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Monday, 30 September 2013

The difference between 'mumbo' and 'jumbo'

Two head teachers from Kirktonholme Primary school in East Kilbride were recently ‘redeployed’ after distributing material from an American Christian group, the Church of Christ. The action was taken after some parents objected to their children being exposed to what they regarded as extremist material, some of which questioned the theory of evolution. South Lanarkshire Council, having removed the head teachers and put a temporary management team in charge, issued a statement in which they assured the parents that “the West Mains Church of Christ would no longer be given access to Kirktonholme or any other local schools”.

I’m not entirely sure why there was such a fuss about this. Without wishing to offend any particular religious group, you’d have thought that Scottish educationalists would have been well accustomed to teaching codswallop, superstition and pseudo-mystical mumbo jumbo. Perhaps, as a friend pointed out to me, the authorities believe it is acceptable to promote codswallop, superstition and pseudo-mystical mumbo jumbo so long as it is the right kind of codswallop, superstition and pseudo-mystical mumbo jumbo.

One example of the ‘right’ kind of codswallop occurred a few years ago, when schools in England were instructed to show the Al Gore film An Inconvenient Truth, with no expectation or demand that there was any requirement to at least try and balance the argument about anthropogenic global warming; in Scotland, all secondary schools were provided with their own copy and accompanying 'learning pack'. Mr Gore was by no means a stranger to controversy and a number of folk had already expressed concerns about the rigour of some of the ‘science’ in his film. He once famously declared, in an article in Vanity Fair, that "We are literally … altering the balance of energy between our planet and the rest of the universe".

Literally altering the what? The balance of energy? Between the Earth and the rest of the universe?

At the very least, I think one would be entitled to ask exactly how that was measured. Did Mr Gore have access to the universal 'balance of energy' figures from 1940, 1863 or 1536? And just how big is the Universe? Do its other residents know we’ve altered its ‘energy balance’? Will they report us to the ‘universe balance of energy’ neighbourhood watch committee?

Some of his musings may have been on the same intellectual level as the horoscopes page in the Daily Record, yet Mr Gore’s film was presented, without question, to thousands of pupils. Stewart Dimmock, a parent with two children attending an English secondary school, took a case to the High Court, claiming that An Inconvenient Truth represented a form of political indoctrination. Having focused on a number of significant inaccuracies in the film (including the claim that Hurricane Katrina was caused by global warming), the court found in favour of the plaintiff and ordered the educational authorities, when showing the film to children, to make it clear that it was a political work and promoted only one side of the argument. Failure to do so would find them in breach of section 406 of the Education Act 1996, laying them open to charges of political indoctrination.

I’m not trying to make a point here about climate change or climate change ‘denial’. I’m more interested in questioning how and why educators make certain judgements about what is, or is not, appropriate educational material. If we want a system in which intellectual diversity trumps intellectual conformism, those decisions about educational material have to be underpinned by a belief that young people deserve to be presented with all sides of an argument; in that sense, the more information we make available to them, the better.

So what exactly was the point of denying those pupils in South Lanarkshire the opportunity to read about ideas that run counter to the prevailing view? The Church of Christ may well be full of deluded eccentrics, but history is littered with examples of significant figures who were once considered to be eccentric, deluded or downright insane. And surely the theory of evolution is robust enough to stand up to the feeble challenge of a tiny fringe-of-the fringe religious group? Why shouldn’t kids be aware that some faith-based groups might have a different take on the origin of life on earth? The concept of transubstantiation is taught in schools every day, so what makes creationism such a sinister and taboo subject?

Friedrich Nietzsche said that: “The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.

There are many things that our education system does very well, but perhaps it needs reminding that received opinions have no right to go unchallenged; perhaps it needs reminding that sacred cows, occasionally, need to get slaughtered; perhaps it needs reminding that it is better to teach young people how to think, not what to think.

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