I had the opportunity to speak with my son’s English teacher about his concerns. It was a cordial and pleasant conversation. In fairness to her, I do not think she was trying to intentionally promote a radical PETA style agenda when she called into question my son’s view. Her intent in asking for the support of other students was more to stimulate discussion than to show by majority rules that his position was in error.
I also don’t think she realized how much she put her stamp of approval on the position that animal and human life are of equal value. She was trying to show the evolution of the main character from a position of total disregard for animal life to a position of valuing animal life. She presented two positions: human life is more valuable than animal life or human life is equal to animal life. The first position is the bad position of the main character in the beginning of the book and the second is the good position he learned as the story progresses. From our discussion, I gleaned that she did not want to delve into the more nuanced position that animal life can be respected but that does not make it of equal value to human life. She said the class is too chatty and easily distracted so she wanted to keep things focused and productive. It was really a matter of classroom expediency to offer just two choices of thought. She wanted the students to concentrate on the story and not bring in all these religious or philosophical viewpoints.
I fully expected to be writing a follow-up post to my son’s English class experience. However, I expected it to be an expository piece on the Catholic teaching about the relationship between man and animals. While that is an interesting topic, I think there are other points worthy of contemplation. First of all, I think there is something intrinsically flawed with a curriculum that must reduce everything to black and white and doesn’t have time for a sophisticated discussion of the gray. I am not blaming any one teacher for this. This is a systemic problem with our educational system. Specifically, the teaching of English has gone from teaching the skills of English communication and the appreciation of the artistry of the written word to indoctrination into approved ideas. My daughter experienced this last year with her AP literature class. The current trend in English class is to appreciate the political message of the literature. But great literature is not about politics. Literature becomes timeless when it touches the core themes of our humanity: love, loss, fear, good and evil. We can provide context to the writing of Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen by knowing something of the politics and culture of their times. But their politics is not the point of their writing. The staying power of their writing is that it speaks to some element of the universal human experience. The focus on a contemporary message makes Oprah book club choices more useful than Jane Austen or Louisa May Alcott. It teaches the essence of propaganda, not literature.
Secondly, isn’t it sad that a teacher is surprised when a student brings his religious principles into the classroom? She fully expects students to compartmentalize their values and stow them away for English class. Of course, in a society that sees no contradiction when someone says, “I am personally opposed, but…” it is not surprising that students are expected to be able to expound a view totally at odds with their faith for the sake of the English class curriculum.
The problem is we are not compartmentalized beings. We are integrated body and spirit. We are called to let our faith permeate and influence every nook and cranny of our lives. This may put us out of sync with current trends in education, but it keeps us in sync with God.