Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Is Education a purely secular thing?

Recent major political campaigns to try and kick religious teaching out of State schools in Australia is misconcieved; to limit the possible contribution of "metaphysics" is to constrain and limit a child's education. (The words are full of controversy - I will use them this way -Secular is established and accepted  , whereas Religious is more broad but also much more controversial.)
I think we should continue to agree to disagree ( rather than suffer Too Much I or all starting up our own schools ) by deciding our children's involvement by means of agreed extra -curricula teaching in secular schools.  
But is it really necessary to offer "religious education "?- many outsiders will ask. The well respected professional scientist and educationalist Whitehead went so far as to say that "the essence of education should be religious ".  I think he really means its always bigger and better to include it where you can .  While most of that sort of teaching should happen at home,  but having some of  it,( like the stories and sayings of Jesus) at school  is clearly stimulating for many students .Jesus stories and actions deal with everyday tensions that kids feel deeply ( forgiveness, acceptance) so its no surprise that kids attend and welcome these tough practical social engagement examples . The teaching is still controversial with some suggesting the simply rational idea  that revenge is natural and turn the other cheek is irrational or unproductive  (impossible some would say ) - the fact that :not taking revenge "is part of our cultural training means that  its good that its taught  .
Because the content is controversial though , individual parents and teachers  must know what the content is  ( they work from agreed content and have some a classroom teacher supervise as well  ) and be able to veto access of their children . Going to " the boundaries of knowledge  for stimulation " must be a process that is subject to considerable scrutiny by parents in particular .
There is a lot to learn and lots of ways to learn  . Good to have parent and other teacher input . Classic divisions are "work " and "play ". I like having a distinction between secular and religious in common conversation amongst us because it helps separates the world of facts and process ( world of work? )  from discussions about purpose and values ( The 2 words are only approximations anyway )  I like the stimulation that comes from having a distinction between practice work ( not much exploration ) and practice play.( more exploration )   A stated secular / non secular boundary( agreed /not necessarily agreed ; explored / unexplored )  helps ensures that parents can check that important purpose and value conversations are taken by teachers whom they trust ( as they would do with sex education or psychological matters ) 
Clearly parents need to agree that that some controversial  areas of teaching are being taught in a way which they would approve , just as they would if sex education or Islam was being taught . Education is no more a purely secular thing any more that sex education can be treated as a purely animal or technical thing . 
While it is clear there are secular and "bookish "'components to education , the occasional broadening beyond mere categories too allows for the "vision of greatness" that Whitehead so well described as necessary  for a good education; Whitehead punched pretty hard on second rate options - attacks which even today might help liven up the dull category only conversations that can force us to never talk about certain categories (religion and politics). We all like neat categories,  but its not entirely good for our appreciation of knowledge to limit ourselves to them.   You  don't grow physics it seems , without  allowing for meta-physics . 
Whitehead was very clear too , as  psychologists mostly are , about matters of faith ( even though he didn't believe in a personal God ) - its part of us and we best accept that for our own mental heath and not deny it .
Whitehead was also clear about the danger of the temptation to limit discussion to things our minds can understand , talking about"  the trenchant judgements of those who will not give the time to think out a complex question " ( surely a growing risk in the over -information age ) .
It needs to be said that , just because you are a scientist ( includes myself) doesn't mean your grasp of the breadth of knowledge is relatively any better than anyone else's . 

Most importantly, Whitehead could see , even decades ago,  how science education in particular could be limited by such a process,  and prophetically,  with the likes of A Huxley and others ,anticipated the shallow millpond in which we find ourselves when we argue using mere facts and phrases;  This limiting process has been growing in our era ; a process he called : "misplaced concreteness".  
Protestants ( like John Fairfax) , in particular,  have been keen to support access of all children in Australia to a  free,  but vice limited , and professionally trained view of public education ( A curriculum review means some things are not on offer and some things are taught a certain way-- Its a good thing to try to confine what we don't know,  even if we don't know quite  what we are confining .If nothing else it moves the boundaries of the purely secular forward) .
I for one don't want churches to start schools in my area if , like doctors , we can't get one professional trained operator to work in our community.I want the teacher of physics or chemistry  to be as a good teacher as possible because I believe the subject is never exhausted:  to see it that way is to encourage discovery.
For the first time in modern Australian history we can't even get one chemistry teacher to teach in our public  local high school at higher levels.
Both christians and nonchristains are leaving State schools because something about the education process in state schools is failing . 
Not only are State schools failing to reinforce values. ( its not neccesarily the teachers fault - the parents and education innovatives are probably more to blame ). We have been  allowing a degree of vice to waste away their ability to train and direct. Without value boundaries  , as the Greeks found , wider discussions ( eg" why do we have to learn this boring stuff" ) in class can become vicious circles in which all we get for our trouble is a headache .Can you teach something as boring as maths without a leap of faith - that it is important.
It's the headache image that best pictures the dilemma that is created in our minds  when we do not have a big picture to help order all the small pictures . None of us  are welcome to discuss politics or religion at a nice gathering where people are all suffering from a headache - that reality doesn't mean such a discussion wouldn't help individuals avoid more of them. If TMI is the problem --you still need a way of sorting it ( secular- religious distinctions are a start - a start with a proven record of reasonable success across the West .
Alternatively tell us --why aren't kids excited by science ( take a look at what excites scientists!)  ?

Australians ( including the non religious)  are increasingly choosing to go/send their children  where secular and religious are accepted as important categories of curriculum.  Why risk trying to make schools totally secular, as if those proposing to do what Emperor Julian tried some years ago  have actually been there and done that.  .