Over 2,000 years ago Socrates faced a court for refusing to recognize the gods acknowledged by the state, importing strange divinities and corrupting the young. The judges sent Socrates to his death. He accepted the sentence of the court and committed suicide by drinking a cup of hemlock.
The only virtue for Socrates was "knowledge." He reached it by questioning the most deeply held beliefs of his students by which I mean all of Athens and ultimately all of us. What troubled the Athenians about Socrates, however, was not listed in the charges. His crime was that he prompted people to think.
His provocations exposed the Athenians' shallowness of belief and mindless deference to myth. Socrates was judged because he was successful in provoking his students "examine their lives." [his words]Those who guard the myths must try and strike down any who teach young people to think and question, because myths often shrink in the light of reason, draining power from those in authority who benefit from belief.
There are thousands of teachers who agree with Socrates that, "[t]he unexamined life is not worth living." Every teacher who makes a student think takes the risk that he will be attacked by parents and others who see themselves as guardians of cherished political and religious myth. The teachers willing to take that risk should be rewarded, not punished. After the verdict, the Athenian court asked Socrates what his punishment should be. He responded that he should get free meals at the Pyrataneum, a celebration hall for Olympian athletes. Socrates went on to explain that those who passed judgment were not harming him, but rather themselves. He said, by killing him they corrupted their own souls and revealed the weakness of their own belief. A true believer does not fear that a few questions can undo years of parental teaching. Those who would "protect" students from self-examination have little faith and great fear.
Chad Farnan, the boy who sued me, was an average student, who admitted under oath that he did not do the required reading for the class. If Chad's lawyers, the "Advocates for Faith and Freedom," and his parents were actually concerned with protecting the boy, why didn't they simply come to me and ask me to explain my comments? Neither they nor the Farmans ever expressed concerns to me nor to any administrators before they came to school with attorneys and reporters in tow to drop a lawsuit on the desk of Tom Ressler, our principal. Perhaps more importantly, the Farmans were aware long before Chad took my class that I go out of my way to be provocative. Every year in July, I send a letter home to students who have signed up for my class. Chad admitted under oath that he received that letter. The letter says, in part:
"Most days we will spend a few minutes (sometimes more) at the beginning of class discussing current events from either The Orange County Register or the L.A. Times. I may also use material from a variety of news Web sites. Discussion will be quite provocative, and focus on the 'lessons' of history. My goal is to have you go home with something that will provoke discussion with your parents. Students may offer any perspective without concern that anything they say will impact either my attitude toward them or their grades. I encourage a full range of views."
I included my home phone number and e-mail address in that letter and encouraged parents to contact me if they had any concerns. Chad admitted under oath that my lectures prompted many discussions with his parents. I might add, that in 20 years in the CUSD, I have never had a complaint filed against me, save this one.
Every teacher in California (this was a federal case after all) now works with the knowledge that any student, at any time, and in violation of California law, can sneak a tape recorder into a classroom, record the teacher and use an out-of-context five second comment as a bludgeon to threaten, to intimidate and, ultimately, to destroy the teacher's career and good name.
Challenging myths is dangerous, but it is the essence of getting students to think for themselves. The Athenian judges, like some parents today, would have students accept myth without question, because myth is the foundation of their parental, political and/or religious authority. Ms. Farnan objected to my challenging the myth of the Puritans as a pious people who fled religious intolerance to found America. As Ms. Farnan sees them, the Puritans are quaint, pious people with buckles on their hats and shoes as portrayed in the national mythology, but they may also be seen as intolerant, misogynistic and homophobic religious bigots who hanged Mary Dyer, a Quaker girl, for preaching something other than Puritan doctrine and several other women for the crime of "witchcraft."
Questioning may make students and parents uncomfortable, but students have a right to think for themselves. It is not "bullying" to demand that students think.
Ms. Farnan also objected to my challenge of another national myth, that the United States was founded as a "Christian" nation. There is some truth to that notion, but embracing that myth and excluding other views can be used to unfairly gain political advantage. Another view of the founding fathers can be seen in the writings of Thomas Jefferson, the man who authored the Declaration of Independence. He translated the Bible. The last words of the Jeffersonian Bible might shake Ms. Farnan's faith: "There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed." There was no resurrection for Jefferson, he rejected all the Biblical miracles, as contrary to reason. I doubt with his view would be called "Christian" by Ms. Farnan or anyone else. James Madison, who penned the Constitution, warned, "Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and units it for every noble enterprise, every expanded prospect." If Jefferson and Madison were alive today, I doubt they could be elected. The guardians of the national myth would rise up and smite them as unbelievers.
We respect the guardians and their myths at our peril because history (and science) changes and improves with knowledge, but the same force damages myth based on belief. That's why the guardians fear the knowledge begat by questioning. For them, "knowledge" is gained in rote memory of approved truth. They chant in the school, temple, church or mosque and fool themselves into thinking they've acquired knowledge.
All those teachers, and there are many of us, who understand the value of questioning sacred myths serve this nation as faithfully as other patriots. What is true will be strengthened. What is false will be destroyed, as it should be. Such teachers should be honored. There is no greater gift teachers can give to students than to teach them to think. Don't sue them for it. Try taking them to the Pyrataneum for dinner, conversation and a cup of coffee, no hemlock.