Wednesday, 25 November 2009

ice age coming, ice age coming....

There are two schools just down the road from me.  Both have been around for a while, but both have just moved into new, purpose-built school buildings over the course of the summer.  They apparently have very good reputations - I'm told that one of the main reasons people live around here is the quality of the schools - but there's one thing about both of them that disturbs me: both have had crosses built prominently into the architecture of their new buildings.  One has a huge cross inlaid in white brick across the front of the building; the other has a cross shaped hole in the brickwork at the top of the roof.  At night, this is bathed in red light and can be seen for miles around.

Needless to say, they're Christian schools - one is Catholic and one is Church of England.  Here's the blurb from the website of one of them:

"We are very much a Christian community, providing an education grounded in the teaching and principles of the Gospel.  This means that Christian faith is reflected in worship and our day to day school life, valuing the personal worth of every member of the school community and fulfiling their personal potential as they serve others."

And the motto of the other one?   Laborare est Orare - To Work is to Pray.

Hm.

I had a Christian education myself.  The motto of my last school, Orando Laborando - by work and by prayer - is really not so very different from Laborare est Orare.  I seem to have survived that upbringing with my critical faculties intact, so what's the problem?  Is it arrogant to assume that no one else might be able to survive that kind of an education; that other people may be more susceptible to brainwashing?

At the beginning of his book "God Is Not Great: how religion poisons everything", Christopher Hitchens fondly recalls the nice teacher who taught him about both the Bible and the natural world:

"However, there came a day when poor, dear Mrs. Watts over-reached herself.  Seeking ambitiously to fuse her two roles as nature instructor and Bible teacher, she said, "So you see, children, how powerful and generous God is.  He has made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the colour that is most restful to our eyes.  Imagine if, instead, the vegetation was all purple, or orange, how awful that would be"....I was frankly appalled by what she said.  My little ankle-strap sandals curled with embarassment for her.  At the age of nine I had not even a conception of the argument from design, or of Darwinian evolution as its rival, or of the relationship between photosynthesis and cholrophyll.  The secrets of the genome were as hidden from me as they were, at that time, to everyone else.  I had not then visited scenes of nature where almost everything was hideously indifferent or hostile to human life, if not life itself.  I simply knew, almost as if I had privileged access to a higher authority, that my teacher had managed to get everything wrong in just two sentences.  They eyes were adjusted to nature, and not the other way about."

Lucky for Hitchens that he had such clarity of insight at such a tender age.  I myself did not: I used to quite enjoy going to chapel and engaging in the ritual of singing the hymns even when I used to listen to some of the more ill-considered sermons we received with contempt.  I don't believe in God, and I'm not really sure I did then either, but I still find the Bible a fascinating book, even if I would hardly choose it as a detailed guide for living my life.  Whether we like it or not, that book has permeated our society and our culture: how can you even begin to understand the works of a Michaelangelo or a Shakespeare without at least a passing knowledge of the Bible and of the Church? It should be studied.... but the same is surely true of the holy books of other religions too, and don't you wish you'd learned a lot more about them when you were at school?  I know I do.

I'm all for the teaching of religious history in schools - as long as it's inclusive of all religions and doesn't just tell one side of the story.  But really, should schools be joint-ventures between chuch and state?  Should the iconography of one particular religion be emblazoned into the very fabric of a school building?

I don't think so.

I'm sure these are both very good schools, but I can't help but feel uncomfortable at the prominence they clearly give to religion; to one religion in particular.  In a multicultural society, that's not really very inclusive, is it?  And even if these schools do teach a genuinely balanced view of the world, then aren't they still isolating their pupils from children of other faiths and labelling them with their own faith.  They're not just children, they're Catholic children or Anglican children..... As Richard Dawkins says in "The God Delusion":

"There is no such thing as a Christian child: only a child of Christian parents. ... Catholic child? Flinch. Protestant child? Squirm. Muslim child? Shudder. Everybody's consciousness should be raised to this level."

Perhaps it doesn't matter, as long as we teach our children how to think and not what to think.




....and religions can be relied upon for that, right?

Right?

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