Mistaking relativism for pluralism
TAKING GOD TO SCHOOL:
The End Of Australia’s Egalitarian Education?
by Marion Maddox
(Sydney: Allen & Unwin)
Paperback: 272 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
When I was a primary student during the 1950s, our state school was bursting at the seams with children of the post-war baby boom.
The Victorian Education Department therefore came to an arrangement with the Methodist church over the road and, for two years, my Grades 3 and 4 class’s lessons were held in its Sunday School hall.
Professor Maddox might regard this as a sinister portent of a later, and less seemly, overlap between the secular and sacred spheres in the area of education.
Although she would not appreciate hearing it, this book represents a piece of “good old days” nostalgia.
It harks back to a golden era when, apart from the Roman Catholic parochial system and a few expensive private church schools, the overwhelming majority of Australian children were educated by a public system which was “free, compulsory and secular”.
Today, only about 65 per cent of children use the public system, and that figure is falling.
Marion Maddox is out to attack not only the proliferation of cheap, government-subsidised religious schools which she holds responsible for this tendency, but also the “religionisation” of the public system by means of RE teachers, chaplains, and covert evangelistic curricular and extra-curricular programs.
Taking God To School has a number of things going for it.
Maddox is a politics academic, and her case is readable, informative, thoroughly researched and historically grounded.
It is also theologically literate. For example, unlike many of her secularist ilk, she does not confuse the terms evangelical and evangelist.
Her language is generally restrained, at least to the extent that the obligatory “moral panic” appears only twice.
A number of her targets are eminently aim-at-able.
These include theological oddities such as dominionism and “prosperity doctrine”, though neither of them is even close to universal in Christian schools; pedagogical oddities such as the ACE (Accelerated Christian Education) program, which had its heyday decades ago and is disappearing; and the teaching of Young Earth Creationism as science.
It is also reasonable for her to raise issues such as funding levels for rich schools; the educational and evangelistic tensions inherent in religious education; and the less than honest use of attractive programs for covert proselytising, such as Shine (for girls) and Strength (for boys), which are marketed as activities for building character and self-esteem.
So, what’s wrong with the book?
For a start, Maddox writes with a very definite religious bias.
She dismisses an organisation such as Scripture Union for holding what she calls “a particular, evangelical version of Christianity”.
However, SU is far closer to the creedal, historic, orthodox tradition of Christianity than is the liberal theology of the formerly mainstream Protestant denominations, such as the shrinking, ageing, moribund Uniting Church with which she appears to identify.
“Secular” education was a realistic principle when all except for a few per cent of Australians were at least nominally Christian.
Parents could be confident that state schoolteachers, while not explicitly promoting Christianity, would at least be respectful towards it, and adhere to its moral code, even if they were not personally committed believers.
They could be sure that teachers would never exploit their position of influence to discredit the Christian faith in front of their pupils.
Since the cultural revolution of the Sixties, it has been impossible to take these assumptions for granted.
The move to private Christian schools is a symptom, not a cause, of the divisions in our society.
Maddox dismisses the term “secular humanism”, but cannot escape the fact that an institution such as an education system cannot be value-neutral, and will propagate a world-view of some sort, consciously or unconsciously.
The question asked by one of her 19th-century heroes, “What offence can there be to anybody’s religion in teaching children to read, write and count?”, as if the three Rs are going to be taught in a values vacuum, is disingenuous.
Parents are entitled to provide their children with the education they want for them, and they are entitled to a refund from the taxes they pay which is proportionate to the amount which would be spent on their children if they were in a public school.
On the subject of money, Maddox claims that parents’ cited reasons for choosing private schools boil down to “underinvestment in public schools, and a preference for schools that can exclude students deemed disruptive”.
There are two problems with this statement.
The first is that anyone with any experience of teaching knows that money and facilities are far less important in terms of morale and academic results than is the ethos of a school, and in fact many of the new, cheap private schools have inferior facilities to those of public schools.
Secondly, as a result of the breakdown in recent decades of both family stability and educational discipline, public schools today can be jungles, in which staff are incapable of controlling deeply disturbed students from dysfunctional homes.
Parents are therefore quite justified in paying fees to ensure the protection of their children, some of whom would otherwise be ripped to pieces and eaten alive.
That does not mean, pace Maddox, that students in private schools exist in a state of artificial cultural isolation.
This would be impossible, even if their teachers and parents desired it.
Children spend only a limited proportion of their lives in school, and for the rest of the time they are rubbing shoulders with their ambient society, either literally through direct contact with family, relatives, friends, neighbours and sports-team members, or through the various media.
The teaching of religious education by volunteer instructors, and the role of Christian chaplains in schools, are both problematical in various respects, and Maddox’s arguments against them deserve at least a respectful hearing.
It should be remembered, however, that both RE teachers and chaplains are prohibited by explicit regulations from proselytising; that parents must opt in for their children to receive RE; and that schools are not obliged to take on Christian chaplains (though many do, and very appreciatively at that).
The lowest point of Taking God To School is found in Chapter Four, where Maddox displays an alarming confusion over the meanings of pluralism, discrimination and intolerance.
Pluralism does not mean that the differences between belief systems can be ignored, trivialised and overridden — that is relativism, not pluralism — but that they are recognised and respected, without any one of the competing faiths being granted exclusivity or dominance.
Christianity is characterised by a set of distinctive doctrinal and moral principles which, in the context of a Christian environment such as a family, school or church, Christians are rightly permitted to practise and enforce.
The same is true of other religions.
Muslims, for example, are not entitled to force everyone else in Australian society to abstain from pork and alcohol and homosexual practices, and to proclaim a belief in Mahommed as the prophet of a deity named Allah.
They are perfectly entitled, however, to require such a commitment from anyone working for, or attending, a mosque, a Muslim school, or a Muslim organisation.
To vilify Muslims for refusing to employ anyone in such a context who fails to subscribe to Muslim beliefs and practices, by accusing them of “intolerance”, “discrimination”, or lack of “diversity” and “pluralism”, would be to seriously compromise the “free exercise of any religion” which Section 116 of the Australian Constitution guarantees them.
The same goes for Christians.
Insofar as this book exposes a mentality which is extremely influential in powerful milieux such as universities, teacher unions, the arts, the entertainment industry, the ABC, the Fairfax press, the Labor Party and the Greens, it is an important and revealing read.
Bill James is a Melbourne-based writer.