****Editor’s Note: I couldn’t decide whether or when to capitalize “Liberal Arts” so I opted for a strategy of capitalizing it randomly. This is a grave offence to all that is good and respectable in English writing style and I apologize deeply. My only defense is that after watching nearly nine minutes of the video shown at the bottom of this post, my IQ dropped precipitously and had not yet recovered as of press time.****
Today I attended a conference about Liberal Arts education in Georgia. We listened to four speakers and then split up for panel discussions, which were then summed up at the end of the conference.
A major theme in the conference was religion. What role does religion play in education, specifically in liberal arts education? And furthermore, how can educators deal with the issue of religion in very religious societies?
Specifically, the first speaker talked about teaching Darwin to students in Iraq. He said that some of his students were very hostile to the ideas, while others were very receptive. Some of the guests made it seem like the Georgian Orthodox Church opposes evolution (I don’t personally know or care what the Orthodox position is on evolution or any other subject, so please don’t hold me to this) and that certain ideas might be a problem for Georgian students to accept.
Coincidentally, one of my friends posted a video on facebook which shows the Miss USA contestants answering the question “do you think Evolution should be taught in schools.” Never mind the “dumb and pretty” stuff – I know these people aren’t supposed to represent the higher-minded aspect of our society, and are portrayed in stereotypes as famously stupid – but something struck me about their response that is typical of the problem that religion presents for education.
Almost all of them said that “both sides” should be taught or that people should be able to decide for themselves. Both of these answers grant legitimacy to the idea that evolution might not be a real phenomenon. That idea does not deserve legitimacy.
This isn’t about religion, or politics, or evidence, or epistemology, or the scientific method, or the semantics of the term “theory” or any other trifling sticking point people waste countless hours arguing about. There are indeed two sides to the “debate” over evolution. On the one side, there are those who choose to accept, and devote their study to, that which we conventionally call “reality.” On the other side there are those who choose to ignore reality and just believe whatever is convenient, easy, expedient, or politically useful for them.
The former point of view – the choice to pursue and accept truth no matter how painful or different or unexpected it might be – is the underlying mission of science, philosophy, and other liberal arts disciplines. The latter – the choice to ignore reality when you feel like it – is the ultimate enemy of education, and specifically of a liberal arts education. Why pursue knowledge when what you are really after is the comfort of blind certainty? How can you learn anything when your only standard for evaluating the truth or falsehood of a claim is how it gels with the particular, arbitrary set of delusions that you personally happen to have an emotional commitment to?
One Miss USA 2011 contestant said that believing that God created each human uniquely for a purpose made her life feel more meaningful. I do not object to a person structuring their belief systems around what makes them feel good. If believing in evolution bums you out, don’t believe it. I have no problem with that. But if that’s your attitude, then you don’t deserve a liberal arts education. If you’re not going to judge ideas based on their merits, then you would just be taking up space in an institution dedicated to the teaching of critical thinking in the pursuit of truth.
I took a Freud seminar at university. One of the students dropped the class because she was upset that we were reading works that implied that God didn’t exist. She did the right thing. Frankly if someone isn’t willing to at least question the existence of God, then why bother learning Freud? Why bother learning anything? Instead of trying to cure patients with psychological diseases, why not just pray for them?
Faith is the antithesis of knowledge. Faith is the belief in something that, by definition, you can have no knowledge about. So if every decision you make is guided by faith, that means no decision you make is guided by knowledge, which, from the point of view of the allocation of scarce social resources, means that we shouldn’t waste time filling you with knowledge that you’re never going to use.
If, on the other hand, you want to get serious – if you want to cure diseases instead of praying for them to go away – then you might want to know where they come from, and that’s where “theories” like Darwin’s theory of evolution and Freud’s theory of the psyche become important. That’s when it pays to know that a cold is the result of a viral infection and not of possession by evil demons or a witch’s curse.
Some people think that you can reconcile science and religion, faith and knowledge. You can’t. The more knowledge you gain the less room there is in your mind for belief without knowledge. In the end you have to choose between them – and most people tacitly choose knowledge. Most modern, liberal-arts-educated people choose to spend their time bettering their worldly lives rather than going to church to prepare for the afterlife. Maybe they call themselves believers, or agnostics, or atheists, or maybe they just dodge the question (like I do) but in the end they don’t give God a second thought. God doesn’t pay the bills, doesn’t raise the kids, doesn’t make that cold go away or cure cancer or give women equal rights or help you finish that homework assignment or do any of the other stuff that we struggle and strive for here on planet Earth – and many of us know that, and so whether or not we “believe” (or claim to believe) we all carry out our lives in much the same way – gathering knowledge about the world without interference from ancient manuscripts and modern preacher-politicians, and then acting on that knowledge.
I’m not saying that you can’t both believe in God and be educated – that would be ridiculous, considering that for most of the world’s history the only educated people in society were either clergy or trained by clergy. What I’m saying is that if there’s ever a conflict between what you take on faith and what you actually have a reason to believe, reason has to win out. Even Einstein, one of the world’s greatest geniuses, fell on the wrong side of this conflict at least once, dismissing quantum theory out of hand because it didn’t fit in with his strongly ingrained belief that the universe was deterministic and that (to paraphrase) God did not play dice. Did Einstein literally believe that there was a God who could not tolerate randomness, or was Einstein simply using God as a metaphor for the concept of an orderly universe governed by knowable and predictable rules? It doesn’t matter – either way, Einstein found comfort in the idea of a world that could be fully known and predicted and thus was not able to reconcile his belief in determinism with more modern scientific discoveries like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which proved Einstein wrong in his beliefs about quantum mechanics.
So for me the question of how to provide a Liberal Arts education in a religious society necessarily entails the question of how to get people comfortable with the discomfort involved in throwing aside something they’ve held onto for their entire lives. This is not easy, to say the least, and it probably explains why liberal arts hasn’t taken root in Georgia – the benefits of questioning traditions, religious teachings, superstitions, and cultural values and beliefs are not at all clear, while the difficulties and pitfalls involved in the process are immediate and obvious.
Now, this is probably going to sound condescending and horrible, but I’ve always looked at liberal arts education as a privilege that not everyone in society needs or deserves. Sure, in my ideal world, everyone would have a liberal arts education – because such an education leads to more fulfilled people and a more just society, in my opinion. However, in this world, in which so many people have trouble meeting much more basic needs, like food, shelter, and medical care; and in which so many people are resistant to critical thinking, the pursuit of knowledge, and other things that might rock the existential boat, I think it makes more sense to let a certain amount of self-selection occur – to help the people who want to expand their minds do so, and to just leave the people who want to be cogs in the societal machine alone.
Religion was very helpful for keeping people happy or at least in line in pre-industrial societies. In a place like Georgia, in which something like half the population is involved in some level of subsistence farming, I think it makes more sense to teach very practical things like incremental agricultural improvement than to try to move people away from religion, tradition, and other practices that, despite being obstacles to realistic thinking, are quite beneficial in coping with the realities of an imperfect world. After all, you can’t eat knowledge.
And I think that if you start off by showing people the benefits of questioning traditions in very small ways – for instance, by teaching better agricultural techniques, vocational practices, or business strategies – then this might in turn lead people to wonder if they could improve upon other aspects of their lives as well. In other words, I think that if you want to improve upon higher education in Georgia, Liberal Arts might be exactly the wrong place to start, both because religion makes people resistant to a liberal education and because more basic needs than education are not being fully met just yet.
Another theme at the conference was that there seems to be very little interest in Liberal Arts education in Georgia. The question was raised of how to generate such interest. I think the answer may be, simply, to wait a while. I don’t know if something like that can or should be imposed from the outside, but I do know that the general rule of progress in societies is that liberal education tends to be a side effect of peace, stability, and affluence. If Georgia does well on these fronts – if Georgia prospers – then liberal arts will surely follow. So, as one of the conference attendees wisely suggested, the best way to foster the liberal arts in Georgia might, paradoxically, be to focus on vocational training. For now, the two are inextricable.
This, by the way, is why I think that liberal arts is on the decline in the US, and in turn why so many of these Miss USA 2011 contestants are as dumb as nails. Our society has become steadily less peaceful and less affluent in my lifetime, and I expect social upheaval to increase in the next thirty years. I think that the Golden Age of the US may well be over, but the Golden Age of Georgia may be yet to come. Only time will tell.
Idiocy in Action: Miss USA 2011 Contestants answer the question, “Should evolution be taught in schools?”