The benefits of illegal proposals

Mike Salovesh t20mxs1 at CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU
Fri Feb 25 00:00:48 UTC 2000

"Dennis R. Preston" wrote:
> It's not the jopb of schools to ignore things which consitute legitimate
> academic material; a history of comparative religions strikes me as just
> such an area. Let's all try to get it in all our schools.

Which recalls two (unrelated!) blasts out of my past:

1)  Early in my teaching career, I had the wild idea that when I taught
courses which met "distribution requirements"  (maybe they're called
"general ed" or "core" courses in your neighborhood) it was incumbent on
me to work outside the box of my own disciplinary specialties.
Following that assumption, I came up with a self-generated obligation to
spend  a lot of time in any such courses considering the works of, and
ideas surrounding, four people whose viewpoints became the central foci
of Western thought in the 20th century.  My candidates for that honor
were Darwin, Einstein, Freud, and Marx; I built an explanation of what
I'd be doing (and some of the ways I'd approach the task) into my
opening sessions of any such course.

The second time I began a course that way, I saw a student's light go
on, and he eagerly came up to talk with me after class. I'm sorry to say
that my light went off when he said: "Oh, I'm so glad you'll be talking
about Marx.  I've been studying Marxism all summer.  Well, actually, it
was anti-Marxism, know what I mean?"

And that leads me to wonder just who will teach the history of
comparative religions Dennis would like to see in all our schools.

2)  Scene: the Hartford Avenue School, a public school in Milwaukee;
time 1939 to 1942.  Our school day began with the Pledge of Allegiance
(this was before the insertion of the words "Under God") and the prayer
of the day.  Public prayer also began school assemblies, special events,
and (I think) even some classes where the teacher was trying to fill
time while searching for the day's class notes.

I frequently got into trouble because of those public prayers.  To begin
with, in my religious upbringing my mentors said things like "There's no
sense in bowing your head to pray.  You can't hide your face from God."
My teachers kept insisting that I do what my religious mentors told me
not to do.  Some of them also objected to the fact that I didn't fold my
hands just so while they were doing their prayer thing.

I wasn't having any internal problems about what you're supposed to do
with your body because some other folks have something to say to THEIR
God.  I was much more worried about whether these people were totally
determined on seeing me damned for eternity by making me violate, among
other things, that part of the Ten Commandments that says something like
"Thou shalt have no other Gods before me".  (Substitute whatever
translation suits you.) Their prayers, which they forced me to say, were
certainly not those approved by my family's religion.  I felt like I was
being forced to pray to false Gods by a crew of soul-snatchers.

My own religious upbringing was so far out that I spent a long time
worrying about who was the He of the His they kept talking about:  "We
ask it in His name."  Whose name?  Surely they couldn't have been taking
God's name in vain!

Eventually, I noticed that all the public prayers we were forced to
mouth came from an extremely limited viewpoint.  In school assemblies
(and at picnics and public performances -- I was in the school choir and
in the school orchestra) our prayers were frequently led by Reverend
This or Pastor that.  But we never were led by Father O'Who, or Sister
Mary Watchamacallit, or Rabbi Himself, not to mention any gurus, imams,
shamans, Zen masters, witches and warlocks, curanderos, tlatoani, or
other kinds of spiritual leaders.

As my awareness grew, I noticed a disparity that was even stranger: our
imported prayer leaders were Lutherans or Methodists or Presbyterians or
Episcopalians. Once in a rare while we might even hear from a Baptist.
But we never heard from the A.M.E. Zion Church, or the Greek or Russian
Orthodox traditions -- from which I got the impression that those folks
(and many others who said they believed in Christ) were regarded as no
more Christian than the Catholics. (Nobody felt the need of repeating in
school what we could hear in the schoolyard any day:  that those
Cat-Lickers were in league with the Jews in trying to pollute "our noble
race".) If that wasn't bad enough, school ceremonies not only excluded
people like Quakers and Unitarians and Mennonites and Mormons, from time
to time we were told that they were dangerous heretics; their histories
were falsified in social studies classes; teachers openly ridiculed all
of them.

The mixing of public shows of piety and public education hit its apogee
in what our principal and our teachers told us about the sacredness of
The Flag.  Anyone who might be tempted to the religious independence of
those Jehovah's Witnesses who were trying to avoid their duty as
citizens to idolatrize the U.S. Flag would have gotten short shrift in
the repeated attacks on religious freedom that were part of my school's
priority agenda. (I might add that in most of this period, the Nazi
Swastika flag was given almost as much respect as the U.S. flag -- as a
symbol of the eternal friendship of America and Germany.  There were
parades in downtown Milwaukee led by massed flags, with swastikas and
the stars and stripes at times in equal numbers. Some of the underlying
attitude, and much of the public display of swastikas, faded by 1941,
but there was a lot of support earlier for Hitler's invasion of Poland.
. .  backed up by attacks on people of Polish descent, and on their
businesses, in neighborhoods less favored than ours.)

Dennis, maybe schools shouldn't ignore things which constitute
academic material, but if the choice were between the kind of teaching I
got in 4th, 5th, and 6th grades and the total absence of public school
teaching of
comparative religion, I know my answer.  Teaching religion is not
something I would willingly hand over to intolerant zealots, not even
those of my own religious persuasion. My experience makes me extremely
wary of hidden agendas that frequently are masked by calls for more
piety in schools.

I say that there are too many important things for my grandchildren to
learn in school for them to be mentally kidnapped by those who would
force their religions on the rest of us.

-- mike salovesh                    <salovesh at>

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