Thursday, October 28, 2010

What I WILL and WON’T do

I've engaged in conversations online where the other party will express concern that I, an atheist, am teaching impressionable youngsters. I've been told that I am a living example of how students in public schools are being indoctrinated in humanistic, atheist dogma, but students are (and I kid you not, one person told me he KNOWS this happens) being expelled if they show up in school wearing a crucifix around their necks. While I have never encountered this attitude in my own town yet (by and large my community is very accommodating), I thought it might not be a bad idea to break down what I will and won't do in the performance of my job.

I WILL stand quietly during the "moment of silence" at the beginning of the day. I don't usually bow my head, and I never pray, but I do take the time to collect my thoughts for the morning. If other teachers and students want to pray, groovy. As long no one is required to pray during that time, I don't have many issues with it.

I WILL say the pledge of allegiance, but I'm not crazy about it though. I'd rather pledge allegiance to the principles of the Constitution. No one has written that pledge yet, or it hasn't caught on if they have, so the point is moot. Either way, I don't include the "under God" when I say the pledge. It wasn't added to the pledge until 1954, and it's patently unconstitutional.

I WILL teach religiously themed literature in my English classes, up to and including sections of the Bible. First, there's some damn fine poetry in the Bible. I love parallelism in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, and I admit I enjoy the surprise on freshmen's faces when they recognize it as the lyrics from a song they've heard on the annoying oldies station their parents listen to. Second, it is impossible to know where we are without looking at where we come from, and much of the most powerful works humanity has produced were focused on the religious beliefs of the time. I don't have any more of a problem teaching Milton's Paradise Lost and all its illustrations of the God, Satan, angels and Demons to my seniors than I do teaching Homer's Odyssey with its descriptions of Zeus, Athena, Hermes, and the Cyclops to my ninth grade. I don't shy away from questions the works raise in my students though. If after reading Milton's explanations of God allowing Satan to work his evil in the universe, a student openly questions the flawed logic, I don't shut down the train of thought as long as the class discussion remains civil. I'm not there to dissuade students from their beliefs. I am there to promote critical thinking.

I WON'T proselytize for atheism in school. There is no place for anyone in a position of authority in public schools to promote any sort of religious belief whatsoever, and that includes the promoting of non-belief as well. I'm quite proud of comments I've received over the years from my students that indicate they have had no bloody clue as to my personal beliefs. I've has students who've praised me as "highly spiritual" (and are amazed that the school lets me get away with that), and a few who have returned after a few years to tell me they only just figured out where I stood (even then, they're usually not one hundred percent correct). Yeah, I realize the cat's out of the bag if they read this blog, but I will still make every effort possible to not bring my theistic beliefs into the classroom with me.

I WILL do everything in my power to make my students think critically about what they read in my class.

I WILL require them in their written work to back up their points clearly and rationally, avoiding logical fallacies at all times.

I WILL treat my students' right to believe as they choose with the utmost respect, even if I may not respect those beliefs themselves, and I will fight to protect that right with all my power. The most effective way I feel I can do that is to continue to actively defend the separation of church and state.


  1. For what it's worth, I'm with you on the pledge item.

  2. All eminently reasonable, man. And yeah, that's how I feel about the pledge, too.

  3. You know...I do have admit that I didn't know what your beliefs were when I was sitting in the third seat from the front in the 6th row. I honestly didn't care. I believed your were a great teacher and still do. Beliefs have nothing to do with being a great teacher. Conviction and a desire to teach and teach well is why I payed attention in your class and participated. You played devil's advocate so many times I don't think I could have been sure about your beliefs anyway. You were always keeping us guessing, on our toes and thinking critically which was your aim. That is why you succeed where others fail.

  4. Please don't hold it against me that I don't remember where I sat... I sat somewhere else in homeroom when I was there. There were times when I suspected that Rich might have been a secret Muslim or perhaps even a bear; the real shock came when I found out that he was what the real threat to America's youth, an atheist teacher. I can honestly say that I didn't know this for sure until earlier today when I read this blog, but still, Rich is the evil corrupting our society.

    Class discussion was never really an issue of beliefs but being able to present your interpretation of the work at hand in intelligent conversation. It was amazing to see different people coming up with good, defensible positions; there were times I'd purposefully not answer to see what other people were thinking. The encouragement to think for ourselves did a lot for many in the class and sure that there were some that learned the material because of the teaching style. I ended up in Rich's class thanks to a scheduling issue that kept me from the honors class(which I wasn't going to take anyway...) and I'd like to think that I'm a better person for being in the class and that I probably learned more than I would have otherwise.

    The one thing I regret is that I still have issues with comma use.