Friday, January 09, 2009

Education not a universal ‘good’

In the British Library yesterday, I spent a few hours in their superb Taking Liberties exhibition which had a section on the clash between religious belief and freedom of speech. I then went upstairs to see their collection of early Bibles, Korans and Torahs, one of the best collections of early books in the world. It set me thinking. Books such as Locke’s Two Treatises on Government, Mill’s On Liberty and Paine’s The Rights of Man have led to a largely secular view of rights and liberties. I can’t say the same for the Bible, Torah and Koran.

Education is usually seen as a universal ‘good’. But recent world events suggest that education is not necessarily a ‘good’ in itself, and may in fact, be a horrifically destructive force. An educational battle of titanic proportions is taking place in many parts of the world. It is rarely discussed but continues to have a profound effect on world history. I’m talking about the impact of fundamentalist Islamic, Jewish and Christian teaching and methods on the minds young people in theist schools, using religious texts as the ultimate authority.

Education, as practiced in fundamentalist Islamic, Jewish and Christian places of learning are, in my view, damaging, leading to intolerance and political conflict. Interestingly, in all three there is a similar focus on the powerful recitation and repeated readings of a basic book. This, the three Abrahamic religions have in common. We needn’t be surprised at this, since the three religions are entwined with each other through their books. The Torah, five books of Moses, are included in the expanded Old Testament of the Christians and The Koran draws from the Torah, regarding it as the word of Allah given to Moses. The Koran refers to Mohammed as the prophet mentioned in the Torah.
What I’m saying here is that the educational power of recitation, repetition and memorisation is massively effective and therefore massively limiting and destructive in terms of critical thinking and tolerance. Education without critical thinking has immense destructive power.
Islamic education – conviction and recitation
Koran means ‘recitation’. In Islamic teaching, everything stems from the pages of this one book. It was meant to be read aloud and endless recitation and memorising of the book, through repeated spoken readings, has always been highly prized in the Islamic world. But this comes at a price. This repeated repetition is massively effective in learning and results in the deep processing and retention of the text, and the unshiftable, dogmatic convictions that come with deeply held knowledge and belief. In short, it is an educational recipe for dogmatic fanaticism.
It is impressive and common to witness the devotional prayers in Muslim countries, from mass attendances in Mosques to single musilms praying on any available spot. It’s a five times a day ritual, but worrying to think that this lifelong example of spaced practice, may squeeze out learning that is incompatible with the precepts of the Koran. It is an example of successful learning that, in itself can prevent further learning. Wherever I go in the Islamic world I see the rise of religious and regressive educational systems. Education is gradually becoming politicised by active religious believers, and inept and ineffective governments. The educated elite continue to educate their children abroad, while populations turn to religious schools that encourage conformity, not critical analysis.
The teaching in fundamentalist Islamic schools teaches that God passed his thoughts through the archangel Gabriel directly to the illiterate Mohammed over a period of years, as the final prophet to mankind, the final expression of God’s will. It is a text ridden with the primitive beliefs of its age and, at times, downright primitive in its prescriptions against women and non-believers.
Philip Hitti’s classic the History of the Arabs has an excellent chapter on the history of Islamic education. Schools were, and are going back to becoming adjuncts of the Mosque with the entire curriculum being base on the Koran. Memory work is particularly emphasised. Even today there are high rewards for children who manage to memorise the Koran. Interestingly, the teacher was not highly regarded in Islamic history, often a low status figure, even figure of fun. More recently we have seen the massive increase in the number of schools that are primarily religious. Organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Hamas are often the only organisations to provide adequate education for the poor, as the governments are often too corrupt and uncaring to do it properly.
Jewish education – chosen conviction
Torah means ‘teaching’, ‘instruction’ or ‘doctrine’. Its 613 commandments, split into 365 negative and 248 positive moral imperatives. Again, like the Koran, it is believed to have been written by divine revelation, this time by Moses. Reading the Torah aloud is central to Jewish ritual. As with Islam and the Koran, the repeated and cyclical recitation leads to deeply processed knowledge and beliefs. Orthodox believers take every word literally, something they have in common with Islamic fundamentalist believers.

There is a deep split in Israel between orthodox and other schools and a battle currently raging to defend religious Torah-based schools. Half of all students in Jerusalem attend ultra-Orthodox ‘heredi’ schools. 70% of ultra-Orthodox men don’t work as it interferes with their religious studies. This is a group that, like their Islamic and fundamentalist Christian believers abhor homosexuality and have been known to attack women who they deem to be improperly dressed. Unlike most secular countries, this religious power reaches right up into government, especially in the settler communities. The majority of the illegal settler communities are ultra-Orthodox or Religious Zionists, all driven by the belief that their land rights are given by God, as if he were some sort of racially motivated real estate agent. Land ownership is not a covenant from God.

The problems in the Middle East focus on Israel and peace agreements are almost impossible to complete because of the extremists on both sides. If you’ve ever travelled in Israel you will have experienced the aloofness ultra-orthodox Jews. That’s fine. I have no problem with people doing their own thing, but when it comes to illegal settlements, stealing other people’s land, bulldozing their properties and bombing them into submission with tanks and artillery, on the grounds that ‘God gave them the right’, it is downright obscene. Religious learning results in convictions about land occupation that has resulted in millions spending their entire lives in refugee camps.
Christian education – Christ and conviction
It may now be possible to become President of the USA if you’re black, brown, yellow or a woman. But if you don’t believe in God, or more particularly, you’re not a Christian – forget it. It will be interesting to observe whether Obama dares to avoid using explicitly Christian language in his inauguration speech.
Fundamentalist Christian education is on the rise and it’s squeezing into our schools through anti-evolution, homophobic, anti stem-cell research, pro-life stances that take us backwards not forwards. We’ve had a Bush presidency that has been arguably the worst in US history, sure of their religious supremacy to the level of waging war on those who don’t. Its disdain for international law, the legitimisation of torture and hostility towards the United Nations, was, in part, driven by fundamentalist religious believers.
American has recently been, in many ways, a theocracy. American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips warned in 2006 of Bush’s preacher-ridden, debt-bloated regime, if left unchecked, would become untenable. Boy did he get than one right! At the core of the Bush regime is militant religion, a growing fundamentalist and evangelical movement that has waged a ‘thinly disguised US crusade against radical Islam’. Its megachurches, televangelism and the fact that 1 in 4 Americans is affiliated with a conservative Protestant church.
Things are a little different in the more secular Europe, but in the UK, and in Northern Ireland and Scotland, the existence of segregated schools continues to generate antagonistic values that have led to decades of murders and bombings. Then there’s the horrors of the Balkans.
NOT Islamophobia, Anti-semitism or Anti-Christian
This is not an exercise in Islamophobia, anti-semitism or anti-Christian. In fact the most extreme forms of these phenomena come from each of the sets of three fundamentalists attacking each other, not secular groups. I have spend more time travelling in Islamic countries than anyone I know (twice a year at least), and love the art, architecture, cultures and people. What I don’t admire is the crippling effect of fundamentalist education. At its worst they kill school teachers and deny girls and women the basic right to education, but even at the moderate level it seems to deaden real inquiry and critical thinking. The fundamentalists may win because they understand that education is the key to long-term success. This is the clear strategy of the smarter political movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Hamas.

They, in turn, are reacting to the hideous beliefs of Jewish settlers who stole their land and confine them to fenced in camps. I have also been to Israel and witnessed the brutality of an occupying force towards people in Gaza and the West bank, people who did little more than resist when the land they had occupied for centuries was stolen. Fundamentalist Judaism is frighteningly racist.

My experience in the US is perhaps greater than that of the other two. I studied at a US Ivy League university, worked there and have travelled there more times than I can remember, over a period of thirty years. The televangelism, megachurches and obsessions with homophobia, abortion and creationism, still shock me. US fundamentalists funded and supported Bush in his maniacal support of Israel and firestorms in the Middle East. Let’s hope that Obama keeps his ambiguous religious beliefs out of politics.

To conclude.....
Any school or teacher who professes belief in the literal truth ofreligious texts, revealed through divine revelation, is in my view, a danger. I believe in secular education and don’t like religious schools in any guise. I was brought up in a highly divided society in Scotland, where segregated schools are still the norm, much to Scotland’s shame. Watching today's events in Gaza is even more depressing and the US abstaining on the UN resolution, perhaps the last evil last gasp from Bush's cronies a matter of deep shame. Keep education secular.

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18 Comments:

Blogger Harold Jarche said...

Well said, Donald. A bit if critical thinking amongst all the dogma.

5:06 PM  
Blogger IftikharA said...

• A Muslim charity In Swindon is bidding to run the first Multi-faith Muslim School for Muslim and non-Muslim children and have teachers from different faiths. An hour of the timetable each day would be dedicated to studying Arabic and the Holy Quran. Non-Muslims pupils would be able to be exempted from the lessons, but it is hoped that the majority would choose to stay in class to gain more “insight” into the Islamic faith.

• In my opinion, Multifaith school is not going to be successful because non-Muslim parents would not send their children. In the past, a plan for a Multi-faith secondary school in Westminster for 1000 pupils could not be materialised because faith groups could not come to any agreement. Now even Hindu community has set up state funded school in Harrow. Black community is also thinking of setting up its own school with Black teachers.

• According to David Lammy MP, there are still too many inequalities in the education system which prevents disadvantaged children from applying to study for a degree. British schooling is wholly responsible for the inequalities. A culture of low expectation and a lack of rigour holding these pupils back. Every child must reach his full potential regardless of his background. Justice Secretary Jack Straw MP said British society should be one which recognizes and celebrates differences. One in which we all have an opportunity to flourish, regardless of who we are or where we are from. British schooling has been trying to integrate and assimilate Muslim community through education in the name of integration. The Imams and Masajid have been playing their parts to keep Islamic faith alive, but that is not enough. British schooling does not promote global cohesion. It does not encourage dialogue and increases understanding.

• Bilingual Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. They need to learn and be well versed in Standard English to follow the National Curriculum and go for higher studies and research to serve humanity. They need to learn and be well versed in Arabic to recite and understand the Holy Quran. They need to learn and be well versed in Urdu and other community languages to keep in touch with their cultural roots and enjoy the beauty of their literature and poetry.
• Iftikhar Ahmad
www.londonschoolofislamics.org.uk

8:37 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Why would non-Muslims want to study Arabic and the Holy Quran for an hour every day? Would the parents of Muslim children want them to be taught the Bible and Torah for an hour each day?

I'm nmot surpised that the school in Westminster failed because 'faith groups couldn't come to any agreement'. Faith groups have mutually contradictory beliefs, rituals, diets and so on. They have nothing in common. As for Black schools, that would be a great shame, as would white-only schools.

Blaming British schools for not promoting global cohesion? The last thing we want is specific religious instruction, that often contains beliefs contrary to the law (homophobia, sexism etc) taught in schools, whatever the religion - and as I stated fundamentalist Islamic, Jewish and Christian religion have this in common.

I see no reason whatsoever for the state to fund the study of the Koran. This is a personal business. Some schools do offer Arabic as a foreign language, like French, Spanish, German etc. This is as it should be.

Having separate Muslim schools will do nothing in terms of integrating the Islamic community, it will do nothing but create separation and division.

10:08 PM  
Blogger Rob Spence said...

Agree with all you say here, and with your reply to the faith school supporter. I would say education *is* a universal good. Indoctrination isn't education.

11:01 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

I am in full accord with your thoughts Donald. As a person who grew up in religious private (Catholic) schools, I have a fair amount of experience on this. Now, I do not recall a lot of my time being spent on rote memorization and recitation. Sure there was some of that, but there were other activities they gave us to "strengthen" our faith.

I don't subscribe to any of these old religious teachings, and have since gladly "fallen away". And I do agree with Mr. Spence's observation: Indoctrination is not education. But I would go even a bit further than Rob. I would say that your point of view as to the effectiveness of the memorization activities in various religious schools is perhaps not effective in the bigger picture. Sure the child knows the material, but the way it is "taught" to them is about as hammer-like as one could ask for. It's the bull-headed way of teaching; as if a science teacher taught by having his students memorize and recite the specific text they used for class.

6:01 AM  
Anonymous Seb Schmoller said...

The state funds Christian schools, of which there a many, and Jewish schools, of which there are small handful, and I can see why people of other faiths feel that what is good for Christians and Jews should be good for people of other faiths as well.

So a priority should be to end state funding of this kind, along with withdrawal of (in England) Circular 1/94 which requires there to be "collective worship" in schools, with that collective worship "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character", unless the school has applied to the Local Education Authority for a determination to have this requirement lifted.

6:25 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Exactly Seb, I Couldn't have put it clearer. The whole thing's a mess and a fudge.

10:43 PM  
Anonymous Rina Tripathi said...

Beautiful! Donald, I absolutely agree with you on all the points you have made. In fact, I would always wonder that how can some one mix spirituality and religion? Religion is the stepping stone to realizing the beauty that comes through heart and mind uncovering a deep intelligence. Religion is merely a way to move closer to the essence of the creator.
It breaks heart to see how convoluted is the perception of these humans, who cream these religious books and imbibe what ever is fed to them by these zealots. Recently, I was reading an article about the Islamic terrorists who were interviewed about their beliefs. All of them had a firm conviction that the killing of the non believers 'the kafirs' would give them 72 virgins to seduce in heaven. I did not know weather to laugh or to cry at such a belief. What kind of education is this, or what king of spiritual evolution is this? I often wonder if we remove the conditioning of surroundings, then, even this small sterile step will disable one to figure out what religion one belonged to. In the Bombay massacre, the terrorists made the hostages take off there clothes to see if they were circumcised and then they sexually abused them before killing and they did this in the name of religion!If this is religion then I would love to see what their hell is like. As you have correctly identified all this chaos is due to the resistance of the masses against the scientific and correct knowledge. The first change should come from within these masses who are oppressed under the stifling laws of fanatics. Instead of conservative groups and places of worship as schools, a basic infrastructure with regular education could negate the evil effects of cramming age-old and wrongly translated scriptures. This is a far-fetched thing for those who brutalize and kill women when a strand of hair is showing under the veil.
I have never been to an Islamic nation but the horror we witnessed in Mumbai was enough to give us an uneasy mind. Now, I find myself looking nervously around when ever we go to a crowded place. Sometimes I leave my kids outside a Mc Donald to get a meal. They have damaged the psyche of children too. I am born as a Hindu but growing up was exposed to all cultures and religions and sometimes I thankful of my fate as there is no structured religion to follow and I do not remember when I had visited a temple last. Religion should not be important. It is spirituality that makes you a good human not rituals. The irony is that the very thing that was introduced to improve humanity has become the biggest destructive force. An amazing article you have written,thanks for such a wonderful post and my regards.

6:45 AM  
Anonymous Neil Lasher said...

Beautiful? No
Racial? Maybe
Correct? Absolutely not, in my opinion anyway.

I have read this a number of times now. Re read the comments and tried to understand them. I have slept on it for a few days and spoken to others to discuss the content.

While some of what you say (and I know, like myself you Donald often take the controversial view) is fine, there are a number of points as a Jewish person (not overly religious) to which I take offence.

You have lumped all Orthodox together, this is an uneducated comment. You have likened orthodox Jews to fundamentalist Muslim, again quite offensive. You have likened religious study of the written word of the bible (whoevers bible) as some kind of dangerous indoctrination, again quite offensive.

The comments you have incited from others show racial tendencies, however I am not accusing you of having them. I do think from reading your blog that you may be a fundamentalist Atheist.

I have two daughters out of four, still in school. One in a girls school and one in a single faith school. Your view of single faith school is very mistaken. If we are to consider stopping funding single faith, then maybe you should add to this single sex as wel, then Grammar schools in favour of comprehensive and maybe we should ban private education.(Maybe we should all wear red hats and queue for bread every Friday?) ...But before you comment further you should take a look at the work of JFS (Jewish Free School). Single faith, many denominations, no chanting from books and very 'normal'. Please don't put all 'Jewish' or 'Muslim' or 'C of E' or 'Catholic' schools into containers and liken them to a very small minority of schools which I too believe need some assimilation work..

As for your comment in reply as to why non Muslim would want to study Koran, well why not. If you Study Torah, Koran and many others you will see very similar stories portrayed. You will see the same story of the evolution of religion from many sides and gain a better tolerance for each other. A sure-fire way to peace in this world. It is as interesting as watching the current Middle East conflict by watching both Sky News and Al Jazeera TV. Same story, different viewpoint and a way to make your own mind up.

I think you maybe crossed a line with this blog, you have been a well respected person in the world of learning. You can be as controversial if not more than me, we both have strong views on education. You more from academia, I from the corporate world. As figures who are seen at conferences around the world in varying cultural environments we must be careful how we get involved in religious and political conversations in public.

N

9:45 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

“The comments you have incited from others show racial tendencies”

I don’t get this. Do you mean me or them? All of the commentators (with the exception of the guy from the London School of Islam), from three different continents, simply agreed with my viewpoint and added a few experiences of their own. I can’t see a trace of racism here. If pushed I’d say that this reading of a simple critique of religions as ‘racism’ is, to my mind, an example of religious intolerance.


“lumped all orthodox together”

You have a point here. Orthodox rabbis do, I believe regard the Torah as having been written in 1380 BC in an act of divine revelation through Moses, whereas most academic biblical scholars do not. In practice some, but certainly not all, Orthodox Jews believe this. My points, however, were addressed to the ultra-Orthodox and other fundamentalist Jewish settlers, and the increasing power and influence of their schools in Jerusalem and other places, as I made clear. This line between Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox is difficult and fuzzy.


“likened orthodox Jews to fundamentalist Muslim, again quite offensive”

Slow down Neil – I didn’t say this. I likened “ultra-Orthodox” Jews to fundamentalist Muslims. If you nobject to this then I’d say there was a little racism in your comment. Is it offensive to compare Jews with Muslims?
So studying the Torah and Koran is


“A sure-fire way to peace in this world”.

Are you joking Neil? I’ve been watching the Gaza conflict since day one, often with a tear in my eye at the scenes I’m witnessing. I’ve watched Bush, a patsy for fundamentalist Christians in the US, bomb the hell out of Iraq. I’ve seen suicide bombers down the Twin Towers and murder innocent people in te Tube here in London. Reasonable study of religious belief from an objective standpoint is fine, but that’s not what most faith based schools do – they can’t, they’re ‘faith’ based. That means believing, no matter what. As I say I’ve some experience of the destructive effect of separate schooling in Scotland, that is not far removed from Northern Ireland, another example of murderous consequences of teaching people to regard other people, even of the same religion (both Christian), as worthy of discrimination, torture and bombing.


“I think you maybe crossed a line with this blog......As figures who are seen at conferences around the world in varying cultural environments we must be careful how we get involved in religious and political conversations in public.”

What line? This is a blog. I am free to express the beliefs I hold, and if I believe that state-funded education should be secular, and I do, I’ll say so. There is a line here, and that’s the law pertaining to freedom of speech. My thoughts were stimulated by the Taking Liberties exhibition in the British Museum. On this I take my guidance from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, inspired by Mill’s On Liberty. I really do.

Postscript
On the specific issue of freedom of speech and religion, last year I received threatening mail from fundamentalist Christians because I’m a board member of the Brighton Dome and Arts Festival, after we aired Jerry Springer – the Opera. We actually invited them in for a public debate that ended up with people damning us to eternal punishment in hell. It wasn’t a debate. It was people who believe they’re right and everyone else is wrong. By the way their attempt to sue Mark Thomson of the BBC for blasphemy failed – thankfully.

8:38 PM  
Anonymous Kevin Donovan said...

Good on you, Donald. Keep it up.

8:34 PM  
Blogger Hadas said...

First of all, I have to say I agree with many of the things you said - religious schools are a serious problem. However, as an Israeli and an Atheist, I resent your accusation that Israel went to the operation in Gaza because of religious reasons. Israel has left Gaza in 2005, and the only reason we had to go back is the Qassam and Grad rockets threatening our cities.

1:18 PM  
Blogger Mick said...

I have no formal religion nor am I an atheist. I do agree with Donald that we should not fund faith schools especially in this day and age. We live in a nominally Christian country and a multi faith society. If we allow CE schools, then we need to allow Jewish schools, then Islamic schools, then Buddhist schools then Sikh schools, then Scientolgy schools, then creationist schools, to a point where anyone with a legitimate (!?) claim to a religion can receive funding from the state - it's ludicrous and devisive. Let the religious fund their own schools if they must but do not make the rest of it pay for it.

1:49 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Hi Hadas
Sorry that you feel so resentful, but I don't think I'm being accusatory in claiming that the Gaza situation is more complex than you suggest.

I, like many, think that the simple 'it's the rockets man' argument lacks any real causal sophistication. Why are they firing rockets? Speak to any Palestinian and you'll get a sophisticated historic analysis of land grabs, refugee camps, fundamentalist settler activity in the West Bank, closure of the GAZA crossings and so on. Then there's the forthcoming Israeli elections and the sense that they had to hammer Hamas before Obama becomes president.

The elections on 10 february are being held because a coalition was not possible? Why? because religiously-driven antagonism towards the division of Jerusalem in a deal with the Palestinians was on the table. United Torah Judaism has a stated religious political claim, NOT to negotiate with the Palestinians and not to allow a Palestinian state. My argument nis not with secular Israelis, but with Israel's inherently religious politics.

It's complicated, and as my post shows, I'm no fan of fundamentalist Islam, but to say that Israel is merely benign and reactive is unsustainable. Sorry, but that's what I honestly believe.

1:53 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Mick
Nice post and to the point. the real question is what the 'state' should fund in education. I believe in a secular state that is sensitive to its multi-faith citizens. We should express this sensitivity by making state-funded education neutral in education.

When pushed I'd give a deeper analysis of education in terms of 'autonomy'. If we want education to produce autonomous learners, decision makers and contributors to society, we doing young minds a diservice by state-funding fixed religious views.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Hadas said...

Oh, I'm not saying that the conflict is simple - I'm saying that currently, if rockets weren't fired at our cities, the Israeli army wouldn't have gone back to Gaza.

2:10 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Hadas
If Israel had not dispossessed the Palestinians of their land they would not be firing rockets. If settlers were removed from the West Bank and East Jerusalem were part of a Palestinian state the rockets would not be fired. If Israel had not assassinated several Hamas leaders from Apache helicopters they would not be firing rockets.

The problem with any one of these statements and your proposition is that they all falsely reduce a complex series of historical and political events into a simple 'If X then Y' statement.

I'm saying that the fundamentalist religious teaching on both sides has led to extremist behaviour and political machinations on both sides leading to the horror of war(s).

5:13 PM  
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