Many thanks to Shannon for having invited me and worked with me in developing the talk, and North Texas Skeptics (Dallas, TX) for preserving it online.
by Michael R. Honig
Unpublished Work © 2000 by Michael R. Honig (Not to be reprinted in whole or in part without written permission)
I think it was Thomas Jefferson* [See note at end], when talking of the need for public schools, who said: “An educated electorate is a prerequisite for a democracy.” This is something with which I can think we can all agree, but the question seems to remain: Who decides what constitutes an educated person, and who decides what that education should include?
Well, as a prerequisite, let’s establish a couple of definitions as summarized from several dictionaries:
Data: Facts or figures from which conclusions can be inferred.
Dogma: A point of view or alleged authoritative tenet put forth without adequate factual foundation.
So, we come back to the title question: What Should Be the Basis for Educational Policy, and Who Should Decide It? Should the content of curricula be determined by facts or by what feels good or right? In short, should our children’s lessons be based on data or dogma?
As examples, let’s look at four specific questions:
- Will posting the Ten Commandments in schools really improve behavior?
- Where would (or should) religion-based ideas like Creationism fit in, if at all?
- What role should religion play in educational curricula, and in what ways should it be included, if at all?
- What kind if history should be taught in our schools? How do we feel about ‘feel good’ history in our curricula, and what is its impact over the long-term?
In the first case:
Will posting the Ten Commandments in schools really improve behavior?
Some say yes, arguing that it’s the withdrawal of religion from schools that has resulted in the decline of morals in this country. The dogma might presuppose two things – that the Ten Commandments will impact behavior, even in the absence (since it is prohibited) of any actual instruction about them, and that the Ten Commandments, when encountered elsewhere, have less impact than when they are encountered by students in schools.
The only other alternative argument for displaying the Ten Commandments in schools is that if they’re not displayed there, students will encounter them nowhere else. I think this would speak poorly of the instruction which educational bureaucrats expect children to encounter about morality at home, or in church or synagogue or mosque.
The data, to my knowledge, is that there is no empirical evidence that displaying the Ten Commandments in school (assuming it was Constitutional to do so) would affect student behavior in any meaningful way. Evidence further suggests that there are a great many places where children can encounter and be instructed about the Ten Commandments, without their incorporation into the school environment.
In the second case:
Where would (or should) religion-based ideas like Creationism fit in, if at all?
Supporters of teaching Creationism in schools try to obfuscate their religious objectives by renaming it “Scientific Creationism.” This is an oxymoron, and it shows a fundamental misunderstanding by Creationist fundamentalists of exactly what “science” is, and how scientists are trained to think..
Supporters of Scientific Creationism argue that “Evolution” is only a theory, and therefore should have no greater standing than Scientific Creationism when biology is taught. This argument is disingenuous at best, and specious at worst.
Science is the asking of questions, with an open mind as to what the answers might be. A true scientist may have his or her own theories about what results an experiment might demonstrate, but they will (or should!) nonetheless be willing to let the facts speak for themselves, even at the possible expense of a pet theory. The pseudo-science called Scientific Creationism, on the other hand, is the certainty of what the answers are, and trying to find data that supports them.
True scientists MUST recognize inconsistencies between what facts they predict, and what facts present themselves. If they do not, then they are being dogmatists rather than scientists.
If we use the analogies of quiz shows, so-called Scientific Creationism is Jeopardy, where you have the answer and now merely find the correct question, whereas true science is more like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, except that all the answers include the possibility of “none of the above.”
Scientific Creationism is really a religiously based intellectual exercise that seeks proofs for a theologically centered, Judeo-Christian view of how the Universe began. It is not truly a scientific inquiry that dispassionately seeks facts which then lead to conclusions. Thus, it belongs in a comparative religion class, not a science class.
For example, how does “Scientific Creationism” stack up against the Hindu notion of how the Universe began, or, for that matter, the ancient Greek myths or even Native American ideas of where all things began? Without objective facts to back them up, aren’t they all just dogmatic mythologies?
This brings us to the third question:
What role should religion play in educational curricula, and in what ways should it be included, if at all?
Personally, I don’t believe religion has a place in schools as part of their intellectual and philosophical indoctrination of students, but religion must be taught about in schools, since it’s a prime mover, actor and player in history and civilization from the distant, even prehistoric past into our present day, and into the foreseeable future.
For that matter, there’s no escaping the importance of dogma (intellectual as well as religious) in the shaping of secular history and the secular world. It’s not just a component or shaper of religion.
Today, we have expunged religion from our textbooks so thoroughly that some make no mention of why the Puritans came to America.
Whether you’re a believer or not, there’s no escaping the importance of religion and dogma in the shaping of history and the world as we know it today. It’s ridiculous to keep the fact of religion out of schools, but the question then is, how to include it?
And that segues us nicely into the fourth question, and the issue of historical dogma.
What kind of history should be taught in our schools? How do we feel about ‘feel good’ history in our curricula, and what is its impact over the long term?
As an example, when children are taught about the War of 1812, they are usually told of the British burning of Washington, DC, in September of 1813. But how many know or are taught that it was at least partly in retaliation for American burning five months earlier of Canada’s then-capital of York (later called Toronto)? Not many, I find. This is an example of the perpetuation and insidiousness of self-serving historical dogma.
Why should we even ask these questions? Why should we care if our children are taught that Creationism is comparable to Evolution as a theory, or that the British burned Washington in 1813 without learning the full context of the attack?
We need to ask these questions because we need to learn the complete picture; because we need to learn to see the many sides to every story; because in a world of over six billion people, getting our needs met usually means altering, in some small way, the behavior of someone else — whether it’s getting people to value free speech, the protection of the environment, tolerance of different cultural or lifestyle choices, or taking all of their antibiotic prescription.
In order to get these needs met, we need to learn to trust data — and our own analysis of that data — over dogma, so that our interactions are aided by our ability to rationally analyze their arguments, and their ability to rationally analyze ours.
I would argue for an education of inclusion rather than exclusion of facts. For example, some might argue that making a point of including women or various ethnic or religious groups in history (sometimes even developing within a curriculum whole units of minority contributions to history and civilization) is simply a fashionable response to ‘political correctness,’ but to exclude or minimize the impacts of groups or individuals because of their religion, ethnicity or gender is comparable to the concept of “New Think” put forward in Orwell’s 1984. The notion of “history being written by the winners” is probably true, but it’s not useful. Rather, it invites the repetition of historical mistakes through “institutional forgetting.”
Because “An educated electorate is a prerequisite for a democracy” — because while science fiction is fun, we need to teach the difference between science and fiction — because while religion may bring comfort and strength to some, its tenets shouldn’t be confused with secular fact — and because while feel-good history might make us feel better about ourselves and our country, it prevents us from understanding why the rest of the world feels the way it does, and dealing effectively and constructively with that reality.
Dogma has an undeniable appeal for many. It leaves things settled, beyond dispute, infallible. It offers a sense of security and predictability. But it also permits or gives rise to narrow-mindedness, wrong-headedness and tunnel vision. It creates needless obstacles to true knowledge and understanding.
Our educational system must teach data and facts. Offering possible interpretations of facts in the course of teaching them is reasonable, but facts and data must be taught in context. In education as well as relationships, a lie by omission is still a lie.
So how do we decide what’s taught, and how?
Some things lend themselves more readily to clear answers: Math, chemistry, and physics are three examples. It’s mainly at the abstract and esoteric levels – the cutting edges of knowledge and theory – where these subjects become gray. Problems arise most often in interpretive areas of study, such as archaeology, paleontology, cosmology and history, where much is often inferred from little. Here, fact can be hard to pin down, and analysis and interpretation become slippery slopes.
There will always be conflicting perspectives of history, for example, ranging from the jingoistically patriotic “My country is never wrong” to the morbidly self-flagellistic “My country is always exploitive and oppressive.”
What are we to do? Some ideas:
Establish a rigorous institutional framework, made up of a mixture of federal, state and local bodies. Set goals directed toward the greatest possible objectivity, reinforced by peer review. Use multilevel review to effect an averaging of biases, thus reducing extremes. Use the process to prevent one faction or ideology from having excessive influence.
This may be a situation where the pull and tug of committees is ultimately a productive thing.
Systematically attempt to acknowledge and analyze biases, and by thus recognizing them make them easier to subtract.
Use the scientific process for curricula decisions. Establish what is fact, what is theory and what is speculation, and present each as what it is.
These are only general ideas. The devil, as always, would be in the details, but if critical thinking skills are taught — if the ability to evaluate disparate bits of information and reach reasonable conclusions is part of each child’s education — facts will usually speak for themselves, and further reduce the possibility of intellectual bias creeping into what’s taught. People can then make their own decisions about what is reality — based upon the facts.
It may not always be intellectually comfortable, but it will lead to a better understanding of the world we live in, the people with whom we share it, and a far greater appreciation of all that has preceded us and all that will follow — and it will make us stronger as a people and as a nation.
* From subsequent investigation, it appears that Thomas Jefferson never said any such thing. It was apparently me. :)