Archives for posts with tag: education

A few days ago, I asked this question on Twitter: when you take humanism from Christian teachings, is there anything left worth conveying to kids in school? This was in response to Joe Humphreys’ article in the Irish Times this week, where he wrote that elements of Christian teaching had a value in addressing the religious schooling problem in Ireland.

Joe has written some interesting thoughts on the issue over the past few months. This article wasn’t one of them, unfortunately. His was a ‘baby with the bathwater’ argument that did not address the problem of privilege within the Catholic Church. It sought to bolster the Church’s special place in education without giving solid arguments about why this should be. Appealing to tradition and creating straw men doesn’t cut it.

Many people in Ireland have a love-hate relationship with the Catholic Church. It has been an opponent of almost every progressive reform in the last half century, not to mention having presided over the greatest cover-up (and worst abuses) we have seen in our lifetimes. Many would argue, with ample justification, that the Church’s primary concern is its own survival. Still, we all know nice church people. We know clerics who have said the right things at the death bed of a loved one and taken principled stances on difficult issues when nobody else was addressing it. Even the Pope has his moments. 

Excellent though this is, the Church has no monopoly on such good works. Much of the same can be found within Protestant, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and non religious communities, or in any situation where people are compelled to help others. When Christians behave admirably, they are acting from a strong sense of human compassion. Religious principles may inform good actions, but it is not something only seen among Christians. Every day in China, India, Nigeria, Iran and all around the world; you will find good, kind, thoughtful, principled people doing good, kind, thoughtful, principled things, mainly because that’s the kind of people they are.

There is great humanism in Christianity. But back to my question: if you take this basic humanism from Christianity, what’s left?

Honestly – and quite possibly I’m missing some things- but it doesn’t seem terribly impressive to me. There is a strong appeal to prayer, which quite overlooks the fact that praying has a particularly poor record in solving most of the basic problems of the world. There is the belief in a deity who consistently eludes detection in any reasonable sense. There are all the rituals that seek to make this deity happy or at least smooth the way to an afterlife, the outcome of which this deity already knows. Is this even remotely on the same level as maths, history and geography?

It’s the area of sexual morality where the differences with humanism are greatest. Instead of looking at the complexity and variety of sexual practices and sexual preferences, Christian thinking often seems to reduce it down to disgust, shame and a desire to control other people’s basic freedoms. Sex is rarely seen as healthy, positive or worthy of proper discussion. Some Christian views, such as the stance on contraception and homosexuality are positively anti-human in their effects. A side effect of their absolutist views on abortion are to silence the voices of millions of women and to reduce them to a second class within society. It’s difficult to see how such simplistic thinking is at all helpful for children who will soon experience the massive complexities of adulthood for themselves.

I don’t have a problem with dedicated, devoted Christians being part of a new educational dispensation, but I do not think that this should be some sort of compromise between equals. It’s not. Humanism has developed from Christian thinking, but it’s also been able to benefit from the views of many other great thinkers, using science to validate these views. If people insist on educating their kids within their faith, then that is still their right, but I doubt if such an education will be greatly superior. It may even be detrimental if there is a strong emphasis on the non-humanistic parts of the curriculum.

Here’s what most people think critical thinking is. You take on a position, then you develop arguments as to why this viewpoint is the correct one. It’s the stuff of debate, polemics, law and politics. We admire people who can present strong arguments, then defend their positions under withering pressure. Sometimes we elect such supremos to powerful positions. It’s a handy skill, not to be dismissed, often to be admired. But I’ll tell you one thing it isn’t: it’s not critical thinking.

Real critical thinking takes a bit more work.

To be truly critical about a viewpoint, first you need to figure out if it’s wrong. That’s not an easy thing to do, because it goes against our innate mental biases. Our brains are naturally predisposed to taking on positions then finding support for such positions. What critical thinking asks of us is to challenge this mental process head on; finding evidence that suggests it’s not true, or not valid under certain circumstances. From this a more complicated picture can be drawn.

A critical thinker needs to spend time to understand if their position is based on valid or fallacious logic. If you are basing your position on the mere fact that everyone else accepts it, that’s not a great starting point. Neither is it much help if it originates from an emotional feeling or a desire for something to be true rather than bothering to establish if it is true in the first place. There are a ton of pitfalls – logical fallacies – that can trap the unwary thinker.

Or maybe the sources themselves are invalid. A peer-reviewed scientific paper may hold more water than the flatulent utterances of a Daily Mail headline, but even this might require consideration if it’s rowing against other research on the same topic. Many newspapers and websites promote strong political, cultural or religious viewpoints. There may be vested interests involved, whose job it is to muddy the debate. It can be a minefield trying to winnow the grammes of wheat from the tonnes of chaff.

If you do put in the ground work to validate and perhaps adjust the stance you have taken, it’s then when argumentation and debate has a role to play. But even then, you have to be willing to accept that, even at this late stage, you might be wrong. There may be evidence out there that you failed to consider. You need to be open to this possibility.

Going through this process of formulating hypotheses and testing is one of the most valuable skills an education can give us. It’s the basis behind most forms of professional and scientific inquiry and it’s fast becoming a useful tool of business and management. So why aren’t our kids learning more about it in school? Why aren’t they getting any chances to practice it?

So many subjects are presented as just-so facts. The desire to complete the curriculum as expeditiously as possible trumps everything else. Where discussion is permitted, there is little effort to evaluate positions on their merits or to examine our biases and the many flaws of argumentation. Debates are little more than exercises in one-upmanship – opportunities to talk across each other while playing to the audience. Being wrong is something to be avoided at all costs. Our education system is miles from where it needs to be.

We have to find ways to break this cycle. We need to give curiosity, exploration and inwardly directed criticism greater prominence in our educational system. We need to elevate hypothesis formulation, testing and investigatory work, allowing kids to make mistakes as they try to figure out what is right and what is wrong. Instead of telling them the answers, give them the tools to find the answers for themselves.

A real critical thinker has to shroud themselves in doubt, and it’s from doubt that real critical thinkers are born. Our education system has become too enamoured with certainty to give this much consideration. We need to find ways to change this.

I’m currently going through the painful process of finding a place for my eldest son in secondary school next year. Competition for places is high, so it’s not unusual to find that many schools have an enrolment policy, which helps them decide who gets an offer and who doesn’t. One consideration is whether you live near the school. Another consideration is whether you have a sibling already in the school. Performance in entrance tests and interviews may be considered. In one school we visited, a key criterion appeared to be the extent to which parents wanted their child in the school, i.e., how much they were willing to pester the school management to get their kid a place.

All well and good, but many schools have another card up their sleeve. When you have ticked the suitability boxes on almost everything, your child might still be rejected. He might simply be part of the wrong religion.

Let’s cut to the chase. Children are getting accepted into schools, not on merit, not on ability, but on the overriding need to have the right formulation of strange ideas in their head. Hell, it’s not even their head – it’s expected to be in the heads of their parents. You couldn’t think of a worse reason for a kid to be rejected if you tried.

As far as I know, there is no such thing as Catholic maths, or Protestant geography, or Buddhist science. Schooling is schooling, and, apart from religion classes themselves, your religion should bear no relationship to what is taught in the classroom.

Religion offers people an opportunity to discriminate. Imagine you had to bring your family abroad, to Pakistan, say, and the only school for your daughter was an Islamic school. Part of each day involved learning parts of the Koran off by heart. If you were not Muslim, you would probably be unhappy having her learn it, no matter how well disposed to the school you were. Yet, we don’t see anything wrong with the children of non-affiliated parents being expected to conform to a similar system right here in our own country. Even if the child is exempted from these classes, a line is being drawn quite explicitly between her and other students.

I also wonder whether the “ethos” and “values” cards are overplayed. Religion does not play a part in most workplaces and yet most people seem to be able to show respect for each other. Common humanity: courtesy, manners and compassion, is not the preserve of any one religion or philosophy, as we soon find when we meet people with vastly different upbringings.

The fact that religion can be used as grounds for selection, in such a crucial area of life as education, is a monstrous failure by the Irish State. Religion has no role in the definition of who can be an Irish citizen. Article 44 of the Irish Constitution specifically states that the State shall not discriminate on religious lines. Surely this extends to schools, paid as they are out of taxpayer money?

Here’s my suggestion. It should be made illegal for schools in receipt of public money, to discriminate against children and parents on religious grounds. Ireland urgently needs a level playing field.

I think I was around fifteen years old. The elderly Christian Brother teaching us Religious Studies brought us all downstairs to the video room. The lesson for the day would be a documentary on Our Lady of Garabandal, a supposed “apparition” of Mary somewhere in Spain. The key message from the programme was the Blessed Virgin’s unhappiness with the world. Unless we started saying the Rosary pretty darn quick, terrible unspecified things would happen. No discussion, no criticism. We were expected to accept all of the programme’s premises at face value.

This was a major downside of an Irish Catholic education in the 1980’s. Alongside fairly solid subjects such as maths, science and the foreign languages, we were schooled in rank superstition. This was not educational, it was anti-educational. We left school in possession of a rather toxic mindset: that if a person was wearing the right clothes or had the right prefix before his name, or the right suffix after his name, then you were expected to accept that he was telling the truth, no matter what rubbish he was uttering from his mouth.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when friends of mine were discussing alternative medicine cures for various ailments. There was no analysis, no criticism. The proof was in the anecdote and the anecdote was the gold-standard.

Then there was the hubbub at Knock a few months ago, attracting thousands to witness Joe Coleman muttering nonsense into the middle distance. Many of us might laugh, but it served as a reminder that the Ireland of the moving statues hadn’t gone away, you know.

Pick up any local paper and you will find ads for peddlers of the most outrageous woo, from Chinese medicine to homeopathic treatments to new age crystal remedies. And how could we forget the pyramid schemes and the property bubbles that hit the country over the past few years? It all points a vulnerability common to us all. You might not beat the Irish, but fool us you can, and fool us you do. Every single day.

It’s all quite depressing stuff. If you want to make make a fast buck using nothing but smoke and mirrors, Ireland is as good a place as any to try your hand.

Now, I know that belief in the miraculous, the supernatural and the magical is a worldwide phenomenon. Most societies are steeped in it and it will be with us as long as our species breathe on this planet. Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be good for all of us if our kids were better prepared to accept things more on evidence than on hearsay? Wouldn’t it be better if we were taught how our brains can play tricks on us and how to avoid the more common mistakes? Wouldn’t it benefit us to quickly recognise manipulation by others? Our education system somehow avoided this aspect of our schooling and the results are everywhere to be seen.

The Irish education system, or should I say, the Catholic education system of Ireland (sadly these expressions are synonymous), didn’t dwell too much on such questions, lest we peered too closely at the shaky foundations of Catholicism’s own dogmas and diktats. We were, of course, taught to think critically, but critical thinking had its limits.

I would love to say that the system has improved greatly since I left school and that we are turning out school-leavers who have a much better handle on reality, but I fear that change has been glacially slow. I stand to be corrected in this regard.

It’s another reason why a Catholic education is not necessarily the best education for our schoolchildren. We deserve better. It’s time we got better.

The creationists are right. We need academic freedom. We can’t just have one view, pounded into us by those pesky scientists. Schools and universities must be forced should be allowed to teach alternative views to their students side by side with science. That’s what education is for, isn’t it? We need Academic Freedom in our schools and we need it NOW!

Here are the principal areas that our educators need to focus on right away:

1) The Earth is Flat. When I go outside the door, it’s flat. Even when I climb a mountain (and I did that once) it still looks flat. Even when I go on a plane, (and I’ve done that too), it’s flat. So the earth being flat is a legitimate scientific view and must be taught in science classes alongside the (rolls-eyes) “oblate spheroid” dogma.

2) The Moon, the Sun and all the stars revolve around the Earth. Well, they do, don’t they? All rising in the east and setting in the west just like they are meant to by God. This Copernican stuff doesn’t wash with me, it didn’t wash with countless popes until 1992, and it shouldn’t wash with you either. So let’s teach the controversy and make sure that those Galileans are knocked back in their corner.

3) If waves need water to pass through to splash on us, then there must be a similar medium in which light passes through in space! It’s called Aether and it deserves a shot. Better than that weird quantum electrodynamic stuff (and far more understandable too, IMHO). Down with Quantum Mechanics! BOO! Up with Aether!

4) Now the “scientists” are always drumming up silly ideas like atoms and molecules when there was a perfectly legitimate theory in place before this new fashioned stuff came into play. It was called Phlogiston Theory. A cool name, eh? Every time you burn something, Phlogiston is released! When you burn an every day object: a match or a heretic perhaps, the weight afterwards is less than the weight before, and the difference is Phlogiston. Academic Freedom dictates that we see Phlogiston get equal treatment to chemistry. 

5) Of course medical doctors are always going on and on about saving people with antibiotics and vaccines and using approaches involving “studies” and “evidence” to find a cure, when there are lots and lots of alternative theories with the great advantage that you don’t need to perform any proper studies at all! Much cheaper, no need to learn tough mathematics like statistics and many of them feel nice and tingly. All you need to do with your chosen therapy is to believe that it will work. If it doesn’t, there are lots more to choose from. We have therapies that give dilute water magical healing properties, that control the flow of chi in your body and that shield us from toxins that cause imbalances. Some of the theories conflict with each other completely but hey, you can choose what theory suits you best! All you need is a big wallet and a mind unbridled by critical oversight. 

So let’s put science in it’s place for once and for all! Let’s ensure that every half-baked hypothesis we have ever dreamt up has legitimate pride of place beside scientific views in our schools and colleges. Just because a theory has “weighty evidence” and “a solid scientific consensus” around it, just because it been tested a million times and has never been disproved, doesn’t mean it should be treated any more seriously than its rivals no matter how off-beat and nonsensical they are. So, let’s take a moment and celebrate the great wonder of ignorance. It beats reality anytime.

(Inspired by this article)

I’m giving the final presentation of my thesis to my academic supervisor and second reader today, and then that’s it. It’s all over. I finished my thesis about 2 months ago, so it’s been something of a challenge re-reading it again in preparation for today.

Even though it was a lot of hard work, I enjoyed writing my thesis. I was fortunate in that the subject I chose was very interesting to me. I don’t think too many people have written about my chosen subject before – it’s certainly a first for the academic body I am presenting to. This makes it even more special to me.

Hopefully it will be an interesting day and not too challenging! I’m really looking forward to my graduation day in November.

%d bloggers like this: