Friday, August 22, 2008

Walking the Walk: Values Education, In Memory of Stephanie Tubbs Jones

TGIF. One of those weeks (I feel sure many of us have them) when you ask, at the end, how you got through. No real reason for the despondency, and no major crises—just (but a big “just”!) the noonday devil, which for me, seems to prance all the more through the dog days of summer.

I was thinking earlier in the week of some of my methods of powering through, when spirit flags. Increasingly, I find spiritual sustenance less in scripture (in any of the officially sanctioned holy books of the world religions) than in things like poems.

Poems reach places inside that scripture can’t, sometimes. The words of holy books are so familiar, so overworn and overused, that they have lost their potent surprise. Their coinage has been so debased by those who sling them around like formulaic answers to complex questions or weapons to decapitate others with, that it’s hard not to read bibles some days without seeing the faces of those who debase their words—and being repulsed at the very thought that these words can be holy, misused as they are by some believers.

So I turn to poetry. Which condenses complex thought into few words. Words that evoke rather than dictate, that lead outward (to the natural world and the world of human community) or inward, to self-examination. Words that fire rather than cripple imagination, as so many scriptures do, given how they have been abused.

In times like this, I read (as if they are scripture: and they are) Rumi. Emily Dickinson. Mary Oliver. Rilke and Garcia Lorca. I do have to admit that reading Emily Dickinson often makes me ask, “What the hell did she just say?” Then I read the same poem again—and perhaps another time—and ask again, “Now what the hell did she just say?”

A wonderful e-friend of mine, the emerita dean of a Methodist seminary, who is also an ordained Presbyterian minister, sent me a clipping this week from the Christian Century, in which John M. Buchanan notes how psalm-like Mary Oliver’s poems are, in their minute observation of nature, where Oliver never fails to find revelatory possibility. It gave me heart to learn 1) that somehow my dog-day doldrums were evoking a thoughtful response in the heart of a friend with whom I haven’t really discussed them, and 2) that I’m not the only person in the world who sits down in a rocker early in the morning to read Mary Oliver side by side with a psalm from scripture.

(I also learn from Buchanan that, after the death of her partner of 40 years, Molly Malone Cook, Oliver published a collection of Cook’s photos. I have now added Our World to my must-read list).

And now for a continuation of yesterday’s end-of-week news summary, catching up on items about which I’ve previously blogged.

Continuing the Florida Story

Yesterday’s posting alludes to my reasons for following news from Florida with particular keenness. Besides seeking to work out the traumatic experiences we had in our period of work in Florida, and to integrate those into our professional and spiritual lives, Steve and I also have a house in Florida. Which we bought as a result of promises made to us by a devout Methodist who then broke those promises, and who has never sought to repair the breach of friendship and mere humanity she effected when she did this.

As an aside (but it’s not really an aside, is it?—it’s the marrow of gay life lived in the shadow of the churches), it strikes me as interesting that gay human beings are among the only people the churches feel no obligation to apologize to, when they abuse us. When they break promises to us. When they lie to us. When they lie about us. When they issue statements of “teachings” that they know full well will result in terrible suffering for gay human beings and anyone who loves us. When they make glib statements about justice, equality, and welcome, that obviously apply to everyone but us.

What’s going on with this dynamic, I wonder? I do have some ideas, lots of them . . . .

So, with a house in Florida, we follow Florida news. We don’t have any other choice, as responsible citizens and unwilling owners of Florida property.

Florida continues in the news as a battleground state for gay rights, in part, due to polls that indicate Florida may be shifting away from the Republicans and towards the Democrats in the upcoming elections, and in part, because, once again, vicious right-wing Christian special interest groups who have found it useful to demonize gays in previous elections, in order to bring out “Christian” voters for the Republican ticket, are trying to amend the Florida constitution to “protect” marriage.

A reflection of the keen interest with which many voters (including those of us in the gay community) are following Florida stories today is the choice of the Bilerico blog to add a Florida-specific blog to its site. The new blog is at

Today’s Florida Bilerico contains a wonderful posting by Bishop Mahee entitled “What Are Black Conservatives Conserving?” Mahee does an outstanding job of exposing the vicious politics of right-wing “Christians” who are now trying to exploit tensions between African Americans and gays in battleground states like Florida. She also calls onto the carpet those African Americans who are willing to participate in this politics of demonization and hatred. She asks,

When did we as Black folk get the revelation of homosexuality as the new sin and join forces with the same people who just yesterday wanted to keep their race pure and made intercultural marriages illegal? Now they come to our churches, developed in part because we could not even sit next to them in their churches, spewing more divisive politics.

Florida remains in the news as well because of a story about which I blogged some time ago—the attempt of David Davis, principal of Ponce de Leon High School, to outlaw any show of solidarity with gay people on the part of the school’s students (see Davis’s ban against solidarity extended even to a ban on display of rainbows, which, he maintains, lead students automatically to think of dirty sex.

The ACLU sued the school district on behalf of student Heather Gillman, who was specifically targeted by Principal Davis. At the end of July, Judge Richard Smoak of the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of FL handed down an order in this case (see Smoak finds that Davis engaged in a “witch hunt” and “relentless crusade” against gay students at the school, holding “morality assemblies” to try to enforce conformity to his own religiously based moral views about homosexuality. The ruling protects the rights of students to engage in free speech and assembly, even when a principal has peculiar religious views that contest this right in cases such as Gillman’s.

Subsequent news reports indicate that Davis has widespread support in Ponce de Leon (see Citizens interviewed about the controversy stress their religious views that homosexuality is morally wrong, and depict the community as gentle, peaceful, and Christian—that is, for those who aren’t openly gay, it would appear.

As I’ve noted before, Florida is clearly a place where churches like the United Methodist Church—which claims many influential adherents in Florida and has prestigious educational institutions there—have their work cut out (see,, Something seems awry when a community sees itself as gentle, peaceful, and Christian, but targets a despised minority group in witch hunts and crusades.

With its policy of non-discrimination against gay persons, with its stress on churches that have open doors, open minds, and open hearts, the United Methodist Church could make an important pastoral impact on Florida. And, since teaching people in a pluralistic democratic society to respect the fundamental rights of others is also clearly an educational challenge, the important United Methodist institutions of higher learning in Florida have the opportunity to make a significant educational contribution to the state by addressing these issues.

I’ve noted previously that the premier accrediting body for teacher-preparation programs, the National Council of Accreditation for Teacher Education (NCATE), has added to its accrediting expectations stipulations that teacher education programs must address issues of sexual orientation in the formation of prospective teachers, and that NCATE-accredited colleges must demonstrate respect for diversity around issues of sexual orientation in their institutional life (see, With its highly regarded universities in Florida and its Social Principles forbidding discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, the United Methodist Church can do much to address social divisions that are resulting in outright violence against gay and lesbian human beings in this state.

Once again, I call on Bishop Timothy Whitaker of the Florida United Methodist Conference to consider very seriously the ways in which his church and his educational institutions can address this important social issue in Florida. Silence is not sufficient.

Continuing the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) Story

Since I have also blogged previously (see about a story from Arkansas higher education that has attracted national attention—a controversy surrounding the current president of the University of Central Arkansas (UCA)—I want to update readers about the latest developments in this story.

Yesterday, our statewide free weekly Arkansas Times reported that the faculty senate at UCA has met to address the issues, which include allegations that UCA President Lu Hardin has acted imperiously as president, that he and his board of trustees inappropriately awarded him pay raises without sufficient public notice, and that Hardin has produced documents with the electronic signatures of vice-presidents who did not write or sign the documents (see

As an educator with a particular interest in values education, I’m most interested in two aspects of this story. As I noted in my previous posting about the story, higher education is driven these days all too often by numbers. It has become a numbers game, a game in which presidents who can produce higher figures (showing increasing numbers of students and increased revenue) are rewarded by boards of trustees.

Many boards of trustees in higher education today give the impression that the numbers game is all they care about. The ethical lapses, the moral corners-cutting of presidents, seem too often to be winked at, as long as the figures look good.

That is, until something breaks open—as has happened at UCA—and the underbelly of the numbers-driven institution begins to appear for public inspection.

As the lively discussion on the Arkansas Times blog to which I link above demonstrates, citizens are intently interested in the disparity between the values that institutions of higher learning profess, and the values they actually live. There is a strong awareness among the educated public that colleges and universities exist to serve the common good of civil society, by inculcating the core values needed for good citizenship in civil society.

Two aspects of the UCA story—and its dissection by citizen bloggers at the Arkansas Times website—interest me, therefore. One is the disservice boards of trustees do to the institutions they govern when they ignore the values questions and focus solely on the numbers game.

Trustees have an important responsibility to ask whether a president, in her or his leadership of a college, embodies and encourages the core values the institution seeks to teach students. Trustees have a weighty charge to look behind the veil of the numbers and see what is really going on at the institution they govern—not to mention whether the glowing figures presented to them are accurate and not cooked.

UCA has been booming: more students, more income, new this and that. Now the boom looks, well . . . otherwise . . . given what this story is revealing about apparent lapses of ethical and managerial responsibility on the part of the institution’s board of trustees.

The other aspect of the story that interests me is something I discuss above, when I look at the potential contribution of church-related institutions of higher learning in Florida, to that state’s cultural and political life. This is the significant role colleges play through teaching values.

In the social contract institutions of higher learning have traditionally made with the public at large in American society, values are right at the core of a liberal arts education. Within the framework of that social contract, it is impossible to claim to be educated unless one has been educated to understand and embody values. Among the core values that drive both our institutions of higher learning and society at large are concern for the common good, respect for diversity, understanding of and willingness to dialogue with those deemed other than ourselves, concern to reach out to those marginalized within the structures of participatory democracy—and, of course, those solid core values necessary for any society to function well, including fidelity to one’s word, fair play, a sense of justice, and so on.

When leaders of higher institutions—including presidents and governing boards—do not seem conspicuously to care about these core values, to embody them, to inculcate them throughout the curriculum (and the life) of the institutions they lead, then it is impossible to teach these values to students. We teach what we live, first and foremost.

UCA is a public institution. Citizens hold it to accountability because our tax dollars support it. We have a vested interest in seeing it fulfill its part of the social contract—educating students who respect and live core values essential to civil society—because our money translates into its mission.

Even though church-related colleges and universities do not rely wholly on public funding, they, too, benefit largely from tax dollars. And because American higher education is blessed with an abundance of faith-based colleges and universities, citizens have another reason to look to these institutions to fulfill their part of the social contract to produce values-oriented graduates. So many of our citizens are educated in these institutions, that we all suffer if these institutions fail to do their job.

Unfortunately, while public institutions are held legally accountable by state and federal laws to teach (and embody) core values such as respect for diversity, many church colleges and universities still seek to claim religiously-based exemption, when the particular form of diversity at stake is respect for gay and lesbian persons. In the interest of the common good, of building a viable participatory democracy, it seems to me imperative that church-affiliated colleges and universities no longer be permitted to engage in discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.

How do we produce citizens who serve the common good and build a participatory democracy when we allow church-affiliated institutions of higher learning to betray such a core value of pluralistic society as respect for diversity? What happens at places like Ponce de Leon high school—and there are many such places throughout the nation—is an illustration of the kind of society we are building, when we do not inculcate the celebration of difference and otherness, across the board, through our educational institutions and in our churches.

And because I often carp, I want to end this posting with praise. I want to praise an outstanding citizen who demonstrates what we can accomplish when we reach across the barriers that separate us by race, religion, gender, sexual orientation.

This week, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, the first African-American woman to represent Ohio in Congress, died suddenly. Though Jones was not a member of the LGBT community, gay internet news and blog sites are overflowing this week with statements of praise of Jones for her consistent stands in support of gay rights, and for her willingness to defend gay persons even when such support might have endangered her professional career and when it drew fire from other African Americans.

Stephanie Tubbs Jones was a great American, one who exemplified the core values of the civil society we claim we want. In her willingness to reach across social barriers, and in her concern to bring everybody to the table of participatory democracy, she has often reminded me of Mary McLeod Bethune. I hope (and believe) that she will be remembered with as much gratitude as Dr. Bethune is now remembered for her contributions to building a better society and living the values necessary to make democracy work.

1 comment:

Keshalyi said...

Came across your blog because it mentioned Emily Dickinson - I can agree with you on the feeling of scripture around some poets (not all, I wouldn't pray with my Dorothy Parker book, but some).

While I am definitely a supporter of Gay Rights, I am left wondering - is telling the Religious colleges of the United States really an effective way to change the social discourse? A public institution is one thing, but a private one... that makes me uncomfortable. I'm, I like to think, a Louisa May Alcott / EB Browning Liberal, I think that the deeper one looks into God, the more it ought to make one want to give all men more happiness, and more freedom to live their lives. Religion should be the sort of force that it was among the Quaker abolitionists.

That being said - say, for a moment, that slavery became legal again in the United States - would you want a Quaker University to be banned from excluding slaveowners from bringing their slaves to the university with them? Certainly, this would be, I would think, be an understandable position for a religious institution, trying to teach the essential equality of all men to make.

Now, I don't think homosexuality is a valid argument to make. But I also think that the day that my opinions - or any one man's opinions - become the dogmatic truth by which other men must believe, is the day that religious becomes null ceremony. Institutions that espouse idiotic policies have to, sort of, be policed by the market - the pool of students willing to go to them will shrink, the donors willing to be associated iwth them will go away, and Scholars willing to teach under their auspicious arms will grown hard to find.

For an example you need look no farther than Emily Dickinson - Amherst college, in the days when it was founded by her Grandfather, was a bastion of old Puritan thought, hearkening back to a bygone era of religion that most of America was growing away from. It went farther into debt and failure, really until it became more secular in Austin Dickinson's time.