So this happened yesterday. Pat Robertson took new steps in considering the relationship between faith and learning. On his long-running 700 Club, he explained why we don’t see miracles in America — it’s because of Ivy League schools. It’s the focus on “skepticism and secularism”. Africans, he says, lack that kind of formal education and are more willing to accept miracles for the sake of miracles.
It makes me stop and wonder why we so quickly pose education as an enemy of simple faith. Our search for reasoned answers and careful exploration of natural and social sciences may be contrasted to a particular form of blind near-superstition. But I’d argue that this supposed contrast isn’t helpful to the church, its institutions of higher education, or society in general.
For one thing, there are many faculty members at Ivy League schools who are neither skeptics nor secularists. They are careful scholars attempting to learn what they can about the world. They may not express their faith (even if a humanistic faith) in language that certain church folk would recognize but the secularist caricature isn’t warranted.
For another, the idea that exploration and questioning are anathema to faith does not stand historical scrutiny. Much of the history of science is the story of linkages between new frontiers of learning and new affirmations of faith. These may not come right away, as Thomas Kuhn reminds us, but eventually new paradigms begin to resolve prior anomalies.
When we insist on such a sharp division of faith and learning, we manage to communicate to our students that they should live compartmentalized lives: one set of behaviors for classes or work and another set of behaviors for chapel or church. We teach them to shift roles sharply depending on the demands and play out their parts accordingly. And then we have workshops on why students don’t develop deep character.
It’s not just Rev. Robertson who’s concerned about these elite schools. Today’s Chronicle had this story on how the National Association of Scholars had issued a 377 page report documenting how Bowdoin College suffered from a “moral deficit”. The critique is that the school is characterized by groupthink that marginalizes conservative thought. At the heart of the problem, according to the NAS, is that BC abandoned its general education program 44 years ago(!) in favor of letting students plan their own education. The Chronicle story explains that William Bennett (is he still around?) wrote that “Bowdoin illustrates the intellectual and moral deficit of the American academy.”
Bowdoin is one institution with under 1800 students. I’m impressed that this school near Portland, Maine, represents the moral failure of modern education. This is especially remarkable because my spell check doesn’t recognize Bowdoin (did you mean Bowfin?)
Why do conservative voices place the problems of modern education in the lack of mandated course curriculum of a certain type? During the Republican primaries, Rick Santorum kept repeating that the University of California schools don’t require US History (this was debunked more times that you can count).
We can’t identify the past methods of curriculum as inviolate approaches to learning (or faith). We find new way of learning and teaching, we find ways of incorporating new methods and insights, and we engage our students where they are. Besides, can we really argue that having students make sense of their own educational pathways is really a BAD thing?
I have long looked at the methods of instruction these folks prefer as an expression of their own educational experiences. The NAS scholars want a revisionist history taught. Pat Robertson wants us to trade learning for the trusting faith of Africans (I haven’t even addressed the serious racial and colonial implications of this). They seem to want the educational experience that “worked for them” even though it hasn’t been sufficient to develop bold, forward-thinking leadership.
But maybe the insistence on denouncing academe instead of seeing learning as a valuable avenue forward is what got us into the current national impasse on a number of topics. Maybe we could figure out gun safety issues and the 2nd amendment, infrastructure spending and deficit control, environmental challenges and economic well-being, if we were willing to be a little less afraid of learning something.