Talk 1: Fundamental Issues

Audio Player

Image for: Talk 1: Fundamental Issues

"Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6.4).

That has to be a starting point for Christians as they think about education. But, then, there is also this specific call:

"We urgently need a public debate about the purposes of education."

That is from David Green, the director of the think-tank Civitas, and in his book Individuals Who Co-operate.

His main concern is at the heart of the problem, namely the role of the government in education. That is because, "the primary responsibility for education," he says, "should lie with parents." Yes, the government on behalf of us all is to "provide a reliable helping hand when necessary." But, he argues, sadly the government is now going further than it should. All must agree. For the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is so clear. That states that every person has a right to free education at the "elementary and fundamental stages" and that …

"… parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children."

Of course, no one says that the freedom of parents is absolute. Children need to be protected from parental neglect or abuse; and the State has a legitimate interest in making sure its citizens become economically competent and sufficiently knowledgeable for modern life. But all these objectives can be met by the State corporately setting minimum standards for instruction in the basics (including, obviously, reading, writing, and mathematics – something not to be taken for granted at the moment) and setting other agreed reasonable standards for schools. Where that is achieved parental choice should trump any central State dogmas. So tax-payers money should follow parental choice.

How this could happen is for discussion. But it could happen by gradually withdrawing direct government support for schools and moving to a universal tuition voucher or entitlement system as exist in some countries already.

In the UK the debate is, indeed, urgent as David Green says. The situation is particularly acute for vast numbers of Christian parents and their children not least in terms of morality – especially marital and sexual morals. This follows the British Government aggressively redefining marriage by introducing same-sex marriage in March 2014. This act of secular extremism is seismic and, not so incidentally, fuelling Islamic extremism. Even the liberal 19th century John Stuart Mill, in his Inaugural Address Delivered to the University of St Andrews, in 1867 said:

"It is a very imperfect education which trains the intelligence only, but not the will. No one can dispense with an education directed expressly to the moral as well as to the intellectual part of our being."

And he went on to give reasons why we must protect the home and family, for …

"we must keep in view the inevitable limitations of what schools and universities can do. It is beyond their power to educate morally … It is the home, the family, which give us the moral … education we really receive; and this is completed … by society, and the opinions and feelings with which we are there surrounded."

So schools should support parents in their efforts at moral education. But with the loss of the Christian tradition (for such there is) and the State generating new immorality, expect disaster.

Some might say educationally we reached a disaster point at the turn of the millennium.

Just before Christmas 2000 on the BBC Radio 4's Sunday programme, a concerned parent was being interviewed. She was an educated woman – an author, a writer on the Financial Times and an agnostic, not a believing Christian. But she expressed worries that there is discrimination in our schools against Christianity. She said:

"My daughter has been in a State primary school for four years and in that time she has never been part of a religious assembly. She's never been involved in a nativity play. She's never learnt a hymn. And she's never sung a Christmas Carol. I'm shocked at how little my children know about Christmas, about Easter, about anything that is part of the Christian tradition. And I believe that is a vital part of the cultural inheritance of our country."

This woman went on to say that she blamed our schools for the fact that one survey showed that only 8 percent of children associated Christmas with religion at all. While agreeing that children should learn about other religions, she said that the teaching profession should never loose sight of the significance of Christianity to Britain.

But the key date was earlier than 2000.

In the secularization process 1989 may have been a watershed year. With the pulling down of the Berlin Wall it signalled the end of the Cold War and of Stalin's brutal legacy. But 1989 also heralded, with the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, after the earlier return to Iran of the Ayatollah Khomeini, a new resurgent and aggressive Islam.

However, up to that point in the UK there was still publicly inherited Christian spiritual capital.

For such capital had been drawn on during the previous year for the 1988 Education Reform Act. That Act required (and still requires) in maintained schools a daily act of worship

"wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character;"

and religious education was (and still is) to

"reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practice of the other principle religions represented in Great Britain."

That was simply continuing a Christian tradition of education that went back to Anglo-Saxon times that included the school at Jarrow, here on Tyneside. It then went on through the Middle Ages and the Reformation to the beginnings of a universal school system in the 19th century that was still Christian with most schools in our islands funded and controlled by the Church or individual Christians. But then in 1833 there was some government funding and significantly more in 1870.

But the watershed was in 1944 when Government funding was almost total with an Education Act that was the result of a remarkable level of agreement. For what was proposed was still Christian education. Indeed, many saw the 1944 Act as strengthening the historic Christian tradition in education. The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, was one of its "architects". In the dark days of the Second World War, in his 1942 book Christianity and the Social Order, he had already argued that to avoid the evils of Hitler and Nazism currently being experienced "we must take steps to secure that the corporate life of the school is Christian."

So what has gone wrong since those days and since 1989 especially?

The Crisis of Western Education is the title of a book by Christopher Dawson. It is now seen as something of a prophetic work. Originally published in 1961, it was republished in 1989 with a new introduction as being still relevant and republished once again in 2010 with yet another introduction, stressing its continued relevance. In the book Dawson had argued that universal education, as it was evolving in the West, was itself a serious problem. In fact it was not only coinciding with the secularization of modern culture; it was very largely responsible for it.

For Dawson feared a universal education that …

"involves the creation of an immense machinery of organization and control which must go on growing in power and influence until it covers the whole field of culture and embraces every form of educational institution from the nursery school to the university."

In the UK there was supposed to be, as promised in 1944, a partnership between Church and State over education. However, even by 1961, this had turned out to be an unequal partnership.

"This is not merely due to the disproportion in wealth and power of a religious minority as compared with the modern State. Even more important is the all-pervading influence of the secular standards and values which affects the whole educational system."

Surely Dawson is right. There will always be some secular standards and values advocated by "dissidents" opposed to a Christian consensus. But their influence is disproportionate to their numbers because of the "immense machinery of organization and control" that is possessed by modern governments.

And the fact now is that the State has taken over control of education and parents are impotent. Furthermore, the State has connived at the defiance of the law in so many schools regarding the Christian requirements of the 1988 Act.

So what is happening is this. Western Christian liberal education has drawn on the best of the Greek and Roman educational tradition as well as the Bible.

But those Greek and Roman traditions that were revived in the West during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment held that educating citizens was the responsibility of the State. By contrast the biblical tradition of both ancient Judaism and Christianity and some aspects of Roman culture held (and hold) that education of children is the responsibility of the parents.

Of course, when there is agreement over basic beliefs and fundamental values both systems can merge. But once there is a multicultural, pluralist secular situation and the Christian faith is side-lined, there will be an impasse.

Alasdair MacIntyre in his book Whose Justice? Which Rationality? explains what happens then. Because extreme secularism cannot tolerate any single notion of the common good (certainly not a Christian world view) in the "public square", liberal society has to remain (theoretically) neutral regarding "the good life".

What you are then entitled to express in public is no longer what you think is good or right but just your "preference". The Western public square, therefore, is now full of "preferences". However, some way has to be found to order these preferences both in respect to private and public life. But no rational way can be found to do this, for there is no common notion of what is good or right. To judge between conflicting claims, therefore, and to avoid violence, you then try to invent a theory of law to justify your preference. And if you have enough supporters for your theory and your preference, you win in Parliament and so illiberally, but constitutionally, force others to submit.

Not surprisingly, in such a naked "public square" without any agreed "common good", there are those who still teach in a way intended by the 1944 Education Act, and who firmly believe, along with the majority in Western educational institutions until the 1960s, that there is a "common good" for society, namely the Christian world view and ethic. And they think children need to know what this is. But they will now attract a charge of indoctrination. Then, sadly, fear of such a charge tends to make other Christian teachers over-cautious in teaching the Christian faith to the detriment of his or her pupils. But, of course, they are only seeking to fulfil the 1988 Education Act.

Such a culture has a general chilling effect on both teachers and parents over challenging the authorities when they fail to keep the law. Also Parents are particularly worried about their own educational duties as Christians which are getting more and more difficult to fulfil. This is because, on the one hand, their children increasingly have to spend literally thousands of hours between the ages of four and eighteen in a secular, even secularly extremist, school learning environment. On the other hand, over those years, they spend only hundreds of hours in a Church young people's learning environment and that is if they are fortunate at being at a church with a good children's and youth programme.

But we need to be clear over the issue of indoctrination and the myth of neutrality. For there is massive indoctrination by secularists, certainly in the arts subjects and humanities, and in the sciences when ethical, philosophical or theological issues are ignored or prejudicially addressed.

The distinguished Professor of Psychology at New York University, Paul Vitz, did a fascinating study of Religion and Traditional Values in State School Textbooks. The general finding was that, I quote, they "present a very biased representation of both religion and many traditional values".

The fact is "indoctrination" is happening but it is mostly secular and not Christian.

However, the word "indoctrination" is to be used with care.

Earlier in the 20th century indoctrination had no pejorative overtones. It was equivalent to "education'. But today it means something somehow incompatible with good education.

This is because of a very specific ideal and somewhat extreme ideal of liberal (in the modern sense) education, which is rooted in notions of unfettered individuality, absolute freedom and total autonomy and, indeed, impossible understandings of rationality and tolerance.

Elmer John Thiessen, the author of Teaching for Commitment – liberal education, indoctrination and Christian nuture has highlighted the problem.

Indoctrination is reasonably opposed, first, when teaching does not allow a subject to be discussed; secondly, when the intention is that pupils believe what is taught regardless of the evidence; and, thirdly, when the consequences are a closed mind and an inability to criticize one's beliefs. And in general no Christian should want any of that.

But Thiessen, even so, insists there must not be a failure to address the way young children learn. You cannot treat very young children as autonomous and always able to decide for themselves what to believe. For example, that playing with fire is a great game. Growth towards autonomy needs to be developing. So what is wanted is normal autonomy, not absolute autonomy.

Good modern liberal education is an education that liberalizes a person and moves him or her, as it has been well put, beyond "the present and the particular".

But how do you get into the present and particular in the first place?

Answer, it is by being brought up in a particular home, a particular language, a particular culture, and a particular set of beliefs. It is only then that you can expand your horizons.

So a true liberal education has to be a process of development. And the starting phase of that development is very important. You need to adjust the "liberation" to the psychological needs of the child. For children need a stable and coherent "primary culture". To expose them to an endless and changing Babel of contradictory ideas and behaviours too soon will damage them and prevent further development towards normal rational autonomy. 

Therefore, if we want to use the word "indoctrination" we ought to use it when there is (I quote) "the curtailment of a person's growth towards normal rational autonomy."

So denying millions of children healthy Christian nurture and imposing irrational pluralistic secular extremism, as is being now done in thousands of schools on the young, should be named for what it is, cruel indoctrination that deprives children of a primary culture that they can then begin to critique as they grow towards normal rational autonomy.

All these are indeed fundamental issues that mean churches and parents need to pray, to organize and to act.

Back to top