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?

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.

  • drlake

    I would have probably simply stopped with something on the order of “[e]ducation is about educating someone, which requires passing on information. Religious instruction is not really information if it pertains to the divine, since that isn’t real (it isn’t “information” if it is not about reality). Therefore, the only religious instruction that can be considered to be “education” is teaching rituals (which do exist, and hence are “real”) and teaching about a religion as it exists (i.e. believers in religion X believe Y).

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      That works

    • khms

      Except it doesn’t.

      Consider math. It’s definitely not “about reality” (in fact, that is what enables us to have proofs, as opposed to science), yet omitting math from education would seem to be a rather grave mistake.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Math is about reality if anything else is.

    • drlake

      Agreed. Math is a language used to describe reality. “2 apples plus 2 apples equals 4 apples” is certainly about reality. Perhaps there are “higher” maths (post-calculus) that no longer reflect reality, but I’m not aware of any.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers
    • abb3w

      Only some of math is about reality. So, math isn’t quite “about reality”, in so far as it isn’t restricted to ONLY talking about reality.

      For an example of mathematics that likely doesn’t reflect reality, check out the Wikipedia entry on the Banach-Tarski sphere dissection “paradox”. (Technically, it’s not a paradox; it’s only yields a paradox if you also add to the definition of “volume” that all sets must have a volume when they are subsets of sets with a finite volume, or similar equivalent.)

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Indoctrination /= education.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Succinct. I like.

  • cmv

    I like both drlake’s and Pierce’s takes on this. Pretty much what was going through my head as I read your post.
    The buried lede, though, is how horrible the Oxford American Dictionary definition of “education” is. I wonder if they go on to define “educate” as ” verb – the provision of an education”. Defining a word only in the context of other forms of the same word is just sad.

  • King of New Hampshire

    I think the fundamental flaw in the argument is that it focuses on a word rather than a concept. Ophelia was referencing a concept, and the argument should have hinged upon that instead of devolving into a semantic debate.

    “Mistress” used to be a highly regarded title for a woman as it was given to the head of the household, the most important woman on the premises. Today, it means something quite different. Or as Ed Brayton recently punned, “Nein” and “Nine” are the same word, with different meanings, depending on the culture you are in. Hell, the word “knight” originally meant “boy,” yet we don’t insert an overtone of pedophilia on a woman’s desire for chivalry.

    Scote is arguing from linguistic conservatism. Rather than allow words to be tools used by humans to express our thoughts, he, in a way, wants humans to be tools used by words to enact their definitions.

    The bottom line is that the process of indoctrination already has a term to describe it: indoctrination. Ophelia, then, is well within her rights as a user of English to compel a new distinction between the words “education” and “indoctrination.”. Not only do I think Scote was wrong to turn the argument to language, I think he is wrong at the end of his new argument, as well.

  • Beth

    A well-titled post. You are, indeed, fighting the dictionary. Meanings change over time, so you might even win the battle.

    I have to disagree with the idea that education is fundamentally secular though. The arguments made to defend that claim rest on premises like “It is supposed to teach what is true, not what is false. Churches and religions are not.”

    Churches and religious educational institutions struggle, like all other educators, to teach what they consider true. That Ophelia and others disagree on what constitutes ‘truth’ is not sufficient justification to claim that their intention is not to do so.

    You say “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.

    I think it’s as justifiable to claim that government sponsored educational establishments, such as public schools, are as guilty of such sins as religious schools. When was the last time you heard of a public school in America systematically teaching about the evils of capitalism and the glories of communism?

    To some extent it is unavoidable as teachers are, in all cases, human beings and they cannot help but model whatever prejudices, falsehoods and fallacious patterns of thinking they have.

    To the extent that it is deliberate and more pronounced in religious schools, you have a point. But I don’t know that such things are any more deliberate or pronounced in religious schools. That premise is simply assumed and the only evidence provided is that they teach their religious beliefs. That isn’t sufficient anymore than it would be sufficient to claim that U.S. public schools are teaching falsehoods and prejudices because they teach that capitalism is superior to communism.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/ Ophelia Benson

    Churches and religious educational institutions struggle, like all other educators, to teach what they consider true. That Ophelia and others disagree on what constitutes ‘truth’ is not sufficient justification to claim that their intention is not to do so.

    But I’m not claiming that. I’m claiming that whatever they intend, churches and religion as such don’t do education (although some religious schools do mostly or entirely secular education). I’m claiming that non-secular “education” can’t be genuine education because it must be supernaturalist “education” (if it weren’t, it would be secular education).

    It’s very dubious to claim that churches struggle, like all other educators, to teach what they consider true. That “what they consider” is a flag – they have no business considering it true. They have no reason to think it’s true. It’s based on revelation and authority, and those are not reliable foundations. This is the point. Schools should be teaching inter-subjectively testable content, not revelation.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/ Ophelia Benson

    A more fruitful approach would be, instead of starting by giving religion and churches the benefit of the doubt, just to ask what religion and churches teach that is not true. Then we could answer – that there is an omnipotent loving god that is a person and answers prayers and made us what we are and has a plan for us; that Jesus is the son of god and also is god, and that he was resurrected after death; that the bible is a good, in fact the best, source of morality and wisdom; that the bible was written by god; that the bible was written by humans under the guidance of god; that humans are what they are because of Original Sin; that the 10 Commandments are a crucial road map for morality.

    That’s a start.

    You can’t claim that any of those are marginal to Christianity, and there is no good reason to think that any of them are true.

  • Beth

    Ophelia said: I’m claiming that non-secular “education” can’t be genuine education because it must be supernaturalist “education” (if it weren’t, it would be secular education).
    This is not true. Religion is not synonymous with supernatural. There is a great deal of overlap, but just as not all skeptics are atheists, not all religions require belief in the supernatural. Would you consider a scientology education to be secular? I wouldn’t, but they hold no supernatural beliefs as I understand them.

    A more fruitful approach would be, instead of starting by giving religion and churches the benefit of the doubt, just to ask what religion and churches teach that is not true.

    Would you consider that to be a fruitful approach in political science? In philosophy? In art or literature?

    I simply disagree with you regarding whether education is inherently secular. Education is about passing on more than knowledge. It is also about passing on values and culture. Religious education can and does do that. You and I can disagree with their religious values and beliefs, but that doesn’t make them false. Nor does it imply that they aren’t educating when they teach about them.

    You can’t claim that any of those are marginal to Christianity, and there is no good reason to think that any of them are true.

    There is a great deal of difference between claiming those to be falsehoods and stating that there is no good reason to think they are true. What constitutes a ‘good reason’ is a subjective evaluation, and thus gets into the area of values rather than truth. The people who do believe in those things feel they have good reasons for doing so.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/ Ophelia Benson

    Would you consider that to be a fruitful approach in political science? In philosophy? In art or literature?

    Why do you ask that? What is the relevance? Religion is not comparable to political science. And you ignored my central question for the sake of asking this irrelevant one.

    There is a great deal of difference between claiming those to be falsehoods and stating that there is no good reason to think they are true.

    Yes of course there is; that will be why I never called them falsehoods.

    What constitutes a ‘good reason’ is a subjective evaluation, and thus gets into the area of values rather than truth.

    No. It’s epistemology, not ethics. What constitutes a good reason to accept something is true is not a subjective evaluation at all; it’s intersubjective; that’s very much the point.

  • Beth

    Why do you ask that? What is the relevance? Religion is not comparable to political science.
    I think there are many similarities between the fields when discussing teaching ‘truths’ versus that which is not known to be true. My point is that this idea that education should contain nothing but established truth is inappropriate because much of education is regarding subjects where the truth cannot be determined with certainty of mathematics or the sciences. Education consists of teaching the opinions of respected scholars in the subject area, not ‘truths’ with which there is no disagreement.

    And you ignored my central question for the sake of asking this irrelevant one.
    There isn’t any question in either of your two previous posts. What did you intend to be the central question you were asking me?
    Yes of course there is; that will be why I never called them falsehoods.
    You said: It is supposed to teach what is true, not what is false. Churches and religions are not. … A secular approach to education is the only legitimate approach there is. and then listed those beliefs as examples of what religion and churches teach that is not true.
    Please forgive me for erroneously concluding you were calling them false.


    What constitutes a good reason to accept something is true is not a subjective evaluation at all; it’s intersubjective; that’s very much the point.
    I’m not following you here. Perhaps you would be kind enough to explain what you meant by “intersubjective” and how that differs from subjective.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/ Ophelia Benson

    Beth -

    False is not the same as falsehood. Don’t try to patronize me. If you don’t know the difference, look it up.

    Same with intersubjective.

    Now – I didn’t say “established truth” – the adjective is your addition. You seem to have a really hard time addressing what I actually say without embellishing it to suit yourself. You did the same thing on that thread about Brendan O’Neill. I also didn’t say “‘truths’ with which there is no disagreement.” What I said was

    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.

    None of those deal solely in established truths or truths with which there is no disagreement, but they all do (when functioning as they’re supposed to) try very hard to be accurate; to get things right. Churches don’t; churches aren’t about accuracy.

    There isn’t any question in either of your two previous posts. What did you intend to be the central question you were asking me?

    Yes there is: the one in 7. You ignored that to talk about something different and beside the point.

  • Beth

    False is not the same as falsehood. Don’t try to patronize me. If you don’t know the difference, look it up. Same with intersubjective.

    No, false is not the same, but in the context of your post, I felt they were interchangable. I’m sorry if that was not an accurate assessment of your intention.
    I looked up intersubjective http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersubjectivity . Definition 1, which means the aggregate agreement of multiple subjective evaluations, was the only one I was aware of and it seems the best fit to what you were saying. Saying it was not a subjective evaluation at all is incorrect IMO. I had wanted to give you the opportunity to clarify rather than simply assume you were wrong.

    You were using ‘intersubjective’ to justify your statement that there is no good reason to think that the items you listed were true. I responded that people who believe those things feel they have good reasons for doing so. You replied with What constitutes a good reason to accept something is true is not a subjective evaluation at all; it’s intersubjective; that’s very much the point.

    This definition doesn’t help your case. I can still say that people who believe those things feel they have good reasons for doing so. Further, there will be a substantial intersubjective agreement on those reasons.

    I apologize if you found my post patronizing. It was not my intention.

    None of those deal solely in established truths or truths with which there is no disagreement, but they all do (when functioning as they’re supposed to) try very hard to be accurate; to get things right. Churches don’t; churches aren’t about accuracy.

    If you don’t mean ‘established truth’, then I think your statement is incorrect. Why do you think churches aren’t about accuracy? They want accuracy in the education they provide as much as any other educational institution. Do you really think that Catholics and Mormons wouldn’t object if the creeds taught in their respective educational institutes were switched? Or if the Bible were misquoted or switched with the Koran? It seems to me what your objection is because you believe their beliefs are false. I think you don’t want to call it education for that reason.

    This is why I brought up the examples of political science, arts and literature. Objecting to calling it education because you disagree with their beliefs regarding the subject matter is not sufficient when the belief cannot be verified true or false.
    Yes there is: the one in 7. You ignored that to talk about something different and beside the point.

    Point 1 – This is the internet. I can talk about whatever I like. You don’t have to listen or respond if you think is beside the point or irrelevant. You can complain if you want, but I’ll continue to ignore such complaints and talk about what I feel is relevant and makes the points I want to get across. If they aren’t points you are interested in, I suggest you ignore my posts.

    Point 2 – I didn’t ignore it. I asked you a question in response, similar but applied to different fields. I generally prefer such an approach to stating flat out disagreement. To put it more bluntly, no I don’t think it is a fruitful approach any more than I would find asking what they teach that is not known to be true a fruitful approach to political science, philosophy, or arts and literature.

    However, if instead of ‘not known to be true’ you meant ‘known to be false’ by your words ‘not true’, then that’s a different matter, but then the examples you gave for what churches teach are not appropriate as cannot be established as either true or false.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/ Ophelia Benson

    Beth -

    This is the internet. I can talk about whatever I like.

    Not really, except on your own site. On anyone else’s you’re dependent on the tolerance of other people.

    You don’t have to listen or respond if you think is beside the point or irrelevant. You can complain if you want, but I’ll continue to ignore such complaints and talk about what I feel is relevant and makes the points I want to get across. If they aren’t points you are interested in, I suggest you ignore my posts.

    That’s good advice if you’re talking about general subjects – but in this case you were talking about a blog post of mine, and you misrepresented what I said, more than once. It’s more than a little arrogant to tell me to ignore you when you misrepresent what I say. I’m not necessarily going to do that.


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