Tuesday, December 19, 2006

New Jersey is the new Kansas...

I have a new hero. Strangely enough, he's a braces-wearing high-school student from New Jersey.

His name is Matthew LaClair.

As reported in the New York Times (thanks to Butterflies and Wheels for the link), he was disturbed by the proselytising efforts of his history teacher, David Paszkiewicz. Concerned that school authorities wouldn't believe his story if he complained, he taped what Paszkiewicz said.

And what he said, really, is quite breathtaking:

Shortly after school began in September, the teacher told his sixth-period students at Kearny High School that evolution and the Big Bang were not scientific, that dinosaurs were aboard Noah’s ark, and that only Christians had a place in heaven, according to audio recordings made by a student whose family is now considering a lawsuit claiming Mr. Paszkiewicz broke the church-state boundary.

“If you reject his gift of salvation, then you know where you belong,” Mr. Paszkiewicz was recorded saying of Jesus. “He did everything in his power to make sure that you could go to heaven, so much so that he took your sins on his own body, suffered your pains for you, and he’s saying, ‘Please, accept me, believe.’ If you reject that, you belong in hell.”

(How timely, just yesterday I posted something with regard to 'flaming assholes'. There are so many...)

Now, this was apparently a high school constitutional history course, so you might be wondering (I know I am) what business Paszkiewicz had using his valuable class time wittering on about evolution not being science and urging students to accept Christ into their hearts.

I suppose it's not all that shocking to see someone making a confused evangelical rant. There are, after all, a lot of people around who hold views like that. Particularly in America, where about half the population seems to believe that the world is around 6,000 years old. People without the slightest idea of what science is, let alone the ability to critique it intelligently.

On one of the tape excerpts available at the Times article - which are unfortunately of rather poor quality - you can hear the usual line about evolution being simply another faith and also the one about the nasty state which unfairly prohibits people like himself from using their position of authority (and captive audience) to spread the gospel. It seems, indeed, that Paszkiewicz was well programmed at the creationist factory with all the standard-but-meaningless throwaway lines which only total idiots seem to find insightful and convincing.

So, the existence and activities of someone like Paszkiewicz are not at all surprising, even if he seems to have been a lot more brazen about shouting out the Good News in a public school than most of his ilk.

No, what is somehow surprising and disappointing (although I know it shouldn't be...when will I learn?!) is the reaction of those around him:

In this tale of the teacher who preached in class and the pupil he offended, students and the larger community have mostly lined up with Mr. Paszkiewicz, not with Matthew, who has received a death threat handled by the police, as well as critical comments from classmates.
(What the hell is going on there? A student gets a teacher in trouble and his classmates take the side of the authorities? What kind of obsequious generation of toadying ass-kissers is being cultivated at this school? That wouldn't have happened in my day, I tell ya...)

Here is an example of the kind of justification which people are using to stand up for a teacher who so clearly is abusing his position of authority to spread religious doctrine in a public school:

Greice Coelho, who took Mr. Paszkiewicz’s class and is a member of his [Baptist] youth group, said in a letter to The Observer, the local weekly newspaper, that Matthew was “ignoring the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which gives every citizen the freedom of religion.”

No doubt Ms. Coelho learned about the First Amendment in Mr. Paszkiewicz's class, where I'm sure he spent rather less time on the part of it which forbids the establishment of religion and which has, over and over again, been interpreted to prohibit the sort of explicit preaching which this sad excuse for an educator engaged in.

Does that sound harsh? I hope so. No, really, I'm very skeptical that he really is - as the principal has stated - an 'excellent teacher'. The tape excerpts available online show him not only to be ignorant about the topics he discusses but also to be clearly imposing his fairy-tale view of the world on his students as...revealed truth.

By the evidence here, he is - like most fundamentalists, deep down - a bully.

He was not 'teaching'. I know what teaching looks like from both sides of the classroom. No, what Paszkiewicz was engaged in was indoctrination.

Furthermore, judging by his former student's comments above, it's clear that he spent so much time trying to save his students' souls he forgot to actually teach them anything about the subject they were supposed to learn.

To be honest, there seem to be more than one confused teacher at this school:

One teacher, who did not give his name, said he thought both Matthew and his teacher had done the right thing. “The student had the right to do what he did,” the man said. As for Mr. Paszkiewicz, “He had the right to say what he said, he was not preaching, and that’s something I’m very much against.”

No wonder he didn't want to give his name...since what he said makes no sense. Both of them, logically, cannot be right.

Moreover: Paszkiewicz was preaching and his behaviour was so clearly over the line that, as the Times notes, even people you would expect to be on his side don't support him:

“It’s proselytizing, and the courts have been pretty clear you can’t do that,” said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a group that provides legal services in religious freedom cases. “You can’t step across the line and proselytize, and that’s what he’s done here.”

Yes. And that should be apparent to anyone - even Christians - who are willing to honestly look at this case. But instead, as seems typical, this is going to be spun by the offended believers as an issue of 'rights' and 'free speech'. It is another opportunity for believers to cast themselves as martyrs of that bad-old, 'arrogant' secular worldview. Poor babies.

But very much like the reasonable sounding 'we just want to show both sides of the debate' discourse through which creationists try to package their extremist clap-trap, the 'free speech' angle here is disingenuous. People like Paszkiewicz are not interested in a serious, free, logical and open-ended debate. They are purveyors of revealed 'truth', a 'truth' which logically excludes other views. (Or, rather, which illogically excludes other views, but I think you know what I mean.)

They have merely adopted the language of reasonableness to push an extremist agenda.

I have to say that the more I examine even good-will attempts to somehow reconcile religion and science the more I think this is ultimately fruitless. I've been watching some of the video from the Beyond Belief conference earlier this year. Even ostensibly sophisticated calls to somehow find a common language for spiritualism and reason - such as the frankly bizarre and unconvincing critique of the arrogance of scientific certainty and 'locker room bravado' offered by Joan Roughgarden in session 3 - ultimately, I think, fall flat. (Roughgarden's talk, also available in different parts at YouTube, is, I find, really little more than a not-fully-reheated, sub-Thomas-Kuhn-style 'sociology of science' rant seasoned with badly applied discourse theory, whimsical spiritualist burblings, and a not very subtle personal-is-political agenda. Richard Dawkins's reply is quite good...even if, undoubtedly, some will find it 'nasty'. But I digress...)

Back to the topic with which I started: If ever there was a demonstration that the key issue is not one of arrogant secularism but rather one an aggressive and uncompromising fundamentalism, this New Jersey case is it. (Which is also discussed here and here at Pharyngula and which, incidentally, gave a reasonable and generous critique of Roughgarden's somewhat batty-sounding book on sexual selection.)

I don't know you Matthew, but I wish you the best.

You did the right thing, but I can imagine that high school is going to suck a little bit more than it usually does, surrounded, as you are, by a 'larger community' with more than its share of brainwashed fundamentalist yahoos. (Which is all the more worrying, as Ophelia Benson notes, since we're not talking about the rural hinterlands here but rather somewhere near New York City...)

[UPDATE]: Pharyngula urges: Leave a message of support for Matt on the local community's message board. I concur.

[UPDATE]: A letter from Paul LaClair, Matt's father, with a great deal more background on the case. Long, but well-argued and worth-reading.


evolutiongeek said...

I actually wasn't all that surprised when I heard about this case. Last year I was teaching 5th graders about marine biology as an extension program through my University, and when I was going to teach a lesson of evolution (whales specifically) I was told I couldn't teach that lesson because it might offend somebody. I taught it anyway and no one complained, but I was surprised that even in New Jersey creationists make school systems fearful and you can't even mention evolution.

J. Carter Wood said...

Thanks for your comment. That's...amazing! I mean, how can you be expected to teach marine biology without talking about evolution? I was surprised too that, as you say, even in NJ something like this is possible. It is not so much the teacher in question (individual wackos are everywhere), but rather the reaction of the community, which shows that he is far from alone. I would have expected more outrage at the teacher than at the student. Your comment (as well as one I received from friends of mine in NJ who have a child in the school system) suggests that the kind of thing Matt LaClair revealed is not an isolated case.

Archana said...

We had to get our parents' permission to attend the biology class on evolution back in high school, so not so surprised by evolutiongeek's anecdote - how frightening. Matthew is my hero too - two things were most shocking to me: 1) the teacher told a Muslim classmate she was going to hell (he should be fired for that alone), and 2) that the teacher receives so much support in NEW JERSEY. Georgia or Alabama I could understand, but really?? I'm going to post a message of support right now.