Challenging Assumptions

I was recently removed from a Facebook discussion after I challenged a cherished axiom of social/political/theological juncture.  (And no, it wasn’t about immigration.) I have also noticed that when I blog about anything that hints at scrutinizing accepted talking points, the traffic drops to nothing. People don’t even read just to say, “What an idiot.” When I want hits, I write sentimental schmaltz. Critical thinking is not a particularly popular pastime.

So what sorts of challenges are unwelcome? How about the one that most recently made me persona non grata.

Ever since Engel v. Vitale was decided by the US Supreme Court in 1962, prayer has become increasingly banned in public schools. What began as a ban on school-sponsored prayer during educational time eventually led to the decision in Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe (2000), that student-led, student-initiated prayer at high school football games violates the Establishment Clause.  By extension this covers any student-led student initiated prayer at any school function.

Because Engel is a flawed example of judicial activism, it is bad. If prayer was constitutional for 171 years, it doesn’t suddenly become unconstitutional. This is just like the three-prong test of Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) that sets out the requirements of any legislation that touches upon religion. If three prongs weren’t necessary before 1971, they don’t somehow become necessary afterwards. Any cases based on Engel and Lemon (like Santa Fe ISD) are, ipso facto, flawed.

To this point, I no doubt have my cheering section of politically active, conservative Christians behind me. This is, after all, pretty standard Strict Constructionist, Original Intent stuff. However, I think there is a need to re-evaluate, not the legal arguments, but the moral arguments that have become a popular extension from them.

As I mentioned above, I had my comments removed from a Facebook thread. This happened after I challenged the following statement: “Morals declined when we took prayer and God out of school.” (Being removed from a discussion is nothing new to me. I’ve even been thrown out of an entire conservative Facebook group for holding a minority opinion on an issue.)  This proposition has become as much a part of the warp and woof of Christian conservativism as the legal analysis of Engel and its progeny. How dare I question the unquestionable. Yet that is exactly what I do.

I do this for two reasons. First, and most simply, because the truth matters. Second, and perhaps more controversially, because, as I addressed in another instance on this blog less than a year ago, conservative Christians have succumbed to sloppy scholarship.

I do this from two sources of evidence. First, it is worth examining school-sponsored prayer in state education outside of the United States. Second, there is the issue of the historical record and proximate cause.

I bring to this discussion seven years of experience as a teacher in the state schools in England and Wales. As recently as 1998, it was statutorily re-affirmed that in state schools all pupils must take part in a daily act of collective worship unless their parent has requested a waiver. The acts of collective worship must be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character.” Not only that, but children are also required to attended Religious Education lessons throughout the entire course of their compulsory education. The majority of these RE lessons must also be based on Christianity.

With that experience, and over a decade of living in conservative rural England, I can assure you that the continuation of prayer and even of Christian education in state schools has done nothing to slow the decline of morals, of the young or the not-so-young, in the United Kingdom. Robert Bork once wrote that America is slouching toward Gomorrah. If the United Kingdom sought to pursue the moral standards of Gomorrah and its sister city Sodom, it would be an upward move. These two ancient conurbations of sin are veritable Cities Set Upon Hills compared to the morality of Sceptred Isle.

But what of the possibility of an actual causal link between Engel and moral decline? This raises a couple of related questions. First, did the removal of the content have an effect? What was the nature of that content in 1962?

We first have to recognize that in 1962, prayer in school wasn’t particularly widespread across the United States. It was actually at its peak in the 1920s, though it had been ruled out in quite a few states before or shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Along with mandatory Bible reading, it was the subject of considerable litigation in the state courts, sometimes upheld and sometime overturned, based on state constitutions.

Even though it was patchy across the US, what was the content of prayer in schools in 1962? Let’s look at the prayer that was ruled unconstitutional in Engel. In New York, the following prayer had to be recited by a school official each day: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.” After Engel, that one sentence was no longer recited publicly at some point during the day. It that enough to send the nation into a moral tailspin?

I cannot count how many examples I’ve seen of charts, graphs, and tables marking the decline in morality since the Engel decision. The interesting thing is that they don’t chart back before 1962 to indicate trends already in the making and unchanged by Engel or its progeny. And of course they don’t demonstrate a direct causal link between the removal of a one-line prayer and the rise in violent crime, sexual promiscuity, music piracy, or whichever evil they are attempting to emphasize. Generally they are based upon the self-evident statement that such evils are what happens when God is removed from public schools. A little circular reasoning goes a long way.

I will finish by going to the heart of the matter. Did “we” (through Supreme Court justices appointed by three different Presidents before almost all of us were born) take prayer or God out of schools? I know I prayed in school long after Engel, which was decided two years before I was born.  Prayer is, after all, talking to God. And can anyone remove God from a school or any place else? On the other hand, how many kids were actually praying when a teacher or principal recited “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country”? Or was it form over substance?  Can the acts of Supreme Court justices confer collective responsibility upon anyone, not to mention lives not yet in being?

In the UK, God is mentioned everywhere in school and He gets his own lessons, yet almost no one acknowledges Him. In the US, He is not officially mentioned and churches (other than liberal Protestant denominations) continue to grow. He is more openly acknowledged in the media and in politics than in 1962. There are more open visible followers of Jesus amongst young people in America than ever before. In trying to make a connection between the virtually symbolic act of removing prayer from schools and the abundance of sin, there has been ignorance of the fact that grace has much more abounded.

Would it be nice if we returned to the practice of a content-free, one sentence, ecumenical prayer in public schools each day? Perhaps. Is it going to stem the dishonesty, violence, fornication, or whatever other ills we identify in our young people or in our society? No. That takes real prayer. That takes changed hearts and changed lives.

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Success is Failure in British Education

For the first time ever, a grammar school has failed an inspection. For those unfamiliar with British education, grammar schools are selective schools. Prospective pupils have to pass an entrance exam known as the 11-plus. Where they use to be commonplace, there are now only 168 remaining in England. In most places in the state sector there are only non-selective comprehensive schools.

So how did Stretford Grammar School fail inspection? Was it the location in a highly disadvantaged area? The 30% of pupils for whom English is a second language? After all, if the national average of good GCSE grades  (A*- C) when English and maths are included is 47%, how poorly must Stretford Grammar have been doing to have failed and threatened with closure unless the turn things around? I’ll tell you how poorly: 92% at grades A*-C. Nearly twice the national average.

So what did Ofsted find wrong with Stretford Grammar?

“These include the good personal development and well-being of pupils, the positive attitudes found among students, good attendance and behaviour, the feeling of safety and security in the school, positive pupil/teacher relationships, high staff morale and the good teaching and learning in the sixth form.” Oh, wait, sorry. Those were more of the good points.

So what was wrong with Stretford Grammar?

Lacklustre teaching. The inspectors didn’t like the teaching styles. They couldn’t tick the right boxes concerning what makes a good lesson. Oh, and girls weren’t making enough progress. This is surprising, because everywhere else the problem is that boys are underachieving. In other words, Stretford managed what other schools don’t.

So in case you were wondering, this is what a failing school looks like.

Forcing Sex Education on Five-Year-Olds

I ignored this story when I first saw it in the Daily Mail, but it is all over the news now. The Government plans to teach compulsory sex education in England from the age of 5. Ministers may not even allow for parents to withdraw their children. In other words, unless parents can afford a private school or opt to homeschool, their very young children will be subjected to a combination of the National Curriculum requirements and the bias of their particular school teacher.

Schools Minister Jim Knight thinks sex and relationships education from age five is needed to combat the ‘earlier sexualisation’ of youngsters. It is the usual sex education policy of fighting fire with fire. So if small children are going to see sexual imagery in every exposre to the media, the best thing is to explain it all to them. Even at Key Stage 1 (ages 5-7) teachers will be told not to duck discussions about ‘explicit sexual matters’ if they are raised by pupils. They don’t actually have to teach about sexual intercourse until Key Stage 2 (ages 7-11).

State schools that are faith-based will be allowed to include their own guidance and values in the curriculum. For Catholic schools, that is rather clearly defined. I’m not sure what it means for Church of England schools, since the C of E’s own values about sexuality seem in quite a state of flux. But in nondenominational non-faith state schools, there will only be guidance from the government. As Stephen Green, national director of Christian Voice, was quoted in The Independent, this is a Government that wants to see “a whole generation fornicating”, something I’ve been saying for a long time.

The other guidance will be form the lifestyles of the teachers themselves. I can’t see how fornicating teachers will be teaching about sex as appropriate only with the context of marriage. If they were to do so, their hypocrisy would undermine what they are saying. As much as teachers may try to keep their private lives private, pupils eventually know whether a teacher is married or living with a “partner”.  Children observing and under the influence of hedonistic teachers can hardly be expected to follow a different path.

Banning Father’s Day

I was just going to write about how thousands of primary school children in Scotland were banned from making Father’s Day cards this year. Then I found out that the same thing happened at the school of an Unnamed Child in the heart of England. It’s probably even more widespread.

This has been done, as they said in Scotland, “in the interests of sensitivity” because of the growing number of single-parent households and children living with a mother and her lesbian partner. I’m hoping there’s none of the latter at the Unnamed Child’s school, as it is in direct violation of the dogma of the Church that runs the school.

Let’s set aside for a moment the children living in Gomorrah situations, as these are thankfully still less than normative. The sensitivity is really over the fact that 25% of children live with a single parent. They don’t want to make the children uncomfortable if they don’t have a father. And herein lies the specious reasoning.

Everyone has a father. I know that science and the Labour government are working to change that, but for now – and certainly for any child of school age – it took a sperm and an egg. Some children may have lost their father through death. This is a terrible thing, but this has always been the case and Father’s Day has never been cancelled because of it.

It is true that there are in increasing number of children who don’t know their father. This may be because their mother doesn’t know who the father is. Or it may be because the father has been marginalised. I know of more than a few cases whether the mother has simply cut the father out of the child’s life.

In most cases, however, the child knows who the father is and even has some sort of relationship with the father, even if his is not resident in the same home. It’s these father’s who get cut out of Father’s Day. As Matt O’Connor, founder of Fathers For Justice, said: “I’m astonished at this. It totally undermines the role and significance of fathers whether they are still with the child’s mother or not. It also sends out a troubling message to young boys that fathers aren’t important.”

Alastair Noble, education officer with the charity Christian Action, Research and Education (CARE), said: “This seems to be an extreme and somewhat absurd reaction. I would have thought that the traditional family and marriage are still the majority lifestyles of people in Scotland. To deny the experience of the majority just does not seem sensible.”

An Unnamed Woman often suggests that rant too often about the “ought” instead accepting the “is”. (That is my terminology, not hers.) I was once told that I will never be successful unless I give up my pre-modern principles and accept the the ways of the modern world.  Perhaps this is true. But despite the 25% of families with a single resident parent, there are still 75% who have both parents resident. There are still most of the 25% who have a dad somewhere.

Most of all, there is still a need to remember that fathers are just as important as mothers.

Crime and Crime Prevention

Today’s pustules on the butt of society are Adrian Hutchinson and Keith Buckley.

They got 26- and 28-year tariffs with their life sentences for the murder of a 62-year-old man who refused to hand over his mobile phone during their fifth robbery of the evening in Oldham town centre. As reported in the Daily Mail,

After Mr Smith refused their request for a cigarette, Buckley punched him in the face before the pair dragged him to a darkened yard, threatened him with a knife and demanded his property.

The 62-year-old had only bought the phone a week earlier and refused to give it up, but was put in a headlock and hit and kicked repeatedly, causing fractures of the skull, cheek, jaw and larynx.

Taking his phone – which was later sold for just £20 – the pair left Mr Smith dying where he lay, and his body was not found until 17 days later.

Hutchinson and Buckley aren’t teenagers – they are 25 and 22 – but their prior convictions go back before that. Hutchinson was first convicted at 11and before he was 16 he had nine convictions for arson, assault, and burglary, but never received any time behind bars. It was 29 further convictions later that he was finally jailed in 2004. He got four years for burglary, robbery and assault.

But never fear, the Government is here with a new solution for the growing crime problem. It now wants to hold schools responsible for curbing crime, as well as teen pregnancy and all other lifestyle issues. How well they meet 18 new targets for improving and policing pupils’ lifestyles and well-being will be included in their Ofstead (school inspection) reports.

Surely once schools are encumbered with even more non-teaching responsibility, the next generation of Hutchinsons and Buckleys will be redeemed. Our hope is the the expansion of bureaucracy and the micro-management of everyone’s lives.

The Qualifications Racket

One of the first vocabulary words I had to learn when I moved to this county was “qualifications”. They are a British obsession. If you were going for a job in the States and someone asked you about your qualifications, you would describe your work history

This is a country obsessed with qualifications. They are little pieces of paper that say you have completed some sort of course. Some of the most important qualifications are General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSEs).

In the UK there is no such thing as a high school diploma. Instead, you receive a certificate for each subject you take. You don’t have a Grade Point Average. You get a string of grades, e.g., 5 A*’s (called “A stars”), 2 A’s, a B and a C, (if you are brainy), or a D, three E’s, two F’s, and a G (if you’re not or can’t be bothered). A*-C grades are considered good GCSEs. D-G grade aren’t. To actually fail, you have to get a “U”. In my subject, that would mean getting below 14%. In some subjects 16% will get you a C.

All of the exams are administered by national exam boards that have contracts with the Government. After all, schools can’t be trusted with so great a responsibility as examining their own students. Government always knows best.

Each department in each school chooses which exam board it will use and which syllabus within the options offered by the board. The thing about externally administered and marked exams is that they cost money. They cost so much money that more is being spent on exam fees than on textbooks and resources.

Let me put this in real terms. I misquoted a syllabus code to the exams officers at my school and she sent in the wrong number. Until she convinced them that it was because neither I or the school had ever done that exam before, so therefore they should waive the fee for the wrong entries, it was going to cost the equivalent of two years of my entire departmental budget.

No money had been spent by the exam board – no extra exam papers printed or anything. That was just the cost to go into the computer and change a 9 to a 0 in a course number for less than 100 exams.  Not that each entry would have to be changed manually – that could have taken as long as three minutes of a data processor’s time. It could have been done with a couple of key strokes.

This is because cost of the 100 exams is already the equivalent of two years of my departmental budget. In other words, we would have had to have paid double. No doubt some schools had to do just that. There’s no point in the exam board having the policy if they don’t plan on making some money from it.

As reported today in the Daily Telegraph, “One head teacher said that his exam costs had risen from £30,000 to £100,000 over five years for the same number of pupils.” So how much are these exam boards making each year? About £700 million in tax money. It’s a nice racket.

Why Five-Year-Olds Need Section 28

Some Muslim parents have complained about a couple of story books used at two Bristol primary schools. As a result the books have been pulled. So is this some sort of anti-Muslim rant? Far from it.

The books are characterised by the school as part of their “anti-homophobia” curriculum for five-year-olds.  One is a fairytale about a prince who turns down three princesses. He marries the brother of one of them. The other is set in a New York zoo, where two male penguins who fall in love.  Bristol City Council says they were intended to help prevent homophobic bullying.

What five-year-olds are engaged in homophobic bullying? What five-year-olds are holding themselves out as homosexual?

This is exactly the reason it was wrong to repeal Section 28. The use of these books is clearly about promoting not only homosexuality, but homosexual marriage equivalents.  Parents complained that children were coming home asking questions about same-sex relationships when there had never even been discussion about heterosexual relationships.

The schools in question are 60%-70% Muslim. Perhaps because Muslims are unacceptably unaccepting of homosexual behaviour, the school and the local council have felt the needed to force the issue on the children at such a young age. Parents complained so much the council has temporarily removed the books from the curriculum, which just goes to prove the council’s point.

The sad thing is that it is only Muslim parents that can get this done. If it were Christian parents, the council would have simply ignored them.