zen wisdom


Fifty years ago this past summer, the United States’ Supreme Court issued a ruling that is still inflaming tempers and broiling controversies. The court banned prayer and advocacy teaching of religion in public schools. The case was the Abington School District v. Schempp, brought by young Mr Schempp who believed that his constitutional rights were being violated by a Pennsylvania law allowing prayer and the reading of the King James Bible in his school. Schempp won and all hell broke loose. Ever since, civil libertarian groups and fundamentalists of many stripes had been warring. However, the war is dwindling down now to the occasional hand grenade in the form of an op-ed piece.

Such a grenade appeared earlier this summer in the Wall Street Journal, America’s most widely read newspaper. It was a very cheery little column entitled “God is Still in the Classroom” and the author made two points.

The first is that the Supreme Court’s ruling was correct. It overwhelming ruled [8 to 1] that as government sponsored schools, they must observe strict neutrality in matters of religion. As a former public school teacher and parent, I fully support such a decision. Paying tax money to a school that is promoting to my children a different religion from mine is cause for “going to the mattresses.”

The article’s second point was a celebration of the fact that public school can and should teach about religion and that, indeed, there is a good deal of teaching about religion going on in public schools today. Specifically, the author, a professor of religion, asserted that public schools can and should teach comparative and world religions and the Holy Bible as literature and history.

A week later in a letter to the editor, a teacher cast a shadow on this optimism: “I found that Judeo-Christian traditions are treated with suspicion and outright hostility, while pagan and animistic belief systems are considered academically interesting, but aren’t taken seriously as religious faiths.” This echoes reports I have heard over and over that Christianity, and particularly the Catholic Church, is a regular target for arched eyebrows, snide comments and direct ridicule in American public schools.

“Teaching about religions” is one of those sparkling educational ideas that looks wonderful on paper, but, in fact, leads to dangerous madness. Take for instance the comparative or World religion courses. How many high school teachers are equipped to convey properly to adolescents the theological and historical underpinnings of the great faiths? When they get around to Catholicism, how will they explain the Eucharist, the central reality of the Catholic faith? When they get into the history of the Church will they address the centuries of good works done around the world by nuns and priests and committed laymen? Or will they drag out the Inquisition and the history of the Papacy? How about a “fair and balanced” treatment of the fourteen century old rift between Sunni and Shiite Muslims? And the three major branches of Judaism?  

And where are these teachers to be trained? Have they taken one or two college courses in religion at the state university? At Georgetown University? Or are they self-trained? Can they be objective and fair, not favoring their “home team?”

And what about the students, the majority of whom have only the slimmest grasp of their own faith?  Are they ready to “compare and contrast” Christianity and Zoroastrianism? Ready to probe the tenets of atheism and deism? In the current parlance, what is their “take away” from these courses? “All religions are equally weird.” Or, “as a result of this course I believe the Mormons have the best take on the afterlife and the agnostics have the best sexual ethics.” Or that favorite of the village atheist, “religion is just something men developed to explain the unexplainable and to keep us from being afraid of the dark.”

Religion isn’t, like sociology or literature or even theology, a field of study. Nor in the secular environment of a public school should it be. Religion is a personal belief system that directs the religious individual’s answer to life’s big questions, ultimate questions, such as: What is the meaning of my existence? What is a worthy way for me to spend my life? And how should I treat those around me? These are some of the fundamental human questions serious religions attempt to answer. These are questions for which our children need answers.

Religion is and historically has been a central a central concern of U.S. citizens. Our Constitution rests on a religious view that all men are created equal. Our laws rest on the assumption of the sanctity of the person and that we have been endowed with certain rights. However, our educational system which increasingly dominates the lives of our children provides no understanding of these ideas. Mouth them, yes. Explore them? Teach them? No. They are just slogans in a world of competing slogans. “Be all you can be.” “Do it!” “Things go better with Coke.”

All children, intellectually gifted and not, seek to understand their world and what they should do to survive and prosper. Psychologists label us as “meaning seekers.”  When a child asks himself or herself “Who am I? What am I?” our public schools answer, “You are a future citizen, a future worker and taxpayer.” When students ask themselves in the secret of their hearts, “Why be good? Why share? Why follow all these rules?” there is a pause and the schools answer, “Why it is in your self interest to share and play by the rules.”

The self-interest reasons, in general, works well with the children of the rich and those whose natural talents and abilities open up a vision of a prosperous future. Increasingly, however, those with lesser futures, those of limited talents and prospects, are realizing that their self interest lies along less approved paths. They see the answer to getting what they want as rejecting the constraints of authority, as using others for their own gain or mere satisfaction, and as simply taking whatever brings them pleasure or easies their pain. These are the overriding messages behind the public schools’ English literature and Social Studies courses, behind the world of athletics and extracurricular activities.

We have succeeded in building a huge and expensive mechanism to educate and, yes, socialize our children, but one that by law has excluded the core questions of human existence. In the U.S. today, the parents of 90 percent of our children have little choice but to send them to schools that provide a soul shrinking view of what it is to be a human being. As a result, we have put their future and the future of the nation in the hands of a coming generation which has been nurtured by a pleasure-drugged culture. We have added to that a secular educational system that nourishes their hunger to understand how they should live their lives with empty bromides such as “Commit random acts of kindness.” When that voice in their heads asks, “Why?” there is silence.

While it is legally and morally correct to keep the teaching of religion out of tax-supported, state run schools, our current arrangement begs a larger question: Why should the state be in charge of what goes into the heads of children. Providing the resources for schooling from taxes is one thing. Deciding what is and is not to be learned is wrong…and, again, dangerous.

Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared on CBS’s “This Morning”, ABC’s “Good Morning America”, “The O’Reilly Factor”, CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at kryan@bu.edu


Kevin Ryan is a retired professor, living at the edge of Boston and of sanity. He was once a high school English teacher, but found the work too hard and became a professor of education....