The Scandal of Secular Indoctrination (RJS)

The Scandal of Secular Indoctrination (RJS) November 14, 2013

The November/December Books and Culture, always worth reading, has an article by Perry Glanzer (whose title I’ve borrowed), reflecting on a book Does God Make a Difference? Taking Religion Seriously in Our Schools and Universities by Warren Nord.  This book is worth some consideration and conversation.

Warren Nord (1946-2010) was the founding director of the interdisciplinary Program in the Humanities and Human Values at UNC–Chapel Hill a position he held for 25 years.  With a Ph.D. in philosophy his area of interest was in religion, morality, and education. According to his autobiography Nord was raised in a rural conservative Christian home in Minnesota, but lost much of his religious faith “because of the continuing secular thrust of my education and my inability to deal with the problem of evil.” Eventually he returned to faith with what he called “a sufficiently liberal theology” as part of a liberal (both politically and theologically) American Baptist congregation.

Nord is not looking to indoctrinate students in any religious tradition with the questions he raises in Does God Make a Difference?, or with the suggestions he makes. Rather he wants to acknowledge the role that religion plays in human society. Nord considers the lack of even acknowledgment of religion in secular education scandalous.

How deep is the lack? Glanzer gives an example in his piece (p. 6) B&C describing the absence of religion in K-12 educational standards and textbooks.

He [Nord] hardly found a smidgen of religion. In history texts, religion disappears after the 18th century. … For instance they credited Martin Luther King’s views on nonviolence to Thoreau and Gandhi and said nothing about his Christian theology or the fact that he was an ordained minister in the Baptist tradition.

Religion, and the impact religion has on the decisions people make is largely absent. A discussion of King without a mention of his religion and the impact it had on his thinking is scandalous. It wasn’t always this way of course. Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance, passed by the Second Continental Congress in 1787 and signed by Washington in 1789 begins:

Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

It was self-evident to the founding fathers that religion (although for many of them, an appropriately liberal religion) was a normal, even necessary part of life. Today this article of the Ordinance is something of an embarrassment to many academics and not for the remainder of the article (which should cause us some embarrassment when we consider the ideals of the founders and the rather poor follow through by the country). Rather, religion is thought to have no useful place alongside morality and knowledge in good government or happiness.  In the introduction to his book Nord puts it like this:

American education proceeds on the assumption that God is either dead or irrelevant. Irrelevant Gods are not unknown: the ancient Epicureans believed that the gods kept to themselves in their heaven and took no interest in us mere mortals. Historically, this has not been the typical take on God, however. The more common view has been that if God exists there are implications.  …

And yet the conventional wisdom of educators is that students can learn everything they need to know about any subject in the curriculum (other than history and historical literature) without learning anything about religion. We systematically and uncritically teach students to make sense of the world in exclusively secular categories. Consequently, the great majority of students earn their high school diplomas and their undergraduate degrees without ever contending with a live religious idea.

I will argue that with regard to religion American education is superficial, illiberal, and unconstitutional. These are not insignificant claims. Indeed this should be recognized for what it is, a scandal.

There are many reasons for taking religion seriously in public schools and universities. A liberal education requires it. Because religion continues to be such an influential force for good and for evil one simply can’t be an educated person without understanding a fair amount about it. Even more important, because we disagree so deeply about the merits of various religious and secular ways of making sense of the world and our lives, students must be introduced to the religious as well as the secular alternatives if they are to think critically. It is not justifiable for public schools and universities to institutionalize secular interpretations of the various subjects of the curriculum and in so doing marginalize or discredit religion uncritically. This is profoundly illiberal and suggests an extraordinary degree of either hubris or thoughtlessness; indeed, as we shall see, it borders on secular indoctrination.

There is a cluster of moral and civic reasons for taking religion seriously. It is an important task of education to locate students in the world morally and address important moral controversies (including the nature of morality itself). No doubt the relationship of morality and religion is deeply controversial but religion must be part of the conversation; if it is not, it is, once again illiberal. … Students must understand religion in order to be thoughtful voters. Justice requires that schools and universities take religion seriously. Political liberty is incompatible with secular indoctrination. And both the civility and respect for people’s rights that are necessary in a democracy require that students learn about one another’s religions as well as religious liberty. (pp. 4-5)

I am going to look at some more of Nord’s book in the future, but want to put this idea up for discussion.

Do you think Nord makes a good point? Is there a scandal?

What role should religion play in secular public education? Is it different at the 9-12 and undergraduate levels?

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