About a month ago, we had several discussions here about the education of the young. Here is an interesting and sensible comment that Tony made about a teacher's not going outside the scope of delegated authority to bring religious matters into education. Tony's basic point, which one would think of as quite uncontroversial, is that teachers shouldn't go off on religious tangents when employed to teach a specific subject to which such tangents are irrelevant. His argument was that a teacher who does so usurps authority that the parents haven't given. The parents expected this person to teach about art or drug awareness (for example), not about religion.
Now, in our present situation, sociologically, I'm afraid that's only common sense. I want to suggest, though, that our present situation is rather unfortunate in that it has become necessary to have such a strict division among different subjects that even an occasional tangent, along with good teaching of the expected subject matter, is now intolerable. It would be a more natural relationship among parents, teachers, and children if teachers could be trusted by the parents not to teach something harmful to the children. In that situation, parents would be able to trust a teacher to be in more general terms a role model to the children, so that such occasional tangents could be taken in stride as not a big deal, even if one happened to disagree with some specific aspect of their content.
In support of the idea that such a situation could be legitimate and charming rather than in principle and always a bad thing, I present the following fascinating anecdote from Agatha Christie's autobiography (one of my favorite books):
There was a girls' school in Torquay kept by someone called Miss Guyer, and my mother made an arrangement that I should go there two days a week and study certain subjects....I remember one teacher there--I can't recall her name now. She was short and spare, and I remember her eager jutting chin. Quite unexpectedly one day (in the middle, I think, of an arithmetic lesson) she suddenly launched forth on a speech on life and religion. “All of you,” she said, “every one of you--will pass through a time when you will face despair. If you never face despair, you will never have faced, or become, a Christian, or known a Christian life. To be a Christian you must face and accept the life that Christ faced and lived; you must enjoy things as he enjoyed things; be as happy as he was at the marriage at Cana, know the peace and happiness that it means to be in harmony with God and with God's will. But you must also know, as he did, what it means to be alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, to feel that all your friends have forsaken you, that those you love and trust have turned away from you, and that God himself has forsaken you. Hold on then to the belief that that is not the end. If you love, you will suffer, and if you do not love, you do not know the meaning of a Christian life.”
She then returned to the problems of compound interest with her usual vigour, but it is odd that those few words, more than any sermon I have ever heard, remained with me, and years later they were to come back to me and give me hope at a time when despair had me in its grip. She was a dynamic figure, and also, I think, a fine teacher; I wish I could have been taught by her longer.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had continued with my education. I should, I suppose, have progressed, and I think I should have been entirely caught up in mathematics--a subject which has always fascinated me.
Some points about this incident that strike me:
--The school was obviously private, and parents could make a variety of arrangements with the school. Agatha's mother chose for her to attend part time for specific subjects.
--The parents could take the children out any time they wanted to, and in fact Agatha's mother did eventually take her out of the school simply because she had a different educational idea.
--Agatha remembers this teacher as having been a fine teacher who taught mathematics with vigor. Her sudden urge to give the students a brief sermon on the subject of suffering and the Christian life did not in any way impair her teaching of arithmetic.
--One can plausibly infer from the passage that she strengthened Agatha's interest in mathematics, which Agatha would have liked to have studied with her for longer.
--The teacher was unashamed and unselfconscious about her tangent on the Christian life. It obviously never crossed her mind that this brief interlude could be considered unprofessional.
--It clearly never occurred to Agatha to think that there was any problem with her doing so, either. It was an unusual event, to be sure, but Agatha sees no conflict with the teacher's professional duties. We may guess (I think justifiably) that no one else in the situation did so either. There were "free thinkers" circa 1900, when this incident would have occurred, but there doesn't seem to have been any attempt to respect the feelings of any "free thinker" children who happened to be in that mathematics class.
--It's probably safe to say (from other general information about England at the time) that Torquay circa 1900 was fairly religiously homogenous.
All of the surrounding sociological circumstances are, of course, absent in today's public schools. Due to a series of court decisions, everyone is hyper-sensitive about the introduction of religious matters under any circumstances. Teachers, in particular, are not supposed to betray their religious views.
Parents must at least pay for public schooling via their taxes, and even though the home school and Christian school movements have freed parents to some extent from compulsory public school education, a parent who casually takes his child out of a public school without careful research and possibly even legal advice may find himself in a pickle. There is thus a certain coerciveness to public schooling which makes it understandable that "sensitive" or "controversial" subjects not be introduced without clear parental permission.
A similar tangent in the middle of a math lesson could probably occur now without repercussions only in an explicitly Christian school or Christian math class (for example, a class run by a Christian home schooling co-op). Elsewhere, even in a non-Christian private school, it would be utterly taboo.
And that's a shame. Nobody was a loser here, and someone--Agatha, at least--was a gainer. The teacher did not spend any serious length of time on the digression. The professional teaching of mathematics and Agatha's respect for her as a teacher of mathematics did not suffer. In fact, if you read that passage several times with an unbiased eye, I believe you will get a fairly vivid picture of her, and her willingness to do something a little unconventional in the way of a short sermon on the Christian life is part and parcel of her vivid personality and style, which in turn is part of what made her good at communicating her subject matter.
I therefore submit that in the teaching of the young it would be a good thing if we could regain something of this flexibility from a hundred years ago. I'm not entirely sure how to do that, and I'm inclined to think that the best place for it to begin is in schools run along specifically religious lines, where there is more likely to be the requisite trust between parents and teachers. And we should perhaps rethink our notions of professionalism in areas like teaching so that people can be people with their students. (Something similar is true of the medical professions, I'm inclined to think, but that may be a subject for another time.)