Saturday, February 28, 2015

Joe's Take: Truthiness

photo © Marek/Dollar Photo Club
Stephen Colbert came up with the word “truthiness” to characterize a claim that someone “feels” is true despite it being at odds with evidence, facts, or logic.

A textbook example of the term emerged this past week when a lone blogger falsely claimed that a bill (HR 5) being considered by the U.S. House of Representatives to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) would “crush religious freedom,” rob religious schools of their autonomy, and force them to refrain from religiously-based counseling and mentoring.

What seems to have happened is that a first-time, careless reader of the bill took passages of text that were near each other (like “secular, neutral, and nonideological” and “private schools”) and randomly juxtaposed them in preposterous ways to mean, for example, that the activities of private schools must be secular, neutral, and nonideological.  The blogger went on to suggest, quite erroneously, that the bill even requires states to monitor private schools for compliance.

Exemplifying Winston Churchill’s observation that a lie “gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on,” the false claims spread like wildfire through emails and social media, prompting well-meaning recipients, intent on protecting religious freedom, to urge members of Congress to stop the bill.

Responding to the frenzy, CAPE explained that the term “secular, neutral, and nonideological” is not new to the bill, but has actually been a longstanding component of ESEA, and for good reason.  It limits the kinds of services the government can provide, not what private schools themselves can provide.

The private school community does not want the state offering instruction to students that would be other than secular.  Religious instruction should be offered by teachers employed by religious schools using programs selected by religious schools.  Anything else would be a violation of religious liberty under the First Amendment and a gross interference of the state in religious institutions. In fact, there has never been anything in ESEA since its start in 1965 that restricts the content of instruction in religious schools.  We have 50 years of experience on that score.

As for the state monitor, the irony here is that this provision was actually included in the bill at the request of CAPE (see #18 in CAPE's issue paper).  The monitor is supposed to ensure that school districts provide the equitable services they are obligated to provide to students in participating private schools.  Districts are the focus of the monitor, not private schools.

Still, for some, the preposterously false set of claims felt like it was true despite its noncompliance with facts and logic.  Apparently, folks sometimes forget that truth (not truthiness) shall set us free.

(posted by Joe McTighe, CAPE's Executive Director)