18 November 2006

Thank God for Matthew LaClair

There’s small life, and there’s big life. Or there’s simple life and intelligent life and somehow we all evolved from simpler life forms and got to the complex life forms—that’s the assumption, that may be your hypothesis. Anybody ever observe it?
This explanation of a basic scientific principle, delivered in a sneering tone, was given in a New Jersey High School. So what, you ask. Kids say a lot of stupid things; that's why they're in high school in the first place, to learn stuff, and to improve their minds. Doubtless the teacher stepped in and set the poor kid straight.

One would think, wouldn't one?

The trouble is, the oyster responsible for this particular pearl was the teacher. Yes, believe it or not, a twenty-first century educator actually said this, as part of a confused explanation of why he thought the big bang, the fossil record of the development of life, and the account of billions of years of pre-history clearly visible in the night sky, are all not science. As he babbled on this teacher cruelly revealed his utter lack of understanding of the basics of science, of the discipline of historical research, and of simple forensics.

The funny thing is that this guy has his defenders. One of them wrote:
I've had this teacher and he is one of the best teachers. He taught history the way it was and in group discussions he would view both points without no religion remarks. So who ever reads this, don't be ignorants and know the facts first.
Given the imbecilic tone and lack of logic to this screed I'm afraid the writer may well be correct, and this ignorant yahoo (I speak of him as I heard him in the recording) may well be "one of the best teachers" in New Jersey. God help the students there if that is true.

Another writes:
i know this teacher personally and know he is a good person and diddnt mean to offend ne one... and fuck the little bitch ass who recorded this shiit... im a senior @ khs and this just adds to all the fucking drama in this school.. so u know wat fuck all u bitch asses who want to see action taken...

It's teachers like this guy--his name is David Paszkiewicz by the way--telling kids nonsense about the scientific record and babbling incoherently about the bible, who are destroying the public school system. I've had my own David Paszkiewiczes in my educational life. There was one Barbara Allen, my fifth grade teacher, who believed that electricity was some awesome and mysterious gift from god, and who taught that it was immoral for people to sit in such a way that any part of the body touched another part. (In later years when I read Tertullian for the first time, I was instantly reminded of poor demented Mrs. Allen.) There was a lady named Hughes who taught Spanish and was obsessed with the notion that her students were making out behind her back. There was a guy named Bertram something or other who thought the best way to teach high school seniors about "Contemporary World Problems" was to have them endlessly color maps. (Even some of the other teachers spoke derogatorily of that particular crochet. In our hearing, even.)

But none of my teachers had the distinction of sounding crazier than Mr. Garrison (except Mrs. Allen sometimes). This guy manages it:
...the public school shouldn’t teach a religion, but the scriptures aren’t religion. ... The scriptures are at the foundation of the world’s religions—of the world’s main religions. Religion is a set way of doing things.
This comes about ten minutes into the available recording of Mr. Garrison's American History class. This is breathtaking. The Christian holy book is not religious--it is the foundation of the world's main religions. What are they? Mr. Paszkiewicz names four of them--Roman Catholicism, Methodism, Presbyterianism, and, uh, Baptism, I guess. The Baptists. At this point we begin to gather that this character has his own private definition of religion, and that it apparently excludes Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and a host of other faiths.

"We should be able to bring the bible into the classroom [and] read it," Mr. Garrison-Paszkiewisz says, the remainder of the comment being drowned out on the recording. One of his supporters adds that he said something like "Schools used to be able to open the Bible and read it as if it were a history book." (And congratulations to Joelle Perry for using the subjunctive correctly.) "As if it were a history book." Exactly. But the bible is not a history book (though it is a collection of works from which history may be derived), and should not be read as one. Does Paszkiewisz have his own definition of history as well? It's hard to say, but it should be kept in mind that this oddball is supposed to be teaching American History.

The kids in the classroom are obviously startled by the novel declaration that the bible is not a religious anthology, and the question is asked, what if a student doesn't believe in the bible. The response:
That’s their prerogative. What if the student doesn’t believe in evolution? What if the student doesn’t believe in some other aspect of the educational curriculum?
Now, up to this point Paszkiewisz has been guilty of nothing more than abysmal ignorance. At this point he veers off into preaching over teaching. With no information (apparently) whatsoever he begins to preach to the class his own religious views. This is not an "intellectual debate" as one of his former students describes--to be an intellectual debate there would have to be intellect, and all importantly, information involved. Paszkiewisz proclaims his religious views, clearly, and shows his absolute ignorance of the scientific questions involved.

Note, please, that this is not an opinion. This is an observation, based directly on the teacher's recorded comments. Paszkiewisz introduced the topic of evolution himself, without any prompting, and then went off on a strange religious tirade.
The argument goes something like this: “You’re a believer. Your argument is based on faith, but I believe in evolution; my ideas are based on ["facts?" suggests a student] science, or facts, right?
This is said in the sneering tone the teacher apparently affects any time he is talking about some point with which he disagrees. (At least he does so in this recording.) He goes on to lay out a familiar fundamentalist argument to the effect that scientific concepts are based on faith while belief in the Biblical accounts of creation is soundly based on fulfilled prophecy. He doesn't deal with the more disturbing question of why the grand creator should have written one vast and superfluous lie in the skies, and another consistent one in the layers of rock on the surface of the earth, but allowed the truth to be revealed only in one collection of ancient literature. "If there’s nothing, it can’t explode," he says at one point, referring to the big bang. Of course nobody ever said that nothing (or maybe nothingness) exploded; that's some notion that Paszkiewisz cooked up in his own brain. Nor do scientists describe life as coming about by spontaneous generation (actually an old folk belief long since discarded by science) as he seems to think. Nor are paleontology, archaeology, astronomy, and the like--sciences that peer into the past--somehow not scientific, as he seems to think, because they do not depend heavily on laboratory experiments. This is a notion that the Creation Research Institute (a fundamentalist outfit) used to push, and may still push for all I know, but it's a crazy idea that misunderstands both the nature of the scientific method and the way the sciences in question actually work. None of this is science, history, or philosophy, and all of it is religious discourse. None of it, in this context at least, has any place in a public high school.

A student, Matthew LaClair, complained about this little sermonette, and requested that the teacher apologize and correct his numerous scientific misstatements. After a suitable delay Matthew LaClair was allowed to present his complaint with the teacher present. Paszkiewisz denied everything, claiming that remarks he made had been fabricated or taken out of context. And--

Well you know the rest, right. So many times have I heard this same story, where it always comes down to the teacher's word vs. the student's, and you-know-who wins that contest. Friends, relatives, and total strangers have told me the old familiar story--yes, I admit to being a batshit insane fundamentalist, but I didn't bring my crazy religious notions to class. It's all an invention. One person I know had a teacher who during an anatomy presentation went nuts over the suggestion that some human bones were similar to the equivilent bones in animals--it seems that human beings were a special creation or something and their bones had nothing to do with the bones of animals. And every time the teacher is reinstated with a pat on the head and a "go forth and continue as you have been" from the powers that be. As a victim myself of intellectually perverse teachers I am enraged every time one of these cases comes to my attention. It makes me even angrier when I see the "teacher" in question claiming to be a victim in some fundamentalist rag. It's wretched--enough to make any thinking person retch anyway.

And that's why I say thank god for Matthew LaClair. For once the story didn't have the familiar ending. When Paszkiewisz denied the charges, his student produced the recordings of his little sermon on disk. Paszkiewisz responded (it is said) like an old-time movie villain caught in the act:
You got the big fish ... you got the big Christian guy who is a teacher...!"
Nailed, and he knew it. And yet one of his defenders finds it in his or heart to absolve him:
I know that if he denied some things he said, it was by accident, and not intentional. Its not his fault that he didn't record the discussion and listen to it over and over. That would be the only way he would remember such remarks.
What an indictment. Does the writer mean that Paszkiewisz launches into religious tirades so often that he could hardly be expected to remember the content of one in particular? Or that he's generally forgetful? Or what? Personally I find it impossible to believe that an adult man (he claims to be thirty-eight) could forget flagrantly crossing the line between teaching and preaching in public school. And if he did, well, shame on him.

If a man charged with hitting a pedestrian while out driving two weeks before denies doing it, what do we conclude? We conclude that he's either innocent, or lying. If we subsequently determine that he was not innocent, are we not entitled to assume that he was lying? No, says this defender--he might have forgotten it. But why would somebody forget something like that? Well, he didn't have a video of the event--how could he be expected to remember every little detail of his life without one?

Because of the magnitude of the event. For a man to forget hitting a pedestrian we have to assume either (1) he hits pedestrians so often that one incident could easily be forgotten in the crush of events, or (2) hitting a pedestrian is no big thing with him. Either way, he's a menace.

I suppose there's a third possibility--he could have been blind drunk.

But the fact is, once Paszkiewisz found out that he had been recorded, he acted like a man who knew he was in manure up to his waist. He demanded a union representative and shut up. And high time, too.

For a fuller look at the case, and for all necessary links, check out The Lippard Blog.

1 comment:

artgirl said...

Good for Matthew for taping this guy and standing up for himself. It's a shame that our country is becoming more and more religion-focused and that those of us who aren't religious, get heat for not wanting to hear it. It is fine for religious fanatics and those who are not fanatics to wave their bible pamphlets in your face but yet if you don't believe and merely say so, you are looked at as a detriment to humanity.
I'm with you Matthew. You rock!

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