Education as a Religion

August 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”

One is an aim of the national curriculum, the other is something the Pope mentioned as an aim of scholarship.

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”

One is used by the national strategies site to describe the skills learnt in SEAL lessons. One is used by the Pope to describe adherence to Christian values.

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.”

One is from Guy Claxton’s BLP book, describing what we want students to be like, the other is from an American archbishop describing the values which set saints apart.

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.”

Oakeshott (1948)

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


  1. Yup, thats pretty much how I read you comment on ‘optimism’. Now I think there are some serious shortcomings in Grey’s thesis – his argument that all secular beliefs and ideologies are millenarian cults lacks rigour and evidence – but I certainly agree that we should be wary when the state sets itself as the moral arbiter. Especially when there is little philosophical discussion preceding the moral pronouncements.

    • I don’t think he is saying this about all secular philosophies, just most of them. After all his own beliefs are secular, he remains an admirer of Isiah Berlin’s “agonistic liberalism” and he has written approvingly of Oakeshott’s secular conservatism.

  2. Thank you for this post.
    It learnt me that in the UK just as in the Netherlands is the case, insuperable social issues too easily are farmed out to school education by politicians. Your comparisons of texts by educationalists and a much revered religious leader are hilarious and elucidating.
    While undeniably teachers must accept as part and parcel of their vocation that they have to socialize other people’s kids, politicians should accept that teachers cannot solve problems that are rooted in other strata of society than school education. It takes a village to raise a child, and though school certainly is an essential part of that village, school cannot replace the village.
    I am particularly tetchy about targets for social skills in curricula as these are often worded in vague terms that suggest that we are heading towards a major leap in human evolution. One has to accept that the “Generation Einstein” basically doesn’t differ greatly from neolithic man.

  3. Education has surely always been concerned about the transmission of societies values as determined by the powerful in that society. All that appears to have changed is that instead of the clergy dictating the values to be transmitted the political class have now taken over the role. It is no surprise also that after two millenia of Christianity we can see the basis of Christian morality in many of the values held in our mainly secular society.

    Education is rarely about learning per-se but is about creating order is society. The school bell, timetables, the breaking up of subjects into a timetable, prefects, hierarchy and all this papaphanelia wasn’t just tinsel on the tree but the core aim of education. to prepare people to take their place in a well ordered industrialized society.

    The history taught in our schools has always been curated to provide us with a view of ourselves as a coherent people with a shared narrative, a shared past and therefore a shared future. It is not necessarily purely about the facts or the analytical skills but the perpetuation of the ideology underlying it all.

    This has always been the function of education, to perpetuate ideology but also to provide the tools to challange it at the same time.

  4. “Education is rarely about learning per-se but is about creating order is society. The school bell, timetables, the breaking up of subjects into a timetable, prefects, hierarchy and all this papaphanelia wasn’t just tinsel on the tree but the core aim of education. to prepare people to take their place in a well ordered industrialized society.”

    If you are going going to make comments like this then it is probably not a good idea to link to a blog which mentions you have a sociology degree, because this does sound suspiciously like the sort of stuff that you find in books on the sociology of education rather than in real life.

    Those of us in the real world are actually quite glad that school bells give a clear signal of when our lessons should start. Timetables are actually quite useful in ensuring that teachers only have responsibility for 30, or so, kids at a time. Breaking the curriculum into subjects is pretty useful if you want kids to be taught by experts, and want to teach the subject you are expert in. Having some kind of hierachy is necessary for order.

    Being well organised is not actually part of a hidden curriculum of ideological indoctrination; it is necessary to get the job done.

  5. It is quite an inciteful point though, isn’t it? Of course bells and uniforms and timetables are necessary for this particular industrialised model of mass education – but that doesn’t mean that the particular model of education is necessary.

  6. My point is that for any system of mass education it will be necessary to organise who should be where and when.

    You can doubt the value of education, you can doubt the value of education for the masses, but what makes no sense is to doubt that educating the masses takes some organising.

  7. Yes of course you are right, but Neal80 appeared to be questioning the function of mass education as perceived by the powerful in society. His point is that education has always been a vehicle for the perpetuation of the prevailing ideology (c.f. Socrates), and perhaps ironically it is the change in the prevailing ideology which has led to less discipline in schools. I don’t think he was being hostile to your point, that discipline is necessary for mass education – I certainly wasn’t.

  8. Whether he was being hostile to my point is neither here nor there. I am hostile to the suggestion that good organisation is somehow ideologically motivated, or otherwise suspect.

  9. Because it is not in this case, it could not have been in this case, or cannot be in general?

    • In general, things need to be organised properly to be done well. Obviously, there are exceptions. Mass education isn’t one of them.

  10. My point was not intended to be hostile just an attempt to engage with your post. I’m sorry that you seem to have taken it in this way.

    Education has taken many forms throughout history and across societies. It is not necessarily located within the school or university but in the home, the field, the dojo, or the madrassa. Each form is shaped by the society, in particular societies power structures, with the aim of replicating the social order.

    Education as we accept it in Western Industrial Societies is not an ‘end of history’ arrival point of organisational perfection with it’s paraphenalia but is simply a particular form of cultural transmission shaped by the structures and needs of that society.

    As society changes, the form education takes will shift. As John points out it could be changes in society which have led to less discipline in schools. Certainly society is overall a less deferential and a far more individualised place than it was 30 years ago. Certainly our wider social values dictated that corporal punishment did not have a place within education.

    If you want to see an example of how institutions are designed to create a type of person, with a particular set of values, for a particular purpose I recomend the first part of Full Metal Jacket. The similarities to my experiences in a boys school are striking.

    • I didn’t take it as hostile. Nor am I objecting to the idea that educational institutions can reflect ideology.

      I am simply pointing out that “the school bell, timetables, the breaking up of subjects into a timetable, prefects, hierarchy” have an obvious practical purpose and explaining it in terms of ideology misses this obvious point, and always tells us more about the agenda of the person putting forward the explanation than the agenda of the school system.

  11. I’m more suspicious of the agenda of someone who denies that their actions are informed by Ideology. Step forward one Mr T. Blair!

  12. The entire Japanese education system is predicated upon socially engineering its children to become what the ruling class want of them: pliable drones for the Japanese manufacturing industry, and fiercely loyal to the emperor. They have succeeded at this since the end of WWII, so clearly it can be done. What are your thoughts on that?

    • I’d heard that in recent years Japanese education had changed a lot.

      Anyway, my point is not that an education system can’t shape people. I just doubt that a curriculum, introduced by politicians or educationalists, can make people good.

  13. I just had a look back at this one because I couldn’t recognise the content from the title. On re-reading I’m struck by the disjunction between these shallow exhortations to produce right-thinking graduates of the school system and the simultaneous failure to deal with observable bad behaviour within the system.

    Surely anyone who thinks about what is “essential for building a good society” must have concerns about external observable civility or lack of it.
    When we go on to “and for true integral human development” we seem to have time-travelled back to the 70s and the insatiable hunger for ‘authenticity’.

    For schools and society generally, the first requirement must be civil behaviour. Citizens’ internal feelings, beliefs and attitudes are their own business. We’d all like to believe that good behaviour is a reflection of moral rectitude, but it needs to be no more than it is. Good behaviour is a social good in and of itself.

    Moralists, psychologists and therapists can worry about insincerity, dishonesty or hypocrisy but they are private issues, and very much secondary considerations at the social level. At the school level, good behaviour means that the teaching and learning business can go on uninterrupted.

    Now *that* would be a good thing.

  14. any chance u could do a bit on snow days?

    the teachers finest ally

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