Friday, January 11, 2008

E2.0: Daniel Dennett: Teach the Children

This is the eighth in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

This essay is the second of two essays concerning Daniel Dennett’s presentation at Beyond Belief 2: Enlightenment 2.0.

In our previous episode, Dennett presented the proposition:

With all due respect, sir, have you considered the possibility that you have blighted your whole life with a fantasy and are polluting the minds of defenseless children with dangerous nonsense?

He argued that there is no polite way to say this so our options are either to be impolite or to remain silent. The arguments for remaining silent are (1) religion is good, or (2) even though religion is not useful the statement above is (a) cruel or (b) dangerous.

I applied Dennett’s argument to a statement that reflects more my own interests.

You are engaged in a pattern of behave or that deprives others of life, health, and well-being and you are using scripture and religious tradition to wrap your harmful behavior in an illusion of legitimacy.

And I applied Dennett’s response, “But what if it’s true?”

If it is true, then it is quite difficult to imagine that such an attitude could actually be defended as being good, and what is ‘cruel’ and ‘dangerous’ is standing aside while people engage in these types of behavior.

But, how do we get people to stop engaging in this type of behavior? How do we reduce the numbers of victims that this way of thinking generates?

Dennett’s proposal is to make religious studies a required part of the school curriculum. Public schools, private schools, even home schools will be required to teach children the basic facts about all major religions – and children will be tested on it. So, even the home-schooled fundamentalist creationist with limited contact with the outside world will have to study Islam, Hindu, Buddhism, and the like.

Ultimately, Dennett defends his program with an analogy to a situation in which you have water flooding the house. The first thing you do is turn the water off, so that you are not adding more water. Then, you can deal with the water you have. Given enough time, it will drain away on its own, and you can then clean up the mess.

Dennett hope is that, when children are presented with the variety of religions and the fact that each has a set of adherents who say that theirs is true and all others is false, that they will realize there is nothing ‘special’ about any one religion. There is no reason to pick one and say, “This contains the absolute truth,” because “that religion over there” is being defended in exactly the same way.

I suspect that he is right, but it is a matter for empirical research, not for suspicions.

However, there is a perfectly secular argument for this type of education as well. We have to live with (share the planet) with these people in an increasingly global economy. The better we are at understanding others the better we will be at explaining and predicting their behavior, at working with them, at avoiding conflict, at making deals. Some familiarity with religious studies would go a long way to training the child to be a better business or political leader. We need educated people in leadership positions, and this is one element of education that would be useful.

The argument does not only reveal the value of having educated political leaders, but an educated public capable of making intelligent decisions about how to vote. Besides, a lot of these people are our potential neighbors, co-workers, and customers. The only reasonable vaccine against misunderstanding is understanding – and the best source of understanding is through education.

However, in presenting his idea, Dennett makes one significant mistake.

He wants the class to only deal with the facts of a particular religion – its history, its rituals, its moral prescriptions. He does not want any value judgments to enter into the classroom at all.

Yet, as any intelligent news reporter will tell you, value judgments are an inherent part of reporting facts. At the very least, you have to determine which facts you are going to tell. This requires a judgment as to which facts are worth telling and which are not important enough to reveal. This is a value judgment.

In fact, the whole class is premised on a value judgment. Whether we require religious studies as a way of helping children to realize that a lot of people hold a lot of different views on ‘faith’ and there is no good reason to think that any of them are right, or whether we see religious studies as an important body of knowledge for people to have, we must judge which facts are worth knowing, and which are not worth knowing.

This is where the political dispute will come in. In this class, do we teach the students that the Bible commands that disobedient children be brought before the village to be stoned, and that those who work on the day of the Sabbath shall be put to death? Do we teach them the sophisticated rationalizations that people have come up with to try to resolve religious contradictions, or do we only tell them about the contradictions?

Of course, the defenders of any particular view are going to insist that their religion be put in a favorable light. The political battles could be endless and, in the end, quite violent. The best solution with respect to keeping the peace may well be to simply not allow the schools to say anything on this subject. If the schools are silent, then we can all continue to get along without breaking into religious factions and reaching for the weapons of war.

Also, I have an argument against elaborate and complex plans to accomplish some end. The chances of any grand plan ever getting implemented is practically zero, which means that the energy that is devoted to a grand plan is typically wasted. Perhaps I am just being cynical, but I simply do not see much of a hope for a national campaign to make religious studies a required subject.

I am a favor of proposing smaller, personal projects that people can do at home. If the public school system is not willing to establish a class on religious studies, there is nothing to prevent individuals from doing so. There is nothing to prevent a group of concerned parents in setting up a regular weekly or monthly get-together where, at each session, the representative of some religious faction explains their religion to the audience.

At the same time, Dennett’s proposal provides reason to engage in private action to condemn the ‘enforced ignorance’ that religious groups rely on in their efforts to indoctrinate children. Those efforts include an insistence that children not be exposed to ideas other than those they are being indoctrinated into until the indoctrination has had a chance to set. Once set in the brain, a child’s indoctrination is almost impossible to dislodge. Only then is it safe to allow the child to be exposed to other peoples’ ideas.

The Catholic campaign against The Golden Compass, and the decision in Canada to remove the books from libraries that children have access to, is just the most recent example of how religious institutions seek to indoctrinate through enforced ignorance of alternative views. Home schooling, for many parents, is another example of enforced ignorance. It is a way to preserve the child’s ignorance of views the parent does not want the child to be aware of until the child’s mind has been sufficiently set into the parents’ beliefs.

Dennett proposes a massive change in the national school curriculum – and that might be a good idea if it can be pulled off. However, in the mean time, those same arguments can be used to justify campaigns that are more local. There was not, in my mind, nearly as much protest against the boycott of The Golden Compass as their should have been. There was not nearly enough effort to point out how religious institutions seek to indoctrinate children, not through education, but through enforced ignorance of alternative views. Indeed, when it comes to alternatives to a particular religion’s beliefs, religious institutions have a long and violent history of preferring enforced ignorance over education.

That was an excellent time to point this out. Yet, the few articles I read from people who defended the movie largely said, “Don’t worry. Your child can go to see The Golden Compass and still remain ignorant of alternatives to the Christian religion.” The idea that it is wrong for religious institutions to demand that children remain ignorant of alternatives to that religion was not really questioned.

It should have been.

1 comment:

Miguel Picanco said...

You explain your cynicism quite well and I feel that your most important point is that we shouldn't just sit back and wait until the day Dennett's proposal comes to fruition, but you failed to at least mention that similar, seemingly effective programs exist in the curricula of other countries.

Granted, the political struggles you mention are being waged in those countries, but such systems do seem to work to an extent and could be an amiable goal in at least some states. And to bounce this point back to your own example, can you think of any current programs from which we could model an intermediate step that makes progress against child indoctrination.

The problem I see with a quicker intervention, such as your example, is the issue of "preaching to the choir." Those who indoctrinate will not participate while those who do not indoctrinate derive little to none of the intended benefit.