The Tacet Underground

What if He didn't exist? At all. What if long ago, visiting ETs decided that the easiest way to keep these creatures (us) complacent was to chisel out some stony rules and promise a heaven and a hell, much like a kindergarten teacher promises stickers for good behavior and time out for bad behavior? Sure - it's crazy. But just for a minute, what if?

What if the bible is not the 'word of God' as it is so flippantly called while held up and venerated? What if you discover that it is a collection of stories jotted down by the fallible and earthly predecessors of Aesop and the Brothers Grimm, later bastardized and edited and tilted to meet the selfish needs of a corrupt church hierarchy?

What if you woke up tomorrow and none of it made sense anymore? 'Why would an all-seeing and all-knowing god be vengeful?' 'Why revere a book that promotes misogyny, revenge, slavery and killing?' 'Am I a thinking person, or was I indoctrinated before I had a chance to make a choice?' What if it all seems so remote and unbelievable that when someone brings it up, your brain has to click into gear: "Oh yeah! - I forgot that people still believe in that!"

Imagine how truly looney it would then seem if you heard the DOJ's very own Imp of Darkness justifying the cruel and inhumane treatment of emigrating children by quoting a bible verse. Imagine how genuinely frightening it would be to hear former White House aide Omorosa Manigault Newman report that Vice President Pence thinks Jesus tells him to say things. For the almost one out of four Americans that do not believe in God, it is chilling.

The Founders were very clear about the need for separation of church and state:

"The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries."

In this, one of the most fatherly-feeling quotes from our Founders, James Madison and the other framers are looking out for us in the way that parents try to impart hard-learned wisdom upon their children. How many times have we wished our kids would listen to us?

There is a musical term, tacet. This tells the musician to do nothing - still pay attention to what's going on, but do nothing. To make a sweeping and reckless generalization, atheists know how to tacet. It is simply easier to nod and smile and say nothing than it is to get into it. Sure, there are atheists at every turn that have no problem declaring their non-belief, but they didn't get there without also learning how to deal with feelings of disenfranchisement, ostracization and condemnation.

It isn't always easy to say, "I don't believe in god" when those around you do and when the indoctrination you've received makes you feel many emotions - but primarily guilt - just for entertaining the idea. Even for the loud proclaimers, it is usually easier, quicker and less trouble to tacet.

The approximately 25% of Americans that make up this Tacet Underground form a much larger subset of the population than the 1% that are Muslim, the 2% that are Jewish, the 2% that are Mormon, the 4% that are either LGBT or Q, the 12% that are Black or the 19% that are Hispanics/Latino, yet these other groups are constantly protesting, demanding and making themselves the news while atheists are mostly content to tacet and pay attention.

In 1795 John Adams said, "The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."  Atheists take this seriously and are deeply offended when ignorant people like Donald Trump pretend that it is.

The Vice President's proclamation that he is a Christian first, a conservative second and a Republican third is deeply offensive to the (at least) eighty-some million Americans that do not believe in his god and consider that statement alone to be grounds for him to be removed from office. On the other hand, even nonbelievers may sometimes hope that hell exists, comforted by visions of Jeff Sessions roasting marshmallows with Beelzebub.

As has happened over a long period of years with the LGBTQ community, 'coming out' as an atheist carries less of a social stigma with each passing day, although small town folk and conservative communities may still find a way to disparage anything out of the norm. Time passes and the number of people that distinguish themselves as atheist will increase as the stigma lessens and the dark side of religion is continually revealed by people like Jeff Sessions, Dana Rohrabacher and Donald Trump who insist on evoking the Bible and Jesus for evil.

By 2020 the Tacet Underground could include not one in four citizens as it does now, but one in three. That would be over a hundred million Americans that don't want to hear religious dribble or quotes from the bible, but instead want logical and well thought-through plans based on research, testing and evaluation. At some point our politicians are going to have to grapple with the fact that one out of three Americans think the bible-thumpers and scripture-quoters and evil-doers are more than a little nutty and start giving us more than the incessant stale rhetoric about abortion, guns, gays and God.

Some Go To College - All Go Through Life
Part One: Curves, Tests and Grades

Teachers, school administrators, school boards and government agencies across America work diligently to educate our youth, yet the U.S. consistently ranks squarely in the middle of worldwide achievement in Science, Math and Reading. How can this be in what we all like to think of as the greatest nation on Earth?

There are two underlying fundamental problems with the American education system in the 21st century. The first is that there is not now, nor has there ever been, an American Education System. From the time of the first New England schoolhouse to today, local education has been paid for by local tax dollars, with local government setting curriculum and standards for hiring teachers in accordance with the bidding of local voters.

Beginning at a time in our emerging nation when simply knowing how to read and write qualified one to be a teacher, grassroots teaching methods, policies and procedures were in place and in practice long before anyone thought about an education 'system'. Subsequent attempts to improve, define or standardize education have always approached the task as a molding of the status quo. This approach of building from the bottom up works great for pyramids, but less well when attempting to set standards, achieve specific goals and provide consistency; a defined vision at the top that can be disseminated downward is a better method.

The second underlying issue within education in America is that whatever systems we do have in place, e.g. testing methods and requirements for academic advancement, are haunted by values, decisions and conclusions that were arrived at long ago, based upon a mere spec of the information (not to mention technology) that we possess today. Two examples are the grading system and the use of the bell curve.

As one might expect, when there no systems in place where a need exists, any system that presents itself may quickly become the de facto system until or unless it is replaced by a more popular system. A case in point is the standard A through F grading system which was devised at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts in 1897. Originally the lowest grade at Mount Holyoke was an 'E', however after one year administrators purposely changed the failing grade to 'F', and so it has been since. That seemingly innocuous and logical decision has caused incalculable emotional damage to students over the ensuing years.

Where a grade of 'E' might elicit thoughts such as 'I did very poorly', or 'I don't get this subject', or 'I could have tried harder', a grade of 'F' is interpreted as, 'I failed'. And in that despondent moment, 'I failed' can easily turn the corner and become, 'I am a failure'.   No - you're not.

We must abandon the long-held concepts of passing and failing in education.

The Bell Curve
The Bell Curve, or Normal Distribution Curve, forms the basis for much curriculum design and social classification in education today.

A normal distribution is an arrangement of a data set in which most values cluster in the middle of the range and the rest taper off symmetrically toward either extreme. A graphical representations of a normal distribution is often called a bell curve because of its flared shape.

Height is an example of something that follows a normal distribution pattern. Most people are average height, the number of people that are taller and shorter than average are fairly equal and a very small (and still roughly equivalent) number of people are either extremely tall or extremely short.

Below is an example of a normal distribution curve:

When test scores are plotted, results within a class will also result in the bell pattern, with most students scoring in the mid-seventieth percentile, with fewer students scoring in the mid-eightieth and mid-sixtieth percentiles, and only a few scoring very high or very low.
Education in America is of course a descendant of education in England as it was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Studies in divinity, law, and medicine were typical, along with Latin and often French accompanying studies in literature. When in pre-revolutionary America Harvard University (originally New College) opened its doors in 1636, it was only natural to install a similar curriculum. As Yale and Princeton and other bastions of higher learning subsequently welcomed students, they followed suit. Not much has changed.

OK - Latin class is no longer a hot ticket, but the focus of the curriculum hasn't been altered much - math, science, literature, language - basically readin', writin' and 'rithmatic - the Classidemics. We value having an aptitude for these topics because the brave British that settled this land valued those aptitudes. We call people with these aptitudes, intelligent. We call people who do not have these aptitudes, not intelligent, or much worse.

As our nation and education practices developed, standardized tests were created to measure student achievement. After plotting these test scores the resulting bell curve theoretically gave teachers and parents an idea of how intelligent each child is in relation to his/her classmates.

From one's place on the bell curve terms like 'D student' were born and frequently spoken within earshot of the student, often causing students to feel shame or guilt or stupid. Worse, some students come to believe that they are a 'D student' when in fact they suffer from a correctable learning disability or are truly gifted in an area other than classidemics.

On the other side of the coin, we note that only a very small percentage of the students - the 'A Students' - feel great about themselves, having been anointed one of 'the smart ones'. The majority of the students are led to believe that they are 'just average', and along with that can come the notion that trying hard to succeed probably won't get them very far because they're not exceptional. This is a shame.

These tests have always been problematic because they were usually written by mainstream white Christian adults for primarily mainstream white Christian students, and were/are thereby unavoidably biased to some degree. This is a commonly debated topic, worth solving (if possible), but it is a symptom - not the disease. The disease is that there's only one aptitude being tested, still prizing seventeenth century British values above all else in twenty-first century America.

In a different world - say after a devastating war, if there's anything left - the most valued personal aptitudes would necessarily be different. Tests might require test-takers to imagine, sketch and plan a system by which one person peddling a bike powers several machines at once using gears and pulleys or discuss ways to grow vegetables in very acidic soil or demonstrate the ability to ease others' pain by touch or song or thought. A different set of people would magically now be intelligent, and many of today's intellectuals would quickly become the new 'D Students' dismissingly sent off to do something useful.

We must abandon our long-held concepts of intelligent and not intelligent.

What's the goal?
Since the system we have is the only one we've ever known it is all but impossible to imagine education differently, but if starting from scratch, we might ask, "What is our primary responsibility to our children, and to society vis-à-vis our children?"
  1. First and foremost we need to ensure that each student has the skills and information necessary to successfully function as an adult in society.
  2. Life Prep Courses designed to foster the ability to use a personal computer, complete a job application, balance a bank account, create and balance a household budget, discuss alcoholism and other addictions, navigate one's city and cook basic meals must be instituted. Appendix A contains a more complete working list.
  3. Additionally, we have an obligation to provide our students and our teachers the resources that will enable our students to compete with the very best minds in the world in their chosen fields.
  4. Furthermore, we owe it to our young people to enable them to discover the things they are good at and help them nurture those gifts.
  5. The era of participation trophies and orange slices has taken a lot of heat in recent years, but those well-meaning soccer parents and coaches are on the right track - they're just using the wrong vehicle. The notion that every child should win is noble and sounds reasonable, except that competitive sports is an activity that is specifically designed for the sole purpose of creating an equal number of winners and losers!
    Unlike a soccer match, school is a place where all the children can win. We must start by assuming that everyone is good at something - or intelligent in some area - and work to assess each student's aptitude, inclination and inherent ability, and then provide them with the opportunity to explore, test, evaluate and move forward.
  6. Lastly we must come to the realization that we cannot improve the American education system until an American Education System exists.
  7. Many state's rights proponents see education as one of the last parts of their society that hasn't been usurped by the federal government, and are loathe to make concessions. However, in order to compete in the world market and give our children a chance at keeping up, we must as a nation establish and maintain a unified set of minimum requirements for high school graduation - one that truly reflects such a desire!

In Part Two: What About Jane? we explore taking the first steps of a long but worthwhile journey.

A graduate of Portland State University, Steve (Reeno) Kloser is the author of Beginning Band - A Guide to Success and Let's Make Music - Classroom Recorder Course. He is also an accomplished teacher, conductor and composer, having penned numerous pieces including La Vida and Fly With Me.

Teacher, cook, Packers fan and proud American, Reeno's usually slanted outlook often presents an unlikely perspective on issues old and new.

Reeno currently lives in Portland, OR.

Follow Reeno on Twitter

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