Sunday, January 9, 2011

How Religious Indoctrination Undermines Higher Education

Beyond preparing students for their chosen professions,  I believe that the purpose of  a secular college education should be the development of their reasoning skills.  Examples of subjects  leading to this end are critical thinking,  philosophy (including  the Socratic method),  history, and the natural sciences.  Ideally, students who successfully complete these course and take them to heart even thought they may not finish their degree (as in my case) will be less inclined towards superstition and will be more apt to question religious beliefs by which they were brought up.  However, if  despite this exposure, a college graduate still clings to theistic convictions, at least it's almost certain that (s)he was  provided with an opportunity and the intellectual tools to take a different intellectual path.

Such is not the case for a religion-affiliated college.  This type of a school is typically founded with an agenda of indoctrinating its students in an often authoritarian environment.  Uppermost in such an institution is the dogma that the existence of a supreme being is a foregone conclusion. The school administrators then shoehorn unsubstantiated "proof" in the form of scripture or doctrine to support this assumption into a required curriculum of religious study courses alongside with training in the student's major.  Honing of analytical skills is replaced by or subordinated to rote learning.  This kind of education, of course, stands the principles of sound logic on their head.  But as will be seen later, it is nevertheless a highly effective means of turning out generation after generation of competent—even brilliant—professionals who are staunch theists for life

An example of such a school is the University of Santo Tomas in the Philippines, a country, incidentally, where society  holds a college degree in high regard (albeit more for reasons of status than of knowledge). Although this institution was founded by the Dominican Order, at this point I want to make it clear that I'm not singling out Catholic universities for special criticism. The same principle applies to most other religion-based tertiary level schools throughout the world as well.  It's just that based on the negative experience of my wife Lydia as a student at UST many years ago plus my own awareness of some recent events there, Santo Tomas serves as example to illustrate how a sectarian institution, even one that is 400 years old,  is one of the largest Catholic universities in the world, and has a premier medical school, can still mis-educate its enrollees, warp their reasoning abilities into accepting and embracing unreasonable tenets of faith, and as a result inflict damage on the nation's culture.

For example overpopulation is a serious problem in the Philippines thanks to the Catholic Church's historic opposition to artificial means of birth control and family planning even though an overwhelmingly majority of Filipinos, including  Catholics, now favor the Reproductive Health Act which for the first time in this country would remove obstacles to these choices. This proposed legislation was vetoed by the former President of the Philippines, Gloria Arroyo, but is up again for consideration by Congress and has the backing of current President, Benigno Aquino III.  However, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines which functions as the political lobby of the Church, opposes this bill and has hinted at  excommunication for Aquino and members of Congress if they vote for it, although the head of the CBCP later denied making this threat.

Nevertheless, the UST student newspaper The Varisitarian, recently vehemently denounced 14 professors at Ateneo de Manila (a nearby  university, also a Catholic institution), for advocating passage of the RH Act, which the paper said violated Church teachings.  The writer of the editorial certainly lived up to the meaning of     "Dominican" which is Latin for the "hounds (attack dogs) of God".

In another incident of  almost to cult-like devotion Church liturgy  on December 8, over 20,000 people, mostly UST students and staff formed "The Grand Living Rosary" on the campus in honor of the Virgin Mary to thank her for guiding the school's mission to educate the young(!).   Some of the participants choreographed a formation  of the words "Ave Maria" and all chanted the rosary in unison.  If this exercise by a supposed center of learning  is not symbolic of of subordinating the intellectual to the irrational, I don't know what is. No wonder so many alumni from UST and other Catholic universities, even members of the elite socioeconomic class,  who were exposed to such indoctrination and are now in government office can not make rational decisions or form coherent public policy, especially in the matter of planning.  Due to their upbringing and religious training,  when it comes to matters of faith many of these people are as blindly devout as the uneducated and undereducated masses at the other end of the social spectrum.   A prominent columnist in today's "Philippine Star" newspaper claimed that even the more superstitious practices of religion are superior to the alternative of atheism as long as they lead to a better understanding of faith!

Lydia was not surprised about these events.  To this day she vividly remembers and still resents  some incidents from her own time at Santo Tomas over 50 years ago.  One was the ridiculously stringent discipline imposed by professors who treated students like children by demanding unquestioning obedience, some going so far as to require their students keep "eyes front" at all times or be expelled from the class. Another was the compulsory 32 units of religious subjects imposed on undergraduates which were ultimately worthless not only for content but for credit transfer. Most of all Lydia recalls being publicly chastised and embarrassed by  UST priests for petty dress code violations such as being denied communion just for wearing a sleeveless blouse.

After receiving her degree from UST and emigrating to the U.S., Lydia later tried to register as a graduate student in the California State University Los Angeles, only to discover that CSULA would not recognize the religion and other courses. So she had to enroll as undergraduate first and replace the missing credits.   But in doing so, Lydia says that she's glad for that experience because of the huge difference in the manner with which the faculty at public universities interact with students vs.that at a religious institution. She had felt so stifled at UST that she graduated there with the equivalent of a B average.  However, encouraged by the freer intellectual environment of Cal State, she completed her studies there cum laude in both her B.A. and M.A. degrees. How many other good minds are being similarly kept from reaching their full potential by repressive religious conditioning?

But America is not immune from attempts by religious interests to control the educational school system.  Note how Christian fundamentalists and right wing ideologues have taken over school boards in various locales and have undermined public education by trying to impose  the teaching of creationism over the theory of evolution, along with requiring the use of  revisionist history textbooks and social studies curricula to fit their reactionary agenda in the public school districts where these groups constitute a majority. Will pupils in these districts come away from their secondary educational experience with closed minds that even at secular university can't open?  Lydia and I both recall from our respective CSULA days a few of our classmates who were Christian fundamentalists and who became upset, even going so far as to file complaints just because their professors criticized religion.

And speaking of religious agitation at the higher education level, Under the Bush administration Protestant  fundamentalists  and Catholics were responsible for the blocking of funds for university stem cell research. Christian evangelist cadets have been proselytizing classmates at the U.S. Air Force Academy for years despite attempts civil liberty groups to halt this practice; and in 2009, Muslims intimidated Yale with violence from publishing cartoons that display Mohammed.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post a secular-based college education doesn't guarantee critical thinking towards religion.  But a theistic centered one will almost certainly prevent it.  So the lesson is clear. When religious interests gain control of an educational system, the learning process becomes one of being taught what to think rather than how to think.  And the consequences can only have a detrimental effect on society.


Alan said...

The ability of intelligent, technically-educated people to cling to religious doctrine (sincerely, since many do it just for show/appearance) has been for me a gradually unfolding mystery.

Years ago I took to heart Schopenhauer's observation that you can get people to believe anything if you start at age 5 and repeat with great solemnity.

But how do institutions of higher learning straddle the fence between reality and nonsense?

Your post shows how they do this, and it's clear (as I suspected)that rational, critical thought is always the loser.

The implications for political leadership and decisionmaking are indeed unsettling. I still believe that Dubya thinks God told him to invade Iraq.

Secular Guy said...

Thank's for your input.

There is speculation that Jose Rizal the most prominent "founding father" of the Philippines was an atheist or at least a deist. Too bad his open-mindedness to rational inquiry didn't became part of the educational mindset here.