Secular education ‘politically impossible’

A Tyneside headmaster’s attempts to reduce the role of religion in his school have turned up some interesting insights into the process of educational lawmaking:

‘We wanted a fundamental change in the relationship with the school and the established religion of the country,’ said Kelley, talking about the proposals he put forward towards the end of Tony Blair’s premiership. ‘They accepted it would be popular but said it was politically impossible.’

Why impossible?

One senior figure at the then Department for Education and Skills, told Kelley that bishops in the House of Lords and ministers would block the plans.

Easy solution to that.

Religion, they added, was ‘technically embedded’ in many aspects of education.

Not sure what that means. Which areas? I don’t personally remember religion (read: Christianity) turning up much in my education, other than assemblies and incredibly-biased RE and PSE (‘personal social education’) lessons.

‘I feel that children have a right to not having a particular point of view,’ said Kelley. ‘They should not be promoted to a political party, nor should they to a religion. The daily act of worship is, I think, inappropriate at school.’ […] The schools, says Kelley, ‘directly or indirectly influence children into a belief that a particular faith is preferable either to other faiths or to a lack of faith’. He adds: ‘That is not, in my view, fair to a child and it is not offering them the opportunity to choose freely. The problem we are left with is a 19th-century architecture of education in a 21st-century environment.

Quite. I don’t understand why the comparison with hypothetical political schools isn’t a killer argument.

The CoE aren’t happy with the suggestion of reducing religion’s role in education. However, their argument doesn’t prove the point they think it does:

A spokesman for the Church of England said: ‘If he is arguing for a way for individual schools to opt out of those bits of the act he does not like that is not something we would support. Either overtly or by default, this country is still a Christian one.’

This has always been, and remains, a mind-bogglingly stupid argument. The possibility that religious education produces better behaviour, although probably not true and morally eviscerated by Stephen Law in The War for Children’s Minds, is at least mildly grown-up, but “things shouldn’t change because they just shouldn’t” is begging the question and doesn’t count as arguing at all.

This attitude, combined with the continued expansion of faith schools, is disappointing, but I’m optimistic in the long-term because the historical, moral and political arguments against them are so strong. An atheist and a Christian should come to exactly the same conclusion when it comes to teaching children: teach them how to think, and let them make up their own minds1. An education system weighed in any particular direction is clearly, unambiguously, wrong.

I have suspicions about the motives of informed people who suggest anything but a secular framework. It’s a plausible hypothesis that teaching kids to think critically leads to more atheist/agnostic/freethinkers than if you surround them with religious teachers and symbols. Hence the Pope and his laughable rejections of logic and reason as just other forms of indoctrination – clearly desperate and clutching at straws, but this sounds less mental than “do what I say or you’ll go to hell”.

There are, of course, plenty of very nice people, both religious and not, who will disagree. I may think they’re wrong, but convincing them often isn’t the real problem – it’s a common issue in arguments involving religion that you come across very pleasant people who get genuinely upset when their beliefs are criticised. But, to be unashamedly melodramatic, education is too important to the future of humanity for people’s feelings to get in the way of progress. I’m optimistic, but I don’t think it’ll be easy.

Link originally via B&W.

  1. sounds like an intelligent design argument. Isn’t. []

The Tate Modern

It was to the Tate Modern today. I’d never been before, and beyond a vague awareness of it being a ex-power station had little idea what to expect. The directions from Southwark tube said ‘follow the orange lamp posts’, so first impressions were good.

We were there with the full-time students, who were interesting in that they all looked distinctive. Much more so than us mature students, the vast majority had a particular look they’d clearly cultivated above and beyond their ‘natural’ image, be it in their hair, clothing, or whatever. Which I thought was cool. We were given an exercise to separate into groups, head to a particular gallery and choose four pieces we found interesting, then give a short presentation to everybody.

Our gallery was ‘Material Gestures’, a fairly abstract area (roughly) devoted to painting and sculpture from the 40’s and 50’s. We walked around in a group and I had trouble adding to the conversation. In fast moving discussions it’s usually necessary to express opinions succinctly, and I couldn’t. I was quite happily holding three contradictory opinions about the same piece, depending on which context I was using. A Jackson Pollack painting didn’t hold much immediate appeal, but is clearly interesting in a historical context and I liked its inherently subversive style. But did I like it overall? Not a valid question. Some of the others were able to come to conclusions about whether they liked something, but most of the time I couldn’t – it was more complicated than that. I also found it interesting to observe my own psychological reactions to people’s opinions – sometimes I’d be inclined to like something simply because a few people said they disliked it, but this could change or completely reverse depending on the people and whether I’d agreed with them previously. Basic art stuff, I’m sure, but I’m new at this, give me a chance 🙂

I will, however, posit Andrew’s Law: any discussion of art, given long enough, will tend towards Tracy Emin’s bed. Furthermore, ‘long enough’ will probably only be ten minutes.

After a quick sandwich the groups described their chosen pieces in a series of talks somewhat marred by building work, the wind and helicopters. One Coke later a few of us headed back to the gallery to check out all the other areas. It’s full of cool stuff and, later, became the first art gallery to remain interesting when I was alone. I particularly liked the surrealism, and discovered the existence of a movement called ‘Vorticism’. A video of ants carrying away discarded confetti from a Brazil street carnival was disappointing, however – pretty as it was, the scientist in me demanded to know what happened next: did they eat it, abandon it, build a techicolour ant god from it?

I think the secret, for me, is not to take it seriously. The grandeur of the descriptions would have you think they were era-defining, world-shattering, life-and-death towers of artistic brilliance. Crap. Cubism might have been revolutionary, but it’s still just a method of expression in a world full of them. I used to instinctively rebel against such attitudes, but today I automatically took it with a pinch of salt and the genuinely interesting aspects immediately made themselves clear. Cubism actually is fascinating, and I learnt a huge amount overall.

Once the gallery closed I wandered across the bridge to St. Paul’s – another place I’ve never visited before – then in a loop and along the South Bank to Westminster. I think I’m going to like being around London.

Every time this happens, a ninja gets his stars

I am aware that I missed International Talk Like A Pirate Day. I was actually vaguely aware of its presence, but some part of my brain decided other matters were more important. Stupid brain! By Grabthar’s hammer, this shall not be repeated. I had a special eye-patched monkey logo set up and everything. Flickr’s Explore has only been showing pirates all day, apparently.

First day of uni, and a happy one

Today went well. I wasn’t expecting that. I’d hoped it might go all right, but I actually had a very good time. Thanks to all the people who sent me nice messages, both on and offline – I really appreciate it. 

I’m staying at my uncle’s flat in Willesden, and after a tense half-hour tube journey it was into the auditorium for initial introductions. The head of the campus and another official gave a couple of waffly let-me-offer-my-congratulations-on-choosing-this-wonderful-university speeches, then the (humanist) Dean gave a much more interesting and applicable talk, imploring us to take full advantage of London. She also mentioned that a fire destroyed an entire campus building back in July1, and they apparently built a new temporary building with the same capacity and equipment in just six weeks: it was certified as ready for access on Monday. Impressive. She also asked how many people in the room were from the UK, and we were by far the minority, which was cool. 

We then separated into subject groups, and there turned out to be just over twenty people taking my part-time photography course. I quickly spotted all the people from my interview group, and tried not to feel too embarrassed at the memory. We were introduced to the course leader, and soon afterwards came the inevitable ‘give us a two-minute introduction to yourself’, which I (and everybody else, from what I could tell) hated, but at least it’s over now 🙂 I was still very nervous at this stage and felt myself shaking a little. More workings of the course were explained and then, suddenly, I started to relax. I began to feel more like me, rather than the gawky, irritating meta-Andrew who turns up in such situations. Which was yay.

Then came the relatively painless process of collecting ID cards, after which there were a couple of hours for lunch. We’d all been separated by the enrollment process, so I headed down to the canteen and grabbed a sandwich. A couple of people I recognised were sitting at a table nearby, but I didn’t want to barge in. They were soon joined by a few others, and I made myself do the same before my brain could chicken out. Of course, everybody turned out to be very pleasant and friendly, and we soon went exploring around the campus, including the very entertaining fresher’s fair. We got chocolate from Evil Pyramid Scheme Man, and a very nice lady fetched me a lollipop 🙂

The afternoon session saw us draw words from a hat, following which we had 45mins, in groups of two, to walk around campus and take a photo that represented said word. Ours were ‘short’ and ‘spacious’, so we took a shot of some missing change, and a wide-angle jumping picture in Northwick Park 🙂 I’m a pony; it’s my trick.

I guess I’m still used to the school and college way of working. I was surprised when we were actively encouraged to book and use the equipment for our own personal projects. I’d assumed this would be ok, but I hadn’t realised it would be what the equipment is for. This will likely sound obvious to anyone who’s been to university, but the modules are really teach us how to think about and use our cameras, rather than an end in themselves. I’d guessed this might be the case, but I didn’t know they’d actively support our external development. It’s a shift I wasn’t expecting, and a very cool one.

I’m currently trying to stop my brain second-guessing every conversation I had, and winning so far. We’re off to the Tate Modern tomorrow, which will be a new experience for me. Four years seems a lot shorter than it did this morning.

  1. ceramics coursework was apparently pulled intact from the rubble []

Uni starts tomorrow

And I’m a bit nervous. It’s three days of induction this week, then teaching proper starts next Friday (which will be a particular adventure, as I’ll explain nearer the time). I’ve been feeling mildly sick for a couple of days, and this evening am wavering between worried and completely terrified. I’m not the best at dealing with people my own age, without any friends around. I tend to go quiet and try to melt into the background, which leads to my imagining I’m making things awkward for everyone. Shall try to be better. Hopefully it’ll be ok.

Emotional sales pitches

I just called British Gas to downgrade the maintenance cover on my boiler. They gave me the hard sell on other options, but for once I managed to stand my ground. The salesperson had the perfect tone of surprise mixed with you’re-doing-something-foolish, and I put the phone down feeling like he was genuinely disappointed in me. I actually feel bad about it! I hate salesmen that good. I did go from £28 down to £15 for essentially the same service, though, so hopefully the feeling will pass.