Beyond Belief: In a new book by TC’s Melanie Brewster, atheists speak in their own voices
Stephen mills’ parents took the news that he was gay with surprising equanimity. “There were tears, of course, and then my mother admitted she thought I was going to say I was an atheist.”
Mills’ recollection, published last spring in Melanie Brewster’s Atheists in
America (Columbia University Press), makes it clear: in the United States, godlessness
is the ultimate taboo. Consider that:
84 percent of those surveyed believe the country isn’t ready for an atheist president.
Seven states bar atheists from public office. Arkansas prohibits atheists from testifying as witnesses in court trials.
Among historically oppressed minorities, atheists are regarded as “more troubling” than Jewish, Muslim, African-American and LGBTQ people
Brewster, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education, is known for her work on gender, sexuality and race, but her broader interest is in the psychological impact of identifying as a minority of any kind.
“The prejudice and social stress associated with openly being atheist may pose a serious threat to an individual’s well-being,” she writes. “Therefore, the hesitancy to include people who identify as atheist in the broader multicultural and social justice discourse is puzzling and disturbing.”
In rendering the voices of atheists themselves, and in the breadth of American life it represents, Atheists in America recalls Studs Terkel’s Working and Becky Thompson’s more recent Names We Call Home, on race, which Brewster cites as a model. The contributors include:
Lynette, a Midwesterner who attended Bible school until realizing “I was sick of being valued less as a woman because of God’s mysterious ways.”
James Mouritsen, a Utahan whose tongue-in-cheek Mormon Quick Start Guide for ‘a Sincere Heart’ includes the warning that if divine inspiration fails to materialize, “it is likely that ‘Sincere Heart’ is corrupt.”
Adrienne Filargo Fagan, who, in Born Secular, writes that the knowledge that with “no Pearly Gates…we have one opportunity to make the right decisions for ourselves, our families and our communities” is “what gives meaning to my life.”
And perhaps most moving, the elderly Elizabeth Malm Clemens, who describes caring for a husband sinking into dementia: “I am attempting to work with residential administrators to develop better options for the aged...Having lost faith in earlier refrains…I choose this one to end my time on this fascinating planet.”
Brewster, who thanks her parents for “their undying love, even when I officially went over to the dark side,” describes the demographics and politics of American atheism. While the 9/11 terrorist attacks helped engender the stridently anti-religious New Atheists, led by firebrands such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, other perspectives hold that women and minorities may feel excluded from atheism because its most visible faces are those of white men.
Meanwhile younger writers like Brewster herself may be building a broader acceptance. At Book Expo America in New York City, Brewster was approached by an elderly Muslim man.
“He handed me a Koran to keep. Then he smiled nervously and said, ‘I hope that was okay.”
Don’t Segregate the Gifted
In my vision of gifted education, there would be no gifted programs and no gifted students.
Let me be clear: I believe, very strongly, that many high-ability students suffer from benign neglect in our schools. But the century-old approach of segregating these students via “pull-out” classes or full-time Gifted & Talented programs is fraught with problems.
For starters, racial, ethnic and socioeconomic inequities are rampant. In New York City, for example, Caucasian and Asian-American students make up only about one-third of the school population, yet they constitute roughly three fourths of all students in G&T classes. Nationwide, students from families in the top socioeconomic quarter account for nearly one-half of enrollment in gifted education classes. No wonder some critics charge that gifted education is being used to re-segregate public schools in order to retain middle-class families.
Another problem is that the most common approach to gifted education- part-time pull-out enrichment programs- is of questionable educational value. Under this model, students identified as gifted leave their regular mixed-ability classes for, say, half a day per week to participate in what is usually a hodge-podge of enrichment activities that too often follow no rational scope and sequence and lack academic rigor. Even the rare effective pull-out program provides its students with appropriate education for about 10 percent of the school week.
What is the alternative? Let’s start by remembering that gifted education was created to appropriately challenge capable students who, in a typical classroom, spend their time pretending (or not bothering to pretend) to learn things they already know.
Like their supposedly non-gifted peers, these students are not a monolithic group with a uniform set of educational needs. They, too, need differentiated instruction in the core subjects that leads to true learning, not boredom.
So instead of finding and segregating “gifted students,” let us shift our focus to differentiating curriculum and instruction to meet the needs of diverse learners in every grade and every subject. Admittedly, this is easier said than done. The process would likely take years to complete- and meanwhile, traditional gifted education classes are probably better for high achievers than nothing at all. But settling for business as usual is untenable, from both an educational and an ethical perspective. We need to look for a better way.
Published Friday, Jan. 23, 2015
See full post HERE.