Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Our changing American landscape: Education and religious affiliation

A study about American culture by the Pew Foundation has recently been released, exploring how knowledgeable 17-year olds are about "common-knowledge" historical facts and references.

A low percentage of students knew, for example, the Civil War was fought between 1850 and 1900. Only 52% could identify the theme of George Orwell's 1984. Just over half knew that the controversy surrounding Sen. Joseph McCarthy focused on communism.

Some would argue that knowledge of these references isn't needed in modern times, that these facts and events don't have significance in the lives of today's young adults. Others think the study shows that our educational system is sorely lacking.

As some who posted comments to this story pointed out, the results of a history quiz which simply tests whether someone has been exposed to and then retains certain "information" are hardly indicative of "knowledge," and doesn't tell us whether a student has actually learned how to think creatively, or has learned the necessary skills to enter today's job marketplace. After all, this kind of "knowledge" is readily available online if you want it. Does stuffing your brain with information actually help you be a "better," more educated person, or does it just make you more likely to win at games like Trivial Pursuit?

Personally, I think having an awareness of these kinds of facts is important. These "facts" are reference points to our history as a nation and a species. Perhaps our educational system has been driven in recent years by television, which seldom goes into detail about any particular event, but rather simply creates sound bites without explaining background. Sure, every student knows that Martin Luther King, Jr., had a dream, and that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person, but have they learned the whens and whys and what was really going on in race relations during that era? Have they been taught about Jim Crow, Reconstruction, the Klan, busing, how blacks were enslaved on plantations, and about the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas?

Is 1984 just nothing more to them than the year their parents got married? I'm no super-charged Dennis Miller, traveling at warp speed with off-the-wall neuronal explosions, but I do enjoy slipping literary and historical references into conversations and blog entries. Not to show how smart I am, but because nothing exists in a vacuum. Common references, if not too obscure, create a tsunami of thoughts and memories in those who hear them, and I can communicate a whole sea of ideas with just a single reference.

For example, if I say to someone who has read or seen the movie 1984 that they should face their fears by going into Room 101, I've hopefully jumpstarted their brain into thinking about their fears in a whole different way than I would have if I'd clucked and said, "Oh, come on. Don't be a chicken."

Knowing Sen. Joe McCarthy's crusade was against communism isn't just a fun fact to know and tell about events that happened over 50 years ago. His activities shaped a nation, and for a while held a nation in fear unlike anything we saw again until the post-9/11 paranoia and attacks on our liberties. McCarthyism, and its eventual rejection, changed America in many ways. If nothing else, it teaches us that even though we collectively travel towards political extremes, we can and sometimes do turn around and go the other way, letting the pendulum again find balance. It's something we need to keep in mind as we choose a new president this year.

Another study released this week looked at the ever-changing musical chairs Americans are playing with organized religion.

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey found that only 78% of Americans consider themselves to be Christians. Over 25% of us have either changed from the faith we were born into, or have given up being religious altogether. If you factor in Protestants who have changed from one denomination to another, the number rises to 44%. Roman Catholicism has lost more members than other religious groups. While one in three Americans were born into Catholic families, fewer than one in four today claim to be Catholic. Traditional American Catholics are diminishing rapidly. Their numbers in America are staying high primarily because of the recent influx of Catholic immigrants from Latin American countries.

Even if the face of the growth spurt recently in evangelical mega-churches, which primarily attract Protestants from more mainstream denominations, religious "affiliation" in our country is fading.

Obviously, we're a nation that no longer finds solace in organized religion as much as our forefathers did.


Perhaps it's the same cause as the dumbing-down of 17-year olds in the other study: television and our growing acceptance of a fast-food sound bite society. Religion isn't simple. It requires study, and understanding, and a commitment of an hour or more on Sunday mornings and often other times during the week. It's too much work.

The evangelical groups may be growing because they entertain their congregations more, and give them catchy jingles and easy to remember phrases like "Got Jesus?" and "Praise God!" You don't have to learn litanies and all four stanzas of Amazing Grace to feel like you belong.

But in general, mainstream Christian religion, Catholicism and Protestantism, is fading away. Within a few more generations, our religious landscape may be totally different. Just as Christianity came on the scene a few thousand years ago and changed the landscape, so too will something new come along and re-align our spiritual thinking and our religious affiliations. Just as Christianity supplanted a belief in Jupiter and Juno, and before that Zeus and Hera, and before that Osiris and Isis, so to will Christianity's Jesus and Mary be replaced.

We're all looking for something deep and eternal, I'd like to think. For many of us, Christianity just doesn't provide answers to the eternal questions or the peaceful states of mind anymore.

I hope what replaces it is a more personal, spiritual nature, a One Happy World or a Federation of Planets-type scenario, dreamed about by new agers, mystics, hippies and science fiction writers. God knows what we have today — dividing ourselves into Catholics and Protestants, Christians and Muslims, etc. — isn't working too well.

Peace be with you.

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  1. Is it sad that the first time I read the reference to the "1984" theme that I thought you were talking about the theme music to some sort of show? Of course, after I read a little more I caught on that you meant the literary theme and not the musical introduction. I haven't decided what this means, but I'm certain it's a sign of something.

  2. Modern education points more and more toward vocational training. Colleges teach a trade, not an education. We have removed the manufacturing sector from our country, and replaced it with a poorly fleshed out service society. Less Money, and less commitment needed educationally or vocationally. We are becoming a less and less prosperous third world nation, without the culture.

  3. Anti-intellectualism is the new McCarthyism and Celebrityism is the new religion.


    Enoch Rodriguez
    Phoenix Lodge No.8
    AF&AM of NC

  4. Are we at a point where we are looking for a literary voice to define and direct our fragmented society? Hum, well, yes.

    We are in a world that is sprialing out of control, morally and spiritually, where we are actually taking the time to comtemplate whether a doll is exposing his penis or his navel!

    While we are working on these great mysteries, our children have absolutely no idea who Plato, Cirero or Aristotle are.

    We need a George Orwell or Upton Sinclar for this new millennium.

    birmingham #188, I agree. Since the Carter administration made education avaible to the masses, the intellectual elite have fallen to the side and education in general leans towards vocational training.

    Good Lord, before we become a nation of semi-educated bobble head dolls, don't we need to hear from our intellectual, influential, elite?

    It is time for the cream to rise to the top just about now!

  5. There will always be those who delve beneath the surface of things to find a deeper meaning.

    As for Christianity fading away, well, I wouldn't hold my breath.

    I still think it's a shame that for all our advancements we are still killing each other over dirt and tribal god images.

    Traveling Man

  6. There appears to be no moral compass except that which is introduced by legislation to keep us safe and help save us from ourselves. There seems to be no sense of integrity either. Lines that distinguished good from bad behavior are fuzzy and education follows the State's guidelines that focus on test scores and forgets about character and real education.
    No, I don't think that it is the school's job to raise our children but it is becoming hard to distinguish the teachers from some of the students. We need leaders and role models; not more friends in the classroom.

  7. "Modern education points more and more toward vocational training"

    I agree- but what scares me is there is no DESIRE for knowledge. I see a generation that expects to get by on a weak highschool education. Not to mention every job with a salary requires a degree, but the degree doesn't have to be in that field.
    Are you kidding me!!!

    Very scary indeed.

  8. tim and Bama13,

    You are right. You hear a lot about dumming down our education system and it is so true.

    Here in Georgia, with the lottery funded Hope Scholarship, the general education standards are lowered so more kids can take advantage of the opportunity to go to college. Then they usally lose the Hope in the first year of college because they are not properly prepared for the academic challenge.

    A well meaning legislative move but what will it mean for our schools in the long run.

    Then with the standardized testing schools use to find their ranking, well darn teachers end up teaching for the tests and not to educate the children!

    It is all just a numbers game trying to make the bottom line look better which, of couse, ultimately means dollars signs.

    It is up to us, as parents, to try to supplement to basic education our kids get in the public system.

  9. I certainly don't put much stock in statistics. ReligiousTolerance.org (a favorite website of mine) says:

    "Poll data on religious behavior and practice are notoriously unreliable. Individuals often describe their own behavior inaccurately; they answer questions according to what they think they should be doing."


    I'm with Kierkegaard on this one when he says 'if everyone's a Christian, then nobody is a Christian'. Same with Freemasonry. The lack of numbers in Masonry only shows that we don't fit in with modern society; what's so bad about that?

    1984 was okay, but Huxley had it right; humans are best controlled by giving them what they want. Mass-media, free sex, and drugs-if the people have that, they are OWNED already. Just look at JP's conceptions. It panders to the 'laissez faire' economy of self-improvement. 'No need to work for it, you'll get it because you said so'. Of COURSE that will work FAR better than Orwell's model based on Hitler! Freemasonry, notwithstanding, serves neither type of despotism.


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