Fighting The Dictionary

Ophelia wrote an insightful, controversial paragraph:

Churches don’t do education. Religion doesn’t do education. Churches and religion do religion, which is different from education. Education is what schools do. It is fundamentally secular – it is about the world, and exploring and learning about the world. Like newspapers, like forensics, like medicine, like so many human institutions, it is supposed to get things right. It is supposed to teach what is true, not what is false. Churches and religions are not. That is the fundamental radical difference between them. A secular approach to education is the only legitimate approach there is. A god-inflected approach is not education properly understood.

In reply Scote cited a dictionary definition:

“Education is what schools do. It is fundamentally secular”

No, that just isn’t true.

education |ˌejəˈkā sh ən|
noun
the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction,

While I wish the word education entailed the qualities you described, it does not.

And when challenged, appealed to the Oxford American Dictionary to say that while Ophelia was correct in her idea of what education should be she should not have implied that it already is limited to secular understanding:

ed·u·ca·tion
noun ˌe-jə-ˈkā-shən
Definition of EDUCATION
1
a : the action or process of educating or of being educated; also : a stage of such a process b : the knowledge and development resulting from an educational process [a person of little education]
2
: the field of study that deals mainly with methods of teaching and learning in schools”

There is nothing in the common usage of the word education that limits it to secular education.

I fully support Ophelia’s position on education, I just think that trying to make an fallacious argument by definition is a not a good idea.

I fully agree with your sentiments that religion shouldn’t be anywhere near public education, but it is false to claim that the concept of education is fundamentally secular. A fact-based education or some such, certainly, but not merely an education. You have omitted a qualifier.

I will repeat what I said at Ophelia’s site in reply:

Ophelia’s definition treats the meaning of education in normative terms, i.e., in terms of what it ideally should be, not in terms of loose description of everything ever called by it. Part of debate about values, which this is, means fighting for the best normative interpretations of terms. She is arguing for a definition because she is arguing for an ideal and a norm. If you want to challenge her, challenge the norm she is proposing for education, not whether she acknowledged that when used descriptively the word accommodates all instances of instruction more broadly.

Think of it like with the word “morality”. Moralities descriptively include some deeply immoral codes accepted by various communities, religions, and individuals. Nonetheless, we can use the word “moral” in a normative way that contradicts truly immoral “moral codes’” claims to the word as ideally used (even if descriptively, they count).

In reply to me Scote wrote:

Ophelia is free to argue that an education *should* be secular, and that that *should* be the normative use of the term, but she didn’t. Instead she claimed that to already be the case. Confusing “ought to be” for “is”, as we can see by her own words: “[Education] is fundamentally secular.” IMO.

“Moralities descriptively include some deeply immoral codes accepted by various communities, religions, and individuals. Nonetheless, we can use the word “moral” in a normative way”

Because there is no universally agreed upon morality when you say something is “moral” you are always begging the question. If you were to say something like “morality is fundamentally secular” you would be making a claim just as unfounded as “education is fundamentally secular”. You can say “normative” all you want but I think you’d still be wrong if you assume your premises.

What I said in reply to that was that I’m not assuming my premises. I justify them rationally in other contexts. I am making a rational judgment. Female genital mutilation is immoral. When I say that, I don’t need to qualify that SOME people think it’s morally good and necessary. They are wrong. I don’t need to pretend this is a relative issue. They are damaging a fundamental functionality and good for women with no compensating benefit. They are hurting human flourishing and oppressing women. I don’t care if they think that’s moral. It’s not. And I don’t have to bend over backwards to accommodate false opinions in morality more than I have to in any other circumstance.

This is not to say that on some issues cultures can’t differ and have contrary but equally justifiable moral positions which do work to create human flourishing in both cultures just through different ways. There can be some moral disagreements where both are right in their own cultural contexts. But not every situation is like that. Female genital mutilation serves no compensating good worth the harm it causes.

Similarly, Ophelia is making the case that education that makes no reference to false “supernatural” beings (i.e., secular education) is the only kind that is true education in a world where all there are are non-supernatural (i.e., natural) beings.

There is not an illicit “is/ought” elision by Ophelia. When you define a moral term you incorporate “oughts” into it. Defining courage normatively, for example, is not just describing fearless behavior but also incorporating a norm that one is courageous in ways that are morally admirable. One might say that a fearless seriel killer is not courageous if one is making a normative argument about how we should use a term, like courage, which has intrinsically honorific connotations. Because of the honorific connotations that attach to the word, it is completely legitimate that one argue it should be properly defined and used only to apply to fearless behavior which is sufficiently worthy of honor.

The same goes for “education”. It has the connotation of improving people and giving them genuine knowledge. If faith-based institutions systematically inculcate falsehoods and reinforce prejudices and fallacious patterns of thinking (which they characteristically do), then at least to that extent they are not worthy of the word “education” with its connotations of honorably improving people’s knowledge and skills.

Mere “systematic instruction” which misleads people about the truth is properly, normatively called “miseducation”. According to Oxford, to miseducate means to “educate, teach, or inform (someone) wrongly”. Wrong teaching, wrong information, and putative education is miseducation. The word wrong is, correctly, in this definition because norms sometimes belong in definitions. Ophelia was correct, in symmetrical fashion, to define education in terms of rightly instructing.

Appealing to the dictionary, as though dictionaries are perfect, to try to undermine a philosophical argument about norms is to try to short cut important philosophical discussion of norms. Our dictionaries can be improved when they miss important philosophical distinctions. I am often frustrated on this score when people try to cite inadequate dictionary definitions of “atheist”, “agnostic”, or “faith” when the definitions I am offering make important distinctions clearer and more accurate than the dictionaries. Citing the dictionary in such a fashion is an appeal to a rigid traditionalism which would resist philosophical clarity. If the distinctions I offer really cut up concepts in a way that reflects reality better then they are justified. In that case it is the dictionaries which should be challenged—not the clearer, more accurate account of the realities to which they are supposed to refer.

Examples of normative definition arguments about love, knowledge, marriage, faith, atheism, and agnosticism here on Camels With Hammers:

What is Love? Here’s My Theory

Call It Volitional Love, Not Unconditional Love

Mostly True, Not Mostly False

My Definition of Marriage

How A Lack Of Belief In God May Differ From Various Kinds Of Beliefs That Gods Do Not ExistNot All Beliefs Held Without Certainty Are Faith Beliefs

Defending My Definition Of Faith As “Belief Or Trust Beyond Rational Warrant”

Agnostics Or Apistics?

The Evidence-Impervious Agnostic Theists

Faith As Loyally Trusting Those Insufficiently Proven To Be Trustworthy

Faith As Tradition

Blind Faith: How Faith Traditions Turn Trust Without Warrant Into A Test Of Loyalty

The Threatening Abomination Of The Faithless

Rational Beliefs, Rational Actions, And When It Is Rational To Act On What You Don’t Think Is True

Faith As Guessing

Are True Gut Feelings And Epiphanies Beliefs Justified By Faith?

Faith Is Neither Brainstorming, Hypothesizing, Nor Simply Reasoning Counter-Intuitively

Faith In The Sub-, Pre-, Or Un-conscious

Can Rationality Overcome Faith?

Faith As A Form Of Rationalization Unique To Religion

Faith As Deliberate Commitment To Rationalization

Heart Over Reason

Faith As Corruption Of Children’s Intellectual Judgment

Faith As Subjectivity Which Claims Objectivity

Faith Is Preconditioned By Doubt, But Precludes Serious Doubting

Soul Searching With Clergy Guy

Faith As Admirable Infinite Commitment For Finite Reasons

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

Why Faith Is Unethical (Or “In Defense Of The Ethical Obligation To Always Proportion Belief To Evidence”

Implicit Faith

Faith Which Exploits Infinitesimal Probabilities As Openings For Strong Affirmations

Why You Cannot Prove Inductive Reasoning Is Faith-Based Reasoning But Instead Only Assert That By Faith

How Just Opposing Faith, In Principle, Means You Actually Don’t Have Faith, In Practice

Naturalism, Materialism, Empiricism, And Wrong, Weak, And Unsupported Beliefs Are All Not Necessarily Faith Positions

How Faith Poisons Religion

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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