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Transcript of interview for ABC -PM program

British philosopher questions religious schools teaching styles

PM - Wednesday, 22 August , 2007 18:34:00

Reporter: Barney Porter

MARK COLVIN: The visit of a British philosopher this week has given a fresh airing to the debate about how values are taught in our schools.

Stephen Law is a senior lecturer in Philosophy at the University of London. He's given a lecture at the University of Sydney based on his book, The War for Children's Minds.

Dr Law makes a distinction between liberal schools, which encourage independent critical thought, and those described as authoritarian, which expect the children to accept without question whatever they're taught.

And Dr Law says he's particularly concerned about the style of education used by religious schools, and its impact on growing minds.

Dr Stephen Law spoke to Barney Porter.

STEPHEN LAW: Up until the 1960s, most religious schools were, of course, pretty authoritarian. I've got a colleague who went to a Catholic school in the UK in the 1960s, and she told me that she was once sent to the Headmaster simply for asking why the Catholic Church had the view that it did on contraception. Simply asking the question why was enough to get you into hot water.

Well of course things have since changed, we've become much more liberal now. Children are encouraged to think much more, but not everywhere, and there are still very many religious schools, both, certainly in the UK, and I believe in Australia too, in which children are really, they're indoctrinated rather than educated. And I think it's time we stopped that.

BARNEY PORTER: But can't they be indoctrinated with good values?

STEPHEN LAW: You may say, but as long as they're educated with the right values, who cares?

But I think it does matter. There's growing empirical evidence now that children that are educated in a liberal way who are encouraged to think and question and debate things philosophically in an open way - they don't just end up more intelligent, measurably more intelligent, they had better social skills … these schools have less incidence of bullying, and so on.

It's good for children. It helps them grow into mature, healthy individuals, the kind that we want in our democracy.

It strikes me as profoundly dangerous actually to encourage children to defer more or less uncritically to some external authority. They will do the right thing, if you tell them to do it, but tell them to do something else and they'll do that instead. They've got no moral compass of their own, they're entirely dependent on the direction they're given from some outside source, and I think that's dangerous.

BARNEY PORTER: So encouraging students to think and question produces better people?

STEPHEN LAW: There are a significant number of people who are profoundly uncomfortable with the thought that children should be encouraged to think and question about their own religious beliefs. Suddenly they get very antsy, when you suggest they should be answering questions about that.

Certainly they'd want to put those questions off for as long as possible. Let's leave it to a very late stage, more or less as we're shoving them out the classroom door, we might allow them to ask one or two rather searching questions about their religious faith.

And I think that's far too late.

BARNEY PORTER: This is a question of trust, isn't it?

STEPHEN LAW: It is, partly, yes, and respect, strangely.

A philosopher called Kant, very famous Enlightenment philosopher, talked about respect for persons, people are different to other objects, they are rational and free. When you treat somebody in a highly instrumental way, as is the thing you want to manipulate and fill their heads with ideas, you're no longer treating them as a free and rational agent. You're treating them in an entirely utilitarian way.

And that, Kant thought, was wrong, and it seems to me that there is some … I'm very uncomfortable, shall we say, about treating children in that highly instrumental way, let's just get the beliefs we want them to have into their heads one way or another … approaching education in that kind of way I've always been very uncomfortable with it.

BARNEY PORTER: Do you feel positive about the future of children's education, and confident that we will have generations of children who are able to develop the right sort of positive values?

STEPHEN LAW: Yes. I do. I think that there are different ways you can be liberal when it comes to moral education. You can simply throw your hands in the air and say, well, let's just leave them to it, let's just throw them out there, leave them in a moral vacuum, let them invent their own values. And I'm not recommending that for one instant.

I think we should present our values to children and say this is what we believe in and this is why we believe it.

I certainly don't think that we should raise them and just throw them out there and let them make up their own morality.

So I'm all in favour of providing moral guidance, I'm just against the authoritarian approach to doing it. And there are good reasons why it's good to be liberal. As I say, there's empirical evidence that a liberal approach produces not just much smarter children, but better emotionally and socially adjusted children who have fewer problems with bullying, behaviour problems and so on, it's good for them to think, and question and talk about these things rather than just passively accept.

Secondly, if you … I was impressed recently by a book I read by the Oliners called The Altruistic Personality, in which they studied the backgrounds of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. And what they found was that although some of those who rescued Jews were religious, religion wasn't really the factor that was most important. What marked out people who rescued Jews was the fact they'd been raised in a non-authoritarian way. They'd been raised to think, to question, to take responsibility for making moral decisions upon themselves rather than handing it over to some external authority.

It seems to me that that's very important. We need to make sure we raise citizens like that, and if you want citizens like that, raise them in a liberal way, not an authoritarian way.

MARK COLVIN: Philosopher Dr Stephen Law of the University of London, speaking there to Barney Porter.


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