Sometimes everything sucks. Life doesn’t seem just hopeless, but malevolent. You can’t find a job. Your girlfriend is mad at you. You physically feel lousy.
A couple years ago I decided to become a teacher. Because I’m Catholic, I thought the process would be fairly easy. The Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington, where I live, do not require certification; that is, they prefer a teacher to be certified, but they will also accept you if you are in the process of becoming certified. You need to, as the phrase they use puts it, “show a good faith effort.” So all had to do was show some effort, which meant taking some education classes at a local community college. After getting into the Catholic schools, I could get experience and get certified,
Another advantage: I was, and am, a man. Every since I expressed interest in teaching, those who already are teachers have greeted the news like Joel Osteen hearing that Christopher Hitchens had been born again. I heard the same refrain over and over: the schools are desperate for male teachers. You’ll be able to pick what school you want to go to. Rejoice!
It hasn’t worked that way. Last summer, very few teachers left their jobs. The economy is so bad that they were not about to take that risk, or give up that second source of income if their spouse was also working. There was another problem: I had written many articles, and even a book, condemning the liberalism that had penetrated the Catholic schools in from the 1960s on. It highlighted my high school Jesuit education: the bad catechism, the drugs, the strippers, and the homosexuality. The Catholic ghetto in D.C. was small. Was I being blackballed?
Who knew. As the weeks without being offered a job—aside from the occasional call to come in as a substitute teacher—turned into months, my frustration curdled into resentment. If only I had not left the workforce a few years ago to write books, I wouldn’t be in this position. I had been working at a small conservative magazine, and I could have moved my up through the ranks. I could have been a less goofy Bill O’Reilly. At the very least, having a job would make it easier to pay for the classes I was taking for certification; I had put them on my credit card. I could always freelance, but that wasn’t paying much these days. Besides, I’m a pro-environment, pro-immigrant, pro-life and pro-rock-and-roll Catholic conservative. I was too weird for both the Washington Post and National Review. Meanwhile, the bills were piling up.
And most of all, I was sick, and with an intensity I can only compare to those nights last year when I was hurling my toenails up after chemotherapy (yeah, I had had cancer too), with enervating totalitarianism of educational political correctness that I was getting in the classes I was taking for certification. I was tired of hearing about America’s crappy treatment of blacks and Native Americans. I didn’t want to hear any more about the “different ways of learning”—hey kids, feelings are just as important as memorization! I was weary of being hammered with the message that kids with learning disabilities—or “exceptional students”—were not only equal to other students, but actually superior.
That last one especially bothered me. It’s one thing, and a good thing, to treat kids with autism, ADHD, mental retardation and other ailments as full human beings with inherent dignity. It’s another to ignore the tragic aspect of such people (and indeed of all human limitations) and valorize them as shamanistic demigods who have been put on earth to teach us mortals the holy art of appreciating them. Case in point: Mark Haddon’s novel “The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time,” which is required reading in my “Introduction to Special Education” class. It tells the story of Christopher Boone, a boy living in England, is autistic. He groans, rolls on the floor, and is easily overwhelmed if his carefully controlled environment is disturbed. He is also a mathematical genius. He can solve problems that might stump Stephen Hawking, and does difficult puzzles in his head to calm himself down. The drawings, puzzles, equations and charts that Haddon uses to reveal Christopher’s mind effective convey the reality that autistic people are not retarded, and in fact may be brilliant (Christopher in fact is an idiot savant, if such a term is still valid).
When a neighbor’s dog is killed, Christopher sets out to find the killer. It soon becomes evident that the adults in Christopher’s life are not virtuous. His father kills a dog after Christopher’s mother commits adultery. He tells Christopher his mother is dead, and hides her letters from him. Worst of all, he becomes so frustrated with his challenging son that he hits him, causing Christopher to leave home and take a dangerous journey to find his mother. His mother is feckless and irresponsible. The only character Christopher really seems to like is Siobhan, his teacher. Siobhan asks direct questions and gives direct answers, which may explain her appeal to Christopher. A current theme throughout The Curious Case is Christopher’s dislike of religion; while he can offer dazzling explanations his world and the larger universe, he never thinks of the tumbling stars of a collapsing Big Bang or the rain outside his window as metaphysical or poetic. Christopher thinks everything can be explained using reason and science. The creation of life itself is one big accident that amounts to nothing more than numbers on paper. Love itself means doing something for someone else.
While this may indeed be an accurate portrayal of an autistic, it reveals an irony. For the past century if not longer, the case for eliminating the disabled from society has been made by those who shared Christopher’s mentality. This is not to say that Christopher is a mass murderer, or even that he is dangerous—clearly it is the adults around him who hit him and kill dogs. But his absolute reliance on science—to the point of making it a god—has been the catechism of the eugenics movement and mass killers from Hitler to Mao. The so-called “progressive” movement of the early 20th century, spearheaded by people like Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger and writer H.G. Wells, believed in ushering in utopia through the elimination of “imbeciles” and “inferior” races. In our own time, it is the dogma of the “transhuman” movement that holds that humanity can make great progress if we could but eliminate the retarded and disabled. One such thinker was Joseph Fletcher of Harvard, who dreamt of a bright human future with “idiots” and “cripples.” All these monsters preached this in the name of science.
The great check on this madness was the religion that Christopher so disdains. Indeed, were it not for the great religions, most notably Christianity, Christopher Indeed, were it not for the great religions, most notably Christianity, Christopher may not even have been allowed to live. The difference between the scientific and utilitarian view of the human person and the spiritual view was explored by the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, in a 2005 article in the journal The New Atlantis:
For those who, on the one hand, believe that life is merely an accidental economy of matter that should be weighed by a utilitarian calculus of means and ends and those who, on the other, believe that life is a supernatural gift oriented towards eternal glory, every moment of existence has a different significance and holds a different promise. To the one, a Down Syndrome child (for instance) is a genetic scandal, one who should probably be destroyed in the womb as a kind of oblation offered up to the social good, and, of course, to some immeasurably remote future; to the other, that same child is potentially (and thus already) a being so resplendent in his majesty, so mighty, so beautiful that we could scarcely hope to look on him with the sinful eyes of this life and not be consumed.
Indeed, the very reason that we were expected to treat people with disabilities as fully human was because of the Christian theologians and American founders that schools don’t teach anymore. We demand rights and equality and respect while oblivious to where those ideas originated. A couple days after finishing The Curious Case I was called in by a school to sub for sixth grade history. I decided to hit the class with an unexpected question.
“Where do our rights come from?”
The kids shouted their answers: “the Congress!” “The Constitution!” “The Bill of Rights!”
“Nope,” I said.
We had been watching a movie that the teacher I was filing in for had assigned. It was about Irish immigrants in early 20th century America. The main point was that the Irish were terribly mistreated as immigrants, and took jobs that were brutal and dangerous. The labor movement was in its infancy, but would ultimately help pass sane laws about working conditions.
The problem was, the movie, which was shown via a computer, kept freezing. If the movie malfunctioned there was no backup plan. I just had to wing it. So when the video froze for the third time I asked the kids where they thought our rights came from. Their regular teacher had taught them the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence—I had seen the exams on her desk. My favorite wrong answer was on the test that had them fill in the blacks on the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these KINGS to be self-evident.”
They had no idea. “Our rights,” I said, “come from God.”
They sat there. I waited a couple seconds. “What does the Declaration of Independence say?”
They recited it perfectly, if without emotion. Then I explained what it meant. The kids had recently done a school project called “Standing Up.” They picked historical figures who had stood up for what was right, even if it wasn’t popular. They made poster board collages of the figures; the collages hung on the walls lining the halls of the school. Every morning they were walking by Lincoln, Handy, Martin Luther King. What did all these people have in common? They had disobeyed unjust laws. They had revolutionized the world and given up their lives by arguing that certain things are wrong and will always be wrong, no matter what the law says. They had argued that our rights come from God, not form kings and not from men. For good measure, I threw in that in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King quotes Thomas Aquinas. Then I added one of my favorite quotes from At. Ambrose: “The conscience is God’s herald and messenger.” You don’t have to be religious to know just from unjust laws, I told them. You just need to have a conscience.
The video jerked into motion again. An actress doing an awful brogue—we’re talking Tom Cruise in Far and Away here—passionately declared that she was “tiered of furteen air days” (tired of fourteen hour days) and was “going to a layburr meeting.” Then the video froze again. I asked the class what they would do if someone tried to force them to work I a factory. “It would be better than sitting here,” one shot back. Not really, I said. It’s wrong to have kids working in factories, and it’s wrong to underpay workers. Even when laws say you can do those things, they are wrong. The fact that our culture cries for rights without knowing their origin is quite a curious case.
Augustine Brehon is a name assumed to protect the author, who is currently receiving his education certification near Washington, D.C.