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Monday, January 26, 2009

McIlheran Watch: First Amendment is "a certain narrow-minded secularity."

by folkbum

I have received a few responses to my op-ed in yesterday's paper, most positive, many from fellow teachers. The Cheddarsphere has tended so far to leave the column alone, though I did get a rise out of one of my more regular sparring partners who was, in fact, mentioned in the piece.

I wrote, as part of a list of "solutions" to MPS's problems proffered by a variety of folk, "editorial columnist Patrick McIlheran [. . .] wants to put God back in MPS." I did not think this controversial, because, after all, I based that on what McIlheran wrote himself two weeks ago:
Frankly, I think it would be hard to teach morals and ethics without some reference to God, however understood. That’s why I send my kids to a school that’s free to mention Him. It’s wonderful that about 20,000 Milwaukee children can do so under the school choice program.

That still leaves 80,000 in MPS which, because of a certain narrow-minded secularity in American political culture, can’t mention God. Pity.
I do not think I was stretching; I have a hard time believing any reasonable reader could see those words and not come away feeling he thinks MPS needs God. Apparently, McIlheran disagrees. Last night, he wrote, "Bullock is wrong when he assumes I want to put God back in MPS." He goes on to explain that what he really meant was that he wants to take all the kids out of MPS and put them into private schools where God (or the deity of parents' choice) is woven into the education. That's so much better.

As one who works with the students in question daily, I do not believe that what they lack is religion. Occasiaonlly the worst offenders will talk of what they did and who they saw at church last weekend, just before they send a stream of profanity across the room disrupting the class. (I am not making this up.) I doubt, sadly, that many could spell atheist or secular, let alone embrace those principles for themselves.

(Aside: Saying MPS students need religion is in some ways like saying they need self-esteem. Are you kidding? Most of my students already have incredibly high self-regard, often vastly overestimating their own abilities and prospects for the future. The boys are all convinced they will be NBA stars and the girls are convinced they will win "American Idol" some day. I do not need to stroke their egos or boost their self-esteem!)

What disturbs me now in retrospect about McIlheran's original piece, the one that said it was a "pity" that God was being left out of MPS, is that he dismisses the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States as "a certain narrow-minded secularity in American political culture." I am sure that when James Madison, et al., were crafting the words that barred an establishment of religion, the last thing they expected to be called was "narrow-minded."

There is a probably apocryphal story about a certain ex-president referring to the Constitution as "just a [. . .] piece of paper." I doubt he said that, but it seems clear that there is a certain strain of conservative who values his own sense of the way things ought to be over the way things are, and whatever gets in the way is mere formality and not actually prohibitive.

But regardless of whence people personally get their sense of right and wrong (McIlheran links to some discussion in his post; fellow atheist Scott Feldstein was writing about this recently, too), we are country of laws that derive not from divine inspiration but from a secular notion of individual rights. The right to be free from others' religious imposition is an important one to me, and somehow, absent God, and following a fully secular education in integrated, relatively urban public schools and a non-religious private college, I turned out just fine. I demand nothing less of my own students today, and I don't--I shouldn't--need to threaten them with eternal damnation to get them to behave in class.

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