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Special Education – “Spirituality” In Our Public Schools?

I heard a fantastic homily awhile back – well, the first part of it anyway.  Father’s initial comments set me on a train of thought that I will pass along in the body of the article.  Father asked us to contemplate the incredible gifts that God has given us.  He pointed out that we humans are the most complex life form on earth, and that it is our ability to think that gives us that position.  He pointed out what a quantum leap human intelligence was.  Other animals have “intelligence;” they can be trained.  Other animals display emotions; my dog will whimper when he’s denied a treat.  But only we human beings have the ability to step back and reflect upon our actions and words – and even our thoughts and emotions!  And then Father said something that really jumped out at me:  “We have a responsibility to develop our thinking powers, to grow our God-given intelligence.  That’s true whether you are in MENSA or a special education classroom.”  With that, my own mind was off to the races; I know quite a few people who work in special education.

Father’s words got me thinking about the downright “spiritual” quality to human intelligence.  What do I mean by that?  Well, we invest a lot of time thinking about things that are not composed of molecules, that cannot be investigated or confirmed in a laboratory.  I’m referring to “things” like fairness and human rights.  As my friend Michael Vento likes to point out, “Has someone ever seen a human right?  How many inches long is it?”  We take other nations, such as China, to task for their human rights violations.  We expect a nation, a completely different culture on the far side of the world, to recognize them.  We’re absolutely convinced these things exist, constructing our whole legal system upon them; and yet they are non-physical.

Our federal and state governments are convinced that every student, no matter how severe his or her disability, has the right to a “free and appropriate education” (FAPE in educational parlance), “in the least restrictive environment possible” (LRE).  Interpretation:  School districts must provide whatever staff and materials are necessary to make sure that every child can take part in the education process, and that the child should be educated alongside his/her regular education peers whenever possible.  Speech-language, occupational, and physical therapists are there to facilitate that.  For some medically fragile students this means hiring a personal nurse to accompany the student throughout his/her day.   Children’s educational rights have to be a substantive reality for the federal and state governments to devote so much money to them, don’t they?  The right to an education, like every right, is something immaterial; and yet we fight legal battles based upon our convictions that they are in fact real.

Can’t you hear someone coming at this completely from the outside though?  “Shane, some of the children serviced in special education have conditions that will probably never allow them to progress past the age of three cognitively.  Some children have conditions that will prevent them from living to adulthood.  You want us to continue allocating millions and millions of dollars to this based upon something called a ‘right’?  I don’t believe there is any such thing; you can’t show it to me!  Don’t try to impose your beliefs (you can also read ‘spiritual tenets’ or ‘religion’) on me.  We have a separation of church and state in this country.”

And what I would respond with, and I think the federal and state governments would have to as well, are the words Thomas Jefferson placed in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  Government does not exist to create laws or legislate morality, but to safeguard people’s rights – the opportunities and treatment to which they are objectively due.  “But how do you come up with these rights?” our objector may respond.

Wonderful question – like Jefferson, we are falling back on what at an earlier point in the Western world was called Natural Law.  They are the truths that are self-evident to us simply from observation and the use of our reason, our power to reflect upon actions, words, thoughts, and attitudes.  How did we arrive at a child who has a severe disability having the right to a “free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment possible?”  Because we can see that this is a child, and we know that children have a right to be loved.  Part of loving them is giving instruction and welcoming them into the community.  And so, we must do this.

No one religion is being forced upon people, but there is this implicit understanding that there is an objective order, a standard of right and wrong, to which we human beings are expected to adhere.  It doesn’t matter that someone feels an “overwhelming urge” toward a behavior the Natural Law recognizes as “wrong” –ask any person sitting in jail!  The Natural Law – and the desire to pretend that it doesn’t exist -  is at the root of many of the social battles going on in our country.  Take, for instance, the fight for same-sex marriage.

When I voice my opposition to it, I am not trying to cast aspersions on anyone who experiences same-sex attraction. Those are my fellow citizens that I want to see treated with every bit of respect that I hope to be treated. I do not hold however, that the fact that there are human beings who experience same-sex attraction means that sexual acts between a man and man or woman and woman must be approved of by society at large or that same-sex relationships constitute a proper ground for “marriage.” I am not being “homophobic” or “bigoted” when I say that either.  (No one should be mistreated for any reason – place of birth, color of their skin, who they are attracted to, their participation in a same-sex union – no one, ever!) I am simply applying Natural Law, looking at humanity and using my powers of reason to recognize that there is not a “right” to same-sex marriage for the government to secure.

Think about the male and female body. They go together; it is a fact of biology. Both are necessary to create a child. (Even same-sex couples are still dependent upon sperm donors or surrogates.) And as male and female are needed to produce a child, it stands to reason that male and female are the natural pairing to raise the child created by their union. To deviate from this, to try and set up another order and justify it without a foundation in reality, is to set ourselves up for a fall.

And no, the Natural Law objection to same-sex marriage cannot be compared to the bigotry that prevented Caucasians and African-Americans from marrying earlier in our history. Again, Natural Law provided the way past that bigotry: Man and woman are the subjects of marriage. Is he a man? Yes. Is she a woman? Yes. Then by his identity as a man, equal to any other man, and her dignity as a woman, equal to any other woman, there is no obstacle to their union. The same cannot be said of same-sex couples – not because of any lack of human dignity, but of biological complementariness.

It’s not difficult to apply Natural Law to a number of other societal questions, such as abortion or contraception. (The former was legalized by the Supreme Court in 1973, and the latter in 1965.) At present we’re experiencing a kind of cultural schizophrenia. On the negative side our legal system has abandoned the bedrock principles of the Natural Law regarding the dignity of the unborn and sexuality; and it is becoming common place to label people who oppose this abandonment as religious zealots or bigots. On the positive side, we see the application of Natural Law principles, recognition of a non-material objective order, in obtaining an education for children with disabilities, children fortunate enough to have survived the threat of abortion. (See my blog post Down Syndrome, Dignity, and Abortion) What is the way out of this mess? I don’t know, but it’s going to call for a whole lot of thinking. Good thing we human beings are equipped for that!


Shane Kapler is the father of two and author of  The God Who is Love: Explaining Christianity From Its Center and co-author, along with Kevin Vost and Peggy Bowes, of  Tending The Temple: 365 Days of Spiritual and Physical Devotions.  He can be found online at www.explainingchristianity.com. 

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