By Meredith Tax, Open Democracy 50.50
Public education and free thought are under attack by both austerity programs and religious fundamentalism. So where are our new creative thinkers supposed to come from?
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Africa Studio
July 3, 2013
When the city of Chicago closes 49 “underperforming” schools in poor neighborhoods, who gets hurt?
When fundamentalist parents control what information their kids are exposed to by home schooling them, who are the victims?
In both cases, children are being hurt. But they are not the only ones.
We live at a time when, according to environmentalists, our continued existence on this planet is at risk. More than ever, in the years ahead, people will need both scientific and humanistic knowledge to confront this challenge. But our educational institutions are lagging behind, rather than gearing up to mobilize the vast stores of human creativity that will be needed as we face irreversible climate change. They are lagging behind for two reasons.
The first is cutbacks. In the US, the last big era of public spending on education and other social goods was the sixties. Today Chicago’s neoliberal Mayor Rahm Emmanuel is closing 49 schools in poor minority neighborhoods and has just announced he will spend some of the money the city saved on subsidizing a new arena for DePaul (a private Catholic university). Similarly, a major trigger of last week’s riots in Brazil was the prioritizing of money for Olympic stadiums (bread and circuses) over public education and transportation. In the last few years, mass protests over university tuition have taken place in Chile, Quebec, the UK, and the US, among other places.
But neoliberal austerity programs are not the only threat to education. Fundamentalism is another.
Eighty-eight years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union decided to bring a test case against Tennessee’s Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in its public schools. The result was the celebrated Scopes Trial, a media circus in which John Scopes, a substitute science teacher, was prosecuted with the assistance of William Jennings Bryan, a three times presidential candidate who particularly objected to the notion that men could be descended from monkeys. The famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow, an agnostic, led the defense team. The jury found Scopes guilty, though the verdict was later overturned on a technicality, and the trial led to attempts to pass anti-evolution laws in a number of other states. Not until the 1950s, when Sputnik led to a national panic over science education, and Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, did evolution become recognized as an essential part of the US public education curriculum.
Today as in 1925, religious fundamentalists are trying to control education in places all over the world.
The Taliban is famous for attacking girls’ schools; in the years they ruled Afghanistan, they forbade female education completely. In the uproar last year after the attempted assassination of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani Taliban said they opposed only “secular” education, but last week they blew up a school bus full of girls in Quetta, pursuing survivors of the first suicide attack with a second attack on the hospital where they were taken. And even secular education in Pakistan is not all that secular; both public and private schools are required to use a state curriculum for Islamic studies and Pakistani history which has been described as teaching “a narrow interpretation of Islam that encourages religious intolerance and extremism through negative references to Pakistan’s minorities (religious and other).”
Reem Abdel-Razek, a young Egyptian who went to an international high school in Saudi Arabia, says their English science textsas published included sections on evolution and human reproduction, but the teacher was required to rip out all those pages and teach creationism. When she tried to order social science or other secular books online, she couldn’t get them because of internet censorship. Her father, himself a scientist, told her that evolutionary theory was a plot by Jews to weaken Islam by making Muslims doubt the Koran; this was evidenced by the fact that many scientists are Jewish. “They say Arab societies are stagnant because of the effects of colonialism and the power of the Jews,” Reem says, “but the real reason is that they won’t let us learn anything!”