Education On A Subject I Know Nothing About


Rows and rows of blooming sunflowers make for a beautiful train ride through the Tuscan countryside. The rolling yellow fields outside the window are dotted with white villas and decrepit ruins, which leave my imagination confident that they must have been built in the days of gladiators and emperors. Sometimes all that is necessary to experience something amazing is to watch it fly by out an old, dusty window. So, a four-hour trip from Naples to Rome is spent mostly staring out the window. But when the warm sunshine hits that sunflower field just right and reflects a golden glow into the train cabin, everyone gets a second wind.

When we were growing up, my sister and I were never close friends, or polite acquaintances for that matter. We would fight and argue all the time. I didn’t want to share my friends, she cried to get her way, I bullied her with deception and she used her feet as battering rams aimed at my most crucial body parts. And then when I went to college, this all changed; like someone flipped a light switch. The day I left, we realized how much we loved each other and how hard it would be to live 1,000 miles away for the next four years. At her high school graduation, I sported a thick, red beard. It was massive by college sophomore standards. I tried so hard to be a man when she graduated. I went down to the front so my parents weren’t sitting next to me. I looked off into the distance as if pensive. My friends couldn’t see the vibrating smile, shaking a single tear down my cheek, a sharp left around the nose and settling into the tight curls of my mustache. Later, I made fun of my parents for crying over her graduation. When we dropped her off at Chico State in August, it was her turn to cry. She wasn’t ready, she didn’t like the school she chose, and she wasn’t going to make any friends. It was like leaving a puppy at the pound; she was hopeless and lost. On the way back, we passed a huge field of sunflowers. The car was silent as I marveled at the sunset dropping below the horizon, pulling a pink and orange hood over the sleepy yellow field. I remember thinking: Lexie would like this. Damn I wish I had a camera.

Tim and I are brushing up on our Italian in the train cabin, so we can woo local women we hope to meet in the Roman bars. Just as Tim loudly recites how to say “Would you like to play my skin flute?” from his Dirty Italian dictionary, a new traveler cautiously approaches our train cabin. The Italian man who has slept the entire time, wakes up and scrambles to his feet and immediately makes the plastic tray in the hall his new seat. The new guy is a monk carrying a faded backpack and dressed just in a brown robe, a dangling beaded rosary and brown sandals. He bows his head at the Italian man and smiles before taking the seat.

I’ve seen many people dressed like this in Italy; all around Europe, really. In Rome, there was an old woman lying face down on the sidewalk, hands clasped in prayer in front of an empty change tin. She was begging a monk to donate coins. I’ve never been a religious man myself. I’ve got too many fingers to count the times I’ve attended church in my entire life. A couple weddings or funerals, one favor to a friend, and one time doing community service in San Francisco. There is no call to prayer in my life. My mom tried to raise me Jewish. We had Passover and Chanukah, and I learned to spin a mean dreidel. But by age seven, I told my mom I didn’t believe in what the stories told. I still know the menorah-lighting prayer. You could say I’m atheist. Or agnostic; whatever term you see fit. Either way, there is no God to me. I’m more of an “I’ll believe it when I see it” type of guy. I tend to not have faith in in anything outside the scientific realm of possibility, but I still find religion an interesting topic. I wrote a term paper in my Rhetoric class, senior year of college. It covered whether or not intelligent design should be taught in public high schools. I argued that it should be taught. That was my first and last time getting an A+.

The monk and the man strike up a conversation through the open door. Both are clearly Italian and seem to like each other. They are both no older than 30, though the monk’s shaved head makes him look younger than his counterpart. They both seem very pleasant and I regret taking French in high school because I can’t eavesdrop on a very intense and enjoyable conversation. Still, I imagine I can understand what they are saying – a smile and a nod here, a hand gesture there. Just as I am sure about the architecture of rural Tuscany, I am sure they are speaking about religion. I want to be friends with them. They could be talking about the merits of Nazism for all I know, but it’s amazing what a lack of verbal communication and a light brown robe will do for our judgment of strangers.

That’s the great thing about Semester at Sea. I mean, sure. It’s my first time traveling to Europe and I’m getting to do some amazing things. I can go home and show my friends a rug from the Grand Bazaar and a rock from Mt. Vesuvius. But what really amazes me is the social dynamics of a ship cut off from Facebook and text messaging. When we are forced to communicate old school and really get to know each other in-depth through conversation. Some people know me as that guy. The one who added over 100 “friends” on Facebook from the ship before the Bahamas was even on our radar. Oh, we met on Facebook! But I can confidently say that I did it just to meet people. I never spent a night stalking walls and pictures deciding who would be my friend in real life. I’ve met tons of amazing people on this trip, because I put a lot of effort into meeting and conversing with everyone I came across. And it’s revitalized how I approach my relationships; there is a huge difference in the personality of most people from when I met them on Facebook to when I met them on the ship. Never judge a Facebook by its profile picture. This is a family, and I will forever love Semester at Sea for allowing me to be involved in it. Where else could I sit with my new brother Tim and watch a monk take a train through Italy?

A dark-skinned man slides between the monk and the Italian and apologizes to the Italian for interrupting. He is here to sell newspapers and make a few extra euros while traveling. The Italian shakes his head no, and the dark-skinned man turns around to try to market his product to our cabin. He holds up the newspaper and opens his mouth to speak, but spots the monk to his left and quickly tucks the newspaper away under his right arm. Mi scusi he says genuinely before bowing his head and moving on to the next cabin. I look at Tim and we marvel at the respect the monk has of everyone he encounters. This is a real live cultural experience.

In America, we are expected to say yes or no, and then move on. At a baseball game: peanuts, get your peanuts! If you say yes, you hand over half your life savings and get a big bag of too-salty nuts thrown at your head harder than a Nolan Ryan fastball. If you say no, you don’t exist. There is no in-between. Here, you can either admire the work ethic of the fake Rolex salesman as he follows you four blocks, chattering about best price, very nice watch and good gift for lady! Sister! Like all women love plastic timepieces. Still, it’s admirable that they have so much energy and passion for making money, which at the root, is based on bettering their lives and their family’s life. On the other hand, the customer service here is to be applauded. You say yes to the human megaphone from the kebab stand, and they will treat you to a five-star meal. Welcome, welcome! as they pull out your chair. No kebab lover gets by without trading family trees, favorite music or intimate secrets of their love life with the megaphone before the kebab even gets to the table. In America, we are expected to say yes or no, and then move on. These people here? They know how to be human.

The monk catches me looking at him. I look away quickly, but not before he can nod and smile at me. I look down at his feet to avoid the awkwardness of just being publicly busted and wonder why his small backpack is rounded at the back. Just a couple minutes later, he answers my question by unlatching the top and turning the bag to show the Italian what he is traveling with. It’s a familiar sight; in fact, I spent most of my childhood carrying one too. The entire contents of the monk’s bag are a shiny new, black and white soccer ball. He laughs at something the Italian says and puts the bag back at his feet. Tim leans over to whisper to me. This is awesome he says, before I shush him and continue my corner-of-the-eye observations.

I remember one soccer game in particular. I was 12 and my dad was still the coach. This was the end of the bookend for me. By that, I mean it was before I let life take me by the throat and make me its bitch. I lost that innocent sense of determination that made me such an easy kid to raise. The teenage years and most of college was when I was just part of the herd and never tried to stand out. This soccer game pitted the best of the best. My team, the Sting against the Scorpions on a local football pitch (as they call it on this side of the world). The game went down to the wire, knotted at zero. Then tied at one. The equalizer at two. And with ten minutes to spare, I took a shot and it hit the crossbar, bouncing into the net in slow motion. I told you I’m not a religious man. But for a moment in this game, I felt like I was floating through heaven. Waiting out the final minutes was agony; purgatory if you will. Nothing in the world was more important than beating the Scorpions and securing middle school bragging rights for years to come. The whistle blew. Sting 3, Scorpions 2. I ran like crazy toward the sideline, celebrating with my teammates. I jumped into my dad’s open arms and pumped my fist in the air as he held me, yelling like I had just knocked out Mike Tyson. I know my dad loves that moment. He talks about it all the time. Not the game, or the win, but the moment we shared on the sideline after one of the most memorable days of my life. When I tell that story, I shiver. I get that pre-tear feeling of moistness developing deep in my stomach and slowly, painfully, slithering up my chest and through my skull into the back of my eyes, before I clear my throat and kick the ladder back into the depths of my manhood. What is heaven like? Who can tell me? Got any photo slideshows? Perhaps an autographed halo? Well, I imagine that day, that victory, that paternal embrace; is what it feels like to be saved.

Another beggar walks by moments later, this time an older woman with long, tangled hair. She waves a small piece of paper with a picture of her hungry children on it above her head and says something in a curious tone. Her gaze lands on each passenger one by one until finally resting on the monk, who also kindly refuses to donate money. Whereas the newspaper seller saw a respected man of God, this woman saw a generous, empathetic opportunity for success. The variety in their attitudes catches me off guard. The woman mimes what I believe to be You think about it, I will come back. And when she does come back, the monk apologetically hands the paper back to her. She contests his decision and begs him to reconsider. The monk puts his hands together as if in prayer and softly says something to the woman. She smiles, nods and walks away, seemingly content with his reason. And I see why. Because this time I’m sure of what he said: Instead, I will pray for you.


Intelligent Design: Should it be taught in public schools?

I wrote this for my English 301 (Rhetoric) class and presented it today. My partner presented the argument that Intelligent Design should not be taught in public schools under any circumstance. Honestly, we both rocked it. I got an A+ (only the + because I “won” the argument by a vote of the class 9 to 6, but we both did solid A work). I’m curious to see what people think about the issue…feel free to comment, question, tear apart, do whatever to this…I’ll look forward to the feedback!

My argument is that teaching Intelligent Design, which is currently prohibited in public schools in America, absolutely should be taught, but outside of a science classroom setting. To explain quickly, the theory of Intelligent Design is basically an effort to discount the accepted scientific explanation that natural selection acting on random variations is the cause of creation. Instead, it proposes that creation is best explained by an intelligent cause, although it essentially avoids identifying a specific designer. Intelligent Design offers to close the gap between the notions of the Creationist viewpoint and the Evolutionary viewpoint. The middle ground kind of implies the thought that God may have created the universe and then let nature take it’s course.

The separation of church and state, the teaching of religion and evolution, and all its surrounding controversy has made this discussion a point of contention among the public for over a century. On one hand, the First Amendment states that the government cannot limit freedom of speech or religion, including personal displays of either. On the other hand, the Establishment Clause in that amendment also states, the government can not force religious beliefs or establish a religion in public schools because they are owned by the government. So, students at public schools have the right to have their own beliefs and demonstrate their religions, but they can’t learn about different theories of creation.

The most recent development in this debate was in the case Kitzmiller vs. Dover, PA in 2005. The case arose because t he local school board voted to require teachers to read a statement about Intelligent Design prior to discussions of evolution in high school biology classes to assure both viewpoints were established. Parents of eleven students challenged the decision, arguing that it violated the Establishment Clause. District Judge John E. Jones issued a decision that said, in summary: “Intelligent Design is not science. It is a religious theory that had no place in the science classroom.” He came to this conclusion because he found Intelligent Design violated the scientific method of experimentation and testability, and because it was “relying upon a supernatural explanation for a natural phenomenon.”

While Judge Jones did side with the Establishment Clause, he never mentioned that the idea of Intelligent Design should cease to be studied all together. Rather, he went by the Constitution and found that Intelligent Design in itself was not a scientific theory, but a religious theory, so it could not be taught in public schools, especially in a science classroom. But, comparative religion courses and even Bible study courses aren’t prohibited in public schools. Knowledge of all different beliefs, theories, religions, etc. is important to a student for many reasons, and should be taught in classes outside of the science discipline. Surprisingly, polls have shown that most U.S. Citizens support the teaching of evolution in public schools, as well as the teaching of intelligent design and creationism as alternative theories.

Personally, I agree with the law, when it says Intelligent Design is not appropriate for a science class. Science does need to have testable hypotheses and experimental subject matter. That being said, Intelligent Design is still a theory of creation that can be studied, and needs to be understood. As I just mentioned, comparative religion classes can be taught in public schools as long as all religious texts are covered and one religion isn’t promoted over the others. As long as a school studies the broad, general scope of religion and doesn’t try to indoctrinate its students to a specific belief over any other, everything is kosher.

So, let’s say in a class where society, theory, or comparative religion is the main subject, that a teacher pursues a unit on religion and creation. It is absolutely, 100% legal to teach Intelligent Design, to teach the ideas of religions, and so on. But, many religious groups feel that teaching views that contradict their own is offensive. Therefore, comparative religion courses have a rough go at staying in the course catalog.

In 2007, an incident involving a high school comparative religion class in Lake Stevens, Wash. made news because a Christian student and her parents publicly complained that the teacher was offending their religious beliefs. This came after the teacher, who is admittedly atheist, assigned the same critical thinking assignment to a Navajo creation theory and the story of Genesis. Basically, the student and her parents contended that he was challenging Christianity, when really he was simply trying to teach his students to look at both theories of creation objectively and from an outside perspective.

Banning the teaching of religious theories hinders a student’s ability to have thorough knowledge of all options, therefore restricting “freedom” of religion. Assorted theories should be taught, and considered cultural and historical influences on the progression of humanity, but not advocated or instructed to be absolutely true or false. That would qualify under the First Amendment, and still give students a broader range of knowledge. As a field of study, the idea of a religious orientation being simply and only that – an orientation, will send many people who find their identity closely linked with their religious belief system, into a frenzy.

Obviously, as is the case in the Lake Stevens incident, many students have a prevailing religious belief by high school. But to make this work; to allow Intelligent Design to be taught, people need to set aside their own convictions and biases and embrace the study of comparative religion. The same people calling for Intelligent Design to be taught in science classes can not banish it from all courses simply because other theories would get equal time in the unit. Unfortunately, it seems that when people’s belief systems are threatened, they protest anyone who dares suggest that there might be more to consider than what their religion says is right. Sometimes the protest is violent. Welcome to justification for war, slavery, and all kinds of horrific actions man has done to each other.

A thought process that considers the abolishment of religious study in public schools does not take into account that ignorance may hurt more than it helps. If the theory of Intelligent Design is to be understood by the general public, then we must allow it to be taught in a classroom. There is a certain context in which the subject must be taught, but if our young students are to get an objective chance to consider and learn about different perspectives, theories and religions, we need to allow the freedom for them to develop personal beliefs based on what they’ve learned. Every option needs to be laid out evenly in front of them, so they are free to ask questions, discern preferences and ultimately develop a belief system that is based on objective information and unbiased presentation.

Banning the teaching of any theory is unfair to students; our government’s goal should not be so much about separating church and state in this situation. It should be to allow our students to learn everything they have the ability to learn and to broaden their perspective. It’s not about whether or not it’s okay to teach Intelligent Design and other religious theories; but rather should focus on what students are capable of learning.

I know that, as an atheist, I would have loved to take a class about the theories of creation and different models of religion in high school. That isn’t to say that anything I would have learned would have changed my views, but I definitely find other ideas and theories interesting, even if just for the cultural aspect. But right now, the American government is denying high school students the chance they deserve to learn everything to their fullest abilities. They need to stop letting groups and organizations determine which subject matter is “right” or which book is or is not blasphemous. Not to mention, that the United States already has low standardized test scores, so limiting learning opportunities in any way contributes to the validity of those results.

Learning about religion is also to study how human beings acquire religious beliefs and what value they find in them. There are certain obvious aspects that appeal to people such as community, comfort, even coherency. But there are also darker issues. For example, being part of a community that repels others can potentially offer insulation wrapped in arrogance. It can also lead to disdain towards others, which can lead to the mindset that people outside of a certain group need “saving” for their own good. Which can then justify destruction, murder, rape, etc of those being “saved.” In this context, it is absolutely a viable, legitimate topic to be studied: how human beings react to religion.

Creating a curriculum that allows for the theory of religions to be learned would, in the right hands, offer a platform for discussion of how we come to be religious and how that both benefits and creates problems for human beings. Intelligent Design is a possibility in the world of creationst theories. It needs to be considered and understood. It does not need to be “the answer,” nor does it need to supersede any other religious beliefs. As we continue evolving as a race, who’s to say that God might not be revealed in ways we can’t even fathom? Who also can say that there may not be a God? Until either is proven, every possibility should be given a chance to be studied.

If the government denies students their freedom to learn about every and all possibilities, they are effectively denying them the choice that the First Amendment preaches. Sure, anyone can still choose to believe in anything, but the fact is that if information is only made readily available about certain government-selected theories then it is not only contradictory, but pushing students toward certain ideas.

While I support the First Amendment, the Establishment Clause, and the ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover, I believe there is room for a change in the law, so that Intelligent Design is a part of public school curriculum. Ideally, science would be strictly experimental, and comparative religion would be an elective that covers Intelligent Design, Genesis, evolution, Native American creation theories, and everything in between. Not only does this invite freedom of religion by literally allowing people to choose their personal beliefs based on what they’ve learned about all available options, but it would quite possibly create more tolerance and understanding across religious groups. Students would graduate public school with more of a global viewpoint and be better prepared citizens to engage in society as a whole. As an elective course, only those who are interested in learning about all the different theories and religions would do so. Nothing would be forced nor required.

One may argue that allowing Intelligent Design to be taught in any scenario in public schools is a blatant violation of the First Amendment. One may also argue that doing so would force students to believe in what they are taught rather than have the freedom to choose their own religious paths. To counter, I must admit that yes, technically Intelligent Design in public schools would violate the First Amendment, but the violation would hardly cause harm; in fact, it would be pushing toward general improvement. It is in our country’s best interest to allow young students the right to study the theories behind why we exist. Nothing has yet been proven, so prohibiting them from learning about every possibility is actually pushing them toward one accepted viewpoint, which almost perfectly contradicts the First Amendment; the Amendment that almost strictly controls unspoken social, political and cultural rules, the Amendment that has been responsible as the basis for war and violence, the incongruous Amendment that is setting back generations of young Americans.

What’s more important than right or wrong is the actual debate. Not about which group owns the truth, but about what religion means to us and why it is so important. About how it shapes who we are as individuals and members of the global community. And ultimately, how we can hold the same elements within different religions and then say “but our way is the right way.” Public schools should offer the questions of religions in a way that lets me and my Buddhist neighbor examine the respective theories, concepts, and history of our religions so that we can learn from each other and evolve with each other both spiritually and practically. Banning Intelligent Design from public schools gives students no such chance.

In conclusion, the debate will continue to rage on. To teach Intelligent Design or not to teach Intelligent Design? The answer is Intelligent Design must be taught. Religious theories must be taught. Creationist theories must be taught. Meet in the middle and allow these things to be taught in a comparative religion elective course. Keep it out of the science classroom and base it strictly on the study of different cultures. Everyone involved in the debate must be willing to open up and understand that we are tweaking the Constitution to improve the education of our young students, build tolerance and acceptance for different beliefs, and increase the general public’s breadth of knowledge. Not allowing each and every theory to be evenly and fairly presented in an educational context would contradict everything the First Amendment stands for: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of choice. There is no free will, there is no free choice without the full disclosure of the belief systems represented around the world.