Our community — as well as those beyond it, I suppose — were offered a query the other week, which one of our state legislators feels is capable of clearly separating education from indoctrination in Iowa schools.
State Rep. John Wills, in detailing his views on classrooms curriculum and potentially questionable materials, said one can differentiate between the two by applying one simple question — "Do my kids need to know this in order to learn?" he asked. I don't intend to bemoan or belittle Rep. Wills' opinions on the subject — they are what are, and he explained them honestly.
However, in considering his words this past week, I believe the broad stroke of a question will drip exactly where many in northwest Iowa would rather it not.
About a decade ago, I taught K-6 summer art classes at my hometown's art center. It was nothing compared to the lesson plans and state benchmarks any public school teacher has to meet, but you'll get my point soon enough.
I was leading the oldest age group through an activity based on the work of Wassily Kandinsky — whose paintings attempted to convey music and sound through color and shape. Our small class discussed which colors and marks seemed to convey certain ideas best — which colors seem perky and inviting, which ones seem slow or thin and how they might work when juxtaposed with one another. Then I played some instrumental music for the class, and they put the discussion into practice on paper before we took some time to see what each student created.
One student felt she had heard a sound like wind at one point in the song, so she took a more literal approach and drew something akin to the clouds you'd find on an illustrated map from the Age of Exploration.
And here's where the broad strokes begin to bleed too much.
It turned out this particular student thought wind was in fact generated inside clouds — an easy assumption when you're young and have seen a picture or two of anthropomorphic clouds puffing out their cheeks. So, we talked about where wind really does come from — differences in air temperature that bring on different pressures. There were only a few students in that particular section, but somehow that idea peeked their curiosity. So one question led to another — How do balloons fly? How do fish breath? You get the idea. And then, out of nowhere, that first student hit me with an entirely different sort of question.
"How did they know Jesus was really Jesus?" she asked.
Now, applying Rep. Will's metric to the situation, my students did not need that information in order to learn about color and shape, so answering it honestly would therefore be pushing an agenda rather than educating.
Yet, I answered her question. I explained the basics of the Old Testament prophecies, and how factors like Jesus' heritage and the manner in which he died fulfilled the predictions in ways that people who may have previously claimed to be the Messiah could not.
And in answering her question, I expressed a core part of who I am even though the students didn't need to know about it in order to learn about art.
I may be wrong, but I doubt many Republican Party members will be upset with me for saying what I said that day. But, frankly, if expressing something outside the necessary curriculum really is indoctrination, they should be.
Because, if we're going to construct absolutes around the topic of education, they must be applied evenly to all thoughts and beliefs, even the ones most common to our community's culture. It's tempting to equate the familiar and the comfortable with the safe and the moral, but that's not always the case. Our judgement needs to be more discerning than that.
For if we overlook one infraction because it aligns with our beliefs — because it is close to our own selves — but demand strict sanction against another which does not, then we have achieved the very opposite of what we set out to do.
We will have enshrined one set of personal values as superior to others.
We will have clearly been enforcing an agenda.
We will be indoctrinating our students.