Too much education?

Not quite a week ago, just before the news cycle and every editorial page in the world was swamped (and rightly so) with the earthquake/tsunami story, Common Dreams ran this story by Dr. Teresa Whitehurst about an overheard conversation between two students at a religious university. Here's the short version, and then I'll share my own experience.

"The only trouble with David Lipscomb (a conservative Christian college nearby) is that old man Lipscomb apparently didn't like football. So we don't have a football team, but we have a great faculty."

"But you do have to be careful about one thing," he said more quietly, coming closer and speaking in hushed tones, "My professor-I have this great professor-told me that you have to be careful not to get too much education, because you could lose your foundation, your core values."

The neophyte nodded solemnly, his eyebrows raised with worry.

"If you get a bachelors," the seasoned student reassured, "you'll probably be okay. But my professor said that when you get a master's, and definitely if you go beyond that, you can lose your values. He said that college students have to be watchful because if you get too much education, you could turn LIBERAL. He's seen it happen to a lot of good Christians."
The seasoned student is correct--it happened to me.

Just over ten years ago, I was a Jehovah's Witness--had been all my life. I'd served as a full-time minister, had done temporary volunteer work at the world headquarters in Brooklyn, and had attended an intensive two-week school for full-time ministers (pioneer school). I was married and struggling to support my family, often working more than one job, largely because I had no education beyond high school and no sort of training in a trade. That severely limited my job options, even in the eighties.

The Witnesses weren't very high on college education, for much the same reasons the seasoned student gave above--secular thought does tend to poke holes in the received truths that fundamentalist religions need in order to keep their flocks in line. While I was in high school, college wasn't even an option--it was a sure-fire way to find yourself pulled away from God's people and into the clutches of Satan.

But then, in the early nineties, the Witnesses modified their attitudes a bit. They acknowledged the difficulties that many in the church were having with employment opportunities, and the possibility that some might wish to improve their prospects with higher education. They never came out and advocated college, but they stopped discouraging it as much. The one thing they came out and warned against--in writing, in The Watchtower--was that students would be faced with teachers who would teach things in direct contradiction with church teaching, and that it would be imperative for Witness students to insure that they didn't allow their teachers to cause their faith to waver.

I started college in the spring semester of 1995, studying chemistry, and it only took until my first set of midterms to realize that the natural world the Witnesses described was far from the world of scientific reality. That caused me to start to question some of the other things I had been taught--the archaeological accuracy of the Bible, the very infallibility of the Bible, which was the underpinning of my entire faith. I suddenly began to question everything, and that, my friends, is the death of any fundamentalist system.

Fundamentalists depend on the unquestioning obedience of their members to maintain their coherence as a group. They enforce that obedience by threatening to shun anyone who dares to question the authority of the church authorities, even family members. It happened to me.

By the end of that first semester, I'd stopped attending meetings at the Kingdom Hall, and by the end of the summer semester, had stopped identifying with the Witnesses altogether. I'd separated from my wife for unrelated reasons, and so started an entirely new life as a secular non-Witness. Two years later, I was officially cast out from the church, and my parents stopped communicating with me for the most part (I got a card from them last week, which was encouraging).

Here's the thing: anyone who honestly seeks to learn at an advanced level can't help but become more progressive in their thinking. That's the nature of education--the constant seeking for new avenues of thought and new ways of looking at the world. Conservatism is by definition less concerned with the new and more concerned with the past--it can't be progressive. It is useful in holding back the flightier fancies of progressive thought, and is good at consolidating the gains of progressive groups, but it's never going to lead the way into the future. It can only lead us back to the past.

It should worry us that fundamentalist thought is trying to take over the educational system, for the very reasons that Dr. Whitehead enumerates in her essay. Fundamentalists are far more concerned with control than progressives are--it's their very nature. But we can't afford to lose this battle, not unless we want to return to a world where we find out if people are witches by dunking them until they drown and burn them if they survive.

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