Modern science is accepted by many as having commenced when experimenters and observers started to understand that the universe obeyed mathematical rules. As the years since the 1540's have passed the mathematical explanations have become more competent and closer to complete and now cover the full range from the subatomic to the immensity of the universe.
Science is beginning to reveal the almost incomprehensible number of planets likely orbiting about a lesser number of suns in our Milky Way, just one galaxy among hundreds of billions. If you look at the moon, and imagine a technically excellent telescope inspecting a small section of deep space (with a viewing field at the distance of the moon, one tenth of the moon's diameter) what would you expect to find? The Hubble telescope did observe such a field of view and found 10,000 galaxies, some at least as large as our Milky Way. And, the astronomers had picked what they had thought was a dark patch of sky.
Despite what science now knows, and the excellent lifestyle facilities and health protection that scientific knowledge has now made available, we still have many parents willing to submit the young minds of their children to teachers who do not accept the evidence science provides. State subsidised school systems are often run and staffed by people who doubt the age of the universe and cannot accept that our planet, which contains debris from a supernova explosion, orbits a late forming star that is only one third the age of the oldest light now being observed by Hubble. I did once notice the lecturer at the Creation Museum of the USA criticising science while using that masterpiece of math and electronics engineering, a laptop computer, for his notes and projector photographs.
How can we be a clever country when such teachers and lecturers are allowed to infiltrate their un-evidenced views, usually known as dogma, into the brains of our young? Let me illustrate from some research what that does. At least one careful analysis has shown that, for any equivalent university entrance scores, students who have completed their education in the rough and tumble of comprehensive state schools achieve about 5% better results at university than students from religious schools. That could be restated two ways. Either state school students are 5% more competent, intellectually, than their test scores indicate or, private/church schools temporarily improve by about 5% the university entry scores of their students and parents have wasted all that money to achieve a temporary result. Some universities now take this into account when evaluating potential entrants, thus ensuring that the money spent has been wasted.
Testing and measuring will not improve the intellectual competence of our future population. We need to increase the curiosity of our students. Parents need to provide children with answers that encourage them to follow their line of enquiry, not shut them off, when children start to ask those annoying and demanding " Why?" questions. We need schools and teachers who similarly encourage and treat questions from youngsters throughout kindergarten and their early school years. The school system needs to give the young those thinking tools that enable them to continue to be inquisitive. State schools continue to be deficient in this aspect of education but not nearly as deficient as schools and teachers under the influence of dogma.
The solutions to our educational problems are almost certain to require progressive change. We could start by introducing in Year-12, almost immediately, not philosophy but philosophical discussion, for an hour or more per week. Even if that meant some reduction in time spent on some present syllabus items the improvement in the thinking and analysing competence of those students when they leave Year-12 would yield a significant bonus, even for students who did not progress to university study. The next year a similar approach could be taken in both Years 11 and 12 and the time "lost" from other curriculum subject time would be recouped as all teaching and study time became more effective, as it will do.
In primary school the NSW ethics classes concept, in reality Philosophy for Children in disguise, could be made a curriculum item Australia wide, monitored by class teachers, rather than taught in the accepted sense, and introduced in the first instance in the last two years of primary school. As teachers became familiar with what is required and curriculum resources became available the subject could be introduced to earlier years, probably even starting with kindergarten. That way, no student would complete primary school or high school without some further development of their ability to analyse their own thinking, and the thoughts expressed by their teachers and peers, on a range of topics, topics that some of them had never previously deeply thought about. That thinking would give them a firm foundation on which to base the decisions they have to make as they progress through life.
NSW has started in the correct direction but, even when the subject material is completely developed, the material will only be used by those students whose parents have opted their child out of that stranglehold period of up to one hour per week set aside for Special Religious Education in the very heart of secular Australia, public education. Properly introduced to all students and utilising only discussion methods, with no dogma or dogmatic teaching methods, the ethics/philosophy classes would produce graduates from public high schools with their intellectual capacity permanently improved by at least 6%, a result found in a properly conducted trial, and after obtaining their education in a much improved behaviour environment, virtually free of that vicious scourge, bullying.
There is one major problem reducing the chance of introducing such a worthwhile programme. That problem is the Machiavellian attitude of some politicians and church leaders. They love having a controllable, unthinking, easily misled population. To illustrate that point I will support it and conclude with a quote from one leader of such people, the current Pope Benedict, who while still Bishop Ratzinger, stated in a sermon on 31st December 1979 (a New Year Message ?); The Christian believer is a simple person: bishops should protect the faith of their little people against the power of the intellectuals. It That was years ago, but he appeared to be suggesting that we not allow our society be influenced by those who can really think clearly.
Then of course there are people such as the Reverend Fed Nile wanting to influence the future of education in NSW.
If you have persisted this far maybe you can stand one more quote, this time from the introduction to the second edition of Terry Lane's book, "God; the Interview " where he writes, in 2004, after 9/11 and other religion inspired major terrorist events; "If there is one thing we have learned in the past ten years it is that as long as the religion delusion persists and flourishes just so long we will live in peril."
This article was written in collaboration with the Committee of Hunter Skeptics Inc of which John Turner is the president.