A minor internet brouhaha erupted after philosopher Peter Singer and others critiqued the wisdom of the Make-A-Wish Foundation’s Batkid event.
You’d have to be a real spoilsport not to feel good about Batkid. If the sight of 20,000 people joining in last month to help the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the city of San Francisco fulfill the superhero fantasies of a 5-year-old — and not just any 5-year-old, but one who has been battling a life-threatening disease — doesn’t warm your heart, you must be numb to basic human emotions.
Yet we can still ask if these emotions are the best guide to what we ought to do.
It’s obvious, isn’t it, that saving a child’s life is better than fulfilling a child’s wish to be Batkid?
It seems distasteful to even question that utility of a charity that brought so much joy, but it’s partly this fear of giving offense that retards the moral growth of our society. It’s impolite, after all, to doubt the helpfulness of giving 32% of our charity to religion when only a third of all charitable donations goes to the needs of the poor. It’s rude to wonder if many of us favor immigration restrictions that trap people into a life of scandalous poverty because we’re uncomfortable with poor foreigners living near us. It’s positively vulgar to suggest that a charitable event that brought delight mostly to privileged Americans isn’t as beneficial as protecting children from parasitic worms.
Completely to the surprise of everyone except atheists and agnostics, it turns out that nonbelievers actually know more about religion than the religious. It’s almost as if nonbelievers looked at the claims of religion, investigated them, and concluded they are astonishingly unconvincing.
Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.
On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith.
Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.
This level of ignorance should be deeply embarrassing to anyone that considers themselves to be a particular religion. It seems to confirm the human bias to form tribes. The importance for most people isn’t in the content of the beliefs just their homogeneity with others in their group. This same type of ignorance I’m sure mirrors political beliefs to a certain extent.
Looking at this survey, it is unclear whether increasing the level of religious knowledge is casual to being a nonbeliever. Policy proposals (you can start around the 4:00 mark) by atheists like Dan Dennett to increase comparative religious knowledge seem to rest somewhat on the assumption that learning about religion in a secular way amplifies skepticism. Surveys like this help that case, but don’t prove it – after all it’s not like Jews and Mormons did that much worse than atheists and agnostics. Also, given that these numbers are an average, some atheists and agnostics probably have pretty poor competency as well. Yet, I’m never really against raising knowledge as a good in itself. At the least, you’d expect people learning about other religions would be able to better empathize with other groups which could lead to less sectarianism. Dennett seems to believe the same, and remarks that informed consent is essential to democracy. He’s right about the importance of knowledge and I support his proposal despite my worries about abuse of religious curriculum.
I’m happy this Pew Survey undermines the notion that atheists aren’t believers because they’re religious “know-nothings.” Apologists pursued the wrong target lecturing nonbelievers about their assumed ignorance – the more troubling problem is theists willing to believe while being ignorant of those very beliefs or of alternative doctrines. In Following the Equator, Mark Twain wrote, “It was the schoolboy who said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” In Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Bertrand Russell wrote, “We may define “faith” as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence.” Both were wrong. Faith seems to be worse, it allows one to accept dogma without even awareness. Faith isn’t blind, it’s mindless. After all, if someone doesn’t know about something you’d expect them to not believe in it. But the unconscious credulity of the faithful is consequential and common. “Belief in nothing” is no longer a slur appropriate for atheists. It’s the definition of faith.
I often find it helpful to look at fundamental questions – it forces us to keep our bearings when thinking about public policy. So, for one of my favorite topics – educational policy – I’d like to ask the question:
What are schools for?
Partly, this question was prompted from me watching Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk about how schools kill creativity. It is the most favorited video currently at TED and I certainly enjoyed it.
Although, I’m not sure I entirely agreed with its premises. But he does make some great points along the way. Robinson argues that since we don’t even know what the world will look like in 5 years, it is futile to try to educate children for specific industries that may not be there when they finish schooling. From that he argues that it is necessary to promote creativity in schools (fully agree). Also, he’s certainly right that instilling the idea that making a mistake is the worst possible thing isn’t conducive to creativity.
Despite what Robinson claims, do our schools crush creativity? At least compared to Japan’s schools, America seems to be in much better shape. I don’t think that creativity is necessary going to be best promoted by focusing more on art and dance in schools (for the record: I loved my theatre and music classes) – at least it might not be the proper role of a school. We have to recognize that schools can’t teach everything.
But no matter how valuable a subject may be, there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and a decision to teach one subject is also a decision not to teach another one. The question is not whether trigonometry is important, but whether it is more important than statistics; not whether an educated person should know the classics, but whether it is more important for an educated person to know the classics than to know elementary economics. In a world whose complexities are constantly challenging our intuitions, these tradeoffs cannot responsibly be avoided.
I’ve referenced this before but Steven Pinker also makes that enlightening argument that schools should promote subjects that are unintuitive to humans.
The goal of education should be to provide students with the cognitive tools that are most important for grasping the modern world and that are most unlike the cognitive tools they are born with.
Those subjects might be more necessary for schools to step in and teach since students aren’t likely to learn them without special instruction, but need them to better navigate our modern world. Subjects like economics, finance, and statistics aren’t likely to become obsolete either as Robinson worries about other areas of study. In order to determine what schools are for do we need to just list the subjects of highest priority? Highest priority for what? It seems that is straying a bit away from my original question. Bertrand Russell can help get back to the core issue, he writes in his essay, “The Aims of Education:”
Before considering how to educate, it is well to be clear as to the sort of result which we wish to achieve. Dr Arnold wanted ‘humbleness of mind’, a quality not possessed by Aristotle’s ‘magnanimous man’. Neitzche’s ideal is not that of Christianity. No more is Kant’s: for while Christ enjoins love, Kant teaches that no action of which love is the motive can be truly virtuous. And even people who agree as to the ingredients of a good character may differ as to their relative importance. One man will emphasize courage, another learning, another kindliness, and another rectitude. One man, like the elder Brutus, will put duty to the State above family affection; another, like Confucious, will put family affection first. All these divergences will produce differences as to education. We must have some concept of the kind of person we wish to produce, before we can have any definite opinion as to the education which we consider best.
So school’s purpose is derived from what we want our students to become as people. Further in the essay, Russell argues that students should be looked at as ends, not means. It seems important to educate not for the sake of creating citizens that can serve the state, for example, but to give them the tools necessary to live their lives how they as individuals see fit. After all, as I learn from wikipedia
Etymologically the word education contains educarae (latin) “bring up” which is related to educere “bring out”, “bring forth what is within”, “bring out potential” and ducere “to lead”.
Yet, clearly if we think of education as a public good, we want some sort of specific “means” goals from students, don’t we? Providing them with a proper finance and economic background clearly helps them as individuals, but the additional externalities on society aren’t insignificant. The question isn’t easily answered. I’ll be sure to follow up on this topic in the future. Feel free to offer your answer to the question: What are schools for?