Pharyngula

Pablum for the masses

An Angry professor led me to an article on Inside Higher Ed, which discusses a document by the Wingspread Conference by the Society for Values in Higher Education (pdf). I knew when I saw the word “Values” up there that I was in for some platitudinous academe-speak slathered around a set of bland pieties, and I was. Poking around on their website, I see that the Society for Values in Higher Education seems to consist of a lot of well-meaning and rather wordy types who see religion as an important “value” to inculcate in higher education—a nest of those liberal Christians everyone tells me I’m supposed to appreciate more, I think.

I think I’d like them much more if they’d just practice their religion, and stop telling me it’s so important to get their sanctity into my classrooms and politics.

We recognize and value the contributions of religious studies scholars and programs at many universities, yet they alone cannot achieve these objectives. We challenge colleges and universities to examine their courses and curricula to put into practice new ways to educate students about religion’s dimensions and influence. Students must learn the relevance of religion to all disciplines – sciences, humanities, arts, social sciences – and the professions.

Sciences? What, exactly, am I supposed to tell my students about the relevance of religion to biology? I suppose I could tell them that it has been a corrupting influence, that dogma, revealed knowledge, and obeisance to authority are the antithesis of scientific ideals, and that religion has an astonishingly bad track record on scientific issues. I could sit down with them and tell them to apply a little critical thinking to their favorite religious myths, and I could give extra credit to everyone who rejects organized religion.

But no.

I already know that that particular rational point of view is not what they are looking for, and I’m sure it’s not what the SVHE is thinking of—they want only respectful comments about religion. Different points of view are welcome, but only as long as they reinforce religious indoctrination. Take a look at what they really want:

Higher education must direct more attention to teacher education. American public schools avoid the study of religion partly because it is viewed as too controversial and also because of the scarcity of adequately trained teachers, texts, and tested curricula. Of primary importance is the need to train teachers to infuse religion in student learning without overstepping First Amendment freedoms and limitations.

That emphasis is mine. I find that a repellent suggestion.

It has a whiff of that old Indian school mentality about it—”if only we teach them White Christian values, they’ll abandon their savage, heathenish ways”—there’s that implicit assumption that their way is the only way, that religion needs to be smuggled into the classroom (carefully, carefully, though—mustn’t break the letter of the law!), that others lack values. They want to insert virtue into the university, their religious values are the path to virtue, therefore, they must teach religion. Hey, why not teach virtue without the contradictory nonsense of religion?

Higher education must foster a spirit of tolerance and actively champion an attitude of mutual respect and affirmation of the value of pluralism in a democracy without implicitly or explicitly privileging secular-rational worldviews or particular religious perspectives in the search for truth.

Here’s a translation from religious speak: “respect and affirmation” means “you aren’t allowed to poke holes in my ridiculous ideas.” Promotion of religion doesn’t mean letting students pray or practice their faith—they’re already fully allowed to do that as they will—but protecting weak ideas from the inquiry and skepticism that is supposed to be the natural environment of the university. We already mollycoddle everyone’s religious beliefs enough in this country.

And I’m sorry, but I will privilege the secular-rational worldview. It works. It provides the tools we need to work towards the truth, and is central to the role of the university. Religion already claims to have the truth—too bad it’s wrong.

And guess what? You can be a practicing Christian or Muslim or whatever, and still adopt the secular-rational worldview. Our problem, I think, is with those religious people with the strange idea that praising Jesus requires a rejection of rationality and secularism.

The study of religion and its public relevance is a crucial dimension to liberal education for all students that should be pursued in ways that affirm academic freedom, intellectual inquiry, and reason. It should never compromise rational discourse on campus nor should it subvert knowledge attained through disciplinary inquiry. Challenges to disciplinary or professional knowledge and practice should be raised through reasoned debate and academically accepted methods that enrich student learning.

This is just wrong—it’s not crucial in the sense they imply at all. Sure, it should be studied as a slice of history or sociology, like we study the Black Plague, wars, and the afflictions of drug abuse; an atheist can study religion, no problem. But that’s not what this group wants. They want religion on a pedestal, as an implicitly desirable attribute in our students, and they want to inculcate religious beliefs in our students.

I reject that. If they want faculty to “infuse religion in student learning”, they’re going to get my uncompromising views as well as the soppy views of the indoctrinated. Do they really want to open that door?

(Maybe they do. I know I’m outnumbered; maybe they’d welcome an opportunity to actively suppress freethought.)