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Imposing ignorance October 8, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Education.
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Under the headline “Coercive imposition of Western culture,” Yitzhak Levy, a former education minister of Israel, criticizes the attempt by “academics, public figures and the courts” to enforce the study of “core curriculum” subjects in state-funded schools (including Haredi schools):

The country’s “Western elite” has decided that in order to earn a living and compete in the labor market, 10- to 18-year-olds should study mathematics and English. Many believe this to be a self-evident truth. However, it can be shown to be untrue on several grounds.

The first, and most important, argument is that there is no need to study mathematics and English for eight years in order to gain mastery of these subjects in a way that opens the door to various types of jobs, even in high tech. Private institutions that prepare students for matriculation exams, as well as pre-academic courses in higher education institutions, have proven that one can attain a high level on matriculation exams in these two subjects as a result of studies that last a year or two, and are undertaken at any stage of a person’s life. Since this is the case, why should studies in these two areas be forced upon those who are not interested in them for such a lengthy period?

First of all, notice that in that last sentence Levy conflates parents and their children as if they were a single person. It is Haredi parents who are not interested in having English and math taught to their children. Levy is not suggesting that we let children decide for themselves what they want to study. (Can a kid in a Haredi school decide that he is not interested in studying Bible or halacha?) There are indeed many things we do not allow children to decide for themselves, and parents are usually those responsible for protecting the interests of their children — but the rest of us have the right and the obligation to make sure parents are not abusing their power and harming their children, physically or mentally.

Now, even if it’s true that some 18-year-olds can acquire a complete math and English education in a 2-year program, there are certainly many who have neither the opportunity nor the capability to do so. In the best case, such a person faces enormous barriers and is starting out from a severely disadvantaged position. The fact is that close to 70 percent of Haredi men do not work, and education is surely a big part of the problem.

In any case, though, Levy misses the main point of education. Being able to get a job is important, but it is not the most important thing in life and it is not the most important function of schools. Until our children are mature and informed enough to choose their own goals in life, we have an obligation to give them the best available knowledge and the best known tools for learning and thinking. We don’t study math just so we’ll be able to make change at the supermarket, but in order to develop abstract and logical thinking and give us the tools necessary for further learning (mathematics is “the language of science”).

We live in a democracy, where the power belongs to the people, but democracy depends on an informed citizenry. Imposing 18 years of ignorance on a child cannot be excused by the fact that afterward he will theoretically be free to learn whatever he wants by himself. By age 18, a person’s interests, learning habits and worldview are largely solidified. An 18-year-old who’s never had a history lesson in his life could theoretically go read a history book on his own, but does that excuse us from teaching all our children about World War II and the Holocaust (for example)?

Levy’s attempt to frame the issue as “trying to impose Western culture on Jewish culture” is especially ludicrous. Like it or not, English is essential nowadays for virtually all knowledge-based enterprises — the majority of scientific papers are published in English, and it is the most popular language on the World Wide Web, to name just two examples. And how exactly is mathematics “Western?” There is only the math that works, and Levy relies on it every time he uses an airplane or an elevator. Does Judaism offer its own alternative biology and astronomy and medicine? Well, actually, it does — but they’re wrong. If Levy got leprosy, would he go to a Western-educated doctor or to a priest? Is the idea that the Earth orbits the sun a Western imposition on traditional Jewish geocentrism? Whatever is actually true about the world is independent of culture and nationality.

While democracy depends on an informed citizenry, religious indoctrination depends on ignorance. A broad education is intended to empower children and ensure that every option is open to them, so they will be free to choose their own life. Haredi parents, however, are bent on forcing their own belief system and way of life on their children by cutting off all other options. I do think that every child, certainly in Israel, should learn about the basics of Judaism, and parents who wish to can supplement extra Jewish studies. But no parent has the right to disable his child by imposing ignorance.

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We don’t need no thought control August 28, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Freedom, Religion.
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In the short documentary “Faith School Menace?” Richard Dawkins takes a close look at “faith schools” in Britain — one third of British state-funded schools are officially affiliated with a religion. Segregating schoolchildren by the religion of their parents is considered natural in our society, although it should be quite obvious how divisive such segregation is: how it fosters an “us versus them” mentality, how it reinforces sectarian differences and conflicts, and inculcates them into the next generation. In Israel, for example, most children from Jewish families probably don’t know by name a single child from a Muslim family, although Muslims constitute a significant percentage of the population.

Why in the world shouldn’t our children spend their formative years in an environment where they will meet (and even befriend) children from all segments of the society they live in? Wouldn’t that be a tremendous aid in combating xenophobia and prejudice, and in promoting tolerance and coexistence? Ah, but such a scheme might interfere with parents’ intentions of bringing up their children into a particular worldview with no outside influence, and, as Dawkins is told again and again, parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit. But is this right absolute? Dawkins says:

The problem with rights is that there are conflicts between opposing rights. . . . In the case of education, children have rights as well as parents. Children have the right not to be indoctrinated, not to have their parents’ beliefs forced down their throat, but to make up their own mind after a proper, balanced education.

Parents do not have the right to keep their child blindfolded or locked up in his room; that would violate the child’s rights. When the rights of parents and children collide, the presumption is naturally in favor of the children, who are the weaker, more vulnerable party: they cannot stand up for themselves, so the state must stand up for them. There is no excuse for taking advantage of the power parents have over their children in order to instill in them an unquestioning faith in their parents’ worldview, while excluding all others. (This becomes quite obvious when you replace religion with some secular ideology, like Marxism, as in my parable.) The purpose of schools is not merely to infuse children with the beliefs of the previous generation; the point of education is to teach children how to think critically and draw conclusions on their own, based on good evidence and argument. Teaching one religion as the gospel truth while ignoring the existence of any others is antithetical to that goal.

Sadly, I don’t see “faith schools” going away any time soon. In the meantime, however, philosopher Daniel Dennett has presented a practical proposal which could be implemented almost immediately:

What do we teach [people] until they are informed enough and mature enough to decide for themselves? We teach them about all the world’s religions, in a matter-of-fact, historically and biologically informed way, the same way we teach them about geography and history and arithmetic.

This mandatory religious education would include no value judgments, only non-controversial facts: creeds and customs, prohibitions and rituals, texts and music and history. As long as you teach them this, Dennett says, you may teach your children whatever religious doctrines you like. Ironically, some people have accused Dennett’s proposal of being “fascistic” or “totalitarian,” when in fact it is practically libertarian:

How much more freedom could one want? The freedom to lie to your children? The freedom to keep them ignorant? You don’t own your children, like slaves, and you have no right to disable them with ignorance. You do have an obligation to let them have the mutual knowledge that is available to every other child, as a normal part of growing up in a free society.

Dennett argues that merely exposing children to the things that other people believe will inoculate them against the more toxic strains of religion. The best protection against destructive ideology is open discussion and the free flow of ideas. As a public health measure, it’s important that

the devout of all faiths should face the challenge of making sure their creed is worthy enough, attractive and plausible and meaningful enough, to withstand the temptations of its competitors. If you have to hoodwink — or blindfold — your children to ensure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, your faith ought to go extinct.

It’s true that under Dennett’s system, parents may have to deal with questions they would rather not have to answer (“Why don’t we believe in Vishnu, Mommy?”), but that is actually a good thing. Too many harmful dogmas persist through the ages because no one is ever required to present a reasonable argument in their defense. Parents have no right to constrain the minds of their children in order to accommodate their own intellectual laziness. Occasionally, a child’s question might even cause her parents to rethink their own beliefs — and what could be more wonderful than that?

Education vs. indoctrination: a parable May 11, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education.
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Suppose that I am an enthusiastic Marxist. My family has a long tradition of Marxism: my parents are Marxists, as were my grandparents before them. I believe strongly that Marxism holds the key to solving most of the world’s problems – indeed, I’m convinced that without Marxism the human race may not survive this century. I therefore consider it my duty to actively support, defend and spread Marxism to the best of my ability.

Naturally, it is of the utmost personal importance to me that my children be Marxists as well. I would consider myself a failure if they were not! (As would all my Marxist friends.) As soon as the opportunity arises, therefore, I teach my children all about Marxism: its philosophy, its principles, its history. I explain in detail all of the reasons I have for supporting Marxism, and why I think its critics are wrong. I encourage my children to study Marxism both in school and on their own. So far, so good.

Suppose, however, that I do not stop there. Suppose that, from the earliest age, I tell my children that they are Marxists. I refrain from teaching them about any other political or economic systems. When they eventually discover that not all people are Marxists, I simply tell them that different people have different traditions, but we are Marxists and this is what we believe.

Naturally, I send them to a Marxist school, where all students and teachers are Marxists, and Marxism classes are taught daily. (It goes without saying that alternatives to Marxism are not taught and are strongly discouraged.) Outside of school, the children belong to the local Marxist youth movement and go to Marxist summer camp. Once a week, year round, we join all the neighboring families at the nearby Marxist community center, where we listen to charismatic lectures on the virtues of Marxism and the dangers of a non-Marxist society. We conclude our gatherings with uplifting Marxist songs.

My children are now grown, and I am proud to report that they all remain committed Marxists. They appreciate the importance of marrying a fellow Marxist and building a Marxist household. For my part, I feel that I have fulfilled my obligations as a parent and a Marxist, and have contributed towards building a better world. I look forward to the birth of my first Marxist grandchild.