One day last year when I was feeling scrappy, I asked a representative from my children's prospective school a loaded question. "How do you handle the teaching of cultural diversity and religious beliefs in the classroom?" I asked. I knew the answer, of course, but I wanted to see how she would respond. [The answer is that the public school system has a policy of avoiding all mention of the religious beliefs of those around us, except when safely couched in the cold framework of positivist history.]
After an uncomfortable pause, the representative, herself a confirmed secular imperialist it turns out, answered something along the lines of, "In the classroom, we try to focus on things that are physically tangible. For example, if we study dinosaurs, we try to focus on the study of fossils rather than imagining what living dinosaurs may have been like." Think about this statement for a moment as it is rich with ideological juices. I can think of a number possible interpretations of this statement:
- Utilitarian learning is more important than fostering creativity and learning about ideas.
- Religion in particular and meaning in general is of less value than utilitarian learning.
- Pondering ultimate reality and the divine, or by extension engaging in prayer, meditation, or contemplation, is an activity of similar value to daydreaming about the lives of dinosaurs.
- Imagining how dinosaurs lived is an activity of low educational value.
- And the list could go on...
I forget exactly how I responded, but I recall that I raised a few eyebrows and prompted a rapid change of topic. I did try to get across that the sort of thinking represented by this statement does a disservice to our children who need to be equipped to live and work in an increasingly pluralistic world and that the "dinosaur" statement at best represents fear on the part of the school board or at worst is a form of secular fundamentalism.
As an illustration of exactly what schools are afraid of if they were to actually engage in a serious conversation about culture and meaning, consider this recent story from el reg about a Wal Mart employee known only as Kirby who was let go after responding to a custom complaint regarding the change of a "Merry Christmas" greeting to "Happy Holidays".
"Christmas is actually a continuation of the Siberian shaman and Visigoth traditions,' Kirby replied. 'Santa is also borrowed from the [Caucasus], mistletoe from the Celts, yule log from the Goths, the time from the Visigoth and the tree from the worship of Baal. It is a wide wide world,' the helpful Kirby replied, making sure every I was dotted and every T crossed."