. I often find myself prefacing explanations of biblical allusions with distancing remarks. As an aside, I'm often surprised at how much explaining I have to do. I don't expect the majority of my students to be churched, but I guess I used to assume a basic amount of cultural literacy for things like what the Trinity is or what Easter is celebrating (perhaps Hirsch is right...).

At 3/27/08, 12:06 AM, Blogger SciGuy said...

I teach science in a very conservative part of the country. Safe to say many of my views are in the minority in my neck of the woods. When questions regarding religion come up (as they always do) I explain the purpose and boundaries of science- what it can tell us and what it can not. I stay neutral and do not share my personal views. I do share the thought that finding your own answers in life is half the purpose and fun of living, and I encourage them to go on to college- where they can stay up many a late-night discussing religion, politics and world events with their roommates...

I think your answer was appropriate.


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