Education as a ReligionAugust 14, 2009
This is another follow up to my blog entry about Optimism. In particular, I will be elaborating on the following comment:
“There is only one part of education that I am not optimistic about. I am not optimistic about attempts to perfect human nature. The moment I know that a scheme, or an aim, is based on the idea that students will be changed on the inside, then I know that we are wasting our time. The moment that education is meant to be a replacement for religion; when it is to tamper in the stuff of people’s souls; when it is meant to result in some secular form of salvation, then I do feel dread.”
I’m not sure whether it is because we live in a post religious society, or because there are some people out there who simply see the red mist whenever religion is mentioned, but there followed some discussion after this about what I meant, so I thought I’d talk about it here.
I am referring to a couple of ideas I associate with religion. The first is the notion of the transformation of the self. This is very much tied up with the second idea, that of salvation, a belief that the individual, the community, or the entire human race can or will change and transcend our current, often difficult, existence. A good argument can be made that this belief reflects something fundamental about human beings. John Gray, in his book “Black Mass”, makes a very good case that this type of thinking has remained at the heart of secular philosophies. In communism and liberalism alike, there is a belief that human beings will progress, not just through technology, but morally as well. Transformation becomes an inevitable, historical process of development rather than something personal or divine. Instead of salvation happening throughout history, or outside of history, as it happens in religions, it is something that history proceeds towards.
Gray is not religious himself, and has often used parallels with religion as a reason for criticising ideologies. However, in recent years he has described himself as more sympathetic to religion, seeing religious salvation as far more benign than its secular equivalent. If salvation comes from God then the human race does not necessarily have to be led kicking and screaming to salvation. If salvation is a historical process, understood by enlightened minds, then the enlightened can push that process along. Humanity can be recreated in line with expectations. Inevitably, a lot of the greatest evils in recent human history have come attached to talk of “progress” and visions of where humanity should be forced to go. Worse, anything that appears to be “progressive”, anything that disregards authority, tradition or an existing way of life, is likely to be a step on the path towards salvation and should, therefore, be supported.
Now, in education, it almost goes without saying that bad ideas have been justified by labelling them as “progressive” and contrasted with “traditional” (and, therefore, inferior) ideas. Similarly, other aspects of educational orthodoxy, such as the denial of human nature, can be related to the idea that human beings are set upon an inevitable path to salvation. Moreover, we can see education systems being designed with the purpose of bringing about a particular view of how society should be, not in terms of issues like economic well-being, equality, justice or efficiency, which are inevitable concerns of governments in the modern era, but in terms of a philosophy of humanity. It is here that educationalists end up sounding like religious leaders.
This is not an understatement. Compare these phrases:
“enable all young people to become … confident individuals who are able to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives”
“[give] inspiration and help … to the young men and women of our time in their efforts to live productive and fulfilling lives”
How about these two?
“essential for building a good society and for true integral human development”
“at the heart of positive human development, effective social groups and societies”
How about these two?
“… be able to make successful relationships, to be capable of being (and disposed to be) loving and kind”
“Be generous, be loving and kind, look out for your neighbour and look out for the poor.”
Now, how many of you can tell which is which, without following the links?
Of course, I have described a situation, but I haven’t really explained why it is a bad thing. After all, if actual religions are in decline in the UK then perhaps schools should act as pseudo-religions. We do have faith schools in this country, so why can’t we have schools preaching a secular, humanist faith?
The key difference is that parents can choose to raise their child in a religious tradition and send them to a faith school which reflects the values of their faith community. Nobody gets a choice about the values of secular schools other than those in charge of education.
Now I do not object to the beneficial effects of being part of a community, and, as schools are communities, I am quite happy for schools to have a civilising effect on students. I do not object to teaching right and wrong where it consists of habits of good behaviour on a day-to-day basis. I don’t mind teaching habits of moral behaviour where they are the habits needed to function as a school. I do object to passing on values decided by politicians and educationalists acting as if they are the priesthood of a new religion. For instance, the recent suggestion to ensure that schools teach that domestic violence is wrong suggests that right and wrong are something that can be laid down in the National Curriculum, as if ministers and curriculum designers are moral paragons and teachers are in need of their guidance on whether domestic violence is acceptable. This is an attitude in which the education system does not just attempt to reflect the values of the community but is conscripted into an attempt to dictate what those values should be. It suggests:
“… society will wait upon its self-appointed moral teachers, pursuing the extremes they recommend and at a loss when they are silent. The distinguished and inspiring visiting preacher, who nevertheless is a stranger to the way we live, will displace the priest, the father of his parish. In a moral life consisting or suffering the ravages of the armies of conflicting ideals or (when these for the time have passed) falling into the hands of censors and inspectors, the cultivation of a habit of moral behaviour will have as little opportunity as the cultivation of the land when the farmer is confused and distracted by academic critics and political directors.”
It is not that a secular school can teach no values, but that there are values that are needed for the school to function effectively as a school: a belief in academic achievement; an accepted right to learn; a respect for authority, which are more important. The problem is that these values, which should be practised habitually if schools are to succeed, are dying out in our schools, while we are wasting time trying to identify and preach the values of an ill-considered, secular religion.
Gray, John, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, Penguin, 2008
Oakeshott, Michael, The Tower of Babel, Cambridge Journal II, 1948