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Beliefs, Knowledge & Truth

Damien, age 11, Southport, England: “I think He exists. I think He chooses your every action. Who else would have made the world? Who would have made us? There must be someone out there who did that for us. I think God did it. I think He looks at us all the time. If we do a bad action, He will forgive us. He will always be there. When I think about (my) dancing, I think it was God’s decision, and also mine as well because God wants me to do what’s right for me. I think it’s my decision because (dancing) would be a wonderful thing to do. There are few boys doing dancing like there are few girls doing football. So that’s why I think it’s God’s and my decision.”

Beliefs are learned from parents, grandparents, neighbors, friends. They are reinforced by media, school, and religion. They may or may not be logical, comprehensible, fact-based, statistically accurate, precise, or reasonable, but they are my beliefs, and their roots run deep. My words and actions affect my loved ones. My beliefs help me understand who I am and why I am here. You are not likely to change my mind.

Knowledge may or may not be logical, comprehensible, fact-based, statistically accurate, precise, or reasonable, but knowledge is less stubborn than beliefs. Knowledge is based upon what I know today, based upon currently available information. Tomorrow, I may learn something that affects what I know. For example, I never knew dogs bury their dead, but I just watched a video on Facebook. Several dogs were burying a deceased puppy, covering it with soil. I saw it with my own eyes, so I know it is true. (I don’t believe the video was altered; I believe the dogs really did this.)

Did those dogs really bury the puppy? The Facebook video was posted by “Magnificent Animals,” which may or may not be a reliable source.

For a long time, I thought cowboys killed Indians and Indians killed cowboys, but it turns out that Indians were mostly killed by diseases brought by European settlers and by the U.S. Army. In fact, this story is much more complicated than the Hollywood version. It involves frontier settlers, small pox, railroad tycoons, very long-standing beliefs and traditions, Federal government orders, bloodthirsty soldiers and extremist leaders (more than one became a U.S. President), acculturation and assimilation by tribal members, treaties and contract law, faith and promises, spirits, double-dealing, lots of land, buffalo herds, trust and deceit, lots of money, belief in God and destiny, statehood, long histories and short tempers, and lots more. Cowboys play a minor role.

Is it possible to know the truth about anything? No story exists without a storyteller. Every storyteller decides how to tell the story: how long or short it ought to be, how to focus the telling for a particular audience, what to leave in and what to leave out. If the story isn’t clear and easy to understand, it becomes a story told to no one, which is no story at all.

Is there any truth in science? Of course there is, but everything is based upon what we know right now. Some of it will change only a bit. Some will be massively, way-off-the-mark, belly-laugh-inducing wrong!

How about mathematics? Does 1+1 still equal 2? Yes, but not always: only in base 10; 1 male rabbit plus 1 female rabbit is likely to produce results greater than 2; when 1 liter of sugar is diluted by 1 liter of water, it changes form; so on. It’s lovely that 20th century school is positioned to provide answers, but there are so many questions, and so many possible answers, the best anyone can do is consider possibilities, and settle on a reasonable scenario.

The United States of America was established on July 4, 1776, so named by an act of Congress (previously, we were the United Colonies). George Washington did not become the first President until April 30, 1789. One could persuasively argue that John Hancock was the first President because he presided over the Continental Congress in July 1776, a position sometimes called President. In fact, three men preceded Hancock in that position, and 10 more—including Hancock again in 1785 and 1786—led Congress with the title of President (President of the United States in Congress Assembled). During three breaks, there was no President at all.

This is not trickery or wordplay. The long version is a more complete telling of the early days of a nation’s history—and it raises a lot of questions. The shorthand version is less complicated and more suitable for classrooms where there’s a lot of material to cover. There is no right or wrong here, just decisions about policy and practice.

When we remove the structure of standard curriculum and everyone learning the same things, some students will focus on belief-based learning. If a student pursues Tibetan Buddhism and spends time studying the Dalai Lama, the student will find the 20-hour framework suitable. Several students may become interested in Hindu deities and Hindu religious practices (Ganesha and Shiva attract student attention because they're visually striking). Many students will study Islam because this religion is growing much faster than any other religion—the result of new births and the large number of Muslim women of child-bearing age, especially in the sub-Saharan region of Africa. As the number of people in that region increases, many will migrate to Europe and the U.S., so more students will probably study Islam. This is their choice, their decision.

Is there a bright line separating belief-based learning from the practice of religion? Life was simpler when states, school districts and teachers controlled what students were learning. With the students in control, it will be possible for students—and those who wish to affect those students—to claim freedom of religion and assert certain rights that, previously, were not allowed in school settings. In some countries, under some conditions. Sorting this out is not something a teacher or a principal can do. Is this the job of a school board or a community? Do we require state or national law? Big questions. Complicated, sometimes controversial answers. Potential for aggressive behavior, too. None of this is new, but this time, children and teenagers will be involved in the discussions.

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