Saturday, May 07, 2005

Cupertino & the U.S. Constitution

In catching up on New Yorker back issues I just now read about the overtly religious teacher at a Cupertino, California public school and the moves by the principal there to cramp that teacher's classroom style. Somehow the national sensation surrounding this affair and news of the associated lawsuit passed me by.

It makes perfect sense to me that one or both sides in this dispute would reach for the constitution's "establishment clause," which limits relations between church and state. Yet the clause feels distant from the fundamental issue, and I'm afraid the constitution doesn't provide the protection we'd really like.

To me, the upset over the Cupertino teacher's religious demonstrativeness is just like the curfuffle that ensues about teachers being gay. It's constitutional and legal to be gay in the classroom (i.e. while standing alone and in clothes at the front like any other teacher), just as it's constitutional and legal to hold in one's mind the beliefs of an American evangelical Christian in front of a classroom. What raises objections are a) recurrent and overt classroom displays of particular attitudes, values and beliefs, and b) indications by the teacher--for example, through language or behavior that's identifiable with a subculture--that he or she has such attitudes, values or beliefs.

As a designated authority figure and official ambassador of civilized adulthood, as well as simply an individual on whom children are focused much of their day, a teacher cannot help but model attitudes, behaviors, values and beliefs. Thing is, we don't want every constitutionally permitted attitude, behavior, value and belief modeled for our children. We don't even want to leave this modeling to chance. School is a highly engineered environment.

Most of us like the modeling that children are subjected to by virtue of teachers being black or brown or yellow or wheel chair-bound. Such modeling says "if you're black or brown or yellow or accidentally become paralyzed, nonetheless you could be a teacher, a paragon." Note though that being black or brown or yellow or paraplegic is not something kids can emulate.

Fashion and vocabulary are things kids will emulate, and so we have objections to certain garbs and certain words. The courage and/or audacity in being "out" and the idiosyncratic mannerisms of the gay community also are "emulatable." So is disdain for the current administration. So is insensitivity to people's feelings and phoniness. Religion may not be the most easily transmitted of all emulatable behaviors, but once transmitted it is an extremely addictive and domineering one. It's entirely appropriate to take care among children in splashing it around, especially when the person liable to splash is their teacher. The classroom is under quarantine with regard to culture.

A smart constitution would provide against it's own undoing by mandating public schooling not just in the rules it sets (including rules for its own ammendment), but in the values it embodies and expresses. So even while this mandatory schooling need not (and should not) model every constitutionally protected thought and behavior, still it would teach children an abiding tolerance toward these protected thoughts and behaviors. Unfortunately, that's a lesson that starkly conflicts with most religions, and it's unclear our constitution is as smart as all that.

No comments: