Saturday, April 3, 2010

Education Part 4: A 6th Grader's Curriculum Vs Faith

A recent poll showed that close to 50% of Americans believed that the "Theory of Evolution" (T.O.E) was false and that the Book of Genesis is the truth regarding how the world came to being. This in a country where NASA exists, MIT and Caltech are hotbeds of scientific revolutions, the National Science Foundation dictates how Science is taught to children. This is the country of John Dewey, father of Critical Thinking. So where is the disconnect?

This past weekend I chatted with a brilliant 6th grade student. A very studious boy, very perceptive, above average intelligence AND a very devout christian upbringing. Talking about a teacher of his he summarized "if he had a choice he would not be teaching". His textbook on history is a wonderful thrill ride that teaches a 6th grader to distinguish between fact and opinion in a historian's writing. The student is taught to identify 'primary and secondary sources'. Class exercises include debating whether "Alexander is a hero or a villain" (conclusion was 'villain'), "whether Caesar was hero or villain? (he started as hero but ended as villain). A complex passage from a historian is presented and the student has to parse for facts, opinions, assumptions, biases etc.Later chatting on what he is taught in science I had a startling conversation.

Student: We study the Solar System in Science.
Me: OH, did you read that scientists have recently proved or close to proving the big bang theory?
Student: I am a Christian and I do not believe that
Me: Oh well what movie do u like to watch?

I knew the student comes from a very deeply religious background and all that I had to do was talk contextually about big bang theory with no allusion to the conflict with Bible, but just a statement in connection with what he is studying in his Science class. The response was a stinging smug reply that smacked of superiority bringing in a factor that had nothing to do with the Science class.

So what happened to the "critical thinking" and "debating freely" that the History class inculcated? When facts come into conflict with deeply held beliefs his beliefs easily trump facts. We all love to be thought of as logical thinkers, open minded and capable of holding a contrary opinion but none of that matters especially in matters of religion. How do PhD's and IIT'ians feel comfortable in indulging in arcane religious rituals that include paying obeisance to ill-clothed, unkempt, repulsively posing mendicants? When one friend refuses to eat in the home of another friend (both of same castes) on grounds of ritual cleanliness I am astounded by the hypnotic  power of religion at its most base manifestation.

Whether its that student in his history class or a professor or an IT professional why does faith so easily silences critical thinking. Why does this attitude trouble me? Simple. George Bush had to struggle with deciding on allowing research on stem cells because of his personal beliefs. Today man lives far better and longer thanks to advances in science.

The answer lies in an article published by WSJ, aptly titled "Critical Thinking: Part Skill, Part Mindset And Totally Up to You".  

"Alfred Russel Wallace, who like Charles Darwin discovered natural selection, was second to none in his capacity for rational thinking and respect for empirical data. At least when he so chose. But Wallace believed in ghosts, haunted houses, levitation and clairvoyance.
...notes cognitive psychologist D. Alan Bensley of Frostburg State University, Maryland. "critical-thinking skills are different from critical-thinking dispositions, or a willingness to deploy those skills...As he (Dr Bensley) puts it, "critical-thinking skills have to do with the cognitive ability of reasoning. Critical-thinking dispositions are more related to traits that determine whether you choose to use those skills."In other words, critical-thinking skills are necessary for engaging in critical thinking, but they are not sufficient. You also have to want to think critically. If you have good critical-thinking skills but for some reason are not motivated to deploy them, you will reach conclusions and make decisions no more rationally than someone without those skills.

So am I suggesting that everyone becomes an atheist? Not at all. Far from it. Endlessly troubled by the philosophical implications of Quantum physics theories Einstein grumbled "God does not play dice with the world", further "God is devious but not malicious". Finally an exasperated Neils Bohr told Einstein "Stop telling God what to do". Even in day to day life many simple souls hold on to religion for a moral compass and as an emotional succor but when it comes to science and facts would readily yield to it. This is not hypocrisy but a gentle compromise that acknowledges what is presented to the mind and still lets the soul draw comfort from religion.


PS: Also worth noting is that many portions of the history textbook like that which deals with "who is a historian" and covers the ideas I enumerated are not needed for mandatory study to take the State's test. The state (here Claifornia) clearly enumerates the topics on which a student will be tested and that is a pathetic subset of the wonderful textbook. Hence a motivated student can soar above the rest but if you are studying just to score..well thats the answer for the painful mediocrity of most American students.

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