July 14, 2007

Proselytizing in the Classroom

High school is a turbulent time for many, and I think we'd all agree that there are plenty of things that can interfere with the learning process. If you are a high school student or the parent of one, you know the myriad difficulties in navigating this period. But the list of potential obstacles rarely includes the teachers. Imagine that you are a 16 year-old public high school student and one of your teachers spends considerable class time proselytizing, explicitly promoting Jesus, threatening sinners with hell, telling the class that dinosaurs accompanied humans on Noah's ark, and that evolution is a lie. What do you do?

It is bad enough when adults are exposed to this sort of nonsense, but pushing it on children is unpardonable. Teachers serve as intellectual role models, and few 16 year-olds can be expected to critically evaluate the quality of the information offered by their teachers. This makes them ideal candidates for indoctrination, but indoctrination is very different from education and has no place in public high schools.

There is a trust between student and teacher that is essential for learning to occur at this level. The student must be able to believe that the teacher has his or her best interests in mind, is providing accurate information, and would not intentionally mislead. Without such trust, how can we expect education to succeed? It will be minimally effective at best.

This case involving 16 year-old, Matthew LaClair, a junior at Kearny High School in New Jersey, sickens me to the core. Matthew's history teacher David Paszkiewicz (who also happened to be a Baptist pastor) is accused of Christian proselytizing in class, and Matthew has audio recordings to prove it.

The tapes reveal Paszkiewicz telling students "that if they do not believe that Jesus died for their sins, they 'belong in hell.' Imagine being a parent of a Jewish student. According to Paszkiewicz, neither evolution nor the Bing Bang theory have any scientific basis. Imagine that you are a student with interest in science.

Matthew and his family approached school officials with his recordings. Case closed, right? Not so fast.
Since Matthew turned over the tapes to school officials, his family and supporters said, he has been the target of harassment and a death threat from fellow students and “retaliation” by school officials who have treated him, not the teacher, as the problem. The retaliation, they say, includes the district’s policy banning students from recording what is said in class without a teacher’s permission and officials’ refusal to punish students who have harassed Matthew.
This report appeared in The New York Times in December of 2006, however, it had been making rounds on the atheist blogosphere well before that. It turns out that the school agreed to settle, and the settlement included training for teachers and students about the scientific basis of evolution, separation of church and state, etc. No child should have to go through this in modern America, but I applaud Matthew for his courage.

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