Towards A Good Samaritan World

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

EVIDENCE-BASED EDUCATION?

Tom and I had a debate at the bottom of my last post in which we debate the issue of religion in schools. Tom defends the idea of secularist education because it is based on "evidence." I make an abbreviated philosophical argument against the idea that secularism-materialism is based on evidence more than other worldviews are. Philosophers Hillary Putnam and Thomas Nagel make much more sophisticated and thorough versions of an argument with a similar conclusion.

But both Tom and I seem to sort of assume that the curriculum schools teach is evidence-based in the sense that modern science is. Actually I think this is very far from the case. Schools teach history, always taking certain attitudinal stances that are quite value-laden and not merely evidence-based. Indeed, even science classes tend to be penetrated by the weird mythology of environmentalism; it is commonplace for schoolkids to be shown videos of obscure life-forms threatened with extinction and then to be told something along the lines of: the world is an ecosystem, and everything is dependent on everything else, and if Obscure Species X has no future, then human beings don't either. There is no mysterious scientific reason why this counter-intuitive claim is true. In fact many species have gone extinct without threatening our survival. The claim is a religious statement, a tenet, believed quite irrationally (probably more irrationally than any beliefs held by mainstream Christians), by adherents of the postmodern religion of environmentalism.

In the abstract, one might argue for an education system that restricts itself to teaching certain evidence-based truths; only the "fact" side of the fact-value distinction, so to speak. But our education system is nothing like this, and probably no education system could be: it would be too dry, too austere, would not engage pupils' full minds, would not satisfy parents' educational expectations, etc. School curricula certainly contain considerable moral, ideological, etc. content-- religious content, in essence, although the word is not politically acceptable as a description. That is why the claim that schools are "religiously neutral" is so offensive. A religiously neutral curriculum is unattainable in principle, a philosophical impossibility; but one could still imagine something much closer to an evidence-based education than what we have.

2 Comments:

  • If all normative content is automatically religious in nature then we are a bit stuck, aren't we? However, I don't feel we're doomed to automatic conflict in that way, since I think that we humans generally share plenty of common values that allow us to get along, whatever their provenance. Most of us agree that we shouldn't steal, shouldn't murder, and so on, no matter what our philosophical or theological background. Some values might not even be so widely shared (anti-racism, for example) but for whatever reason we've allowed our civic identity as Americans come with expectations (eg. of equality and fairness that don't admit of racism) that will be taught in just about any government enterprise. I guess what I'm saying is that values are values, whether they're part of a theological system, a concept of governance or broadly held personal beliefs; with so many sources of normative agreement it seems highly tendentious to describe all normative content as religious content.

    On the other hand, if you wanted to merely associate irrational belief and religion, well, you said it, not me. ;)

    Seriously, though, I don't oppose de-politicizing curricula when gross opinion is taught as fact; I just want to be careful that we're not deleting anything that we find upsetting. "Most climate scientists believe global warming is X" is a fine thing to teach as long as it's true. "Global warming is X" had better be considered fact (more or less) by essentially all climate scientists if one is to forgo the qualification. That takes a lot of weighing, judgement calls and a certain tolerance of error, but I think it's acceptable.

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