Monday, October 25, 2010

Separation of church and state or public schools: Pick one

A commenter on my previous post asks what the content of a creationist course would be, readings from the book of Genesis or merely bad science, and adds that "teaching Marxist ideas of 'laws of history' is peddling a form of religious pseudo-science. Some of the environmental dogma being taught in schools is also on par with this stuff."

This suggests a more general point—is the existence of a public school system consistent with a serious commitment to the separation of church and state?

I think the answer is that it is not. While teaching a fundamentalist version of the origin of life is indeed taking a side in a religious dispute, teaching a conventional account of biology and geology is is also taking a side in that dispute, just the opposite side. I do not see how I can honestly tell a fundamentalist that it is a violation of the separation of church and state to teach children that his religious beliefs are true but not a violation to teach children that they are false.

The conventional view is, in this case, the one I believe is true. But then, if they were teaching creationism, they would be taking the side he believes is true. So what purports to be separation of church and state ends up as the opposite—the state supporting a particular view of religious questions. That comes pretty close to the established church that the First Amendment explicitly forbids.

Of course, these are not only religious questions, they are also scientific questions. But then, most religious questions are also scientific, or historical, or philosophical, questions. If the rule is that the state can teach whatever it believes is true provided that here is some basis for that belief other than religion, that leaves the state free to teach the truth or falsity of pretty nearly every religion. The doctrine of separation of church and state then becomes the doctrine that one can only teach the truth, which sounds fine as rhetoric but has some practical difficulties in a world where different people have different views of what the truth is.

So far, I have considered a case where the school teaches what I believe is true. In the real world there is no such limitation, as the quoted comment with which I started this suggests. When schools teach children that they have an obligation to take care of Mother Earth they are teaching religion, whether or not they put it in an explicitly religious form; religions are not limited to beliefs about gods. And I find it hard to draw any sharp line between religions and secular ideologies such as Marxism or libertarianism.

Eliminate all content that is in a broad sense religious and there is nothing left. Even eliminate all content that is religious in a narrow sense, where that includes claims that religions are false as well as claims that they are true, and there is not a whole lot left.

In practice, the application of separation of church and state in the American public schools usually comes down to not teaching what most of those concerned see as something that one would believe only for religious reasons. A century or more ago, that mostly meant that teaching Christianity was fine, since practically everyone took it for granted that Christianity was true. Today, insofar as matters are decided at the local level, it means that teaching things that the locals almost all agree with are fine—which can be Christian fundamentalism in some places and environmentalism and left-wing politics in others.

Problems arise when there is a conflict either between local and national views or between the views of the local parents and the views of the teachers and/or administrators running the schools. It is only at that point that what one group sees as obvious truth gets attacked by another as teaching religion.


British Spending Review: 75,000 extra apprenticeships

Up to 75,000 people will be given on-the-job training under Government plans for a huge expansion of apprenticeships. George Osborne said spending on adult training would rise by £250m a year to boost workforce skills during the economic recovery. It represented an increase of 50 per cent on the amount of money set aside by Labour for apprenticeships.

But the announcement failed to mask sharp cuts elsewhere in the further education budget. Cash for colleges and adult training will be slashed by a quarter – or £1.1bn – to £3.2 billion by 2015. Train to Gain, which provides courses for over-25s already in employment, will be scrapped.

The Coalition also announced that English language courses for economic migrants and those not intending to take up UK residency would be cut.

Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, said: “I am not going to say that any of these cuts are going to be easy and many people are going to feel the consequences, but without action all of us, for years to come, would pay the price. "These decisions have been hard but they are necessary”

Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: "There is no escaping the fact that the next few years will be extremely difficult and there are some real challenges ahead, but colleges are resilient and will find ways of making the best possible use of the funding available."


Pupils once had access to life's poetry

Not all education needs to be utilitarian. An introduction to the beautiful and the inspiring is important too

By Christopher Pearson (in Australia)

One of the cornerstones of Western civilisation is the proposition that the growth of human understanding is an intrinsic good. This stands regardless of whether it's of practical use or economic benefit and even when -- for example, in the case of research into lethal variants of viruses -- the new knowledge has potentially catastrophic consequences.

Some kinds of new knowledge are obviously far more important than others; some that at first seemed so trivial as to be barely worth recording lead to wonderful drugs such as penicillin. Many of the rankings on what's worth knowing are far more provisional than is commonly supposed and most are subject to revision over time.

For many revisionist educational theorists, truth and beauty are corny abstractions with resonances of the poetry of Keats and Matthew Arnold's late Victorian text Culture and Anarchy.

Others, not least of them Pope Benedict XVI, insist that the experience of the beautiful and developing the ability to discern the true are the foundation of any education worthy of the name. They further argue that it is the intrinsic value of the arts, the social and the natural sciences -- rather than preparing job-ready pupils -- that should shape the content of any curriculum and its priorities.

The philistines in charge of state education, and many of their colleagues in the private schools, have triumphed to the point where concrete examples of the kind of policy I'm talking about may be scarcely imaginable for readers in their 30s and 40s. Let me sketch it out, with reassurances that 40 years ago it was the norm for most Year 10 kids.

At school, in Year 8 and above, students would at least be expected to have mastered arithmetic and be able to read, more or less under their own steam, two novels suitable to their age. They were still taught the rudiments of grammar and spelling, and expected to commit to memory 40 or 50 lines of verse, or perhaps some of Shakespeare's speeches, in any given year. In independent and Catholic schools the emphasis on memorising was stronger, leaving kids an enduring legacy of "the best that's been thought and said" in their mother tongue.

From Year 8 there was a general introduction to maths, physics and chemistry for all but the slowest, and most had at least one year, often three, of French, German or Latin, the great literary languages. Most studied history and/or geography, and had at least one lesson a week of art, music and physical education.

By that time sport was an optional extra, along with participating in the choir or school band and putting on a play each year.

By the end of Year 10 the average pupil would have been no less job-ready than his contemporary counterparts, but would have had a broader and deeper general education.

The class of 1970 would have had a fair range of options and been able to compensate with extracurricular activities if the core wasn't very appealing. They'd have been able to read a newspaper and, when necessary, most would have known how to use a library. Even if their English teachers had been remiss on the subject of grammar, studying another language would have helped many to grasp the fundamentals of their own.

The general assumption was that everybody, including the plodders in the technical schools, was entitled to experience music and poetry and fiction that spoke to "the higher things". The task was to give them a preliminary introduction to the riches of the culture or, in F.R. Leavis's phrase, "a greater sense of life's possibilities". The Left and the Right of the teachers' unions in those days tended to agree that their responsibility was to help prepare kids for life, not just ready them to acquire a meal ticket or turn them into factory fodder.

None of this is to disparage vocational education per se; merely to put it in proper perspective.

The broader and better the education, the less likely that kids will specialise too soon, foreclosing other options, and the more adaptable to the increasing vagaries of the jobs market. Let me end with a proposition that in 1970 would have been a commonplace and now seems almost scandalous.

Suppose you had taught a pupil to sing and follow a score, or play a musical instrument. Whether anyone else got to hear the person sing or play, or whether performing became a source of income, was entirely up to the individual. You had given that person a great gift: a measure of access to the canon and a grounding in technique. That was all that mattered.

From an educational perspective, the fact that it might never be shared, let alone monetised, as accountants say these days, or that it might never be captured in measured productivity or the gross domestic product, was of no consequence whatsoever. I trust that, for the best of the rising generation of teachers, it still doesn't matter.


No comments: