Sunday, August 19, 2007

Stephen Law on Faith Schools

[Quote] 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?


  1. I don't see the problem with parents sending their children to schools that are "conservative" or "communist" or of any other political bent. I don't see the problem with pictures on the walls. And I don't see the problem with singing a political anthem.

    I do see a problem with not exposing children to alternate viewpoints or expecting them to defer unquestioningly to their school's political cannon. But none of these things I'm against seem to be necessary for a politically affiliated school, as such. They seem to be things thrown in to make politically affiliated schools look bad. The problem isn't with coming at things from a particular political point of view, the problem is with how you go about doing that.

  2. Yes, that's why Law spoke of authoritarian X-schools. (The rest of his article makes clear that he has no objection to X-schools that follow liberal educational methods, inviting rational criticism, etc.)

  3. What strikes me about Law's discussion is how reminiscent it is of common criticisms of public schools in the United States, which do involve liberal education. The sort of conservatives Law has in mind have much the same problem with liberal methods that Law has with authoritarian methods; they think it means that views other than the official neutral view are not dealt with except in forms so simplified that they amount to little more than caricature, and that it discourages serious thought by encouraging an unsophisticated relativism, stunting their minds by making it virtually impossible for them to grow in any other shape than that dicated by a politically pre-approved mould. It's the same criticism, with only slightly different bogeymen, because the worry is the same; it's only the presuppositions that are different.

  4. I'm not sure I would take it that far. Any institution is likely to have non-inclusive ideological underpinnings, but the sort of political correctness which is prevalent in liberal schools and of which conservatives often complain falls well short, I should think, of authoritarian.

  5. Well, I take it that the criticisms are not that the public school system is authoritarian but that it is a system set up so that it can't help but caricature points of view and encourage relativism, and can't really get rid of the problem of political pre-approval anyway. Thus the criticism is parallel (although it is not the same criticism, because it is made from the opposite side). Whether it is as supportable or strong as the other would require looking closely at the evidence. Since it would be possible to accept both criticisms (that would make one have a very negative view of our entire educational system, but it's a possible position), the strengths of the two criticisms are unconnected; if one is right, the other could equally be right, or have some points right but not others. But the form of the criticism on both sides is still much the same, because the worry is the same: indoctrination and failure to give a good education. It's just that what Law would call 'authoritarian' the conservatives would call something else; and what Law calls liberal, the conservatives would think is just a euphemism for a shallow relativism that doesn't allow for deep-rooted understandings of any point of view.


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