Faith-Based Education: Silver Bullets and Human Sacrifice

Post by Rob Taber

"Daddy, what are they doing to that guy's heart?"

In our booth at the local Wendy's, there for our monthly lunch date, my preschooling daughter pointed at a spot in the book in front of us. A cartoon Mexica priest held a fresh heart over a war captive, chest open and still dripping blood.

This situation was one of my own making. Trips to Wendy's went well with stops at the city library, and between classmates' birthday parties and my own laziness, we made it to the library about once a month. This particular Saturday, library came before lunch, and I had decided to grab an extra nonfiction book for us to peruse together. Unbeknownst to the kid, for several months I've been adding a book or two a trip, intended to give her an initial grounding in world history (an idea picked up from a homeschooling curriculum I once read). The kiddy atlas of ancient civilizations seemed like a good supplement. And my child, in time, reached the page on Mesoamerica, with its depiction of human sacrifice. As a historian of the early Latin America, my answer for her included the fact that people in other parts of the world at the time, including Europe, did just as savage things for equally serious, self-righteous reasons--a point Montaigne made some 433 years ago in his "On Cannibals."

Educating young'uns--ever an endeavor.

Mormons are big on education. Scripture tells us to "seek . . . out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith." This learning includes "things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, [and] things which are abroad." We're charged to seek after "anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy." Even when it comes to listening for answers to prayers, we're taught to "study it out" in our minds before asking God what's right.

We Mormons have also been talking about education a lot this last week, discussing the best approach to education in our local schools as Utah debates whether to move ahead with Common Core and a legislator (backed by a polished campaign) proposed doing away with all state school attendance requirements for children and teens. Then, Sunday morning, the New York Times published a front page article about Latter-day Saints who undergo faith crises when they find information online that contradicts the history they got in Sunday school. It's led to eloquent responses from McKay Coppins and Joanna Brooks.

McKay tells his story about finding information online at 13 that troubled him, and his parents' willingness to talk with him and hear him out.

Joanna notes, rightly, that all of the NYT's published anecdotes come from men, and that many of the women who struggle, struggle with squaring Church customs and practices with a belief in a God who is merciful and just, and seek for answers to their questions.

Both Joanna and McKay have a different approach towards their personal faith than they did as children. So do I, and so do, I suspect, most of us.

Which, by way of this Slate essay, brings me back to public education.

Educating children, ultimately, is about getting them ready to leave the nest, and having faith that what we provide them will be of some help later on. Facts are useful. Learning how to sift through information, weigh different facts, find answers, ask questions, find deeper answers, and then communicate those findings--that's even more useful. My mom taught English and Mathematics in elementary and secondary schools early in her career. Growing frustrated with the never-ending barrage of silver bullets designed to make the next generation absolutely brilliant (or perfect employees, depending), she found in grad school a question that captivated her for the rest of her life: how, exactly, do children learn math? And how do we build into this to introduce mathematical concepts in a way that helps them get it? Being one of my mom's guinea pigs when I was young gave me a decent foundation in math for a person inclined towards the humanities. Watching her complete her doctorate during my early school years has provided innumerable lessons as I squeeze dissertation writing around making sure the kid is fed, clothed, read to, and put to bed at a reasonable hour.

If faith is "the evidence of things hoped for, the substance of things not seen," then I have a deep abiding faith that some educational techniques work better than others. Florida's "school grades" system has deep, troubling issues, and I've found that whenever there's a prescription for school reform, a salesperson is never far behind. But as my kid officially enters the state school system next month via Florida's voluntary pre-kindergarten program, I'll be doing what I can to support a school system that provides a common core to all, that respects teachers as highly-trained professionals, and helps parents understand and fulfill their responsibilities. And whatever happens, I'll keep lightly guiding my dear daughter towards lessons on flexible thinking and comparative ritual violence.

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