Duel Magisteria

blog_0711magisterium–the teaching authority or function of the Roman Catholic Church

While history is full of great compromises, the peace made between science and religion ranks among the greatest.

As described by scientist and historian Jay Gould — in a seminal article he wrote for Natural History magazine — both science and religion are non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). Science deals with fact, observation and theory, while religion tackles questions of meaning and moral value. And as long as each respects the boundaries of the other, they can peacefully coexist.

As dual magisteria, for a time, never the twain did meet. But according to the author of The Science Delusion, “Militant materialists rejected this principle of dual magisteria, dismissing it as intellectually dishonest, or seeing it as a refuge for the feeble-minded.” (Sheldrake, 2012)

Certainly, many religions — by their very nature — have a certain amount of built-in intransigence. But in her review of The Science Delusion, Mary Midgley acknowledges, “The ‘science delusion’ of his title is the current popular confidence in certain fixed assumptions — the exaltation of today’s science, not as the busy, constantly changing workshop that it actually is but as a final, infallible oracle preaching a crude kind of materialism.” Science became what it feared most, and now we all must live with the negative consequences of their broken truce.

Which brings me to the new dueling magisteria locked in a fight to control the nation’s education policy.

Between the advocates of a results-driven, standards-based education model and the advocates of a more traditional education model, there seems to be little room for compromise. In the recent past, the ideal classroom structure featured a teacher disseminating and contextualizing information to a room of eager students. Classrooms were environments where students not only learned but also developed the necessary skills to assign value and meaning.

The paradigm has now shifted to a classroom environment where students are expected to memorize a uniform and standard curriculum and later demonstrate their proficiency on a series of high-stakes tests. It’s hard to see how this obsessive focus on empiricism will generate the next generation of artists, writers, musicians, poets and polemicists — just a few of the professions that provide subtext and meaning to the human experience.

While there’s no “winning” this duel, a workable truce involves recognition, on both sides, that learning is a complex process. On the one hand, learning cannot be whittled down to bullet-pointed facts and multiple-choice tests. But on the other, innovation and imagination — for the vast majority of us — stem from a solid foundational grasp of basic subject matter. While standards must inform learning, focusing solely on measurable results robs classrooms of the vitality and spontaneity needed to produce students who know how to problem solve and think creatively.

The notion of non-overlapping magisteria, while well intentioned, is ultimately misguided and self-defeating because good ideas only become great ideas when they’re subjected to a rigorous and skeptical review process. And that can’t happen as long as we remain cloistered in our respective magisteria.

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