Tuesday 19 June 2012

Faith schools, Groups and Plurality

Cross over Dubrovnik

BY CC Jeremy Vandel.

Tony Blair's argument for faith schools in The Irish Times yesterday was odd: "Faith schools can help bridge gaps in divided communities". Blair was quick to counter the obvious arguments against faith schools from the situation in Northern Ireland:

"Whenever the topic of faith schools came up it would not be long before Northern Ireland was mentioned. Weren’t the roots of the Troubles down to the children of different faiths being separated in different schools? There was even a claim from those who were adamant that the conflict “wasn’t really to do with religion”. Strange how many people behaved as if it was.

Schooling can divide communities. Think of the pivotal role of schools in desegregation in the US. That much of the argument is valid. But it is not the religious tradition, prioritised in affiliation of staff and students, that matters, but how each tradition is interpreted in the teaching and the life of the school.

Does it instil respect and understanding, an open mind, open to inquiry, at ease with diversity, ready to learn more about other faiths? Or does it create a closed mind, a mindset vulnerable to fear, distrust and coercion, a world where “error has no rights”? In short is it good religion or bad religion?"

Growing up in Northern Ireland, the vast majority of schools were connected with one (Christian) faith or the other - and there is often division on gender lines as well as religious ones. Together with academic selection, there's a lot of different schools in Northern Ireland, and simply not the population numbers or resources to fund it all. One thing we don't lack is division, so how can faith schools bridge these gaps?

"[On schools in Ballycastle]

On one side of the bridge lay the Cross and Passion, a Catholic school; on the other Ballycastle High, a mainly Protestant school.

Led by two outstanding religious education teachers the two schools tentatively began to get together in the late 1960s on a very informal basis. In the 1990s, through “Curriculum 2000” it became a much more formal and structured process.

Through the shared education programme funding, the collaboration has expanded beyond post-16-year-old students to include younger pupils studying for their GCSE exams. They now have a joint school choir and rugby team."

Hmm... So it was in coming together - working together, or singing together, or playing sports together - that they built bridges and overcame divisions? Well why not skip the expensive and time-consuming process of dividing people in the first place, and have them in secular integrated schools from the start?

"Many of our secular schools offer the same skills [from earlier: "instil[ing] respect and understanding, an open mind, open to inquiry, at ease with diversity, ready to learn more about other faiths?"], though I sometimes think they have a more difficult task. The gift is to help young people escape from what the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, writing about “the new religious intolerance” – intolerance of religion – recently dubbed a world of “whatever”." (I personally would have associated "whatever" with indifference and not intolerance, but whatever...).

This is a confused piece. Cooperation between faith schools is a good thing, particularly in places like Northern Ireland where politics has made interfaith tolerance a sensitive issue, and where there is a stronger political impulse to preserve the identities of separate communities using separate institutions as far as possible. It can be difficult to overcome these divisions, and shorter-term methods of building up confidence and respect such as through cross-community or interfaith cooperation are a good thing.

It's a different matter to suggest promoting faith schools where there isn't the same level of historical and inter-community conflict, and to propose faith schools, and cooperation between faith schools, as a way of building bridges between communities. Apart from the fact that the model would encourage sharper division into group identities that may not have existed if people hadn't have been sorted into different schools, it's a mistaken approach to plurality to simply see it simply as a collection of co-existing strong groups. Real pluralism is a patchwork of groups and individuals, with many individuals caught in the overlap. Membership of a group in a pluralist society should not be something that either defines you - and being sorted into schools based on a religious or cultural group identity is a pretty strong way of defining someone early on in life.

This is not to say that group identity shouldn't be accommodated in society: it should. It is more a mark of the respect, tolerance and understanding a society has between groups in society the more they can accommodate each other in a shared space, rather than shutting each other away. Ideally we should not need faith schools to build bridges between us, but would have a common public space where we all interact as a part of life.

I am also uncomfortable with the way this brings religion closer to the state. Blair was at pains to distinguish between "good" and "bad" religion, but conferring resources and privileges equally among religious groups is not only a misguided way of looking at religious freedom, but it also draws them closer in to the state. The state has to decide what religion is deserving of resources (presumably based on numbers, which leads to the question of how far religious groups are encouraged to shout the loudest for resources and privileges), and also is drawn into questions on the role of religion in education. There's a difference between teaching children about different religious beliefs and educating children in a religious ethos so they respect religious beliefs. The classic case is science versus religion - what if religious beliefs conflict with teaching the scientific content of the curriculum? Tony Blair says that faith schools should abide by the curriculum, but it is hard to say on the one hand that a school may have a religious ethos, and then refuse it the freedom to teach its religious teachings, either instead of or along with the curriculum. The state should stay out of religion.

Sometimes it's more practical to foster understanding between groups by building bridges between their respective institutions - particularly in divided or post-conflict societies - but we should be working towards a pluralism that is a common public space for everyone, not a gangway of rickety bridges.

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