Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sat 3/15/2003 7:47 PM
Random Thought: Religion in Education

Dare I share this particular thought? I know it may get me into trouble. I have to admit that I am nervous about being so easily misunderstood. Religion, which so often has a bad rap as being anti-intellectual, isn't exactly greeted with open hands on our supposedly open-minded campuses. Oh, well, as a dear friend of mine, Lynn Anderson, said, I am a risk-taker. So, here goes.

Understand, I am not about to challenge the Establishment Clause in our Constitution. Although I think too often it's interpretation has been carried to the ridiculous extreme, I did lead the charge on my campus to ban the use of sectarian prayer at official university functions. So many of us academics, when we hear the word "religion," so immediately have these knee-jerk thoughts of extremism and close-mindedness that we ourselves become extreme and close minded. In a fit of objectivity so many of us become so subjective and intolerant. Before us dance visions of the American fundamentalist right wingers who believe God is anarmed American capitalist, who are negative to say the least towards anyone who doesn't believe as they do, who promote ideas that are intellectually unsupportable, or who use religion as a cover for racism, ultra-nationalism, capitalism, anti-government, anti-diversity, anti-feminism, and even the right to bear arms. And, the events of and since 9/11 haven't helped. We so easily think of religion in terms of zealotry, hypocrisy, and even ignorance. We so easily dwell on the "anti's" that we don't easily think of religion in terms of those who encourage a commitment to mutual cooperation and to service of others and of society as a whole. We so often see such charitable activities as having the ulterior motive of proselytizing.

And yet, whatever your belief, it goes where you are. I freely and openly admit that over the past few years it seems that my outlook on life and my profession has been increasingly shaped by my Jewish faith. To be sure, I am far from being what some might call either fundamental or orthodox. To the contrary, I am not a ritualist. I am far more of a culturalist. My faith is more one of the heart than of the ceremony. Micah 6:8 is one of my favorite passages in Scripture. I think I am close to being a Jewish deist with a touch of Jewish Zen. My son, Robby, once called me a "practical spiritualist." I believe that how I live, how I treat others, how I treat myself, is my most sincere prayer. How I relate to those supposedly "problem students" or "difficult students" or "disruptive students" or "they don't belong" students is a measure of my moral code. The extent to which I am an agent of transformation determines the extent, as someone once said, my life is an inspiration and memories of me are a benediction.

I believe that I must struggle to follow three paths laid out by my faith. The first is Tikkon Olam, the obligation of actively working to better the world. The second is tzedakah, being just, virtuous, and fair. And the third, is gimilut chasadem, performing deeds of loving kindness. I work hard to work these tenets into my teaching. They give me unbounded meaning. I believe good works are better than Scripture quoting or church-going. I hold each student sacred and accord him or her profound respect. I am more willing to act on what I know to be right. I am less willing to act in harmful ways. I am more inclined to act the way I should feel and for the benefit of others. With each small act of kindness, with each moment of mindfulness and practice, with each effort to serve others in their efforts to transform, I help build a new and better world and thereby make a difference

I bring this up this hot-button, sensitive, emotionally charged issue because we had just completed a "vigorous" discussion about the "Laramie Project," the play about the 1998 hate-killing of a homosexual student attending the University of Wyoming. I had asked the students in all the classes to see the play and be prepared to discuss their reactions during our "Tidbit" discussion day. Needless to say, the discussion of hate crimes eventually swung around to the morality or immorality of homosexuality, on to religious beliefs, and the extensive role religion has played and still plays in the American experience. At the end of one class, a student who had sat silent during the discussion came up to me.

"Are you religious, Dr. Schmier?"

"In my own way, yes," I answered.

"Do think religion has a place in education?.

"Yes," I answered.

"I didn't believe you thought we ought to have prayer in school and teach Creationism," the student concluded.

"I don't." He was more than a bit surprised.

"But, you said that you believed that religion has a place in education. I don't understand."

"Does religion have a place in your life?" I asked.


"What does that mean?"

"I read my Bible everyday. I pray everyday. I go to church on Sundays. I accept Christ as my Saviour. I let God into my life every day."

"That's not enough. Do you live your religion? Do you follow the Golden Rule and put it into action every day? When I said, 'yes,' that I believe religion has a place in the classroom, I meant you have to meet the ethical and moral expectations of your religion. Religion is really about offering a guide of how you are supposed to live, not merely about the beliefs you hold or the ceremonies you perform."

"I don't understand."

"You say that you let God into your life and yet last week you didn't"

"How did I do that?"

"You lied and cheated."

"No, I didn't. I'm not dishonest."

"You're not? In your journal last week you dated each entry as if you followed the rules of making an entry each day, didn't you?"

"Well, yes."

"But, you actually did them all at once on the day the journal was due. Right?"

"Yes, but...."

"No, 'buts!' Did you feel bad about it?"

"Not really."

"Did you think it was a 'no big deal?'"

"Well, it wasn't like it was a test or an exam. I mean I had lots of work to do and I didn't have the time. I wasn't the only one who did that. And, I didn't really think you really read the journals anyway."

"You didn't really think it meant much or that you'd get caught."

"Something like that."

"But, you said you did something which you didn't do. Isn't that lying and cheating? Isn't it the same as being dishonest? Isn't that saying you did something that you didn't do? Isn't it being hypocritical to say you are religious and then do something that is contrary to being religious?"

"I never thought about it like that."

"You don't keep God out of your life when its inconvenient and challenging or you think you won't get caught."

"I guess," he replied in a quieted voice.

"You know, your religion, my religion, is like soap. It isn't much good unless you use it. If you're sincere, the beliefs you hold, the words you speak, the attitudes you have, the behavior you display, and the actions you take have to mesh--every moment."

"That's not easy."

"Anyone ever say it is? It sure is a lot harder than reading the Bible or going to church."

To me, whether the student's intent was otherwise, my answer had nothing to do with ritual, theology, or ceremony. It had nothing to do with the issue of prayer in school, teaching creationism, school vouchers, Christmas or Chanukah decorations, hanging the Ten Commandments in each room, and all those other emotionally charged issues. Those trappings have little to do with being religious. Having character does.

Education broadly should be one of the ways people are socialized into the culture and prepared to play a constructive role within it. Preparing students to perform useful roles in society is not controversial. Our educational system, however, is not culturally neutral and objective. After all, in our schools at the k-12 level and in higher education, especially in the publically funded schools, we teach "the American way." Required teaching of American history is not cultural neutral; required teaching about the American constitution is not culturally neutral. No, neutrality is an impossible goal for schools. Schooling cannot be abstracted from the communication of values. The question is only which set of values will be transmitted in what form. That is controversial.

Slowly, I am coming to the realization that I am increasingly becoming a spiritual and character seeker. About that I offer no apologies. And, that has nothing to do with those ridiculous positional labels of left, center, right, left of center, right of center, a tad to the left of right of center, a bit to the right of left of center, etc. The tangible world of social and physical sciences is important to me. The rational world of problem perceiving and critical thinking is also important to me. The non-rational world of emotion and attitude is is important to me as well. And, so is the world of human relationships. These latter two world evoke questions of first principles, how and for what purpose knowledge will be used, the validity of morality and virtue, and, most important, the meaning and purpose of the educator's existence.

To me, the issue of religion and education should nag at us and students to wonder, to speculate, to ask the difficult questions, to ponder the often unanswerable questions. To me, education should be a nutritional source for character, the spirit, as well as for the intellect. It should help teach a student how to live as well as prepare a student for earning a living. It should be more hospitable to the human spirit. I am coming to feel that the education of young people must involve not only their intellectual, emotional, and social development but also their spiritual growth. Without a religious sensibility on our campuses, issues of morality, meaning, and the pursuit of a sustainable truth to live by tend to get marginalized, leaving most of us and the students desperate for an enduring meaning.

Those issues pop up in the course of relationships college students develop from shared experiences, mutual interests, and a common environment. As college students seek to establish their independence, make new friends, and master complicated new surroundings, they are drawn together and create a new social culture. It is a shared perspectives on the relative importance of academic performance, extracurricular activities, social life, and work. It exerts a powerful force on what a student learns, because it influences the kinds of people with whom a student spends time and the values and attitudes to which the student is exposed. And, it exerts a powerful influence on the kind of person a student will be in years to come. I am concerned with fostering approaches that encourage a commitment to those matters of the heart and spirit, as well as the mind, which help students develop a particular voice as they struggle with the thorny issues of ethics, morality, and virtue. Student culture can be understood as the assumptions, norms, behaviors, values, beliefs, attitudes, rituals, and activities that inform, shape, and animate how students interact with and make meaning of their collegiate world.

Now, before some of you jump all over me, I'm not saying you have to be religious to be ethical, moral, and virtuous. I am saying if religion is important to that student and to you, so are moral, ethical, and virtuous thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. To me, religion in education is a force, though not the only force--I repeat, though not the only force--to lay a claim for our classes as soulful places of learning where spiritual and character dimensions are welcomed. Now once again, I am not talking about the teaching of any particular religious doctrine. I am not talking about hanging the Ten Commandments in each classroom. I am not talking about opening each class with a prayer. I am not talking about creating a William Bennet style "virtue-ocracy" to enforce perfect standards of behavior. What I am talking about has to do with authenticity, honesty, integrity, justice, compassion, sensitivity, mindfulness, kindness, sacredness, respect. It has to do with the extent personal ethics and morality and virtue play in our own lives at home, at play, at work, off campus and on campus. If religion is important to that student so must ethics and morality be important in everything he does at all times. He has no option. He has a mandate. He has an obligation. And, so do we. To profess a religion without any concern for following its moral teachings, is like buying a car and never putting gas in the tank. It just doesn't go any where or do anything. It becomes little more than useless, high-priced, good-looking junk.

That student was right. Ethics and morals and virtues are not for wimps. They aren't easy. It's easy to read a book; it's easy to quote Scripture; it's easy to go to a church or a synagogue or a mosque. It's easy to be an arrogant and self-righteous holier-than-thou. It's easy to proclaim, "I love God!" It is not easy to live the godly life. It's not easy to have principles over grades. It's not easy to stand up for your beliefs and still respect the different viewpoints of others. It's not easy to be honest when it might be costly. It is not easy to maintain your integrity and be a target of tomatoes. It's not easy to be consistently kind. It is not easy to resist giving into the surrounding peer pressure. It's not easy being a moral, ethical, and virtuous person. It is especially not easy to do any of this when so many around you aren't. And, that is why it is so important!

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
                                 /     \__/         \/  /  /\ /~\/         \
                          /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\
                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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