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November 01, 2006

Is Education Beyond Belief? Marc Sidwell wonders if education by the state is the real leap of faith

Posted by Marc Sidwell

Marc Sidwell comes to the defence of faith schools and wonders if education by the state is the real leap of faith.

In The Eternal Profession, Gilbert Highet reflects that the ideal teacher "will either practice religion or respect religion", or risk denying to his or her students "many of the highest satisfactions and exaltations of this life". Thirty years on, Highet's statement of the obvious has become heterodox. If the zeal of Richard Dawkins's private campaign against God is seen as in vaguely poor taste for its frankness, yet it seems everyone can agree that "faith schools" are an egregious departure from sound educational practise. Religion has moved from the central plank of schooling to a beam in the system's eye in one generation.

The recent debate, if it deserves the name, has been conducted with more reference to historic anti-Catholic sentiment than the facts. The evidence from Ofsted is clear: Catholic schools are unusually ethnically diverse; produce well-rounded individuals ready to take up the responsibilities of citizenship; and outperform other schools across the curriculum. So far from being the product of a middle-class selection effect, the Catholic edge increases with the level of disadvantage of their pupils.

Why should any of us be surprised? The Jesuits, after all, have been some of the greatest teachers in all of history. We have them to thank for Molière, Descartes, Tasso, Voltaire, Calderón, Montesquieu, Corneille, Buffon, Diderot, Goldoni and Joyce, to cite only a handful. That several of those listed would be uncomfortable expressing their debt only drives home the point that we exaggerate the power of the teacher to fix the human mind for life. Given the child until the age of seven, the Jesuits could not guarantee that he would die a good Catholic. They would probably guarantee that he could read and write: more than the state seems able to achieve.

It is not Christians who are determined to secure a child's future beyond doubt. For while Christians seek the salvation of souls, they believe that salvation requires each soul to freely choose the good. It is the Romantic progressive in the tradition of Rousseau who wants to program every child such that it will ever after, in following its own apparent whims, stay inside the tramlines of social acceptability. John Stuart Mill saw the danger in On Liberty:

A general state education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another… [and] in proportion as it is efficient and successful, establishes a despotism of the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.
The reason, above all, why the schools of the churches are better than the schools of the state is that they pursue a different end. The state has no incentive to demand more than biddable citizens that can be farmed for the taxes by which it is maintained. The Church wishes to develop individual souls able to bend their impulses to their own reasoned will and serve their God by serving their fellow man.

This is not to say that every Catholic pedagogue has been Cardinal Newman or that every secular comprehensive is a sink school. Certainly there are significant anti-intellectual strains in Christianity, with evangelical Protestantism having particular problems with modern science. Yet creationism is not an issue for the two great Christian educators in Britain, the Anglican and Catholic Churches. When we take the historical view, we find the Christian Church celebrating faith and reason - the great educator of Europe for a thousand years. Here is Roger Scruton in The Meaning of Conservatism on one fragment of that history:

[B]y 1400 the Paris scholasticus was able to command each parish to establish a school, to provide for scholars both rich and poor the education of the trivium - an education requiring greater mental exertion than anything commanded by our modern governments.
In Britain, we should think of Bede, Alcuin, King Alfred the Great, John of Salisbury, St Anselm of Canterbury, St Thomas More… the list goes on and on. When we look at those who have done most to improve education and bring it to all citizens, even into the twentieth century, it has largely been the province of men of faith (not necessarily of a conventional sort), even up to Alexander Lindsay and his vision for Keele University.

Nor was the view that Christianity should be at the heart of our education forgotten when the system of state schooling was devised. There is still a legal requirement, if an openly flouted one, for all maintained schools to provide daily collective worship that is wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character. In June, the Churches sent a joint letter to Alan Johnson deploring the failure of so many state schools to observe this requirement. What has changed is not the law, not the power of faith to underpin a formidable education, but the sense among the educators themselves that faith is antithetical to their concerns or an embarrassment to their multicultural views. They are wrong, and the fact that people are eager to fly secular comprehensives to attend schools of a religious character even if they do not share that faith proves the point.

Parents are wrong too, however, if they imagine that a school's religious ethos and its high-quality education are an accidental association. David Blunkett longed to bottle the "faith school ethos", but it is the school's valuation of the human soul in the light of its relationship with God that shapes the education that Mr Blunkett admired. As a consequence, those who do not profess the faith must be kept a minority group in the school if they are not to weaken the ethos they admire so much. There seems little cause for complaint in that regard. Those of a non-Catholic background make up around 30 per cent of pupils at Catholic schools. The established Church now promises to dedicate a quarter of places in all its schools to the same purpose.

People who still object to the discovery that it helps to be religious if you want a good education might as well complain that squares aren't circular; the faithful may more justly murmur that they are being patronised by snobby tourists who want to enjoy the bloom but not to meet the gardener.

The irreligious forget how informed and improved by Christian values their lives generally are. Rodney Stark's The Victory of Reason makes a convincing case for the Christian roots of science and capitalism. Chris Smith and Richard Koch, in a book very much of the Left, The Suicide of the West, cannot help but conclude that Christianity is the central pillar of Western civilisation. Secular humanism draws on Christian ideas about the peculiar dignity of every human person and, lacking their grounding in the Incarnation, is less well-founded, more open to the attacks of Peter Singer and others who would replace the value of the individual with an icy utilitarian sum.

Most parents may not go to Church, but would like their children to behave as if they did. Even atheism is ineluctably a post-Christian stance, for only through the Judæo-Christian rejection of all other gods does it become possible to say that even the Christian God may not exist. A post-Christian society, if that were the goal, would not be a society that could forget Christianity. It would be forced to remember the rule of embryonic development, of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny and, to get the secular adult, endure the devout child. Whether that compromise could ever be sustainable is another question.

Faith schools are not the exception. Secular state education is. Five million British adults cannot read. Fifteen million (around half the workforce) lack basic numeracy skills. A million children (around a quarter of the sector) are in state schools acknowledged to be substandard. They have been failed by pedagogues in love with ideology and unable to face up to educational realities. With the closure of the grammars, the opportunities for the poorest to rise have been brutally curtailed. With the retreat from religion in our schools, we have scooped out the vision of human dignity and purpose that was the beating heart of our education system for centuries. To believe that a monolithic, secular, state monopoly in education is the best we can offer our children is the real act of faith.

Marc Sidwell is a freelance writer and a member of the organising committee for the Henry Jackson Society. He is currently working on an anthology of British writing in defence of liberal education.


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An interesting article. However, it always worries me when people start advocating religious education for secular good. Bolzano was a very great mathematician, but as this biography states:

In fact Bolzano’s years of study of theology had done nothing to strengthen his acceptance of the religious beliefs on which Christianity is founded. However, his professor at the Charles University had put forward an argument which he had found very persuasive, namely that faith in a doctrine was justified if it led to moral good. Later in his writings Bolzano argued for a more general form of this argument:- Of all actions possible to you, choose always the one which, weighing all consequences, will most further the good of the totality, in all its parts. This allowed Bolzano to accept the mystical elements of Christianity for the greater good of mankind, although he didn't accept them to be historically true.
That sort of thinking seems to me to lead down a black hole, albeit on a gentle (at first) spiral. Similarly, Boris Johnson seems to think that although most of the Roman emperors would classify as “Bad King”, emperor worship for the sake of social stability was a “Good Thing”. (Would he have approved of persecution of Christians?). Anyway, the Gods of Olympus seemed to think it was a Bad Thing, and quit rather than have their party continually gate-crashed by all those nasty little Caesars. As for:
the rule of embryonic development, of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny and, to get the secular adult, endure the devout child

the author seems to have fallen for the fallacy of Auguste Comte, that the “mythological” and “metaphysical” stages precede the “scientific” one. The goddess Aurora was not a pre-scientific “explanation of the phenomenon” of dawn. Alas, even some of the philosophical contributors to Physics World have fallen for Comte’s particular brand of tosh. (Note: T.H.Huxley thought that Comte was tosh also).

Added to which, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” is not accurate as a scientific doctrine. Marine gastropods go through larval stages called trochophore and veliger:-

Trochophore – from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A trochophore (or trocophore) is a type of larva with several bands of cilia. They are found in certain mollusks, annelids, and a few other phyla. Together, these make up part of the Lophotrochozoa; it appears trochophore larvae were present in the life cycle of the group's common ancestor.

Note (a) the common ancestor would have had a trochophore larva, but that does not imply an earlier species Trochophorius (b) land snails are very similar to whelks, but the embryo has changed considerably to cope with the new environment. Embryos evolve too!

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at November 5, 2006 04:09 PM
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