Last week, I wrote about scientists who believe in the idea of a young Earth. This week, the New York Times is covering what in my mind is a similar topic – the beliefs that a teacher may express in the classroom (Patrick McGeehan, February 20, 2007).

Matthew LeClair, a 16-year old high school student in Kearny, NJ is threatening to sue the Kearny Board of Education over religious views expressed by his history teacher, David Paszkiewicz. Evidently, Mr. Paszkiewicz had been recording (without his knowledge or permission, and against explicit school policy) espousing religious views including that people who did not believe in Jesus would go to Hell, that dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark (out of curiosity, is the problem that there were dinosaurs on board, or is talking about Noah’s Ark itself a religious conversation?), and that the Big Bang and the theory of evolution have no scientific basis.

I’m not all that interested in the details of this case, not least because after carefully reading the article it appears to be about how the school handled its student whistleblower, not the larger question of how the separation of Church and State plays out in the classroom of the most densely-populated state in the Union. I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore.

In some ways I’m the last person who should be commenting on this issue, or at least the last person you should be listening to. I never attended a public school in any US state, I never taught a day of class in a public school – heck, the only time I ever see the inside of a public school is on Election Day! I don’t really understand and have never personally experienced a separation between religion and education. I attended only religious schools while growing up, and professionally I teach in Jewish environments for Jewish institutions.

In a way though, the idea of verboten topics in the classroom is not foreign to my experiences at all. In a Modern Orthodox high school, for example, you will most certainly learn about the Big Bang and evolution in science class. In the ninth grade I even remembering hearing a disclaimer from my science teacher that I need not believe these things, but that I would certainly be tested on my knowledge of them. While these topics were openly taught, discussed and even sometimes addressed by our rabbis, some topics were beyond the pale, like the idea of three Isaiahs, or the Documentary Hypothesis. Beyond the realm of Biblical criticism, topics like intermarriage or interdenominational relations not to be discussed, even as intermarried teachers taught a largely-Orthodox student population fringed by Conservatives.

Maybe it’s strange, given the above, that it was in this environment that I was exposed on the one hand to the non-observant, intermarried math teacher’s view that a sect which would consider his wife a donkey has some serious moral failings1, and on the other hand to the Israeli, observant, owner of both a doctorate in Tanach and rabbinical ordination (though he preferred, or perhaps even insisted, on the title ‘Mister’) and his heterodox views on the authorship of the Tanach. These conversations, and others like them, were often preceded by a quick peek outside the door and down the hall, and were conducted in hushed voices with conspiratorial overtones. Out teachers would swear us to secrecy, explaining that their jobs were on the line and that they would be disciplined and even fired if it was revealed that they were sharing these views.

I don’t want to make too much of these moments. They didn’t inspire me to great intellectual heights, nor did they plant a seed of cross-denominational tolerance in my breast. I do remember them though, and there are not many educational moments from my high school years that I can now remember, some fifteen years later. But I don’t remember them for their content as much as for the personalities of the teachers themselves.

I’m a teacher myself, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that you can’t be an effective teacher if you don’t make personal connections with your students. That means bringing your personality to your work in every phase, from formal exams to informal chit-chat with students. Kids don’t have a great respect for knowledge, but they do have a great respect for teachers who are genuine. In order to really connect with students you must share yourself, including your values and your beliefs.

Maybe I’m the crazy one here, but does it strike anyone else as absurd that in this country we have decided to entrust our children’s educations into the hands of teachers whose world-views are potentially so different from our own? That we created an education system that strives to inculcate only the broadest of societal values (even as some of those values, e.g. egalitarianism, run contrary to the beliefs of many)?

So back to Mr. Paszkiewicz. I confess that when I first read his name, I braced myself for a Jewish-flavored controversy, and breathed some small sigh of relief at the Christian nature of his beliefs. Unlike in the past though, this time my small sigh did not carry with it my indignation over the issue. What did Mr. Paszkiewicz say? That he’s a Christian? And that by extension he believes that non-Christians will go to hell? Isn’t this standard Christian dogma? It is Evangelical dogma that the Earth is young, that the Bible is literal, and that by implication, dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark! Whatever his claims on the science behind the Big Bang and evolution might have been, Mr. Paszkiewicz is a history teacher, not a science teacher, and his statements should not be considered ex cathedra.

What’s a teacher to do? I’m sure, like most teachers, Mr. Paszkiewicz is asked about his faith by students. Is he supposed to lie, or to sugarcoat his answers? Is he meant to recuse himself from such questions? I know that I wear my Jewish identity on my sleeve, and it would be impossible for me to shunt if to non-school hours only. It’s a part of who I am and how I experience and relate to the world.

I’m not trying to teach students or test them on my religious beliefs, and I got no sense that Mr. Paszkiewicz was trying to do that either. From the facts reported, it does not appear that his opinions were expressed as part of his history curriculum, but as past of the year-long relationship that teachers and students evolve together. Is this unconstitutional?

In my opinion teachers must be allowed to share their beliefs with students. Sure, some lines must be drawn, and I’m not advocating for Jerry Falwell to do a nationwide elementary school tour. Nevertheless, teachers cannot be expected to be effective as teachers, role-models, and meaningful influences on their students if they cannot honestly live their beliefs and wear them proudly in a school. My best teachers never backed away from their beliefs, and more than any fact I learned from them, I learned how to be true to yourself even in an environment that was not welcoming to your values and closely-held truths. It may be that Mr. Paszkiewicz has already taught Matthew LeClair that lesson, and I suspect that it’s a living lesson he will remember far longer than Mr. Paszkiewicz’s by-the-numbers Evangelical dogma.

So what do you folks think? What is and is not appropriate for a teacher to discuss in class?

1.See Gil Student for a traditional view on the status of Gentiles in Jewish marital law, and a refutation of the claim made by my math teacher. The straight-faced title of the linked article is Gentiles Are Human, and it’s the second of a two-part series on this question. Here’s Part I.