Monday 16 June 2014

The need for religious schools

All those in favour of religious schools?

From a Catholic point of view, I suppose the main justification for Church schools runs roughly along the lines of 'keeping-one's-children-away-from-as-much-rubbish-as possible'. However, a slightly more sophisticated articulation of such a view might well be in order...

The main argument against religious schools (putting aside the rather crass 'stopping religion because it's wot sky fairy worshipping bronze age goat herds believed' argument) seems to be that it breaks down community cohesion: by educating children separately, you encourage them to think of themselves as separate (and even antagonistic). Rather than just dismissing such an argument, it's worth acknowledging that it does have some force as a worry. If there were nothing else to be said, it might well be that such a consideration would tip the balance against religious schools.

However, there is something more to be said which throws the burden of proof back on to the opponents of religious education. Let's concentrate on the consequentialist arguments for now rather than, say, that deontological argument that parents have a right to control their children's education. In essence, this amounts to the claim that it is better for the sum total of happiness in society that religious schooling exists.

1) The Burkean argument. The traditional conservative view is that social cohesion is built, not from the State down, but from the family and civil society up. By being socialized within a 'little platoon', we grow to be socialized into wider society. As Burke puts it:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.

A school rooted in the values of its community and the families whose children attend it is one that contributes more to social cohesion than a school which tries to separate children from the values of home and community.

2) The MacIntyrean argument. All intellectual endeavour, but more particularly the moulding of character and morality, takes place within a tradition. There is not one understanding of the good life, but a number of competing views more or less successfully supported by a coherent way of life and practices of reflection. 

[Alasdair MacIntyre] believes that modern philosophy and modern life are characterized by the absence of any coherent moral code, and that the vast majority of individuals living in this world lack a meaningful sense of purpose in their lives and also lack any genuine community. He draws on the ideal of the Greek polis and Aristotle’s philosophy to propose a different way of life in which people work together in genuinely political communities to acquire the virtues and fulfill their innately human purpose. This way of life is to be sustained in small communities which are to resist as best they can the destructive forces of liberal capitalism. [Here.]

Unless education takes place in such a community, not only will the happiness of the individual suffer, but the intellectual depth of the education offered will be undermined by the absence of a coherent philosophical underpinning. 

The force of both arguments can be seen in the current mulling over the 'Trojan Horse' schools. By trying to impose a culture antithetical to that of the home and the community, instead of promoting social cohesion, schools instead produce deracinated and alienated youth who fail even in the basic terms of exam success. By working with the grain of the 'little platoon', schools will be able to produce integrated individuals who are able to function productively in society.

The Burkean argument emphasizes the aspect of sentiment and the emotions, the MacIntyrean the aspect of intellectual and moral coherence. But both represent the conservative belief that an integrated society emerges from the bottom up rather than the top down. Opposed to that is the statist view that cohesion can be imposed from the top, even if 'cohesion' produces individuals deracinated from their families and their cultures, even if the resulting culture clash results in poor educational performance and individuals alienated from the economic system. (And this is quite apart from the deeper -and highly problematic -assumption that social cohesion is identical with social uniformity.) 

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