Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Religious and Secular Education


Today, Dennis Prager tells us that everybody in America is brainwashed. First, he argues,
Ask some non-religious liberal friends how they would describe a person who attended only fundamentalist Christian or ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools from preschool through graduate school. "Brainwashed" and "closed-minded" would be their most likely answers, and they would often be right. Most people assume that any person who is exposed to only one way of looking at the world for all of his or her life can hardly be regarded as open-minded.
So even though he's talking about evil "non-religious liberal" people", he concedes that in this context "they would often be right". He then proceeds to argue that the same holds true for people who attend only secular schools:
If a person is to be considered brainwashed for having only received a religious education, a person who has received only a secular or liberal (as in politically liberal) education should be regarded identically.
Well, no. Because a good secular education doesn't carry any particular ideology, and is consistent with the holding of religious beliefs. Unquestionably, any course of studies (religious or secular) will contain some amount of bias, but of itself that's not "brainwashing". The purpose of a sectarian education is to advance a particular religion, in most cases in addition to (and in some cases instead of) providing a broader education in reading, writing, and 'rithmatic. A particular religion and religious agenda will be advanced. In the secular world, classes may be taught by people with a wide range of political and religious beliefs, and in many cases those beliefs will color their teaching, and the student is exposed to a much broader range of ideas. Religious instruction intends a bias toward religious matters, and toward a particular religion, and it is considered to be a positive result if the preferred biases take root in the student body. Secular education has no similar agenda. While any course of education will result in biases, graduates of secular institutions have opinions across the political and religious spectrum - and secular institutions traditionally regard that as a good thing.

Further, as is often the case, children who attend secular schools often also attend religious instruction outside of school hours. Sunday School and Hebrew School, for example, are common. There is no equivalent for children in religious schools - they don't attend Saturday or Sunday classes which teach the science of evolution, for example, if their particular religion asserts a literal interpretation of Genesis. Prager continues,
In fact, when secular people and those on the Left deny this, it actually illustrates that they probably have been brainwashed. The secular/Left immersion they underwent has been so effective that it has rendered them incapable of realizing that they have been so immersed.
Again, Prager misses the boat. He asks that you pose the question to a group of people with a particular mindset, anticipates the answer based upon that mindset, and makes the circular argument that this somehow proves his larger point. Yet even Prager knows that if he were to pose that same question to a person who had attended only secular schools, but who was of a religious or neo-conservative mindset, the answer would be very different. Find somebody along the lines of Ann Coulter, and you might even hear the person brag about how the public schools "tried" to brainwash him, but how he overcame the insidious tendrils of secular humanism.

Without any basis for his assertion, Prager next asserts that most secular people have had no exposure to religion or religious subjects, while most religious people have had exposure to secular influences. Meanwhile, Prager tells us, religious schools usually teach subjects like reading and math - sometimes taught by secular teachers - and many religious people watch network television and Hollywood movies, presumably filling their lives with secular values. But even assuming his first point is correct (and in my experience, it is not), the type of "secular" exposure he is describing is far from a secular counterpoint to religious teachings. It is in no way analogous to formal education, and does not involve the type of power structure, authority and expectations imposed upon students by any given school system (secular or religious). Obviously Prager would not argue that somebody who watches The Simpsons is receiving a religious education - despite the strong family and religious values advanced by that show. But he would argue that it provides an education in secular values? Oh, the hypocrisy.

Prager continues with his unsupported (and absurd) assertions:
The same holds true for liberals and conservatives. Virtually every conservative reads a liberal newspaper, watches liberal newscasts, reads liberal magazines, and has been taught in liberal schools by liberal professors. Few liberals have read a conservative newspaper (there are almost none anyway), read a conservative magazine, studied in conservative schools or been taught by a conservative professor (of whom there are also almost none).
While I could point Prager to my own personal experiences, anecdotal evidence, or to surveys of media preferences or viewer misconceptions, but what would be the point? If it weren't previously obvious that he is "making stuff up as he goes along", it certainly is now.

Prager concludes,
Just as many liberals and secularists can only imagine a religious person being brainwashed, not a liberal or a secular one, they likewise can only imagine religious extremism, never secular extremism. One can easily be too religious, but never too secular. Yet, we have far more secular extremism than religious extremism in our society.

The ACLU is one such example. The organization recently threatened to sue the National Park Service over two little plaques at the Grand Canyon that had Psalms written on them. That most Americans do not consider a lawsuit over something so trivial a manifestation of extremism only proves how effective the secular brainwash is.
If Prager were informed (or if he is informed and chose to be honest), he would acknowledge that throughout its history the ACLU has defended our rights and freedoms at their margins - taking up the small cases and the unpopular causes, to stop encroachments on our civil rights and liberties before they affect the masses. If Prager were honest, he would have presented at least one more example: The legal activities of the NRA. You know, those "secular" NRA types who will litigate against even "tiny" encroachments on the right to keep and bear arms. Also, if Prager were honest, he would acknowledge what David Brooks described only yesterday - the role of the devoutly religious in advancing the fight for civil rights and freedoms. Or he might have acknowledged that "conservatives", including his beloved "conservative media", have been known to bring absurdly frivolous lawsuits. At least the ACLU's suit has merit. And, with all due respect to Prager's defense of all things Biblical, perhaps he should take a deep breath and realize that although the Constitution is a secular document, there is an enormous value to society in defending and upholding its precepts.

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