Sinister alternative to teaching of religion


Tom Hickey proposed the discontinuance of the practice of educating a child for the life he/she will live, writes JOHN WATERS

THE MOST disquieting article I have read in this newspaper for some time was published last Friday under the byline of Tom Hickey. It was a relief to note that the author was not the great Irish actor, who once inhabited the personality of Benjy Riordan, but, instead, a fully-accessorised product of our university system, having recently completed a PhD on “republican liberty” at NUI Galway.

The article was headed “‘Common’ schools best in transmitting civic values”. As with most contributions on education these days, it soon became clear that it was an implicit denunciation of teaching religion to children, although this argument was partly camouflaged by the advocacy of “non-denominational” or “common” schools.

While not demanding an outright ban on religious involvement in education, Hickey argued that the “legitimacy” of religious denominational schools should depend on their capability to develop “the appropriate skills and attitudes” in their students. By this he appeared to mean that religious schools might be tolerated if they abandoned the teaching of religion. The article identified four headings under which an assessment of the educative legitimacy of schools must be conducted: civic patriotism; understanding and contesting power; the common good, including awareness of interdependence and inequalities; and “reasonable pluralism”, ie, an awareness of different outlooks and beliefs.

Children educated in “common schools”, Hickey asserted, are more likely to acquire the correct understandings of citizenship under these four headings. To ensure that the prescribed values-systems are correctly transmitted, religious schools must be “restricted in significant ways” by the State.

Hickey stated rather coherently the view of education now standard-issue within media, the political system and, increasingly, the education system itself. Outwardly, this appears to propose a “neutral” form of education, stripped of the particularities of particular faiths. But it also wilfully misunderstands what education is – the introduction of the child to a total relationship with reality – and what religion is, conflating the essence of religion with its institutional expression and interpreting faith as an add-on interpretation of life and the world, at odds with the “neutral” understandings being proposed.

Properly understood, religion enables the opening up of the child’s natural understanding of his/her own structure and relationship with the totality of reality. True education involves the proffering of a tradition in its entirety, together with the freedom to interrogate it. Its fundamental objective is not the “inculcation” of anything, still less the indoctrination of values or beliefs. That Irish Catholicism has tended to misunderstand the meaning of the word “freedom” is insufficient reason to replace a stunted form of propaganda with an outrightly sinister one.

Hickey proposes the discontinuance of the practice of educating a child for the life he or she will live, substituting for this a process of indoctrinating each child in an ideological version of reality in which he or she is to be regarded as just another atom. Among the many ingredients missing from this prescription is the nurturing of the subjectivity of the child in the mysteriousness of reality.

Reading down Hickey’s argument, it soon became clear that what might casually be read as the “neutral” values he wishes to have conveyed to our children are in fact deeply and specifically ideological. Children, he declared, must be taught about science “independently of religious doctrine”, as though it were obvious that science and religion are in opposition to one another.

Schools must be open to staff and students from outside their particular faith denominations, who must be accommodated on an equal footing, an insistence that would seem ipso facto to demolish the specificity of any given religious understanding of reality. The most chilling thing about Hickey’s article was the repeated use of the phrase “child citizen”, which must have caused Orwell to turn repeatedly in his grave on account of his failure to think it up when writing 1984.

It appears that the correct understandings of democracy and citizenship to be “inculcated” into “child citizens” involve not just a capacity to maintain checks on those in the public realm, but also the capability of “critically assessing” their own “inherited religious or non-religious commitments” in what Hickey intriguingly described as “the so-called private sphere”. Advocating caution against “child citizens” remaining “permanently in thrall” to the beliefs of their parents, Hickey expressed no view on the dangers of children remaining “in thrall” to the ideological perspectives to be “inculcated” on behalf of the State.

Such is the reduced nature of understandings in our culture that these prescriptions may now appear unexceptionable. When we return, however, to the core mission of education – to prepare a child for life, as opposed to for an economy, a civic space, or even a republic – it becomes clear that what is being proposed is the reduction of the experience of being human. The “child citizen” will be primed to live a life in the box built by man, governed by statutes and economics and approved thinking, closed off from most of the vast possibilities of existence, his hope deflated, her desire stunted, a citizen of a dictatorship of pseudo-pluralism, quasi-equality, reduced reason and, ultimately, nothingness.