When your religious friends and family plan says no to education and learning, well…

“Lack Of Education Leads To Lost Dreams And Low Income For Many Jehovah’s Witnesses”-— NPR/ All Things Considered


Interesting segment… As a principal I have always done everything in my power to encourage student academic success, while at the same time that I respected their religious convictions-affiliations. One of my proudest awards of the hundreds I have received, is the one (still hanging today on the wall of my study), I received from my SSCHS Muslim students. And that award was in recognition of my creating a space, and an opportunity for them to make daily Salat (obligatory prayer) during the school day; and to also be able to attend Friday Jummah Prayer at a local Masjid (Mosque). It was interesting a few years later when as a superintendent in queens I met with, and visited several Masjids in the community; and even though my former school was in Brooklyn; and I did not publicize my actions; they all knew about my accommodating treatment of my Muslim students. Goes to show, good news can also travel far!

But two full personal disclosures:

(1) I don’t trust any religious movement, or effort that is anti-education. I always feel compelled to ask: What parts of the natural scientific world are you trying to hide from your followers? Why are you seeking the advantage of keeping them ill-and uninformed…is this a control issue? In fact one of the things I really respected about the Nation of Islam (NOI) under the leadership of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad; was the heavy emphasis he placed on the study of formal science and mathematics; even as like most religions the NOI held many “metaphysical beliefs” as sacred!

(2) I had an “uncomfortable” conversation with a Jehovah Witness (JW) official who was discouraging one of my top (AP biology-Physics-honor roll) students from pursuing a STEM college program (This would not be the last time I faced this problem). This was a student who entered high school previously performing below grade level in reading! His academic achievements over 4 years, still remains one of the greatest educational stories of my career. The young man was frustrated and conflicted, and thus the genesis of the conversation with the official. I felt that if I could get the JW official to meet me somewhere in the middle; this young man could collect his waiting full scholarships and college admissions. And for reasons unrelated to academics I needed to get this young man (as with many others); out of NYC and onto a college campus. First, out of respect (and for the first time) I humbled myself by attending a JW service; where my student spoke; it was a very electrifying and exhilarating evening; especially when it was announced from the podium that ________ principal had come to hear him give his talk!

The few days later the discussion with the JW official however, was less joyous, welcoming and electrifying; and although parts of the dialogue could definitely be defined as electrifying, yes they were indeed electrifying, but in a not so good way. Quick description: The conversation did not go well (this is my putting the best spin on it!). And over time as I grew more and more frustrated, with what I thought was his inflexible intransigence (“Couldn’t he join with other JW’s on campus, and they could form an organization to support each other, and thus a further opportunity to share their beliefs with other non-JW students?” I pleaded! … “No!”) I was also disgusted that the JW official seem to have no interest, or understanding of the need to get this young man out of a very “challenging” Brooklyn living situation. And while patiently and respectfully I debated with his “religious line of reasoning”; at some point I lost it. Seeing that he was phenotypically (in appearance) black I desperately appealed to his sense of cultural/historical pride. Sensing the conversation was going nowhere, I finally ask the question: “Do you know for sure that the white folks who run (highest leadership levels) the JW organization (I did my online research home work in preparation for our discussion), don’t allow their kids to pursue a college education? Do we really want to stifle the education of Black children? Are there any “orders” that we could receive as Black men, or as human beings, that could never be questioned, challenged and/or disobeyed? Well, that went over as well as the campus ministry idea.

A great deal of my life’s story starting with my mother; and traditionally administered by many of the many wise and wonderful women I have been blessed to meet in my personal-professional journey, can be summed up in this one phrase: “You had to go there, didn’t you?” “Yes”, I would always confess, in at least the spirit and tone of true contriteness…“Because I couldn’t take it anymore.” Higher education may have been this JW official’s enemy; but that type of thinking always has, and will always be my enemy.

I failed. Because I was up against a family and a powerful religion; and any religion that has the power to “unfriend a member”; (You should see Leah Remini‘s TV program on Scientology to fully appreciate the power of being religiously “shunned” by everyone you are close to in the world!) Most of us who are not part of those types of religions can’t really understand how extremely powerful the act of being “defellowshipped”, even as a threat, truly is.

I lost. The young man never went to college. But somehow I always saw this as just another way that misleaders in power, can act out their dreams, while denying the dreams of their followers. As a professional educator I vowed early in my career to never regret the work I put into a student; even if things seem to turn out badly. The work will forever stand as good work, and besides we really don’t truly know the end of things! And I get the “religious freedom” part; I am just not sure about those freedoms including policies that promote ignorance. Perhaps that’s my small concession and confession to a personal type of religious bias.

I offer this. If your “friends & family” religious plan is to say that education, knowledge and information is the enemy, and by extension places like schools and libraries become enemy territories, then I would check the motives of those “friends and family”. And when your religious friends and family plan says no to education and learning, are they really saying, no to thinking? Now why would a religious leader want a non-thinking flock, I wonder (not really) why…