Fundamentalism and education

At a time when global warming requires that we do our most creative thinking, public education and free thought are under attack by both austerity programs and religious fundamentalism.  So where are our new creative thinkers supposed to come from?

Meredith Tax
25 June 2013

When the city of Chicago closes 49 “underperforming” schools in poor neighborhoods, who gets hurt?

When fundamentalist parents control what information their kids are exposed to by home schooling them, who are the victims?

In both cases, children are being hurt.  But they are not the only ones.

We live at a time when, according to environmentalists, our continued existence on this planet is at risk.  More than ever, in the years ahead, people will need both scientific and humanistic knowledge to confront this challenge.  But our educational institutions are lagging behind, rather than gearing up to mobilize the vast stores of human creativity that will be needed as we face irreversible climate change.  They are lagging behind for two reasons.

The first is cutbacks. In the US, the last big era of public spending on education and other social goods was the sixties.  Today Chicago’s neoliberal Mayor Rahm Emmanuel is closing 49 schools in poor minority neighborhoods and has just announced he will spend some of the money the city saved on subsidizing a new arena for DePaul (a private Catholic university).  Similarly, a major trigger of last week’s riots in Brazil was the prioritizing of money for Olympic stadiums (bread and circuses) over public education and transportation.  In the last few years, mass protests over university tuition have taken place in Chile, Quebec, the UK, and the US, among other places.

But neoliberal austerity programs are not the only threat to education.  Fundamentalism is another.   

Eighty-eight years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union decided to bring a test case against Tennessee’s Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in its public schools.  The result was the celebrated Scopes Trial, a media circus in which John Scopes, a substitute science teacher, was prosecuted with the assistance of William Jennings Bryan, a three times presidential candidate who particularly objected to the notion that men could be descended from monkeys.  The famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow, an agnostic, led the defense team.  The jury found Scopes guilty, though the verdict was later overturned on a technicality, and the trial led to attempts to pass anti-evolution laws in a number of other states.  Not until the 1950s, when Sputnik led to a national panic over science education, and Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, did evolution become recognized as an essential part of the US public education curriculum.

Today as in 1925, religious fundamentalists are trying to control education in places all over the world.

The Taliban is famous for attacking girls’ schools; in the years they ruled Afghanistan, they forbade female education completely.  In the uproar last year after the attempted assassination of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani Taliban said they opposed only “secular” education, but last week they blew up a school bus full of girls in Quetta, pursuing survivors of the first suicide attack with a second attack on the hospital where they were taken.  And even secular education in Pakistan is not all that secular; both public and private schools are required to use a state curriculum for Islamic studies and Pakistani history which has been described as teaching “a narrow interpretation of Islam that encourages religious intolerance and extremism through negative references to Pakistan’s minorities (religious and other).”

Reem Abdel-Razek, a young Egyptian who went to an international high school in Saudi Arabia, says their English science textsas published included sections on evolution and human reproduction, but the teacher was required to rip out all those pages and teach creationism. When she tried to order social science or other secular books online, she couldn’t get them because of internet censorship. Her father, himself a scientist, told her that evolutionary theory was a plot by Jews to weaken Islam by making Muslims doubt the Koran; this was evidenced by the fact that many scientists are Jewish.  “They say Arab societies are stagnant because of the effects of colonialism and the power of the Jews,” Reem says, “but the real reason is that they won’t let us learn anything!” 

This problem is not restricted to Islam.  Fundamentalists of every persuasion oppose any curriculum that might cause children to question religious dogma.

In Israel, fundamentalist opposition to secular education has become an economic as well as a political problem; the haredi (ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews), a growing percentage of the population because of their high birth rate, are almost unemployable because they don't study anything but religious texts.  The government is now threatening to cut their educational subsidies if they don’t add classes in English and math.  Like Islamists, fundamentalist Christians, and the Vatican, the haredi also have problems with women.

In India, a country with many minorities including a huge Muslim one, the Hindutva movement promotes the notion of a single unchangeable Indian culture identical to their version of Hinduism.  The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang) has its own network of schools which, while constrained to use the common curricula and textbooks, has a supplementary curriculum in which “facts” taught for examination include the ideas that Aryans originated in India and subsequently spread to Iran; that the former site of the Babri Masjid was the birthplace of Ram; and that Homer’s Iliad is an adaptation of the Ramayana

According to Latha Menon, wherever the BJP (the political party of the Hindutva movement) came to power, it attempted to insert these ideas into state educational curricula, despite opposition from secular intellectuals:  “Since the late 1990s, national education has become a battleground, drawing in many distinguished historians, scientists, and other academics who have refused to tolerate any move away from a strictly secular education system; who have protested against the mingling of myth alongside history, and pseudoscience alongside science.” 

In the United States around 2 million children are being home schooled—about the same number as are in charter schools, which in some parts of the country are thinly disguised religious academies.  The vast majority of home schooled children come from families with a religious objection to secular education.  The Minerva Coalition, which was set up “to provide a voice for victims of religious abuse,” has a spin-off website and Facebook page called Homeschoolers Anonymous, full of testimonies like this one:   

“I’m a 19 year old from Missouri, recently liberated from my parents and my home school. I was taught via the curriculum offered by Alpha Omega Academy, a YEC-oriented set of curricula which taught the wrong things and didn’t even teach them well. I learned that Pi = 3, that the Earth is 6,000 years old and that the ‘only’ way fossils could possibly exist is if a great flood happened. It also tended to use History class as indoctrination, and tried to teach 9 and 10 year olds that they should only vote for Christians in elections because ‘otherwise, we’d have to live by Man’s law, and not God’s.’ All of this, of course, paled in comparison to the largest problem this caused. I was completely isolated from civilization for most of my life, with the exception of the internet.”

In the US, despite the constitutional separation of religion and the state, there are constant battles over the teaching of creationism, prayer and religious symbols in public schools, voucher systems which allow parents to send their children to religious schools at public expense, and the use of school buildings for prayer meetings.  In the UK, where there is no constitutional separation, the state actually funds religious education; as Gita Sahgal observed in 2011, “large sums of public money [are] being made available to a programme of work that transforms education from a system that encourages questioning and inquiry to one where, according to Christian evangelicals, even the existence of doubt is due to Satanic influence.” In Canada, except for Quebec, public schools mandate classes in either religious or moral education while multiculturalism has created other problems, according to Ariane Brunet by allowing for “‘identity education’ that accommodates religion, culture and patriarchal values.”

In a Catholic Church embattled over issues like celibacy, child abuse, and the ordination of women, education has become another focus of struggle.  In Lima, for instance, Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, a Fujimori supporter and member of the ultra-conservative organization Opus Dei, has ordered the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru to either submit to Vatican authority or change its name; the university has refused.  The Vatican says the university is a nest of liberation theology (oh, the horror!) while the university says the Church wants to control its curriculum and valuable real estate holdings.  Pablo Quintanilla, a faculty member, wrote recently:  “The conflict here is about what a Catholic university should be: either a pluralistic place for religious freedom and Catholic thought, or a dogmatic guardian of one particular way to understand faith.”

These battles over education will affect all of us.  Since the nineties, feminists have been warning of two great obstacles to human progress: the dog-eat-dog, market-driven ideology of neoliberal economics, and the growth of religious fundamentalist movements.  Creative thinking requires time and money for education; it also requires secular space for freedom of thought.  For this reason, education is a crucial front in the struggle for planetary survival.


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