Throughout my life, my teachers have told me that school is a neutral environment where my classmates and I can count on teachers and textbooks to provide us with the factual and unbiased information that will equip us for life. Lately, though, I've begun to wonder whether they really mean it.
In my junior year of high school in New Jersey, my U.S. history teacher used the first week of class to preach his religious beliefs. He told students, among other things, that they "belong in hell" if they reject Jesus as their savior, that evolution and the Big Bang are ridiculous and unscientific theories, and that there were dinosaurs on Noah's Ark.
When I confronted him in the principal's office, he denied making the remarks. What he didn't realize was that I had recorded the classes. But even after I informed school officials what had happened, they ignored my concerns. So after more than a month, my parents and I took the news to the media.
At first, I was harassed and intimidated by other students. School officials ignored the harassment and even a death threat I received.
Only after the story became national news did the school district begin to take us seriously. After lengthy negotiations (and against continuing opposition from the school board), we finally persuaded the district to address the teacher's false and inappropriate remarks. The Anti-Defamation League was brought in to teach the faculty about the separation of church and state, and experts in the fields of church-state separation, evolution and cosmology came to our school to conduct assemblies.
After that, I thought I was done with controversy for a while. But now, in my senior year, I am back in the midst of it. In one of my classes, we use the 10th edition of "American Government" by James Q. Wilson, a well-known conservative academic, and John J. DiIulio, a political scientist and former head of President Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. (2005). The text contains a statement, repeated three times, that students may not pray in public schools. In this edition of the text, the authors drive the point home with a photograph of students holding hands and praying outside a school. The caption reads: "The Supreme Court will not let this happen inside a public school."
I knew this was false. In fact, students are allowed to pray in schools; courts have ruled many times that a student's right to pray may not be abridged. What's generally impermissible is state-sponsored prayer, in which school officials lead prayer or students are called on or required to pray. It seemed clear to me that the purpose of the discussion in the textbook was to indoctrinate, not to educate.
Continued reading revealed numerous other instances of bias, as well as erroneous and misleading statements. For example, the section on global warming begins with a few well-chosen words to set the tone: "It is a foolish politician who today opposes environmentalism. And that creates a problem because not all environmental issues are equally deserving of support. Take the case of global warming."
The authors neglect to mention the growing scientific consensus on this subject. They dismiss those who are concerned about global warming -- that is, the overwhelming majority of scientists -- as "activists" motivated not by data but by "entrepreneurial politics." Those who deny or downplay it are described as "skeptical scientists."
Pointing out dissent within the scientific community is appropriate. Suggesting that the majority, but not the minority, is politically motivated is not appropriate. If a controversy truly exists, then the authors should not instruct students which side to "support."
I contacted a not-for-profit group called the Center for Inquiry. It enlisted support from scientists, including James Hansen, NASA's top climate scientist, and organizations, including Friends of the Earth and People for the American Way, to address concerns about the textbook.
What is most distressing is not that some public school teachers preach their religion, or that some authors put politics ahead of education. It is that it is so rare for anyone to call them on it. This text is widely used. Yet to my knowledge, no one has challenged these incorrect and misleading statements.
As Americans, we should stand up for our common values. We should champion education and settle for nothing less than the best. Our teachers should do the same and should not misuse their positions to promote their personal agendas.