SepCon '98: Political vs. Cultural Separation
by Ari Armstrong, January 1999
One of the prominent themes at the 1998 Separation of School and State Alliance Conference in Colorado Springs was that Christian parents should offer their children a Christian education. Similarly, Yarden Weidenfeld argued that Jewish children need a Jewish education.
These theists argue that life cannot be "compartmentalized." That is, one cannot learn about "the world" part of the time and "religion" the rest of the time. Rather, all of one's life should center around God. As Marshall Fritz has put it, religion should be central in "Monday school" as well as in "Sunday school."
Fritz, then, argues for the voluntary cultural separation of children by "world views," as well as for the Separation of School and State. However, he certainly does not want a general cultural separation. Indeed, Fritz's SepCon was a model of open acceptance, cooperation among diverse people, and rational tolerance, where people of many philosophical persuasions and ethnic backgrounds gathered to discuss ideas. Fritz commented to me that there are "age-appropriate times for growth." In his opinion, a young child should not be subjected to "world views" which would radically undermine those of the parents.
I disagree with Fritz as to the extent children should be separated by "world views." In a discussion on the Alliance e-mail list, I noted that learning the Pythagorean theorem doesn't require any particular religious background. Megan Day, a SepCon participant skeptical of the entire endeavor, made a similar point with the fact "two plus two equals four," which also seems to fit fairly well with most religious beliefs.
Fritz has responded that the reason one learns that "two plus two equals four" is religious in nature. What if a student asks, "Why does two plus two equal four," or "Why should we learn that two plus two equals four?" These questions obviously require a more philosophical answer. R.C. Sproul, Jr. added in casual discussion that some Post Moderns would indeed doubt the truth even of such a simple theorem from addition, and he certainly would not want the Post Modern "world view" taught to his children.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, President of the Islamic Minaret of Freedom Institute, though not opposed to separating children by religious affiliation, also saw value in intellectual diversity. In Ahmad's view, voluntary "affirmative action" might even be a useful way to draw more diversity to a school to benefit the children's education. "Not everybody believes what we believe," said Ahmad. If children are segregated by religion, they should at least "be taught about other ways of life," Ahmad noted. Others' beliefs should be presented accurately so children will not learn to doubt their teachers. About the virtues of open discussion, Ahmad said that "if one's ideas are true, they should withstand debate."
John and Carol Geltemeyer, SepCon participants from Colorado Springs and Libertarian Party activists, saw potential problems with Christian education. John said, "Christian education is still instilling a student-teacher dependency," like today's government schools. In other words, the danger is in students learning to accept others' opinions rather than to think clearly for themselves. As Carol put it, "If we teach students to accept our indoctrination, we teach them to accept the indoctrination of others." Of course, with practically every "world view" comes the danger of indoctrinating rather than teaching. It is a tendency that everyone must guard against.
Obviously, parents must have some fundamental agreements with a potential teacher of their children. As Fritz put it, "you'd be crazy" to send a child to a Nazi training camp. If a teacher suggests that "two plus two doesn't equal four," I'll most likely keep my child out of that school. In one of his sessions, Professor Charles MacKenzie suggested that a healthy Christianity balances reason with faith. Such Christians, I suspect, should be comfortable sending their children to school with the children of those of us who reject religion but who respect a basic rationality.
As to Fritz's question, "What should a teacher tell a student who asks why two plus two equals four or why we should learn it," I would respond that a teacher is quite capable of explaining alternate answers to that question (without implying "relativism") or simply referring the question to the parents. Beyond that, a teacher can offer some universal answers to the questions, acceptable to those of most philosophical persuasions.
In the end, I agree with Leonard Peikoff, an Objectivist philosopher, that if children are taught to employ sound, critical reasoning, their thinking will tend to be self-corrective, even if they are initially taught incorrect content. If children are taught to read, write, calculate, and think for themselves, instead of subjected to indoctrination, I believe that intellectual diversity in education will prove highly beneficial to education itself.