On page 16 of the textbook “Exceptional Students: Preparing Teachers for the 21st Century,” there is a single-sentence reference to Christianity. “Exceptional Students” is a book about teaching students with what the book calls “impairments,” which are described as “a loss or abnormality of a psychological, physiological, or anatomical structure or function.” They are what are referred to as special needs students: kids with autism, emotional and physical problems, mental retardation, etc.
I’m in the process of becoming a certified teacher, and am taking two required classes, Foundations of Education and Introduction to Special Education. And here, in the first week of Intro to Special Ed, we have come across Christianity. “Exceptional Students” mentions it in the chapter on the history of how special needs children have been treated at different times and in different cultures. In ancient cultures like Sparta, disabled children were often tossed into a river or left in the wild. Such practices “were widespread until the fourth century when Christianity began to have a positive influence.”
Now, before I get into why this reference is important, I need to make something clear. I am not a religious nut. I am a Catholic. I believe that the universe is 5 billion years old, evolution is a fact, and that anyone who takes the Bible literally is a dingbat. The Lord fills my heart with hope, peace and joy. Jesus freaks do not.
But here’s the thing. The reason why our culture is so sensitive about the sins of our past, so suffused with pride about the Civil Rights era, and so enlightened in the treatment of special needs children, is, well, Christianity. This does not mean that you cry Halleluiah Jesus! every time you walk into a room. It does not mean you force kids to recite the Lord’s Prayer in class. It does not mean that you disrespect other faiths and other cultures. But as a simple matter of historical fact, Christianity changed the world—and for the better. The Crusade, Inquisition and sex-abuse scandals put together are a tiny speck of space dust in the magnificent Big Bang of social, philosophical, cultural and spiritual changes that came to the world with the arrival of Christ. It affected everything, from the foundations of universities to the Civil Rights movement to the PowerPoint presentation that I sat through yesterday in class bemoaning the injustice of the U.S. internment camps for Japanese.
Sitting in my classes, I have deep episodes of cognitive dissonance. In two weeks the courses have largely become what I expected, a stage for brandishing one’s politically correct bona fides. In “Foundations of Education” we do PowerPoint presentations on aggrieved racial groups—Native Americans, Chinese, Latin Americans, etc.—and titter at the silly Christian proselytizing and sexism that were routing in early American schools as we go through the history of American education.
Our professor, Karen, nods as we stand there explaining racial and gender injustice. She is oblivious to the fact that she even has an ideology, simply because our culture has been marinating in political correctness for so many decades now that it is the default position of most minds. Human history is a long struggle to free ourselves from stereotypes, racism, nativism and generally all forms of insensitivity. With the Civil Rights movement, the environmental movement, and gay marriage, we are almost there (although of course to liberals “the cause shall never die;” they’d have nothing left to do). There’s no need to argue about Christianity or Western culture: we just won’t mention it. Year Zero was 1958. Nothing before that matters.
Well, almost. In my “Introduction to Special Education” class, we learn the history of the treatment of the disabled. This includes the one sentence about Christianity. Disabled people were abused in all kinds of ways, including being left in the wild to die as infants, before Christians began to change the culture. While the book mentions Christians, it doesn’t explore the revolution that occurred. It mentions the fourth century, but no more. It says nothing of the hospitals that cared for lepers no one else would touch—never mind the monasteries that kept learning alive during the Dark Ages.
Again, I don’t want creationism in the schools, or Pat Robertson teaching social studies. But it leaves one positively gob-smacked to sit in a classroom for hour after hour and hear about the progress that has been made in the treatment of blacks, gays, women, Latinos—not to mention how lousy America is—and realize that none of the people making the indictment has a clue—or in fact totally rejects the idea—that none of it would have been possible without Jesus Christ. It reminds me of Martha Bayles’ point that the anti-pop culture animus among some neoconservatives is a result not of their Puritanical prudery but of their genesis as Marxists. These earnest, do-gooding liberals who are going to be teaching your children in a couple years are deeply Christian and don’t even know it. The great theologian David Bentley Hart sums up the point nicely in his book Atheist Delusions:
“Even the most ardent secularists among us cling to notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providence of the indigent, legal equality, or basic human dignity that pre-Christian Western culture would have found not so much foolish as unintelligible. It is simply true that we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe in any of these things – they would never have occurred to us – had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for the least of his brethren.”
In my “Introduction to Special Education” class, we are reading the terrific novel “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” It is about a brilliant autistic boy, Christopher Boone, who solves a murder. Christopher is a mathematical idiot savant, and has no time to falsehoods, religious or otherwise. Her rejects his own name, noting that the legend of St. Christopher carrying the infant Jesus across the river is “apocryphal, which means it’s false.” Christopher’s autism is an apt metaphor for our culture, and the educational system that cultivates it. He is supposed to be a sharp anti-hero, with his rejection of Christ and anything else he deems fake. The thing is, had it not been for Christ—and dare I say it, the truths about the metaphysical dignity of human beings he heralded—Christopher Boone, autistic and a weakling, would have been left with the wolves at birth.
Augustine Brehon is a name assumed to protect the author, who is currently receiving his education certification near Washington, D.C.