The Triumph of the American Madrasahs

This piece was co-authored with Sir Harold Kroto.

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New legislation suggests a more appropriate name for the U.S.A.: The Unenlightened States of America.


U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced the “Defending Childhood” campaign, focused on violence prevention, offering an opportunity for us to reflect upon sectarian violence, religious indoctrination and ethics and education. In the 40 years since the April 20, 1971 Supreme Court decision of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the landscape of American education has changed beyond its original goal of racial desegregation through busing. Unintended consequences have included “white flight,” in which white families fled from public schools with a high concentration of poor, minority schoolchildren to predominantly faith-based private schools believed to provide a higher quality of education — but this was an excuse, as racism appears to have played a major and overt role. Today, many secular families now have no option if their children’s education is a priority other than to send them to faith-based schools and try to correct the endemic religious indoctrination at home. Alternatively, these families can choose public schools, whose resources are diminishing as we speak. This is an ethical issue of supreme importance.

Such a shift has created ripple effects, beginning with a gradual, inexorable erosion of the Jeffersonian ideal of separation of church and state that reaches from early childhood education to public policy that is being played out every day in our State Houses, Congress and the Senate. From 1980 to 2001, the opening of private schools outpaced public schools by nearly two to one (15,131 vs. 8,130). During the same period, the number of private schools increased by 73 percent, whereas the number of public schools only increased by 9 percent. Current data show that about two out of five schools are private, compared to one out of four in 1980. Three out of four private schools are faith-based, and private schools serve more than 6 million children.

How has this affected the American ethos? One result has been the gradual takeover of governmental and judicial institutions by religiously indoctrinated and motivated politicians and workers, whose decisions are increasingly faith-subservient, exemplified by the weekly Prayer Meetings currently taking place in the U.S. Capitol, established by The Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, which asks members of Congress “to trust God again.” Of particular concern is the increasing sectarian violence observed in schools well beyond the Madrasahs of Pakistan. A recent Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics study pointed out that boys attending American faith-based schools are more likely to have used racial slurs and insults as well as to have mistreated someone belonging to a “different group.” Most discouraging in this report is the fact that boys at faith-based schools not only tend to believe that it can be acceptable to physically abuse someone with whom they disagree but admit openly that they have on occasion done so. A more peaceful outcome might be possible if teachers in faith-based schools focused more on empathy and tolerance and less on xenophobia.

Federal legislation such as H.R. 471, the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act that the House recently passed, with similar “scholarship programs” already in place in several states (including Florida and Pennsylvania), aiming to use taxpayer’s money to subsidize more and more faith-based schools, is even more disturbing. American children could ultimately have only “American Madrasahs” available to provide their education, and the final nail in the most morally precious aspect of the U.S. Constitution — indeed implicit in the Statement on Religious Freedom of Virginia — will be hammered in. It is a real paradox that America, the country that has benefited more than any other from the technological advances resulting from the doubt-based rational philosophy of the Sciences, is now on the verge of being dragged, by irrational, ideologically-motivated, paranoid cart-horses, back into a new Dark Age from which it may never emerge.

The only hope of avoiding this catastrophe is the acceptance by educational institutions that their primary ethical purpose must be the teaching of young people how they can decide what they are being told is actually true. The evidence-based philosophical construct of Science is all we have for that. President Obama was right on target when he said, “We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of science fairs,” in his 2011 State of the Union address. Such refocusing can produce better-educated citizens and public policy makers poised to make decisions based on facts and not on beliefs, and, as a byproduct, save what little is left of democracy in this country.

Sir Harold Kroto is a Francis Eppes Professor of Chemistry at the Florida State University and recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

A version of this article was published on The Huffington Post Education webpage.

Comments

  1. #1 Lyle
    August 2, 2011

    If you look historically many Roman Catholic children went to church schools. As did lutheran children (I spent the first 3 years there 1/4 of the time was on religion, (Missouri Synod)left because we changed towns). My mother spent 8 years there before going to a public high school (1936) but her parents were told that she was going to be exposed to the evil of the real world. 3 of my 4 Grandparents had only church schools (all be it for perhaps just a few years since they went to school in the US in German, note in the late 19th century pre WWI and the great shunning of gernam culture). I don’t see the difference between these schools and the madrasas.
    It is interesting that the same issues occured for my mother in 1936 that occur to push the issue today to avoid exposing children to the real world, but then all you can really do is to postpone it a bit. Teenagers will find out about the sins of the world no matter what you do as a parent, unless you lock them away from the real world.
    So perhaps its a back to the future moment, except that different groups are involved the baptists may be leading the charge now.

  2. #2 Sean OBrien
    August 2, 2011

    How can children decide for themselves if religion is true if YOU REFUSE TO TEACH IT TO THEM ?

    Am I missing something?

  3. #3 Hercules Grytpype-Thynne
    August 3, 2011

    Am I missing something?

    Yes. The difference between “teaching religion” and “teaching about religion”.

  4. #4 Matt G
    August 3, 2011

    You are also missing that this is about schools, whose mission is (or at least should be) to EDUCATE, not to INDOCTRINATE – what is done at home is a different matter (though one would hope that the parents/guardians also embrace this Enlightenment value).

  5. #5 Erkhyan
    August 3, 2011

    How can children decide for themselves if religion is true if YOU REFUSE TO TEACH IT TO THEM ?

    How come parents keep whinning when schools don’t teach their kids about religion? Isn’t that the parents’ job first and above all? Too lazy to do it themselves, maybe?

  6. #6 Blue Fish
    August 3, 2011

    The task of parents and schools alike is to give kids tools to understand the world. Flimflam (whether by people trying to sell diet pills, financial instruments or political extremism) is surely harder to resist when you’re trained from childhood to accept magical beings and predetermined fate as real.

  7. #7 Jeff
    August 3, 2011

    There’s an interesting discussion on the ScienceBlogs FB page on this post: Selected comments below:

    Ramona King
    I am one of the lucky ones. My children attend a wonderful, very small secular school. Once they hit middle school I plan on homeschooling them.

    Justin W Walthers
    I sincerely hope that I can find a secular private school when I have children that they might be spared the insane, superstitious nonsense being forced upon children in the vast majority of private schools

    Shannon Johnson
    We are lucky to have wonderful public schools in our town, otherwise I’m not sure how we would make this decision

    Dawn Jackson
    This is the very reason we made the decision this past January to homeschool our 15 year old. We couldn’t be happier and have absolutely no regrets!

    Claudio Drews
    In Brazil the situation is even worse. Besides the public schools of primary and secondary education have fewer resources than faith based private schools, even public schools are crossed by religion.

    Melody Hollis
    I went to a Christian prep school growing up and we had to sign a contract which included a statement of faith that Jesus is lord. If at any time a student denies belief in god, they are kicked out with no refund to the parents. A secular version of private schools really would be great.

    Norbert Wronkletoad
    went to a secular private school (one of Cleveland’s CCIS schools). feel very lucky and fortunate to have had that opportunity. Could not imagine being indoctrinated in a xian reformatory… errrr. school.

  8. #8 Brandon
    August 4, 2011

    This article portrays very valuable information about schools.

  9. #9 mediajackal
    August 4, 2011

    Tea Party fanatics drive the debate in Washington; government of the people, by the people, for the people has been replaced by government benefits for the rich and to hell with the poor.

    It’s too late: The idiots have won. Save yourselves, if you can.

  10. #10 Tualha
    August 4, 2011

    The Unenlightened States of America

    I prefer “The Benighted States of America” myself.

  11. #11 Lou
    August 4, 2011

    The Christian Right NEEDS religion in schools AND homes, churches AND government–because no one would believe their claptrap who hasn’t had it pounded into their heads 24/7.

  12. #12 Winston Smith
    August 4, 2011

    No on can prove a religion is TRUE, religion depends on faith, not facts. Facts are ignored in favor of belief even when the evidence is scientifically overwhelming. We are being rolled back into the dark ages of fear and ignorance. And none of these religious “leaders” say a thing about compassion, healing, or love. They are charlatans after power, and delude even themselves.

  13. #13 John Campbell
    August 4, 2011

    Sir Kroto’s facts are misleading at best. He lists numbers of public and private schools, but what about the numbers of students? Using his same National Center for Education Statistics web site, it can be seen that from 1980 to 2001, the number of private school students increased by approximately 1 million (6.32 vs. 5.33 million), but the number of public school students increased by 8X that figure (49,293 vs. 40,877), so the relative effect of private schools is now LESS, and private enrollment has shrunk by about 0.6 million in the lean economic years since 2001 while public school enrollment continues to increase. Moreover, consider his claim that private school students are causing Congress to become more religious. A 5-year-old in 1980 would be 35 in 2010. Well, the Congressional Research Service report for 2010 lists the average age of the House of Representatives as 57.2 and new members of Congress averaged 49.8. So, if they’re praying, it’s not because of recent private school activity. Perhaps they’ve found, as I have, that the humble supplication of our good God can make all the difference in life. I recommend it.

  14. #14 Ian Kemmish
    August 5, 2011

    “The only hope of avoiding this catastrophe is the acceptance by educational institutions that their primary ethical purpose must be the teaching of young people how they can decide what they are being told is actually true”

    It’s statements such as this which guarantee that you will never actually persuade anyone to change their stance. Those who advocated the death penalty for naming a teddy bear “Mohammed” knew, absolutely, that their view of the world was true and ours isn’t. They will use the quoted sentence to defend Madrassas just as vehemently as you will use it to attack them.

    The only argument, really, we have on our side is that our model of the world is better at making predictions than theirs is. But, if the world really is run by a fickle and micro-interventionist deity, even that is not evidence that our model is “true”,but merely that we’ve fallen for one of Satan’s more subtle tricks.

  15. #15 Isabel
    August 5, 2011

    “Most discouraging in this report is the fact that boys at faith-based schools not only tend to believe that it can be acceptable to physically abuse someone with whom they disagree but admit openly that they have on occasion done so.”

    The links provided do not support this view, nor do they provide any information about how great these effects are. And the article starts off talking about elite private schools. Another important factor is that many private religious schools carry a higher load of troubled kids from well-off families who were kicked out of other private schools.

    That religious schools are somehow teaching or encouraging this behavior is an unsupported assumption here.

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    August 22, 2011

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    Tea Party fanatics drive the debate in Washington; government of the people, by the people, for the people has been replaced by government benefits for the rich and to hell with the poor.

  17. #17 andre
    September 8, 2011

    The Christian Right NEEDS religion in schools AND homes, churches AND government–because no one would believe their claptrap who hasn’t had it pounded into their heads 24/7.

  18. #18 Alex
    September 8, 2011

    Sir Kroto’s facts are misleading at best. He lists numbers of public and private schools, but what about the numbers of students? Using his same National Center for Education Statistics web site, it can be seen that from 1980 to 2001, the number of private school students increased by approximately 1 million (6.32 vs. 5.33 million), but the number of public school students increased by 8X that figure (49,293 vs.

  19. #19 Axil
    September 8, 2011

    The task of parents and schools alike is to give kids tools to understand the world. Flimflam (whether by people trying to sell diet pills, financial instruments or political extremism) is surely harder to resist when you’re trained from childhood to accept magical beings and predetermined fate as real.

  20. #20 steamers
    September 8, 2011

    “The only hope of avoiding this catastrophe is the acceptance by educational institutions that their primary ethical purpose must be the teaching of young people how they can decide what they are being told is actually true”

  21. #21 vapor steam
    September 8, 2011

    So perhaps its a back to the future moment, except that different groups are involved the baptists may be leading the charge now.

  22. #22 vapor system
    September 8, 2011

    Tea Party fanatics drive the debate in Washington; government of the people, by the people, for the people has been replaced by government benefits for the rich and to hell with the poor.

  23. #23 alexandrea
    September 8, 2011

    The links provided do not support this view, nor do they provide any information about how great these effects are. And the article starts off talking about elite private schools. Another important factor is that many private religious schools carry a higher load of troubled kids from well-off families who were kicked out of other private schools.

  24. #24 walkers steam
    September 8, 2011

    The task of parents and schools alike is to give kids tools to understand the world. Flimflam (whether by people trying to sell diet pills, financial instruments or political extremism) is surely harder to resist when you’re trained from childhood to accept magical beings and predetermined fate as real.

  25. #25 steam extream
    September 8, 2011

    It is interesting that the same issues occured for my mother in 1936 that occur to push the issue today to avoid exposing children to the real world, but then all you can really do is to postpone it a bit. Teenagers will find out about the sins of the world no matter what you do as a parent, unless you lock them away from the real world.

  26. #26 Onkel Bob
    September 9, 2011

    Hmmm… a steaming pile of spam to propel the page to the most active.
    (Mind you the topic is relevant with the start of the new school year upon us.)

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