I have always believed in the importance of public education as a necessary component of a healthy and vibrant country.
This is not a criticism of my friends and peers who work at religious schools. Nor is it a critique of those who homeschool their children. It is a belief that public schools are far too often neglected by churches and church leaders.
Too often, religious leaders refer to the loss of prayer in school as the downfall of modern society. EthicsDaily.com has long been a proponent of the need for goodwill people of faith to help engage public schools.
Years ago, I spoke at a conference for National Education Association leaders. Because of that speech, I was asked to attend a forum hosted by the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.
I remember a presentation by a speaker who spoke of the sparsity of religious content in public school textbooks. He asked poignant questions.
How can one teach of westward expansion and ignore the roles of Mormons in that movement? How can an English teacher speak of “The Pearl” by John Steinbeck and ignore the religious undertones? How can you teach about the civil rights movement and ignore the work of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.?
This year I began a journey from church-based ministry to a second career. I now teach at a Title One public school in Houston.
I was delighted to see, last Wednesday, that we were to look at Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as a piece of literature. The task was simple. Take an excerpt from the letter and “hashtag” each paragraph (Twitter style) to identify the tone of the address.
I felt this letter was too important a piece of literature to spend on hashtags and excerpts.
We tackled the letter’s effectiveness as a piece of rhetoric. This was no cursory treatment. My students used words like didactic, indignant, lyrical, forthright, sincere, earnest, reflective, reverent and optimistic to describe the tones of the letter.
The challenge was just that, “challenging,” but my students rose to the task.
My students are predominantly African-American. It was great to expose many of them to literature that they had read, at best, in a cursory manner. It was great to hear their responses.
A one point, I shared what brilliance this man had. A student asked, “Are you surprised that a black man would be articulate?”
I assured her that it was not my belief at all. I just wanted them to know that the civil rights movement was no mistake.
It was the result of academic excellence, hard work, courage beyond belief and the belief in the ultimate truth that all men and women are created equal.
I assured my students that I was proud to have stood in the heritage and footsteps of a minister that had changed our great nation for the better. I also shared that I was embarrassed by white ministers who had not embraced the civil rights movement sooner.
I did not speak to my students of “altar calls” or the need for conversion. I did not try to interject religion or spirituality in a way that was subversive or clandestine.
What I did speak about led to greater understandings of civil rights and the importance of leaders who could articulate dreams to the masses and selected audiences like white ministers.
Every morning in my public school, we have a moment of silent reflection. I use that time to pray for students by name. I pray, as well, for a country when all people will not be known by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
It is possible to believe in the First Amendment and to be a person of faith. As a Baptist, it is part of my DNA.
I also believe that kids who can’t afford private education or homeschooling deserve a chance at a good education. I believe that you can’t teach about the history of the civil rights movement without mentioning men like Martin Luther King Jr.
Teachers say, “Some days are better than others.” Last Wednesday was a good day.
Ed Hogan is a member of the board of the Baptist Center for Ethics and a public school teacher in Houston.