Schools for the Enlightenment or epiphany?: Harry Brighouse

December 23, 2005

Harry Brighouse believes the opposite but would welcome faith-based schools into the mainstream to curb such excesses of religious zealotry

One of the many aims of the Government's new education White Paper is to encourage and provide incentives for private schools to become state schools. While it appears that some of the impetus is to bring traditional secular "independent" schools under the umbrella of state schools, the more controversial aim is to increase the number of faith schools in the state sector. The Government promises more Hindu, Buddhist and Christian schools; but the big change will be a substantial increase in the numbers of Muslim schools in the state system.

Opponents of faith schools bemoan the involvement of the state in promoting religion. They worry particularly that Muslim schools will bring social division and will promulgate sexist attitudes. The gentle rise in fundamentalist forms of Christianity in schools fuels similar worries; many of the Christian schools most likely to join the system have evangelical and fundamentalist aspects.

Some critics argue for looking to the US school system as an alternative model. In the US, all government-run schools are secular; with very few and unusual exceptions, so are all government-funded schools. Religious education is barred from the public schools, as are prayer and worship unless they are clearly conducted outside the curriculum and without the endorsement of school officials.

The task of educating the next generation is a matter of public concern whether it be conducted in private or public schools. About 12 per cent of American children attend private schools, most of them religious schools.

These are all but unregulated, and fundamentalist schools in particular frequently teach curriculums in science and history that would shock most Times Higher readers. The Accelerated Christian Education schools, for example, teach in science classes that evolution is false and that God created the world in seven days (literally). Their history presents a teleological account of American history as leading to the ultimate fulfilment of God's will, a kind of Christian version of the Stalinist approach to history but without the intellectual subtlety. Several hundred thousand children attend these and similar schools.

A system in which religious schools are invited to participate in the social task of educating the next generation has more probability of softening the edges of religious extremism and preventing the divisions in schooling to translating into further social divisions.

Civil servants at the Department for Education and Skills can use the carrot of state support to encourage and confer status on those Muslim schools whose leaders are most inclined to integrate with the rest of British society. Once those schools are in the system, their leaders and the families who use them will have more interaction with the rest of society. No such mechanism is available to US education officials; religious schools are out on their own.

The other problem with the US system is illustrated by the intelligent design controversy. The ID movement has emerged precisely in an environment in which religious perspectives find it so hard to get a hearing in state schools. Intelligent design is presented by its proponents as a non-religious theory - one that uses "scientific" methods and considerations to infer the existence of a non-denominational God as an explanation of those phenomena that evolutionary theory has difficulty with.

Its emergence is a good example of the distorting effect of the barrier between religion and government schooling. It would be a positive good to have religious moral and theological perspectives presented by believers and discussed in schools. Because that is out of the question, wealthy and unscrupulous perpetrators of a scandalous intellectual fraud are able to gain support from Christians frustrated by their sense of being shut out of the most important social process the government is involved with - educating the next generation.

Keeping schools secular, in other words, does not prevent religious influence; it simply allows religious entrepreneurs to select what influences they want to have and what causes they want to press. The ID debate is probably having a more corrosive effect on US educational culture than either intelligent design theory or creationism themselves would have.

The prevalent atmosphere of relativist toleration, and the weight that the proponents of ID have managed to accumulate behind their fraud, leads to teachers being unwilling to teach those aspects of biology that invoke evolutionary theory because, to quote a local teacher: "It is a personal matter for the students to decide what they believe." The victory the IDers have had is not in having their theories taught, but in undermining teachers' confidence in scientific standards of rigour.

Islam presents a rather different set of pedagogical challenges than American fundamentalist Christianity. In higher education in the US, one often comes across students who are flagrantly hostile to scientific standards of reasoning and to rigorous exploration of humanistic issues.

They seem to believe that they are somehow entitled to have their own viewpoint go unchallenged.

But Islam, unlike Christianity, does not have a historical strand of hostility to the findings and standards of science; the Muslim world was forging ahead with rational approaches to understanding our world when Christianity was in the Middle Ages. There is no reason to believe, for example, that increased government sponsorship of Muslim schools will in itself diminish the supply of well-qualified science undergraduates.

And British Muslims have little sense of entitlement; unlike some American fundamentalist Christians, they know only too well that their viewpoint is not the dominant one. They do not seek any sort of "return" to hegemony.

They are often used to arguing their corner and are much more likely to have encountered a wide range of criticisms of their moral and religious outlook than American fundamentalists.

So I am inclined to think that the Labour Government's approach is preferable to the US approach; it encourages integration and mutual learning between religious and non-religious outlooks rather than the hostility and mutual disengagement encouraged by the peculiar American arrangements.

Harry Brighouse is professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin and author of On Education , to be published in 2006 by Routledge.

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