Process Education: A Humanistic Response to Fundamentalism

By Johnson, Philip E. | The Humanist, May-June 2006 | Go to article overview

Process Education: A Humanistic Response to Fundamentalism

Johnson, Philip E., The Humanist

ONE OF THE MOST PROMINENT causal factors of the seemingly rebounding addiction to supernaturalism as an explanation of the world and justification for action is surely the dramatic rate of social and technological change, which often forces people to abandon tradition in order to adapt to entirely new situations. In our grandparents' day--or even our parents'--what we learned in school was reasonably expected to provide us with useful information for a lifetime. No more. It has been said that information is doubling every five years. With such an exponential curve, how can anyone expect to learn it all and cope with its ramifications?

This incredible rate of change quite naturally drives many people to cling to traditional approaches as they struggle to slow the process to a more comfortable pace. As a result, fundamentalism often becomes the order of the day. Not merely Islamic fundamentalism or Jewish or Christian fundamentalism but, rather, the basic fundamentalism of "I have the answers. Don't bother me with more questions"--a fundamentalism of "stay the course" rigidity rather than nuanced thinking and flexibility as new situations arise and new data become available.

Fundamentalism, in turn, leads to a need for an authority figure--be it a political leader, a teacher, a parent, or a cleric--to interpret life's mysteries and to give direction. As a result, people become even more dependent on powers outside of themselves instead of learning the processes and skills necessary for critical thinking and problem solving.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, quoting an Iranian woman, tells a story about the education of young boys in Middle Eastern countries. The boys are taught by clerics completely through indoctrination. They are fed information to remember but aren't allowed to think about it. No discussion, no involvement, no interaction is tolerated. Later, if they go on to university study abroad and are suddenly expected to think and offer their own ideas, they are completely at a loss. Frustrated and confused, they may seek refuge in an even deeper fundamentalism.

So behind the turmoil in the world today, too often we find rigidity rather than flexibility, fundamentalism rather than thoughtfulness, and as a result, the conflict of ideologies.


To keep apace with social and technological changes, we must obviously abandon many of our traditions. But the resultant dilemma is: replace them with what? Do we substitute our traditions with adherence to a different set of principles, do we retreat to the safety of fundamentalism, or do we seek new responses more appropriate to the process of change? We all admit that knowledge learned in school is merely the beginning, the stepping stones. Education evolves over the entire course of life through experience. And the degree and depth of the knowledge attained is directly related to the development and application of the skills of learning.

Unfortunately, too often we both teach our children and use the same processes that have been practiced for centuries, essentially transmitting the technical and cultural wisdom of the past--known information. We have indeed updated the content: we now teach about computers and debate whether to teach intelligent design or evolution or both. For the most part, we utilize modern equipment, provide extensive financial support for schools, and employ technically competent and generally caring teachers. But we are still locked into the conservative approach of teaching already known information.

In the United States the political move toward conservatism in recent years has resulted in less separation between church and state and the growth of fundamentalism and rigidity. George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" legislation is a classic example. While certainly well intended, it essentially promotes rote teaching and learning and emphasizes the accumulation of facts and the simple transmission of already known information by rewarding schools whose students score well on tests that measure accumulated information and punishing those whose students don't. …

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