This weekend, my mother brought a local controversy to my attention. It’s actually been going on for weeks, but since I don’t get the paper, I hadn’t noticed. It turns out that one of my old high school history teachers, Mr. Escamilla, has been suspended with pay while the school investigates just how inappropriate he was in inviting an anti-Islam Christian evangelist to be a speaker in his class.
Like the students and former students interviewed in this article, I wasn’t very surprised. Escamilla made no secret about his evangelical views, and was widely known to truly believe the world was going to end (complete with the Rapture) quite soon. (A quick firsthand Escamilla story: When I was in his AP European history class, his wife had recently had another baby. One of the other students, knowing of his belief in the imminent end of the world, asked why he and his wife had had another kid, if they didn’t think it’d get to grow up. He replied candidly that the most recent baby hadn’t been planned.) Although he didn’t do it in my class, many of my friends who had him for other classes told me about watching the “Left Behind” videos and other evangelical propaganda on days when no actual learning was scheduled. I was never particularly impressed with his classes, in any case, because all we ever did was read the textbook and then teach the chapters to each other in assigned turn. He very rarely actually seemed to teach us anything. I think I saw him being more teacherly in driver’s ed than in my history class.
So anyway, I wasn’t surprised to hear he’d finally done something so flagrant it had gotten him suspended, and I’m very happy that the students who were scared and offended by the speaker actually took the issue to the administration. Beyond that, the whole thing got me thinking about the place of religion in public schools in the US.
When I was at Enloe (1994-1998), the student body was quite diverse, and it should have been quite clear to the teachers that not nearly all of the students in their classes were of a Christian background. And yet, time and again, teachers would assume a background of Biblical knowledge, especially in English classes, where they would throw questions at us about allusions we obviously should have picked up on right away. Like other non-Christian students in the class, I’d just hope some Methodist or Baptist would answer the question, or that the allusion came from some really famous bit that I must have picked up by exposure. There wasn’t any pushing of Christianity, there was just widespread assumption of it, all evidence, such as the names on the roll, to the contrary. We all just learned to fake it, and life went on.
But should we have ignored it? Can we afford to anymore? What should the role of religion be in the public schools? What should be the teacher’s role in discussing religion? Where should the school administration set the boundaries for what teachers should, and should not, be allowed to do?
In addressing the first, and, in my opinion, least controversial of those questions, I clearly don’t think teachers can continue to assume a Christian background for all their students. In cases where an understanding of Christianity and the Bible as a reference have impact on the students’ learning of the class material, teachers should be more aware that they need to teach that underlying Christian material just as much as they need to overtly teach background and references from other sources, such as Greek mythology or the scriptures of any other, non-Christian, more “exotic” religion, which, in my experience, they were always quite willing to do without being asked. Our world is now one of pluralities, and I’m all for Christianity being recognized as one of many options, not the automatic default. So I hope the students of today and tomorrow are more inclined to point out to their teachers that they don’t know what they’re driving at, and would they be so kind as to explain?
I do think that religion has a place in the schools. Religion is an important part of culture, all over the world, and in any class that is trying to understand a culture, be it through history, literature, and yes, in some cases, even science, religion may well become a necessary and important part of the lesson. But I also think it is something that can be, and should be, impartially taught. (Then again, I grew up UU, and we spent a lot of Sunday school doing impartial world religion comparison, so I’m sure I’m being influenced by my own religious background. How ironic.)
Teachers would obviously have an important role in this kind of teaching. Teachers have the power to set the tone in their classrooms, and this power can be abused. In having what is potentially a heated debate about religious beliefs, an impartial moderator is essential to keeping everything academic, interesting, and enlightening without being persecutory. But if the teacher expresses opinions that clearly put them in one and only one camp of opinion, students can be put in very untenable positions. Is it any wonder that students of other religious backgrounds in Mr. Escamilla’s class failed to speak up much before this? He wouldn’t have cared. And until he did something so egregious, it’s likely the administration wouldn’t have much either. His classroom was not one that had an atmosphere open to pluralistic debate, and students can sense that very quickly. All we want to do is survive school, for the most part.
My parents know someone in the higher levels of the county school administration, and he said that, in looking at Escamilla’s school-related website, they’re having a hard time figuring out where to draw the line on the allowable level of free speech. My initial reaction is that it shouldn’t be that hard. I don’t feel like I have complete freedom of speech on my job-related website, so why should it be different for a teacher working for a school? I have no issue if he wants to spew ill-founded notions on his completely personal website, but if it’s one that is on a school server, set up for him as a teacher, then I don’t think it is so inconceivable for there to be limits to what is acceptable. Certainly, I do not think it is appropriate for a teacher to express personal religious beliefs that denigrate the beliefs of others on such a site, nor really to say anything that lessens other people. Teachers are community leaders, and while we certainly no longer live in the days when teachers were housed with the families of their students and kept under a magnifying glass by the whole town, they still have some responsibility to set a good example for respectful behavior in front of their students. This is a time when the adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” may well be the one to follow.