Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

In Defence of a Liberal Education.

Prefacing his latest book, The War for Children's Minds, with quotes from both Stalin and Ignatius Loyola, Dr. Stephen Law questions what type of education system is best suited to making moral citizens. The book is a strident defense of the englightenment, arguing that a liberal education should be favoured over a 'traditional' or 'authoritarian' education. Within its pages, though, there is a wider argument taking in questions such as the enlightenment's role in the Holocaust, and whether it's acceptable to teach creationism in schools.

Dr Stephen Law was kind enough to agree to the following interview with Three Monkeys Online (via email).

Your book is entitled The War for Children’s Minds. Who are the combatants and who is on the offensive?

The title alludes to the so-called 'culture war' that's supposedly going on in the West, a war between (i) God-fearing moral traditionalists, who believe that the West is experiencing a moral malaise brought about by anti-Authoritarian attitudes, and (ii) 'liberals' – often caricatured as moral relativists. In the U.S. talk of a 'culture war' is rife, especially among neo-conservatives. You can even buy books like Peter Kreef's How To Win The Culture War which &ldquomaps out key battlefields” and &ldquoequips Christians with the weapons they'll need for successful campaign”.

But talk of a culture war is now spreading outside the U.S. For example, in her book All Must Have Prizes, the U.K. columnist Melanie Phillips uses the term several times.

At the heart of the book is the idea that the education system forms the individual. The argument for Liberal schools, that will produce liberal free-thinking individuals, seems strikingly similar to that of religious orders like the Jesuits (with their famous adage ‘give me the boy and I’ll show you the man’). In both cases the idea is that if you instill certain ways of thinking, authoritarian or liberal, at an early age you can shape/mould individuals and society. Intuitively, though, this seems to place a mistaken emphasis on the power of the system – for historical and social reasons, many of the greatest liberal minds from the enlightenment to the current day have been educated in religious/authoritarian schools. What guarantee is there that a Liberal school won’t produce ultra-conservatives?

There's no guarantee. Authoritarian schools can produce liberal thinkers and vice verse. But while Authoritarian Catholic, Islamic, Jewish, Maoist and Stalinist schools may throw up the occasional rebel, the indoctrination tends, by and large, to be successful. A Liberal upbringing of the sort recommended in my book does have measurable positive outcomes in terms of intellectual, social and emotional development. There's plenty of evidence supporting the view that a healthy democracy is best served by citizens raised in a vigorously Liberal way. We need citizens raised to think and question.

Unfortunately, over the last couple of decades, a profoundly anti-Liberal mythology has grown up that blames everything wrong with modern society – from teenage pregnancy to street crime – on Liberals and in particular on Liberal approaches to moral and religious education. The cure, say many social and religious conservatives, requires we move back in the direction of the kind of traditional, Authority-based religious education of the sort that dominated up until the 1950s. The truth is that the arguments for such a move, while seductive, are crap. The aim of this book is to tackle this mythology and explain why these arguments are crap.

Incidentally, the reason most key liberal thinkers since the Enlightenment were raised in rather Authoritarian religious schools is that, before the 60's, that was pretty much the only kind of school there was.

The book doesn’t argue specifically against the idea of ‘faith schools’, which surprised this reader. What merit do you see, if any, in ‘faith schools’.

I argue that the debate over moral education has become polarized over the wrong issue – over whether or not religious schools are a god idea. The smoke and heat generated by that battle has obscured the more fundamental question, namely should we raise children to think and question and ultimately make their own judgements, or should we encourage them to defer more or less uncritically to Authority? Here in the UK we are witnessing an explosion in new religious schools. There are 150 new Islamic schools in the pipeline with new Jewish Hindu and Sikh schools close behind. My fear is that many of these schools are simply going to indoctrinate children – they are going encourage young people to accept passively and uncritically a particular set of religious beliefs.

I argue young people need to be trained to think and question and ultimately make up their own minds, particularly about religion. Let's allow religious schools. Lets allow teachers make the case for a particular set of religious beliefs. But let's also allow young people to think independently and apply their own intelligence rather than just uncritically toe the line.

But of course social and religious conservatives don't like this – when the IPPR think tank in the UK suggested that every school should encourage children to think critically even about their own religion, The Daily Telegraph objected strongly, along with many other religious folk.

One of the conclusions of your book is that there are “powerful arguments for embracing a highly Liberal approach to moral and religious education“[emphasis added]. Given America and Great Britain’s current international conduct, perhaps a liberal approach to the teaching of history is equally, if not more, important. In a multicultural society religious instruction, however authoritarian, comes into question by virtue of the fact that other traditions exist in proximity. Isn’t it more important that historical ‘facts’, such as the necessity of targeting civilians in bombing raids during WWII are questioned in school, rather than the existence/non-existence of God? Perhaps Strauss was right – religion provides the most convenient smokescreen to preserve power structures?

I think that's important too. It's not either/or. But I do think the growing movement for a move back in the direction of traditional authority-based moral and religious education is rather more dangerous. Partly because religion is such an extraordinarily potent force for manipulating people and getting them to believe ridiculous things. One simply has to stand back in awe at the sheer power of religion to turn the belief in a 6,000 year old universe from the ravings of a few harmless cranks into something that nearly half the entire population of U.S. – many of whom are at least as intelligent as me – now accept.

On a similar note, both in the UK and France controversies have erupted over pupils wearing religious symbols, while in Italy there is an ongoing debate as to whether the crucifix should/should not be displayed in state schools. The controversy in each case centres around the intrusion of a religious tradition into the secular space of the classroom. At the same time, though, very little controversy exists over what children are taught in school – outside of the creationism/evolution debate that sparks up from time to time. Are we overly preoccupied with the interface between religion and education – at the expense of radically re-evaluating what we actually teach children?

Perhaps. Creationism is an interesting issue. The fact is that 'young earth' creationism is just bad science. The only way children can be taught that creationism is true and supported by the available evidence is by instilling in them such twisted conceptions of logic and evidential support that they are likely to remain gullible idiots for the rest of their lives. Teaching that creationism is respectable science means teaching children to think in ways that are, quite literally, close to lunacy. So yes I would prevent it being taught as 'valid' science in schools.

I believe there is some role for Authority when it comes to non-moral matters, especially scientific matters. I certainly wouldn't allow teachers to encourage children to uncritically accept creationism is good science. But what if they say &ldquoYou must decide, but here are the it-seems-to-me-very-good arguments for creationism” and go on to give a very one-sided set of arguments that no 13 year old will be able to demolish? Should we allow that? No, I don't think so. But it's a tricky issue for a Liberal like me, I grant you.

An interesting passage in the book discusses the beneficial affects of introducing philosophy into a school’s curriculum. Why and how should philosophy be taught in schools? Philosophy is generally regarded as a subject for study at University level – what’s the minimum age, in your opinion, at which Philosophy can be usefully taught?

I don't think it should be taught as an academic subject to youngsters. But one way (not the only way) of getting them to think and question is to allow them to question and debate together, in a philosophical way, key religious, political, moral and other questions. There's growing evidence that even an hour or two of this a week has a dramatic effect on ethos, discipline and their intellectual, social and emotional maturity. The traditionalists would prefer they listened passively to their imam, rabbi or The Pope.

You devote ample space to the concept of ‘relativism’, outlining how a liberal system doesn’t have to imply a system favouring ‘moral relativism’. It seems to me, though, to be falling into the trap of accepting that the problem of moral relativism, as outlined by leading authoritarian figures such as Pope Benedict XVI, exists. You outline the argument of female circumcision (also used by the Italian conservative catholic politician Rocco Buttiglione in interview with Three Monkeys Online), suggesting that the ‘moral relavist’ in cases like these believe “there is no such thing as objective, non-relative moral truth”. I would suggest, though, that such moral relativism scarcely exists, and is certainly not the predominant guiding principle of liberal, secular democracies. In the liberal, secular democracy not all moral values are equally tolerated, nor should they be. Those that offend individual human rights, such as female circumcision, are not viewed neutrally. So why engage conservatives, on their terms, in an argument based on a false premise – i.e. the ‘rise of relativism’?

Good question. The 'rise of Relativism

' may be in large part mythical. What is true, I think, is that young people often say they are relativists. They've picked up that this is the right, 'politically correct' attitude to express. They mistakenly think that if they are to acknowledge their own fallibility and the importance of tolerance, they have to be relativists (though the truth, of course, is that relativism is the enemy of these things). But I am not so sure whether they really are relativists.

It's often assumed by the religious right that liberals are relativists (certainly in the U.S. – the book supplies many examples) But as I point out in the book, the assumption that most liberals are relativists is actually pretty dubious. I do question whether there is anything like the problem with relativism that there's claimed to be. As I say in the book, &ldquoRelativist!” has now supplanted &ldquoCommunist!” as the right's favourite anti-liberal smear. So I don't think I fall into the trap of conceding a false premise. My point is that even if there is a problem with relativism (and that's hard to settle either way), that doesn't give us any reason to reject liberalism and the core value of the Enlightenment that people should think and question rather than more-or-less uncritically defer to some Authority.

In part the book is a defence of the enlightenment. Do you consider the values of the Enlightenment to be under attack, and if so, why are they worth defending?

Yes I do. The Enlightenment is regularly blamed for much that's wrong with modern society. Programmes are made with titles like &ldquoEnlightenment's dark shadow” Others speak of it's &ldquotwisted legacy”. In fact both many religious conservatives and many &ldquopost-moderns” (who distrust 'reason') blame the Enlightenment for the Holocaust. In the U.S. 45% of the population now take the Bible to be absolutely authoritative not just on moral matters but on scientific matters too. Which is why they believe the entire universe is only 6,000 years old. A U.S. college professor recently wrote that educators like him are having to fight

&ldquothe battles of the Enlightenment all over again. Medieval ideas that were killed stone dead by the rise of science three to four hundred years ago are not merely twitching; they are alive and well in our schools, colleges and universities.”

We are currently witnessing the beginnings of a global backlash against Enlightenment liberal values. But the truth is that many of these values are our best defence against a slide into barbarism (which is not to say that everything about the Enlightenment was noble and true – obviously it wasn't). My book defends Enlightenment as Kant famously defines it – the Enlightened individual is one who thinks and questions and takes on the responsibility for making their own judgements rather than deferring to authority. That core value is under attack. It's about time we liberals stood up and starting arguing vigorously in its defence.

Deferring to authority is something we all do on a daily basis, whether it be taking the word of dermatologists that excessive exposure to sunlight increases the risk of skin cancer, or that of a minister for finance that public debt is running at x% of GDP. These are things that we accept because we don’t have the time, inclination, or capacity to check their truth for ourselves. Why should religious and moral authority fall into a different category, and why shouldn’t children be taught from an early age to accept authority?

Because morality is not like dermatology or chemistry. If a chemistry professor tells her students they can safely flush a lump of potassium down the sink, and in the resulting explosion several are maimed, those students are not to blame. But if the same students go to their religious authority and ask what attitude they should have towards those of other faiths, and this authority instructs them to persecute or even kill the unbelievers, those students remain morally responsible for the resulting carnage.

Moral responsibility is like a boomerang. Try and throw it to someone else if you like. But it always comes back to you. Schools that insist young people can and should hand this responsibility over to religious &ldquoexperts” are fooling both their students and themselves. Given we all have this responsibility, like it or not, shouldn't we be trained both to recognize that we have it and to take it seriously?

If you were given the resources and authority to remodel the British education system in the morning, what are the first things you would do?

Suppose political schools started springing up – a neoconservative school in Billericay followed by a communist school in Middlesbrough. Suppose these schools start each morning with the collective singing of political anthems. Suppose they select pupils on the basis of the parents political beliefs. Suppose portraits of their political leaders beam down from every classroom wall. Suppose they insist that pupils accept, more or less uncritically, the beliefs embodied in their revered political texts.

If such schools did spring up – there would be outrage. These schools would be educationally stunting children, forcing their minds into politically pre-approved moulds. They're the kind of Orwellian schools you find under totalitarian regimes in places like Stalinist Russia.

My question is, if such political schools are utterly unacceptable, if they are guilty of educationally stunting children, why on earth are so many of us still prepared to tolerate their religious equivalents?

The first thing I would do is bring an end to this sort of religious schooling.

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