One of the things that is becoming clear in the reporting of extremism across the world is that fanaticism and good education are not natural bedfellows. The Nigerian extremist group, Boko-Haram, places rejection of Western education at the heart of its reason for existence. Their name in fact is translated as ‘Western education is forbidden’ in the local language Hausa. Recently a Muslim woman, Runa Khan, who had advocated jihad in Britain and posted a number of inflammatory pictures on her facebook account, was sentenced to five years imprisonment. One interesting comment was made at her trial by her defence lawyer. He said that she was given to thinking only in a ‘binary’ manner. In short, for her, everything to do with the Muslim faith was good and everything else was evil and fit only for destruction.
These first two examples are taken from recent stories connected with Muslim extremism but the same ‘binary’ pattern of thinking is embedded among many Christians. Recently I had an email from one Jonny Scaramanga who runs a blog concerned with the scourge, as he sees it, of Accelerated Christian Education. This is a course of teaching which is used by some 30 ‘Christian’ schools and also is followed by home educating parents. Jonny referred me to a recent apologist of this system of education who had written in the Times Education Supplement. He asked me if would write a response. I dutifully wrote a reaction to the article, which may or may not appear in next week’s TES. The scheme for ACE is strongly flavoured with an American Right wing approach to life. It is strongly imbued with laissez-faire economics, right wing political views and above all it is profoundly conservative and reactionary in both theology and morality. It takes an strong anti-evolutionary position and follows the so-called ‘young earth’ theory which dates creation to around 4000 BC. The thing that, for me, really discredits it as a system of education, are not the wacky ideas that are presented as facts, but the method of presenting them. The whole pattern for ACE is the centrality of work-books. Filling these in systematically enables the child to learn approved facts on a variety of subjects. Each work book is completed when the child has ticked the right answer for each question that is asked. The implication is that there is only ever going to be one correct answer. In other words binary thinking, right-wrong, black-white ideas are THE way to think. When you see the actual ‘facts’ that are presented in these work-books, you realise that the child will never have a chance to sort out fact from opinion, bias from truth. I quote from my TES letter. ‘One way perhaps of teaching history from a ‘Christian perspective’ is to ignore totally every other point of view. One quote that will give the flavour of the way that Christian/Right Wing rhetoric is fed into the curriculum is as follows. “The United Nations was created by Communists and has always been used by Communists to further Communist goals… Satan is the real force behind man’s efforts to achieve world government.” To present any subject like this and suggest that there is only one correct understanding of history is a kind of anti-education.’
I realise reading this kind of indoctrination that I have been fortunate indeed to have had a good education that allows one to sift facts before arriving at a conclusion. The conclusions we individually have come to on the topic of politics, religion or even science are always going to have a certain provisionality. Life itself allows one to change and grow into new insights. What a terrifying thought it would be if everything about life could be translated into a ticked box in a workbook. But, sadly, a large of Christians live in this binary universe where everything is good or bad, true or false or evil or sacred. This way of binary thinking feeds into the way that Scripture is read. Every statement in the Bible is literally true, it is claimed, otherwise the whole of Scripture cannot be trusted to be the word of God. Chris illustrated for me the crazy lengths to which this kind of thinking can take one. An earnest Christian woman that he knew, claimed that, of course, dragons once existed. They are mentioned in the Book of Revelation! Somehow in this woman’s education, the notions of metaphor and poetry were never introduced. What an impoverished education she must have had, not to mention the ways in which her thinking was permanently in a state of fear and confusion, having to deal head-on with all the passages about God’s wrath and anger.
In drawing this blog post to some sort of conclusion, I have to declare my understanding of education. I believe that it is about the ability to understand and communicate with other peoples, cultures and languages across the centuries. This requires the gifts of imagination, empathy and insight. These allow one to penetrate patterns of thought that are not your own but have existed in the past or in the present. This gift of empathy that enables this ‘culture travel’ means that one values language, while simultaneously being aware of its limitations. In my final year in charge of a parish, I spent the five weeks of Lent speaking about the ‘real’ meaning of five Biblical words. In every case it look more than a half-hour to tease out the nuances of meaning that were implied in these words. Thinking like an Old Testament writer is not possible for us now, but we can, with a little imagination, penetrate some of the key words that are used to deepen our understanding of what he spoke about.
Binary thinking is the product, not of education, but of ‘anti-education’. Our government and all citizens must see in this kind of crude simplistic thinking something that is deeply abhorrent and ultimately destructive. It destroys not only the well-being of the individual who thinks like this, by making them feel outside the mainstream of society, but also it is a way of thinking that ultimately is responsible for conflict and even violence in the wider society. Let us make it clear. The world is not made up of blacks and whites, but there are a glorious number of grey tones in-between. Let us rejoice in those shades of grey!