The disease of education

Lawrence Krauss says a necessary thing. He starts from a campaign argle-bargle by Rick Santorum saying that higher education is bad because it kills faith.

Mr. Santorum views this apparent facet of higher education as a danger, and his proposed solution is simple-less higher education and more faith.

As a faculty member at an institution of higher education, and as a scientist, however, I question the basic premise that loss of faith is a bad thing. If it is true that those who are more educated have a greater tendency to question their religious faith, shouldn’t we consider that this might be telling us more about religious faith than about how harmful getting a college degree can be?

Yes, we should.

It’s an obvious riposte, but it’s not “respectful,” so respectful types don’t make it. That’s why we outspoken types are always quarreling with respectful types. It’s not “respectful” to say that learning more tends to erode religious faith because religious faith is not based on reliable knowledge and is in fact its opposite. It’s not “respectful” to say that the more you learn about the real world, the less sense religious faith makes. It’s not “respectful” to say that religious faith is more compatible with ignorance than it is with knowledge.

Why do we so readily accept in our society the claim that blind religious faith is a virtue, and the lack of faith as a defect?…

Surely in no other area of human activity do we place such great value on accepting claims without seeking to establish their veracity. One of the purposes of education is to teach young people how to question pre-conceived notions and to base conclusions on evidence in order to more capable of performing in their jobs and in their role as citizens.

Except for religion.

That’s why the “respectful” palaver is so annoying when it comes from scholars and educators. It’s annoying because it’s a betrayal of their fundamental job, which is to teach everyone (because scholarship spreads and informs more public forms of discourse) how to question pre-conceived notions and to base conclusions on evidence. The job of scholars and educators is not to teach everyone how to believe things for no genuine reason. That means they shouldn’t go to great lengths to be “respectful” of ideologies that do just that.

Santorum’s own choice of faith over empirical knowledge provides perhaps the best example of why blindly accepting faith as virtue is misplaced. When decrying colleges as indoctrination mills, he also described how hard he had to resist the pressures in college to question his faith. In so doing, he also resisted the opportunity to learn about how the world actually works.

As a politician on our national stage, his professed ignorance about the natural world is almost unprecedented. His statements on issues ranging from evolution to the evidence for human induced global warming, and most recently about contraception and birth control only serve to demonstrate that a worldview based on closed-minded faith rather than empirical evidence can result in nonsense as a basis of public policy.

Respect for “faith” equals respect for ignorance and dogmatic refusal to question. What’s to respect about that?

 

 

Comments

  1. StevoR says

    Rick Santorum = Every Child left behind

    - Shamelessly stolen from tonight’s Letterman show & quoted for truth.

  2. shouldbeworking says

    So I am a disease spreading, pathogen-loving, socialist atheist? Just call me a physics teacher to save time. Thanks for the compliment.

  3. Brigadista says

    Surely in no other area of human activity do we place such great value on accepting claims without seeking to establish their veracity.

    So someone puts a photo of, say, a Picasso, or a Ferrari, or a penny black, on the Net, and tells me that for 200 dollars it’s mine. I don’t check, make sure it’s not just the photo I’ll be getting for my 200 dollars, or worse still, nothing at all?

    It’s always amazed me that people who question absolutely everything else, people who are entirely mistrustful of everything they are told by others (see speeches by current crop of Republican candidates ad nauseam), are nevertheless willing to swallow these ancient fables as unquestionable fact.

  4. says

    My only critique of Krauss is that he overlooks the fact that not all people are cut out for higher education. “College for all” sounds great, but in reality it devalues bachelor’s degrees and leads to the dumbing down of college coursework.

    Blue-collar (and “pink-collar”) work is as necessary and noble as the white-collar kind, but in the increasingly classist U.S., working with your hands makes you an object of scorn. I don’t see why skepticism can’t address classism as well as other -isms.

  5. machintelligence says

    I am reminded of the quote from John W. Gardner:

    The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.
    Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? (1961).

  6. Deepak Shetty says

    If it is true that those who are more educated have a greater tendency to question their religious faith, shouldn’t we consider that this might be telling us more about religious faith than about how harmful getting a college degree can be?
    He has it all wrong. We should be carrying out ambiguously worded surveys to prove that people with higher education are in fact spiritual. Then we can all live happily ever after.

  7. Deepak Shetty says

    @Daisy cutter
    “College for all” sounds great, but in reality it devalues bachelor’s degrees and leads to the dumbing down of college coursework.
    I would disagree.
    a. You wont know it till you have tried it.
    b. Blue/Pink collar work needs some knowledge too (usually gained by experience instead of college – but that usually works out to poor courses rather than not needing a course).

  8. says

    Deepak Shetty: If the U.S. public schools were much, much better, that would provide a reasonably good basis of knowledge from which to progress on to jobs in the trades.

    I don’t quite understand what you mean by “You wont know it till you have tried it.” I myself have a bachelor’s degree, if that’s what you refer to. If you mean that college for all will not produce such results, the evidence seems not to support you. As the job market has shrunk and a bachelor’s has become mandatory for most jobs, we have indeed seen it become less valuable, and we have indeed seen college courses being dumbed down in order to admit ill-prepared students, some of whom need remedial reading and math classes at the start of their college educations.

    If you mean that people will not know whether college is for them until they try it, what is the point of pressuring unwilling adults, even if they’re very young adults, into higher education when they have already demonstrated lack of interest in and aptitude for classroom studies?

  9. maureen.brian says

    Have they really demonstrated a lack of interest in and aptitude for learning, Ms Daisy Cutter? Or have they been shunted off into a corner and ignored or subjected to bad teaching?

    You admit that the US education system is full of failure and not good enough to provide a lifetime’s basis of knowledge. How, then, could the worst bits of it possibly be trusted with deciding which student is incredibly bright but bored out of his skull, which missed out on a year of schooling when his family fell apart and which needs additional support because he’s about to leave school and still struggles to read and write?

    Sadly, we seem to run the world so that decisions about potential are made without reference to such thoughts and at precisely the point where the subjects of those decisions are all hormonal and moody. And all behaving equally badly! Not a good basis for rational decision making.

  10. GordonWillis says

    What’s faith for, anyway? Why does it matter if people stop having it? What is the point of it?

  11. Egbert says

    It’s the small things that lead to tyranny. Currently here in England the fuss is over work schemes by government and business where they provide work experience. Of course making the scheme mandatory or else you lose your support allowance changes a good idea to slave labour. Then lying about it to the media, well, even our supposedly liberal mainstream politicians here in Britain have a very dark side, and the media is the only way to hold them up to scrutiny.

  12. Sastra says

    Why do we so readily accept in our society the claim that blind religious faith is a virtue, and the lack of faith as a defect?… Surely in no other area of human activity do we place such great value on accepting claims without seeking to establish their veracity.

    Since this ‘virtue’ seems so obvious and plausible to so many people, I think there must be some other area of human activity where we place great value on accepting claims without seeking to establish their veracity. Religion doesn’t really pull up anything completely unique to human nature: from what I can tell, every aspect of religious/spiritual beliefs which resonates with our needs and desires has some secular analog in the world of our experience.

    So, as an exercise, I am going to try to make a list of situations where we — meaning even the reasonable atheist — would place value on accepting a claim without first making sure it’s firmly supported by the evidence:

    1.) You are a small child. Your mommy or daddy tells you, emphatically, to do something. You do it.

    Very good. Good boy. Good girl. Obedient and prudent.

    2.) Someone you know very well is accused of something heinous, completely out of character. They say they didn’t do it. You don’t need to check it out. You defend them.

    Very good. Loyal. Trustworthy.

    3.) Someone you know to be generally honest tells you something which, though interesting, is not very controversial. It’s the sort of thing it would be hard to be mistaken about, and for which there is no advantage for lying. You accept it.

    Very good. Reasonable. Non-confrontational.

    4.) An institution or organization with a sterling reputation for research and accuracy reports a statistic which violates nothing which has previously been established by any other similar organization. You assume it.

    Very good. Again, very reasonable.

    5.) Your heart is set on achieving a dream you have been working for. Someone comes along and offers objections you consider to be spurious, mean-spirited, or invalid, based on the fact that they, themselves, don’t share your personal preferences. You ignore them.

    Very good. Don’t let anyone rain on your parade. Believe in yourself.

    Okay, those were 5 quick examples of areas where we either value quickly accepting a ‘claim’ without taking the time to do research or we think it justified.

    And, in my opinion, every one of those examples is a lousy analogy for religious beliefs. But I would be willing to bet that somehow the religious manage to frame the supernatural fact claim as being somehow significantly just like obeying a parent, standing by a friend, accepting a casual report, respecting a reliable authority, or remaining true to who you are and what you want.

    It’s not just that the religious are special pleading — treating religious claims in a different way than they treat other fact claims. Oh yes, they’re doing this, all right.

    But FIRST they’re making category errors.

  13. Sastra says

    Ah, wait. I just thought of another example — and I bet it’s a prime one:

    6.) You look at something beautiful and react; you look at someone you love and respond; you consider something noble and admire. You don’t need to do additional research, take things apart, get into the details, explain all the aspects, consider the possibility that it’s all a sham and nothing really matters. You feel.

    Very good. Sensitive.

    Yeah, I bet this is one of the most common category errors. Confusing the way contemplating or believing in a supernatural fact makes you feel with the actual truth of that proposed fact. How could I forget this?

    It’s one reason they think atheists are so cold and analytical.

  14. Greisha says

    @Sastra:

    #1 & #5 – answer to those is “grow up”. I do not mean you. Blind believers are probably still did not.

    #2-#4 are based on previous evidences – therefore not so blind.

    @Rieux:

    Why? What is wrong with Hemant’s post?
    Why should they be ashamed to call themselves atheists?

  15. says

    Is it not the case that as knowledge increases the place for faith decreases? As we come to know more and more about how the universe works, there is less room for ideas that hold that this or that deity caused the particular phenomenon under consideration. Moreover, I do not understand why a direct refutation of someones religious faith should be seen as disrespectful. Faith and religious notions are merely points of view. If they make no sense, those, who do not hold them, are entitled to make their positions clear.

    The idea that a dolt like Rick Santorum could somehow manage to become the most powerful man on Earth is truly frightening. By all means, allow him to rabbit on to likeminded clowns, but please do not allow him to hold important, public office.

  16. John Morales says

    [meta]

    Rieux, been reading the Hemant thread (but only because you linked to it).

    You’ve done sterling work there.

    (Kudos)

  17. sailor1031 says

    One wonders then, how did Santorum get through three degrees including MBA and JD without losing his faith? One is forced to conclude that either he didn’t learn anything at those universities (quite a credible observation based on what we see of the public person) or he actually lost his faith and is just telling a whole lot of porkies to gullible christo-fascists, pretending to be just like they, to get their votes. You know – kinda like George W Bush.

  18. Brian M says

    I want to chime in in support of Ms. Daisy Cutter by noting that in an ideal world in which college education is largely costless or low cost, sure everyone might want to “try it”. That is not the case…with second tier state universities in most states costing thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars, some people just cannot do it. How much freedom or choice does a young person with $50,000 in student loan debt really have?

    I would also note that not every person wants or needs or benefits from the kind of learning associated with formal schooling. I sense a whiff of dismissal about the value and role of apprenticeships, hands on training, and the like. Some people prefer this kind of learning and are impatient with/uninterested in listening to an unpaid T.A. drone on about English Literature 101 subjects. Be wary of class assumptions that such office and library oriented education is the only way.

  19. Deepak Shetty says

    @Daisy Cutter
    I myself have a bachelor’s degree, if that’s what you refer to.
    No I wasn’t referring to you and didn’t mean to imply it. Simply that a lot of people who reject education do not know what they are rejecting or what their options are.(partly this is the fault of the system too)

    If you mean that people will not know whether college is for them until they try it, what is the point of pressuring unwilling adults, even if they’re very young adults, into higher education when they have already demonstrated lack of interest in and aptitude for classroom studies?
    So you are saying that a response to unwilling adults who express “we dont need no education ” is “so be it”. How exactly does one evaluate lack of aptitude in systems that everyone usually accepts are flawed?

    Again I can only speak anecdotally – but people who I grew up with, who didn’t show interest and aptitude usually were interested in some subjects (do you actually know any children/teens who are not interested in something or the other or who lack curiosity in topics that interest them?) – but the way the system works – these students are deemed failures and typecast.

    Besides while someone may become a blue collar worker due to circumstance – do you think that’s what they want to do all their lives? If not how exactly do they grow, besides you know, educating themselves.

  20. says

    Maureen Brian, the students who have been failed by the public school system deserve attention and rehabilitation, but that isn’t the mission of a four-year university. I can’t see how trying to mainstream such students into one wouldn’t lead to frustration for those students, for their classmates, and for faculty.

    However, as Brian M. says, there are always going to be people who are not academically inclined. The idea that any child can be turned into a scholar is very much based in classist assumptions about what a worthwhile education and a worthwhile adult life entail.

    And, honestly, at this point in our history as a species, we need more, not fewer, people cultivating hands-on skills that would be useful in the event of a societal collapse.

    Deepak Shetty, what you are missing here is that these are adults. They, not we, get to decide what they will do with their lives.

    And, yes, for fuck’s sake, some people DO want to work with their hands. Do you think that “education” is found only within the walls of a formal classroom? Check your damned class privilege and your assumptions. On behalf of various of my blue-collar relatives, I find your comments insulting and belittling.

  21. Happiestsadist says

    Deepak Shetty @ #20: What absolute nonsense. People who decide not to go with post-secondary education usually do know exactly what it is and somehow manage to make up their own minds. Do you actually think that they’re so stupid as to not know what they want for themselves and what will make them happy? If so, how the hell do you think they’ll do in academia?

    But then, you seem to think that people can only learn within classrooms, which would be funny if it weren’t so sad. Somehow, despite having only finished high school (I think, at most), my maternal grandmother managed to become extremely well-read by anybody’s standards, an avid Shakespeare fan despite English not being her first language, and a restorer and collector of 18th century antiques for fun. My paternal grandfather, having dropped out of school at 14 to work on the docks, was programming computers in the early 80s, having taught himself how. I haven’t the heart to tell him how wrong he was, and that he can’t possibly have any intellectual abilities according to you.

  22. maureen.brian says

    Ms Daisy Cutter, it may be that I expressed myself inadequately – in which case mea culpa – but really you are directing your ire at the wrong woman. Allow me to explain why.

    Firstly, when I was in my mid-teens and should have been deciding on subject options and general direction of travel I already knew what I was good at – textiles, design, people skills. Unfortunately, I was blessed with a head teacher (male) who enforced his view that any academic subject brought honour to the school and people foolish enough to be practically inclined should be treated as either thick or difficult or both. My options were severely reduced by his direct intervention.

    Then I have a daughter who at 17 was bored at school and truly disrupted by the forced amalgamation of two very different schools – one academic and one very definitely not – so she left without good results. She’s done OK for herself but she’s had to work hard and last year she got her degree in Classics from Birkbeck. Great, except that she’s 42 this month.

    And then there is the fact that, as a school governor, I have had to deal with the very worst discipline cases – the ones likely to result in permanent exclusion. Every time we could trace the problem back to an idiot decision made a decade or more before, for instance to hide a clearly disturbed 5 year old under the head’s desk rather than get him specialist help so that – surprise! – at 15, 6’2″ and hormonal he is now just as needy but unfortunately also dangerous.

    I have more tales – including one currently running at a school a mile down the road – but all I was trying to argue is that decisions about skills, education, careers should be made on wholly rational grounds and with massive input from the young person. Certainly these things should not be determined by the inadequacy of a budget or the teaching staff, to reinforce an existing social hierarchy, to meet some target or to satisfy some theory of pedagogy which belongs in another age or on another planet.

    Am I clear now?

  23. says

    Maureen:

    …but all I was trying to argue is that decisions about skills, education, careers should be made on wholly rational grounds and with massive input from the young person.

    I don’t think I’d argue that.

    Certainly these things should not be determined by the inadequacy of a budget or the teaching staff, to reinforce an existing social hierarchy, to meet some target or to satisfy some theory of pedagogy which belongs in another age or on another planet.

    Or those points, either, but I don’t see those criteria disappearing any time soon. I’m talking about working within the existing system until it is able to be radically reformed (if that hoped-for day ever comes).

    Also, I wasn’t directing any ire at you. My ire in this thread is all for Mr. Shetty.

  24. maureen.brian says

    Fair enough! Don’t forget, though, that we are from a number of countries here.

    We in the UK have local elections coming up in May and the quality of local education will be one of the issues which decides the outcome. The question is more likely to be how much better can you do it rather than how cheaply.

    OK, at the moment we have an education minister who believes the free market is in effect the hand of god but, honestly, you should feel the backlash already. When a couple of his magical “free schools” collapse or parents begin to see the effect of teachers with neither vocational training nor a degree in their subject I expect that backlash to rise to a mighty roar.

  25. Stonyground says

    Surely religious folk have lost the argument completely when they admit that only the uneducated believe their lies?

  26. GordonWillis says

    Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes (Mt 11:25). Faith, you see. Never loses an argument. It’s taken thousands of years, but they’ve developed the most perfect system of brain-washing known. It corrupts everything: all understanding, all perception, all morals, and they’re convinced that only they understand, only they perceive, only they are moral — whatever they think, say or do.

  27. Deepak Shetty says

    @Daisy cutter
    Deepak Shetty, what you are missing here is that these are adults. They, not we, get to decide what they will do with their lives.
    So then you wont be criticizing any religious beliefs that Adults have, will you? And you will abandon any attempts to explain why religion and religious beliefs are misguided right – because you know adults, their lives etc.

    And, yes, for fuck’s sake, some people DO want to work with their hands.
    Sure. But do you think someone who fixes say cars and likes it – doesn’t need any formal education? Or someone who farms and likes it doesn’t need any education?

  28. Deepak Shetty says

    @Daisy cutter
    Separately
    On behalf of various of my blue-collar relatives, I find your comments insulting and belittling.
    perhaps Im missing something – but I fail to see where I insulted any blue collar relatives and you somehow seem to think that only you have such relatives to insult.

  29. Deepak Shetty says

    @Happiestsadist
    Do you actually think that they’re so stupid as to not know what they want for themselves and what will make them happy?
    It tempting to respond with a list of adult stupidities – but since that’s not what I’m saying Ill resist.
    Its usually a lack of knowledge of whats available , and opinions based on experiences in school and what peers and other people have told you. (the parallel is of course religion – why do adults still believe the same stupid things – its hard to overcome earlier beliefs).

  30. Deepak Shetty says

    @Happiestsadist
    Separately – the question to you would be
    if your grandmother , who without higher education could do so well – are you telling me she didn’t have an aptitude for studying literature? Or that your grandfather wouldnt have aced a computer science course? You say that he dropped out to work in the docks – i.e. financial difficulties rather than not being interested. in fact your story seems to indicate that he was actually interested and he did in fact have the aptitude right?
    So then what were your grandfathers views. Did he want to study computers formally and it were circumstances that prevented him? why did he self learn?

    In which case shouldn’t you be on the side of people saying “education is needed and we should do everything to fix flawed systems and provide financial aid or whatever” – instead of “some people dont need it and are happy and satisfied with whatever they do”

  31. Aquaria says

    On behalf of various of my blue-collar relatives, I find your comments insulting and belittling.

    As a retired blue collar worker, and frequent pink-collar worker during my working life, I find your “pull the rope up after me” elitist posturing insulting and belittling.

    A college education is something that is extremely important, even if all I do is put mail on a machine and watch it move to one of 200+ slots. Or if I’m answering phone calls for a fat-ass idiot with a BS degree who is dumber than I am.

    Did you consider that one thing that might make it important is what can happen down the line to absolutely anyone?

    Since I actually was a blue collar worker and saw or experienced first-hand all the things that can go horribly wrong in our work–something you couldn’t possibly understand, I could write entire books on people who couldn’t physically do blue-collar work anymore and found themselves wishing they’d taken some college so that they could contribute something else to their company, rather than having to quit–or feel like they were being coerced to. Or the people whose career field is now obsolete, and now they’re 35 years old, with a skill set that’s useless and now they’re having to start over. Or maybe they can see some value in a degree as it relates to their blue collar work. For instance, my brother the welder (you wanna compare blue collar bona fides, cupcake?) is getting an art degree at 45. Why? Because he thinks it will help his work as a welder!

    You don’t know what blue-collar people want or need. You can’t know.

    Shut up.

  32. llewelly says

    Sastra
    February 29, 2012 at 4:12 pm :

    And, in my opinion, every one of those examples is a lousy analogy for religious beliefs. But I would be willing to bet that somehow the religious manage to frame the supernatural fact claim as being somehow significantly just like obeying a parent, standing by a friend, accepting a casual report, respecting a reliable authority, or remaining true to who you are and what you want.

    How many religions refer to “God” as some variant of “Our Father who art in Heaven”?
    How many religions refer to religious leaders as “Holy fathers”?

    There are few, if any religions in which do not make religious and supernatural figures out to be parents.

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