This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 20, Issue 3, from 2007
It is easy to be alarmist about education. Education, after all, bears directly on something in which everyone is strongly invested: the shape of things to come, the future of society and all that.
We have all, at some time, heard anecdotes about what students are learning or failing to learn in contemporary educational institutions which have made us gasp, chuckle or shake our heads. For teachers, though, some of their most powerful and satisfying teaching emerges when they encounter and redress exactly such outrageous gaps or errors in their students’ knowledge.
My alarm was aroused on many occasions as a secondary teacher, and in every subject I taught, from history through to literature, but nowhere was it as profoundly felt as in the Religious Education classes I was allotted in an Anglican Boys School in Melbourne.
My complaint was not the traditional one that might be expected within this subject. The issue was not with a lack of student familiarity with the Christian or Western tradition, still less was it a problem with overwhelming faithlessness. Quite the contrary: my fears were aroused by the breadth and inconsistency of what my students believed or half-believed in, and in the seemingly accidental character of their beliefs.
Beneath their adolescent front of weary scepticism, my students subscribed to an eclectic belief in: ghosts, demons, exorcism, astrology, witchcraft, alien abduction, telekinesis, telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition… the list goes on. What is more, classes between the ages of 14 and 18 showed little variation in the degree, quantity or sophistication of their supernatural beliefs and showed a similar cluster of historical and scientific naiveties. In other words, little development along these lines seemed to be taking place either privately or through the normal process of schooling.
What became rapidly clear to me was that most students had not personally reflected on their beliefs at length or discussed them in an organized way. In fact, they did not feel their beliefs worthy of such analysis. It also became clear that in the absence of any rigorous critical filter teenagers were prone to tepidly accept whatever portraits of reality were presented to them, be they even the most fantasy-infiltrated films or television serials.
Science-fiction and fantasy, once fringe genres, have now become, for whatever reasons, dominant and central entertainment fare, especially for children and teenagers; as a consequence, the same combinations of half-belief and half-wanting-to-believe that afflicted many of the former subscribers seem to have become endemic. As a mass phenomenon, however, these tendencies seem to be less explicit and less sophisticated than before. The rich allegorical dimension of sci-fi and fantasy is being persistently downgraded or ignored by a public overwhelmingly drawn to the sensational aspects of these genres.
In response to these issues, I embarked with my classes on a sustained and evolving discussion of the limits of ‘the possible’. We examined scientifically chartered domains of uncanny psychosomatic phenomena: hypnotism, placebo, and Harvard studies of Yogic and Sufi mediation. We explored some of the spectacular supernatural effects achievable by illusionists and their dubious application by charlatans in parts of India. We discussed the multiple interpretations of contentious religious terms such as ‘miracle’. We investigated the diversity of explanations for the miraculous events in the Christian tradition. Lastly, we explored the witchtrials of Salem and Loudon. Here we observed the very real and terrible dangers which can arise when the political and legal mechanisms of society are infected with superstitious prejudices and how readily the unscrupulous can exploit such prejudices to their profit.
It is these latter issues which most closely touch upon the sources of my alarm and concern. Irrational and dangerous superstitious fervor is not a thing of the past, nor is it exclusive to less developed countries; far from it. As a democratic citizen I feel threatened by the political implications of unchecked credulity and superstition in the public I share, or will soon share, my vote with, suspecting, as Voltaire said, “those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” It is inevitable that supernatural and religious beliefs will affect the democratic process. What we must ensure is that citizens have scrutinized or are capable of scrutinizing those beliefs.
As a teacher it was immediately gratifying to watch groups which were for the most part hostile, inert and poorly motivated, become engaged, open and dynamic. Clearly there was a latent hunger to discuss this material.
It was amazing to find that students who had started the course believing that Indian fakirs could levitate, some weeks later were hovering anywhere from a few inches to a few feet off the classroom carpet; laughing as they competed to outdo their classmates in illusionist tricks they had independently researched and mastered. A few students had even naively believed that certain stage magicians’ feats of levitation were paranormal, which shows just how difficult the distinction between suspended disbelief and actual belief can be for some youngsters.
The questioning and discussion our topics generated would often spill out into the playground at break times. I sometimes overheard philosophical discussions about whether, say, unconscious pain was possible, being carried over from classes weeks beforehand.
My greatest satisfaction in all of this, though, was the evidence I consistently gleaned that whatever beliefs the students subscribed to, they were leaving each class a little better equipped not only to assess the fantastic components of the entertainment they consumed, but to encounter and resist the predations of cults, charlatans and demagogues claiming to have supernatural powers or authority.
Compulsory education is the principal domain within which we combat the coercive threats democracy is subject to, and thus fostering an astute and informed public. A reliable and responsible media is equally necessary. We must do our best to ensure that these two institutions collaborate to guarantee our citizens a common, rational understanding of the world, an understanding unthreatened by conditioned gullibility or superstitious atavism.
The shapers of contemporary youth culture (and, by default, the future of culture) seem to suggest that the antidote to disenchantment is some kind of mythological regression. They present angels, witchcraft and aliens as the solution to confusion, anomie and alienation. They have a good reason for making this sales-pitch, though: we buy it. The engineers of youth culture are, in the end, corporations relentlessly seeking the teenage dollar. In their fierce competition for adolescent attention, they know that the spectacular or mysterious will nearly always triumph over the mundane. Furthermore, the massive resources at their disposal make their messages infinitely more seductive than those that parents or teachers promulgate.
With this in mind we must question how freely we can allow the purely mercenary logic of the entertainment and advertising industries to dictate how children see the world, especially when manufacturing a malleable public serves the immediate interests of corporations hoping to make us buy things we don’t need.
Beyond this, at every stage and in every discipline within compulsory and even tertiary education I feel we are called to alert students to the vast civilized and scholarly apparatus which encounters and accounts for uncanny phenomena, providing natural rather than supernatural explanations and causes. It is the half-cherished belief that there is some unexplored dark-side to culture where civilization fears to tread which nourishes contemporary superstition.
When uncanny phenomena are explored from a historical, anthropological, psychological or broadly scientific perspective the ‘super’-natural vanishes. The amazement, awe and wonder, however, usually remain.