Thursday, September 18, 2008

Royal Society Blues - part two

Continuing from the post below. Thought I better had because what I've said so far is open to misinterpretation. This is partly because people go a bit mental on this sort of subject - see the thread below this if you doubt me. Partly also because I wasnae finished but also because I didn't really explain what I meant by the 'institutionalisation' of the discussion about creationism.

By this I mean it would be a mistake to prescribe this sort of discussion in curricular arrangements or even issue 'guidelines' for teachers on this matter because the very act of doing so runs the risk of institutionalising the notion that in relation to creationism, there's a case to answer - which there isn't. (If Reiss wasn't suggesting this, I'm even more mystified as to why he resigned because without this, he was only offering his opinion on how teachers should do their job. If this is a resigning matter, why is anyone still working?) If I could draw the following parallel: if I'm confronted with a pupil who believes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a historical document - which I have been - I might take the time to disabuse them of this 'worldview', explain the origins of this Tsarist forgery, point out that it is the prototype conspiracy theory, and add that like all conspiracy theories it is characterised by a) the absence of evidence b) rests on propositions about the human condition that are completely implausible.

Or I might tell them to give their mouths a rest and stop trying to change the subject. There are different ways of getting it across but the message is the same in both cases: belief in the historical veracity of the Protocols represents a fundamental misconception of history; that it also serves as a 'worldview' to some doesn't make it worthy of serious consideration or respect.

Historians can make the judgment to give space in their classrooms to deal with matters that aren't history in the way that scientists can do the same for matters of belief. But the purpose of this would be to reinforce the boundaries of a particular discipline in the minds of the pupils - to insist on the discrete intellectual space one's subject occupies - not to allow them to bleed into one another, which is what any formalisation of the discussion of something like creationism would do. This brings me to some dreadful nonsense by Peter Wilby in the New Statesman:
"My answer is to take religion out of RE lessons (or whatever they are now called) and integrate it with other subjects. It is impossible to understand history, music, art, architecture and literature without understanding the role of religion."
The comment in brackets is the key line that explains everything else about the article. Journalism I just don't get. I'm not saying it's all like this but it is profession that definitely allows space for people to flaunt their ignorance and get paid for it. What does he imagine happens in the classroom - that we try and teach the history of the 19th century whilst discretely side-stepping the role of organised religion and its adherents? Regardless of the subjects he mentions, the underpinning misunderstanding here is the confusion between theology and history. Historians are interested in religion but we are interested in it only when it impacts upon historical events. We are interested in the behaviour of Christians - but we are completely uninterested in assessing whether those claiming to be Christians fulfill the conditions for discipleship as laid down in the kerygma of Jesus or the Pauline letters or whatever. If we do take an interest in this, we have reached beyond the discipline of our subject and have moved into theology.

That Wilby doesn't get this is indicated in his suggestion that RE be abolished as a discrete subject and be absorbed into all the others. Apart from being essentially medieval (something he might have recognised in himself if he understood what history is), it overlooks the obvious fact that RE is a subject - worth studying simply because, only because, it represents an investment in human thought but something that is concerned with issues that are not fundamentally of interest to the historian, the chemist, or the mathematician.

There's a number of thoughts this provokes but if I can leave you with this half-formed one? The insistence on the limitation of one's subject is not only essential to intellectual coherence, the liberty of the pupil depends on this. Liberal education has nothing much to do with allowing the pupil to do 'their own thing' and cast off restraints; it has quite a lot to do with the idea that teachers has to understand the limits of their role. This is not to treat the student as human material to be shaped and worked on - it is to teach them a subject. A task that is going to be more difficult if people are unclear about what their subject actually is.

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