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Monday, August 30, 2010

Our Schools are all Religious Institutions, only the religion has changed

When we think about education, we typically imagine that its purpose is to teach students how to think. This is a very nice idea that has very little basis in fact. School was never meant as a means of teaching thinking. Schools have their origins in religious education. It is well to remember that Harvard and Yale started off as divinity schools and that until recent times nearly all universities required religious training as part of the curriculum.

If we think about religious education for a moment, it doesn’t take long to realize that pretty much regardless of the religion, religion is about telling people what to believe and is not about questioning those beliefs. All religions know the truth and all religions attempt to dictate that truth to their followers. Most religions also run schools. No one criticizes them for this.

In our public schools we have adopted the basic tenets of religious schooling.

  1. there is a truth that cannot be questioned
  2. there is no real choice in what a student learns about
  3. you can be punished for failure to attend school
  4. you will learn by being told
  5. there are official sacred books that everyone must know

What are the sacred books of our schools? Shakespeare, Dickens, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Great Gatsby, are some of them.

What truths cannot be questioned? Algebra teaches you to think. You must know science to have a job in the 21st century. All of U.S. history as depicted in textbooks.

Over the years I have been quoted as saying all of schooling needs to be re-thought. What we teach now was determined in the 19th century and was meant to turn the few people who actually attended school at that time into intellectuals. When I say “get rid of all of it” the response is usually: you are right about subject X but subject Y is sacred.

Sure, let’s get rid of balancing chemical equations but we can never get rid of history.

Sure, let’s get rid of algebra but literature is very important.

We can’t get rid of science because it is important for knowledge workers.

This is what religion sounds like.

Curiously school is still teaching religion. But now the religion is about the sacred texts in which one finds the quadratic formula, or SP3 binding (you can look it up if you like), or what Julius Caesar said to Brutus.

None of this teaches children to think any more than the catechism teaches children to think. School ought to be a place where open minds can explore. This doesn't happen because schools are simply the places where modern day religious instruction can be found. (It is a very odd religion -- one in which Shakespeare, Archimedes, Fermat, Descartes, Millville, and George Washington are gods.)


Anonymous said...

Even if "religion is about telling people what to believe" and acknowledging the divinity school roots of many prominent universities, is religious education about telling people what to believe?

ScottDFolsom said...

Ah, the religious dogmatism in education. I had a run in with this recently. I am taking a composition course (I'm a high-school junior), and the assigned reading is Willa Cather's My Antonia. I, seeing the novel as a total ball of fluff, decided to challenge the author's style in a two-page essay assignment (a bit short for my taste, but I got to quote Horace). Instead of accepting the fact that I bore that opinion, though, my instructor decided to convince me that I, in not conceding any of the "merits" of Cather's work, did not know how to argue. For the record, I'm arguably my school's top debater (measured by win-loss statistics and overall record). I just disagreed with his precious Saint Cather.
Needless to say, I see Mr. Schank's point.