Graven Images and Craven Laws

The US House of Representatives voted to let states display the Ten Commandments in public schools. The resolution bypasses the restrictions of the separation of church and state by merely allowing States to choose methods. (The "separation" doctrine is judicially imposed overkill of the simple, precise language of the First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." So government cannot mandate a religion. It doesn't mean that any entity which is associated with the government through policy or receipt of money can never officially acknowledge that citizens may even have a religion.)

The Ten Commandments Defense Act isn't yet law. If passed by the Senate, Clinton will probably spew some family values smoke before signing without realizing that one of the commandments states, "Thou shalt not commit adultery." (Perhaps the President uses the Reader's Digest Condensed Version of the Bible. It's advertised as 40% shorter, so maybe there's only six commandments.)

Having the Ten Commandments on a hallway poster won't change behavior much. Elementary school teachers will have to explain concepts such as "graven image," "covet," and "adultery." Granted, teenagers could investigate ethics by debating the finer points of killing in self-defense, killing in defense of others, and using the death penalty. And civilization requires codes of behavior -- personally responsible citizens form the basis of a well-managed government.

But we need to radically rethink what we teach in schools. The original 3Rs -- reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic -- were taught in a Bible-based curriculum to farmer's children in the winter between final harvest and first planting. Those students learned character education from the Bible stories in the McGuffey Readers and practical skills from their parents while doing chores around the homestead. Over 90% of the citizenry used to live on farms. Now less than 2% do. We've extended the 3Rs into 12 grades with Shakespearean English, Advanced Composition, and Algebra II. Perhaps we should consider adding other practical and ethical skills that all humans need to deal with technical, internationally-focused modern society.

Life skills require an understanding of technology. A mandatory class on the basics of automobile maintenance, carpentry, electrical, plumbing, sewing, and cooking would enhance self-confidence and provide skills useful to anyone. (US Marines learn some of these skills in boot camp). More abstruse yet eminently practical skills such as defensive driving, managing personal finances, and understanding interest rates are vital to each consumer.

Of course, I'm not a Senator or Representative, so I know we can't merely add new classes without dropping some existing ones. Many of the current classes taught in higher grades are not vitally necessary. Take Geography. Knowing the locations of the continents is useful, but knowing the capital of some country that doesn't exist anymore is fairly useless trivia. People who keep up on current events keep up on geography, and those who don't probably don't remember any of the geography they learned anyway.

Writing an equation about chemical ions is not nearly as important to each voter as knowing the difference between some talking head on TV with a "theory" about something and the scientific community's definition of "Theory" with a capital "T." In the long run, knowing how science uses experiments, categorization, and descriptive statistics is more important to society than churning out keyboardists. And we also need to be aware of the limits of scientific knowledge. A class in comparative religion would provide insight into how humanity sees beyond those limits, and would also provide the foundation of ethical discussions and give a better understanding of the forces behind history. Of course, teaching multiple religions would probably go against the grain of those folks who want the Ten Commandments back in the little red schoolhouse. But we can't prepare our children for the future by looking backwards.