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May 28, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Schooling Out Of Scripture

How faith-based schools betray the young.

I made many friends at school in my formative years. They were a mixed bunch: some Hindu, some Jewish (I was always jealous of their continual holidays), a few Muslims and others, like me, who were Christian. It was a proper cosmopolitan sandpit experience.

Many children are not so lucky. Their parents insulate them within a tightknit religious community where the church is part of every aspect of their life. It does not leave them at the school gates. These parents are able to imprison their children with the value system they deem ‘correct’. These children’s seesaw partners all pray to the same God.

Faith based schools whether they be Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Anglican or Islamic, bind children to the values of their parents. Proponents see them as a symbol of tolerance. They teach ‘good’ values and are more compassionate to the poor. These myths need correcting.

Parents are granted responsibility to make many important choices for their kids. They pick their sports, their instrument of choice, the friends they go on play dates with—even whether or not they get immunised or get to eat meat. Parents mould their children to suit an ideal. It would make sense then for parents to also decide on the values of their children—the God that they do or do not bow down to. Faith-based schooling becomes just an extension of the values parents tell their children. It is an insurance policy that the child will believe what you want her to believe, by blinding her from other belief systems. The parents do not want their child to be told about other religions in case they are ‘sucked into them’ at their impressionable age.

When religion dictates and defines a child’s community, the resulting introversion creates viciously isolated communities. In Brooklyn, NY, Jewish ultra-orthodox girls are often sent by their teachers to a counsellor, if they dress imprudently (don’t you dare show me your ankle, darling). Nechemya Weberman was such a counsellor. He is now on trial for multiple charges of rape and sexual abuse against the girls he ‘counselled’. That his abuses went on for years unnoticed is testament to the gated nature of these communities. Faith-based schools exacerbate this problem, granting no outlet for these children to console their problems with people outside these communities.

Counterintuitively, faith based schools may even hurt the goals of religion. Jonathan Romain, a congregational rabbi, is deeply committed to Judaism and firmly opposes religious schools. He wrote for the Guardian:

“The command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’—found in the book of Leviticus, but common to most major faiths–can only be observed if you know your neighbour and interact with him or her.”

In order to promote values of compassion, devout religious kids must engage and interact with people from other faiths. Romain sent his kids to a secular school so that “they would sit next to a Catholic, play football with a Muslim during break, do homework with a Hindu and walk home with an atheist.” A more integrated society reinforces the compassion of religion.

In many countries around the world such as the UK, schools are able to select their students even though they are state- funded. Proponents of faith based schools, like Tony Blair, supported their creation because they apparently selected more poor children due to their compassionate, religious nature (unlike us ruthless, selfish atheists, who hate the poor!). This is a myth.

A study conducted by the Guardian found that religious schools, in England, admit 10 per cent fewer poor students than representative of the local area. Conversely, the local secular state school has an intake of 30 per cent more kids from lower incomes, taking a disproportionate amount of poor children.

Instead, middle class parents ‘fake’ religiosity in order to get their kids to go to a more sheltered, nominally religious school. They attend congregation once, confess their sins and consider themselves devout enough to get accepted. Often faith-based schools have better academic results (perhaps due to them excluding poor students) which makes non-religious parents want to send their kids there, especially if they cannot quite afford the exorbitant private school fees.

These schools are generally not the ultra- orthodox, extremely insular schools but are only nominally religious. They teach RE, forget about sex-ed and read prayers in assembly but otherwise they are pretty standard. Still, there seems something problematic about a child being forced to lie about their beliefs and then be continually bombarded with religion just so that they can get a semi-decent education. If the Government is meant to provide quality education to all, it should not be able to excuse itself by kids only getting that education if they have to sit through bible studies.

It is hard to escape religion in schools. I told you that I went to a secular school. That is true. But I still had a hymnbook. In NZ, my state secular education had readings in assembly and prayers led by the Headmaster. Remembering those who had died at Gallipoli relied on us praying for them. This is religious favouritism at its worst. In the UK, the education secretary, Michael Gove, has just sent a Bible, using donations, to every state school in the country. Maybe every school does need a Bible, but why not also a Qur’an? Or would a dictionary not be a more handy gift? Or an encyclopedia? Or a great work of fiction? State education is supposed to be secular. Prioritising teaching Christianity over teaching English contravenes that notion.

Parental autonomy is important both ethically and practically–parents do generally know better than some benevolent government at bringing up their child. However, the case for unlimited parental autonomy must always be tempered by the understanding that children have important rights as well. If we want them to flourish, to think critically, to be free individuals and not moulded to weird cliques of religious conservatism, then we should offer them the opportunity to escape the claustrophobic confines of the religious community and values of their parents. Secular schooling is that fire exit.

You do not need to be Hitchens to oppose religion in schools. It isn’t that religion is bad. It’s just about facilitating choice of values for children rather than push-it- down-your-throat indoctrination. Extreme faith-based schools shut children away from a community not controlled by their parents’ beliefs. Children are isolated from support by the wider populous. Nations should be cosmopolitan, not a make-up of many gated communities, penned by religious difference. Nor should they allow a majoritarian religious favouritism. Secular schools must be secular in reality rather than just in appearance hiding insidious religious values. Societies worldwide make it near impossible to go to school without being told about the benefits of one God. That is a sham of biblical proportions. I want kids to be compassionate too. I just don’t think an almighty God has to be the one to make them so.



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