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Posted by on Aug 18, 2007 in education, faith schools | 12 comments

Faith schools – down under

Still in Australia, hence only occasional postings.

I wrote this for the Sydney Morning Herald. It appears Monday, I think…

The War For Children’s Minds
Stephen Law

In both Australia and my native U.K. faith schools are booming as a direct result of Government policy. These schools are popular. British parents have been known to fake religious commitment to get their child into the right school. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has just confirmed that Australian parents are also abandoning public education in favour of the new, government-subsidized faith schools.

This rapid rise in religious schooling has, of course, been accompanied by concerns, not least of which is that faith schools can be deeply socially divisive. While I share that worry, my greatest concern is that that the smoke generated by the battle over whether religious schools are a good idea has obscured a more fundamental question: a question about the kind of religious education schools offer. To what extent should schools be allowed to encourage deference to authority when it comes to moral and religious matters? To what extent should they be able to suppress independent, critical thought?

Before the 60’s, moral and religious education tended to be highly authority-based. Children were typically expected to accept, more or less uncritically, what they were told. Independent critical thought was discouraged. Sometimes the discouragement was subtle, communicated by little more than the reverential tone with which religious ideas were conveyed. Other times it was more overt. A friend educated in the 60’s tells me she was sent to the headmaster simply for asking why the Catholic Church took the position it did on contraception. Many schools had a Big-Brother-like obsession with policing not just behaviour, but thought too. The same friend tells me that even today, 35 years after her Catholic education was complete, she still feels herself feeling guilty if she dares to question a Catholic belief.

During the 60’s and 70’s, Western societies became far more liberal. Individuals were encouraged to throw off the old traditions and authorities and think and judge for themselves. This shift in emphasis, from deference to external authority to moral autonomy, was reflected in the kind of moral and religious education children received.

So what changed? Some educators simply abandoned moral and religious education altogether. Not a good idea, I think. Others, realizing that, when it comes to morality and religion, education doesn’t have to mean indoctrination, developed alternative educational strategies that encourage independent critical thought.

Has this been a good thing? I believe it has. In my book, The War For Children’s Minds I point out the growing empirical evidence that schools that encourage collective philosophical discussion about religious and moral questions don’t just raise the IQs of their pupils, they also help to foster emotional and social skills as well.

Still, many social and religious conservatives profoundly resent this liberalization. They have constructed a complex mythology about it. As they see it, Western civilization is suffering from a ‘moral malaise’ the blame for which falls squarely on liberals and the Sixties (and also on something called ‘relativism’). Although they are unlikely to put it in so many words, what these conservatives want above all is to bring deference to religious authority back into the classroom. They want a return to uncritical acceptance of moral and religious belief, certainly in the earlier stages of a child’s education. It is the increasing influence of these conservatives that worries me most.

Let me be clear that there are some excellent religious schools, schools that dare to educate rather than indoctrinate. But far too many, while officially liberal, are busy applying psychological techniques that, if not quite brainwashing, lie on the same scale.

Some don’t even pretend to be liberal. Just the other day I heard the head of a British Islamic school agree that in any good Islamic school, “Islam is a given and never challenged”.

Any school that insists its religion should be a given and never challenged should no longer even be tolerated, let alone receive government funding.

If you believe that such authority-based religious education is acceptable, then let me leave you with a question. Suppose authoritarian political schools started opening up around the country. A conservative school opens in Sydney, followed by a communist school in Melbourne. These schools select on the basis of parents’ political beliefs. Portraits of political leaders beam serenely down from classroom walls. Each day begins with the collective singing of a political anthem. Pupils are expected to defer, more or less unquestioningly, to their school’s political authority and its revered political texts. Rarely are children exposed to alternative political points of view, except, perhaps, in a caricatured form, so they can be sweepingly dismissed.

What would be the public’s reaction to such schools? Outrage. These schools would be accused of stunting children – of forcing their minds into politically pre-approved moulds.

My question is: if such authoritarian political schools are utterly beyond the pale, why are so many of us prepared to tolerate their religious equivalents?

The answer, I suspect, is inertia. Authoritarian political schools would be a shocking new development. But there have always been authoritarian religious schools, Familiarity, and perhaps a sense of inevitability, has blunted the sense of outrage we might otherwise feel.

I think it high time we got that sense of outrage back.


  1. Sorry, completely off-topic and past it’s sell-by-date, but I couldn’t resist this “atheism is just a faith position” moment, quoted at length below.1917 Catholic Encyclopaedia, Faith, Section II(b)”a truth may be self-evident — e.g. the whole is greater than its part — in which case we are said to have intuitive knowledge of it; or the truth may not be self-evident, but deducible from premises in which it is contained — such knowledge is termed reasoned knowledge; or again a truth may be neither self-evident nor deducible from premises in which it is contained, yet the intellect may be obliged to assent to it because It would else have to reject some other universally accepted truth; lastly, the intellect may be induced to assent to a truth for none of the foregoing reasons, but solely because, though not evident in itself, this truth rests on grave authority — for example, we accept the statement that the sun is 90,000,000 miles distant from the earth because competent, veracious authorities vouch for the fact. This last kind of knowledge is termed faith, and is clearly necessary in daily life”Popper, are you there?

  2. I went to a Sydney Anglican boys’ school in the 1970s. While we had to go to chapel, study divinity etc, the “faith” was pretty much a given (as it was in those days). The culture was one of bullying, intolerance, unquestioning compliance with authority – pretty antiquated stuff even then.My children have gone to seven different schools in various parts of NSW, including four private religious schools, for educational or location reasons rather than faith – we’re atheists and disclosed this to the three schools that asked. The schools were happy to accept our daughters as students provided they attended religion classes. Two of the Sydney christian schools are really gung-ho on their religion. They can’t send a tuckshop reminder without invoking “God” somewhere. This has the interesting effect on children who’ve been brought up in a non-religious home where questions are welcome: the schools seem to think there’s a chance of converting them. In fact, the opposite is true as my children see the hypocrisy of these people and get impatient with their glib, self-assured answers to any and all questions.I’ve been to a couple of school events where christian parents seemed to think it was appropriate and acceptable to make outrageously homophobic comments (I gave them a surprise by challenging them – and quoting their own saviour to them). There’s quite a widespread feeling at this school that their faith is under siege, so they need to be ever more strident about it. As I learned at my school 30-odd years ago, gaining children’s compliance does not gain their respect.The thing I find most astonishing is that the more fervent religious types seem to be the furthest away from the simple doctrine of love and tolerance at the core of Jesus’ message. If they focused on this (which, to me, is the important bit of the bible, not the obscure old testament bits they cherry-pick to support their weird prejudices), they’d probably find plenty of common ground with those of us with a considered moral outlook.I’m wandering around a little but I’ll finish with my view: many of these “faith” schools encourage a divisive “us and them” view of the world that shuns dialogue with people of different views and leaves their students (or at least those whose family attitudes mirror this) ill-equipped to deal with the world. This is morally and educationally untenable.If people are exposed to different cultures and perspectives, they can learn to find common ground and accept (and even value) differences. Accepting diversity and uncertainty is valuable. These monocultural schools will not make Australia a more “moral” place. They’ll make a riskier, less civilised place.Although I support people’s rights to their diverse beliefs (with the important proviso that this right ends abruptly where their beliefs impinge on others’), I think there’s a case for having a core curriculum that includes some kind civics or education in diversity (and maybe require that teachers have to teach this in a school with a different outlook!).

  3. I agree, religious indoctrination in schools should be a thing of the past.But I don’t think non-religious (i.e. in the UK regular “county schools”)have quite figured out how to deal with this stuff either.The overwhelming aim of RE classes seems to be to teach children to ‘respect religion’ (both other people’s and the one handed down from their parents). From what I have seen so far of what my kids are learning in primary school questioning doesn’t come in to it. I don’t know if it gets any better in secondary school. The Council ‘scheme of work’ on RE seems designed to steer children away from any kind of critical reasoning about religion. Class teachers keep their heads down – going through the motions on this topic – the last thing they want to do is antagonise parents with strong religious views.Meanwhile kids who are full of questions quickly learn not to bother asking them in class, so they take them out into the playground where discussion decends into tribal attack and defence of each other’s identity.Catholic schools have their gory sacred hearts and religious messages around the walls, but the message in state schools that questioning religion is not encouraged comes through loud and clear.

  4. The question might be even worse than that. Speaking from my far more recent education there isn’t really all that much encouragement of genuine critical engagement in any aspect of our schooling. Look for example at the constantly touted Community of Enquiry from Australia. Why would a forum for discussion have such a profound effect if it didn’t touch into aspects of our social lives that simply weren’t being tapped when they ought to be?I also suspect this is a problem that spreads out even further. Look for example at the cultural war against reason. Mass culture such as television and film have an annoying tendency to create these ridiculous heroes who ‘shoot from the gut’ countered by the obvious impotence of the geeky ‘brain’ and it’s hard not to suspect that this has something to do with all those mind-numbing argument I’ve been involved in where people seem to believe that believing an argument sincerely and strongly enough constitutes making an argument. In all, the problem seems a little bigger than just in schools.

  5. In the early 1980s I went to a ‘think-tank’ meting where I overheard this: ‘A senior Department of Education official said to me recently “We don’t want to many highly intelligent people in this country, do we? They cause too much trouble!”‘

  6. To Stephen Law,Hi Steve, liked the article. Let us know if the S.M.H. gets any replies about it. Just the sort of thing to stir folk up 🙂

  7. I coudln’t agree more with the sentiment. ‘Society and Environment’ as a high school topic (which included an element of philosophy) was recently scrapped from the curriculum… Back to teaching the ‘basics’ and, no doubt, ‘Good old-fashioned Australian values’… Anticant’s quote from the think tank expressing the fear that some have of a ‘nation of thinkers’ is, I believe, right on the mark. Our education curriculum reflects a bigger picture in which conservatives are fear-mongering and using terms like ‘moral decay’ to push for social control. The energy consumed by trying to circumvent this attempt at brainwashing, or at least spoonfeeding of values and morals, could be far more useful if applied to developing innovative and progressive social policies (eg. NOT the recent NT Indigenous policy) and solutions for our environmental crises. Of course, perhaps that’s exactly what the conservatives want. In some ways, I believe, we are being morally hijacked. Luckily for the Governments of the day most of us are too consumed by mortgate repayments and decisions on which LG appliance to buy to hold the decision-makers to scrutiny. Convenient.

  8. I would have thought the whole motivation behind faith schools set up and run by people of a particular faith was to instil some bias into their charges. If all one wants is to have children well informed about religion, and trained in critical thinking (about anything) there is no reason why that can’t be delivered in mainstream state schools (even if it isn’t now). The difference in faith schools is that deference is expected to a particular narrow world-view.

  9. greybubble,couldn’t agree more, in recent years there seems to have been a shift (particularly in America) away from reason and towards passion. Belief itself is held up as proof of what is believed. Very disturbing.

  10. I teach philosophy to year 11s at a faith school in suburban Melbourne. The course is essentially selected bits of ‘The Philosophy Files’; I’ll encourage some of the students to post here so you can here about their experiences firsthand (several of them heard Steven speak in Melbourne recently, incidentally.)

  11. Hi BenIt would be very interesting to get some of their comments – thanks very much.bestStephen

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