Neutral Fictions

JOSH GILDER

Public education in America is supposed to mean a morally neutral education, yet in literature class...

The CBS Evening News recently ran a special report dealing with home schooling in Michigan. “The goal,” intoned Dan Rather, is better education... But there are concerns that at least one of these schools has a hidden agenda.”

Sequel to the on-the-spot reporter investigating the Noah Webster Academy, a “controversial” school set up to provide support to home schoolers. “Critics charge,” he says, “that Noah Webster has ties to Christian fundamentalism” and is “little more than a disguise to get public money for religious education.” A parent is seen in his home instructing his child in the use of a microscope. The reporter is careful to point out that this parent is not a “certified teacher”; still, all seems innocent enough — until the camera zooms in on a black object lurking in a corner. Sure enough, there sits the menacing Bible. CBS quickly reassures us, however, that Noah Webster must survive a serious round of court challenges. “Public education in America is supposed to be secular public education,” explains a member of the Michigan ACLU, expressing what is today no more than common wisdom and no doubt the assumption of most sitting judges.

All this set me to thinking about the curricula I and my classmates were taught at Scarsdale High School, a progressive public school very much on the cutting edge back in the early `70s. We experienced no “religious” education, as such (our curricula would certainly have passed muster with the ACLU). But we did receive a “moral” education of sorts. This came mostly in literature class.

One of the standards that students first read in ninth or tenth grade was Shirley Jackson's short story “The Lottery.” Set in a fictional colonial village that is clearly supposed to serve as a metaphor for American society, the story concerns a complacent mother whose infant child is taken from her arms to be stoned to death in order to appease an angry god. Unfolding with all the remorseless sadism of a horror movie, the story, as we were told by our teachers, “unmasks the hidden violence” in society and the “hypocrisy” of religion. “Hypocrisy” was added to our vocabulary list, along with “piousness,” which became an often-used word in class, always as a pejorative.

As juniors we graduated to more famous twentieth-century authors. We read Kafka's “Metamorphosis,” about a young man who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a cockroach and is finally killed by his family, to everyone's general relief. We read Beckett's “Waiting for Godot” (“Godot,” or God, never arrives), Sartre's “No Exit” (“Hell is other people”), and Camus's “The Stranger,” whose hero shoots another man because the sun is in his eyes. All this was taught to us as great literature—as indeed most educators would still claim it is—that would provide us with profound insights into the real nature of man and society. God was referred to only as “dead,” or as the antecedent to “less,” as in “Godless universe.” The longest “religious” discussion we had was when our teacher explained that the cross was really a “phallic symbol.” (“Do you know what a phallic symbol is, Julie?”) He was quite proud of his insight and expounded upon it at great length.

The only change since my school days seems to be that this kind of curriculum has now become incorporated in public schools throughout middle America. My 16-year-old cousin, who attends a public high school in rural western Massachusetts, was given to read J.D. Salinger's “A Good Day for Bananafish,” in which all seems normal, even comfortable and happy, until the central character unexpectedly shoots himself at the end. Other students tell me that Raymond Carver's brutal and violent stories (also unmasking the supposed brutal and violent nature of American society) have been added to the list.

The point here is not that high school students shouldn't be exposed to the unpleasant realities of life. Butler's The Lives of the Saints is full of the harsh realities of death, loss, torture, and persecution. The point is that such a curriculum is in no way morally or religiously neutral. These authors, after all, are some of the “greatest writers of the twentieth-century” and their work, though different in other ways, shares a common philosophy, or “world view” as teachers are so fond of saying. There is a specific name for that world view — it's called atheism.

One isn't supposed to use that word “atheism” these days; it's been banished to the same linguistic limbo as “communism” used to be. Atheism, however, is a perfectly good word and needs to be rehabilitated if we are going to debate religion and education on anything like a level playing field. Recent, baroque interpretations of the “establishment clause” notwithstanding, the fact remains that America's original settlers came here to escape what they considered the intolerable oppression of being forced against their conscience to support the “established” Church of England. It hardly seems probable that the founders would have taken kindly to the idea of forcing believers to support with their tax dollars the teaching of atheism, a religion — or world view, if you will — actively hostile to their beliefs.

It is a fiction to pretend that one can deal with life's great issues and remain neutral on the fundamental question that has preoccupied every culture since the beginning of the human race: man's relation to God. I suppose that parents have the right if they want to teach their children that there is no God, that the universe is random and meaningless, that parental love is a charade, ad that teenage children who are troubled (and have distorted self-images, as many enduring the rigors of adolescence do) are better off dying, like the son in “Metamorphoses,” or killing themselves, like the young man in “Bananafish.” As I say, perhaps it is their right, though it strikes me as a kind of perversion or psychological form of child abuse.

In America today, family break-down has reached catastrophic proportions. The destruction that has wrought on the lives and spirits of our young is most terribly reflected in the steep rise of the teenage suicide rate to double today what it was in 1970. Social workers are reporting a new phenomenon, young children — “pre-teenagers” — taking their own lives. But CBS News, Dan Rather, and Connie Chung are deathly afraid that our children will be taught that God is love — and loves them no matter how troubled they are — that self-sacrifice is godly and that the world is not meaningless but full of transcendentally important choices between right and wrong. The real question to ask is — why are liberals so afraid of the Bible?

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Gilder, Josh. “Neutral Fictions.” Crisis 14, no. 1 (January 1996): 5.

Reprinted with permission of The Morley Institute, Inc., a non-profit educational foundation. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.

THE AUTHOR

Josh Gilder is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 1996 Crisis


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