On faith and reason

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI sparked a firestorm in the Islamic world with a speech in which he quoted (but did not endorse) a 14th Century emperor who said that Muhammad had brought the world only "evil and inhuman" things. The reaction (and Benedict's apology for it) has motivated opinion writers around the world to read the speech in full.

The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens is one such writer, and in his essay (subscription required) he considers the Pope's central theme: Are faith and reason in conflict? And is dialogue between believers and non-believers possible? Here's how Stephens puts it:  

Dialogue is possible, Benedict suggests, because despite their differences the respective sides are bound by a "single rationality," capable of inquiring broadly into all fields of knowledge, including the "reasonableness of faith."

 

...a triumph of dialogue...lies at the heart of Benedict's theology: Strip faith from reason...or reason from faith...and "it is man himself who ends up being reduced."

Would it be stretching the metaphor too far to consider what these words imply for education's version of inter-religion debate: the many policy battles fought as matters of faith (i.e., ideology); the endless bickering over the proper application of reason (i.e., scientific evidence); and the more fundamental struggle between ideology and evidence as the guiding stars for educational decisions large and small?

What if education policy needs both ideology and evidence--both faith and reason--in order to keep it from being "reduced"?

Defending ideology in today's environment is politically incorrect. Leaders like Institute of Education Sciences director Russ Whitehurst have called for education to be an "evidence-based field." (See here, for instance.) The epitome of this view is the What Works Clearinghouse, a federally funded mechanism to vet the research base on critical questions of educational practice, and which finally produced some findings last week on topics ranging from middle school math to English language learning (see here).

Most interestingly, the Clearinghouse also tackled character education (see here) where it looked at outcomes that include "positive character development." For example, a program called Too Good for Drugs and Violence was found to have a positive, statistically significant effect on "perceptions of social and peer resistance skills and perceptions of emotional competency skills."

Is that what we now mean by "character"? Isn't this taking science too far? How could we ever "prove" that a child has good character, much less that an "intervention" causes character to improve? Isn't "character" inherently an issue of values?

And what defines those values? In an article in the New York Times about the wisdom of mandatory school uniforms, a researcher explains that "there's absolutely no conclusive evidence that school uniforms do what people purport they will do"--i.e., raise test scores, improve discipline, etc. But what if they merely signal solidarity among the school's students, or a belief that the individual differences worth celebrating are those other than fashion choices? Do school uniforms have to be shown to be scientifically valid as an "intervention" in order to deserve support?

No doubt, rigorous evidence should play a key role in questions of education policy and practice. For instance, how should schools teach reading? Should individuals without teacher certification be barred from the classroom? No doubt, the triumph of ideology over reason has bred generations of bad ideas (whole language reading, fuzzy math, etc.). But there are limits to what reason can prove, and important debates beyond the reach of science. What history or literature is worth studying? How should children behave toward their teachers and one another? How should we allocate scarce resources? These questions are matters of faith and belief; let us aim to answer them with due reasonableness.

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