Monday, December 13, 2004

God in Elementary School: Steve Williams

Joanne Jacobs has been posting about a 5th grade history teacher at a public school in the Bay Area who has been told to stop using religiously-inflected supplementary materials in the classroom. The teacher is named Steve Williams.

The San Jose Mercury News has an article. One sentence that stood out to me was this one:

Among Williams' controversial teaching handouts are excerpts with multiple references to God from the U.S. Constitution and from various state constitutions.

But there is no reference to God in the U.S. Constitution! (See for yourself) There are of course many references to God in the various state constitutions. So that part of the Mercury-News's sentence is ok at least.

In her posts on Williams, Jacobs is playing this as another case of extreme intolerance of religion. Among other things, Williams has apparently been told to stop using historical documents that seem to reference God, like George Washington's "Prayer Journal." The implicit argument of Williams's defenders is, it should ok because it's historical. But that's a fallacy, because any historical period or event can be 'spun' differently depending on which documents are used. You can spin the Founding Fathers as religious zealots or as raging freethinkers, deists, and atheists. (The second case is much more persuasive to me -- especially regarding Thomas Jefferson) Williams's choice of documents, while not legally actionable, reflects a particular bias on history that is not appropriate for fifth graders in a public school. At a university, I wouldn't complain about it.

Secondly, Jacobs (and the Williams legal team) are arguing that the ways in which Williams brings a little extra God into the classroom (no one denies this) are petty. But I don't know about that:

"Mr. Williams discusses his Christianity in the classroom,'' said Dorothy Pickler, who has two children at Stevens Creek. "He slants lessons in that direction. Parents have complained.''

Armineh Noravian, whose son had Williams last year, said that the teacher wore a Jesus ring, a cross near the collar of his shirt and talked to his students often about his Bible study classes.

Noravian said that when Williams sent his students home with a proclamation for national prayer day from President Bush, she and other parents complained to the principal.

Clearly, when the students have felt it to be an issue, and complained to their parents, it's a little too much. When he's sending students home on a non-holiday, it's too much. (I don't object to his choice of religious apparel.) Williams has left very little hard evidence of his approach to teaching, but I suspect that were a video camera in that classroom it would be "God, Jesus, let me tell you about what the Bible says on that... come to my Bible study class..."

I appreciate that the school board has been taking the gentle approach (stop with the supplementary stuff; stick to the textbook). But can't they just fire this guy?

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