God and public-school classrooms? These clashes are hard to report and that's a fact

Do you remember my post a few days ago about that Katy, Texas, public-classroom dispute between a teacher and a student named Jordan Wooley? That was the KHOU story about how this 12-year-old student -- on a critical-thinking test -- declined to give the correct answer, which was that "There is a God" was a statement of opinion, not fact.

This was the rare "culture wars" story of this kind in which journalists were able to do something other than quote angry parents, followed by silence from public-school officials or statements from their PR professionals stating that school officials are very sorry that parents have chosen to get upset about absolutely nothing.

In this case, they key was that young Wooley had a chance to stand up in public and speak her mind, in front of journalists and everybody else. That public forum seemed to push this story out of the usual news gridlock in which conservative media (and conservative activists with fundraising letters) quote the concerns of parents, while mainstream journalists (and liberal activists with fundraising letters) quote the views of school officials.

This leads us to the question on this week's Crossroads podcast: Why is it so hard for journalists to write stories in which voices on both sides are quoted, with respect, and allowed to dialogue about the alleged facts in these disputes? Click here to tune that in.

As I told host Todd Wilken, this KHOU story reminded me, in many ways, of the recent disputes here in Tennessee about class activities in which very young students are required to learn and even recite key elements of Muslim doctrine -- including the Shahadah, the prayer that someone recites in order to convert Islam.

As I noted in another recent post, most of the coverage I am seeing ignores the actual concerns of the parents and acts as if this is a dispute about studying the history of Islam, period. The key is the word "Shahadah." That term shows up in the "conservative" media reports, but not the mainstream stories.

But back to Houston. After I wrote my post about the KHOU report, The Houston Chronicle weighed in with an A1 story that (a) admitted that the conflict existed, (b) that there were clashes here in how two major forces in education view the word "fact" and (c) that these kinds of classroom conflicts are not going to go away.

Let's parse a bit of this Chronicle story:

College-level experts in religion and education familiar with the case through news accounts say the controversy highlights the perils of broaching religion in a public classroom setting, a topic mandated in some contexts by the Texas Education Code.

“Science cannot prove or disprove belief, and that’s where there’s a lot of conflict. People just talk past each other.” Elaine Ecklund, director of Rice University’s Religion and Public Life Program.

Now, pay close attention to this next section and try to grasp the challenges that journalists would have quoting these different voices in the same report:

Appearing before Katy ISD school trustees days after the episode, Wooley explained that she felt the question and her teacher’s purported insistence that God’s existence was not a “fact” were attacks on her religion. Other students were traumatized, too, she said. A school board investigation indicated that the girl’s account was exaggerated, but district trustees concluded that the exercise was “ill-conceived, and because of that, its intent had been misconstrued.” 

So distraught was the teacher over a tsunami of online criticism directed against her -- including a tweet from Gov. Greg Abbott that hailed Wooley as “Texas tough” -- that she voluntarily took a hiatus from classroom duties.

Now, I am sure that more than a few GetReligion readers are thinking: "Wait a minute. How would scientists, in a lab, prove that God does not exist?" Was this anonymous public-school teacher -- a Christian, according to news reports -- claiming that it could be proven, as scientific fact, that God does NOT exist?

I am glad to report that the Chronicle piece managed to work that point of view -- sort of -- into the discussion. It helped that the voice of authority, on that issue, came from Rice University, the highest level of academia in the Lone Star State.

To Elaine Ecklund, director of Rice University’s Religion and Public Life Program, the Katy dispute may have grown out of a “misunderstanding on the part of the child and the teacher of what constitutes ‘fact.’ ”

Many Christians, fervent in their faith, believe their views are factual, Ecklund said, adding that “Belief in God is a different kind of evidence.” If Wooley fell into the category of steadfast believers, and the teacher took a more scientific view, Ecklund hypothesized, they may have blundered into a pattern common in larger society.

“Science,” she said, “cannot prove or disprove belief, and that’s where there’s a lot of conflict. People just talk past each other.”

This wasn't a perfect story, but it sure was better than the norm.

Enjoy the podcast.

IMAGE: From Twitter.

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