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Oct 17 2011

A more secular approach to education

One of the UK’s oldest public schools has demolished its chapel and replaced it with new science classrooms.

Oh my god somebody call the cops!

The decision has upset the Church of England and brought complaints that the   institution is turning its back on its Christian heritage in favour of a more secular approach to education.

Yes, and? A secular approach to education is bad or wrong why, exactly?

We’re always being told how liberal and mild and lukewarm and basically harmless the C of E is. But what’s mild and harmless about thinking theocratic education is better than secular education? What’s mild and harmless about protesting secular education?

Churches don’t do education. Religion doesn’t do education. Churches and religion do religion, which is different from education. Education is what schools do. It is fundamentally secular – it is about the world, and exploring and learning about the world. Like newspapers, like forensics, like medicine, like so many human institutions, it is supposed to get things right. It is supposed to teach what is true, not what is false. Churches and religions are not. That is the fundamental radical difference between them. A secular approach to education is the only legitimate approach there is. A god-inflected approach is not education properly understood.

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  1. 1
    Eric MacDonald

    Funny thing about this is the assumption that seems to be being made that a chapel is necessary in order to carry on doing Christian things! Obviously, to do science, you’ve got to have labs. But to do what Christians call worship: that can be done anywhere. However, it is nevertheless good to see that St. Paul’s puts education before worship, whatever role the church will play in the school in the future. But, in a school where it costs over 18,000 pounds for a day student, really, is this something that should worry the Bishop of London unduly?! No doubt it seems important to a few very privileged kids, but …. really!

  2. 2
    Scote

    “Education is what schools do. It is fundamentally secular”

    No, that just isn’t true.

    education |ˌejəˈkā sh ən|
    noun
    the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction,

    While I wish the word education entailed the qualities you described, it does not.

    I fully agree with your sentiments that religion shouldn’t be anywhere near public education, but it is false to claim that the concept of education is fundamentally secular. A fact-based education or some such, certainly, but not merely an education. You have omitted a qualifier.

  3. 3
    Ophelia Benson

    Scote – a fact-based education is fundamentally secular. That was my point. I didn’t omit anything.

  4. 4
    Ophelia Benson

    I explained what I meant – that was the “qualification.”

    Education is what schools do. It is fundamentally secular – it is about the world, and exploring and learning about the world. Like newspapers, like forensics, like medicine, like so many human institutions, it is supposed to get things right. It is supposed to teach what is true, not what is false.

    That’s a secular enterprise. It’s not a religious enterprise.

  5. 5
    Glodson

    The thing is that they do plan on building a new Chapel “but no date has been assigned to the chapel, leading to fears that it will be seen as expendable,” as stated in the article. And they are absolutely right in planning it that way.

    I have no problem with them building a chapel, but all the educational facilities need to be in place first. Then the chapel can be worried about later. It isn’t that they are eliminating the religious element, they are just paying more attention to the educational element. These are good things to do.

    Too bad that the Bishop there cannot see that a building that serves no educational purpose is expendable.

  6. 6
    Sajanas

    My girlfriend did a year of school in England, and was constantly annoyed that she had to go to an Anglican service every week as part of her education. The CoE is supposed to be harmless, but its still inflicted on everyone, regardless of whether they want to go or not, and just can’t understand how they think its a good use of children’s school time. I also think its really not helping the CoE in its overall goals. There is no better way of sapping the coolness and enthusiasm from something than to make it a route part of school work.

  7. 7
    Dave J L

    This is a school with a Christian foundation

    So says former pupil and Anglican chaplain (no vested interests there then) Rev Robert Stanier. But what does this mean? Is the science based only on what the Bible says? In English do they only read Christian writers? Is history only that of Christian thinkers and monarchs? Are art and music fine as long as they consist only of religious iconography and settings of the mass?

    Or, as in the majority of religious schools, is the actual educational content already pretty much secular and fact-based, and the ‘Christian foundation’ reflected only in enforced prayers and service attendance? And if so, has it been shown that this is relevant, necessary, fair or beneficial? Or does the success of the pupils have more to do with the teacher-pupil ratio, the quality of teaching and opportunities, the culture of the families who send their sons there and the secular aspects of tradition and discipline at the school?

    A rambling string of rhetorical questions there, but ones I fear the Rev Robert Stanier doesn’t seem to ask himself often.

  8. 8
    James Croft

    Gotta love my old school ;)

  9. 9
    Egbert

    Over at Eric’s blog, I made a comment that churches (and chapels) are asylums for the sick. If we understood religion this way, we can maybe understand why they’re so hysterical about them being knocked down. Where are we going to put all the sick people?

  10. 10
    Daniel

    I think a secular-minded culture DESERVES a secular-minded education. After all, it’s what they desire, it’s what they believe in, it’s what they’ve worked so hard to have…it’s what they should be left with.

  11. 11
    carolw

    I’m working on how this instance of a chapel giving way to a science building can become a metaphor for the progression of secular thought in the 21st century. I read the story earlier today on another FtB, and it struck me. I like how the literal destruction of the chapel can be symbolic.

  12. 12
    Aratina Cage

    @Scote

    education |ˌejəˈkā sh ən|
    noun
    the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction,

    While I wish the word education entailed the qualities you described, it does not.

    Your definition is not good enough. That is much too loose of a definition of education because it too easily encompasses brainwashing, which is what religions do. There needs to be a component of knowledge or experience transmitted in the instruction, and it needs to be grounded in truth or subject mastery; and, of course, you don’t need to receive instruction to acquire new knowledge (one can educate oneself).

    Being told systematically day in and day out that there is a god and that all the stories surrounding this god are true is brainwashing, not education.

  13. 13
    Jon Jermey

    “Where are we going to put all the sick people?”

    Well, we could try curing them instead…

  14. 14
    Ophelia Benson

    (Expanding on # 12) – And my basic point was that if a school systematically teaches disinformation – if it teaches that Paris is the capital of Italy and 3+3=782 and China was settled by nomads from Kenya in the 19th century – then everybody will agree that that can’t be called education. It’s like Andrew Sullivan’s mistaken idea that the New York Times is the same thing as science and that the only alternative is Jesus. Both the NY Times and education are supposed to get things right as opposed to wrong, in all things, not just science.

  15. 15
    Scote

    @Aratina Cage

    “Your definition is not good enough. That is much too loose of a definition of education because it too easily encompasses brainwashing, which is what religions do. “

    You are welcome to argue with the Oxford American Dictionary about that. I don’t think you’ll get very far because that is what the word means. Here’s another definition of education:

    “ed·u·ca·tion
    noun \ˌe-jə-ˈkā-shən\
    Definition of EDUCATION
    1
    a : the action or process of educating or of being educated; also : a stage of such a process b : the knowledge and development resulting from an educational process [a person of little education]
    2
    : the field of study that deals mainly with methods of teaching and learning in schools”

    There is nothing in the common usage of the word education that limits it to secular education.

    I fully support Ophelia’s position on education, I just think that trying to make an fallacious argument by definition is a not a good idea.

  16. 16
    Ophelia Benson

    Scote you’re the one who is citing the dictionary, I’m not. And you’re ignoring everything I’ve said. I’m not talking about a minimal dictionary definition of the word, I’m talking about the institution and practice, and what we mean by it, expect from it, want it to do. I know what the bare dictionary definition is and that’s not what I’m talking about.

    Discussion of concepts is not the same thing as looking up a word in the dictionary, ok? I’m talking about the concept.

  17. 17
    Ophelia Benson

    Ah well, I shouldn’t bother – I’d forgotten that you think I’m Emily Litella. Why anyone would bother reading a blog written by Emily Litella is beyond me.

  18. 18
    Scote

    “Ah well, I shouldn’t bother – I’d forgotten that you think I’m Emily Litella. Why anyone would bother reading a blog written by Emily Litella is beyond me.”

    I never said you are Emily Litella. But I did think you were mistaken in that instance you allude to. But, why would I read you if I, on occasion, disagree with you? Is there *anyone* you agree with 100%? Is an echo chamber intellectually stimulating? For me the answers to the latter two questions is “no.” I largely agree with you, but is that a reason to not point out the areas where I do? Again, I’d say “no.”

  19. 19
    Ophelia Benson

    You said I was Emily Litella in that instance. Emily Litella isn’t just someone one disagrees with now and then. She’s an idiot. And you don’t disagree with me, you tell me I’m wrong.

  20. 20
    Ophelia Benson

    Look, I’m sorry, I’m being rude, but you haven’t been disagreeing with me, you’ve been correcting me, quite dogmatically. There’s a difference.

  21. 21
    Aratina Cage

    Scote, I don’t understand why you thought it would be helpful to bring up a rather poor definition of education from all the possible definitions for it and assert it as if it were the only possible definition or one that makes any sense for what the post is talking about. And yes, the definition you chose is not good enough as I pointed out because it conflates brainwashing with education, does nothing to ground education in truths or subject mastery, and discounts self education.

    Or how about we look at your chosen definition as one that is biased toward religions. Under your Oxford definition, one can be told outright lies and falsehoods about reality and we could still call that an education. Except I suspect that you know that it isn’t one.

    Were you to sit in on a religious class and be taught that rainbows are a sign from God that he will never wipe out humans using a flood again, counter to everything you currently know about rainbows and geology, would you honestly then turn around and argue with us that you just received an education? Now put a child in that class with none of your knowledge. Does the fact that the child know next to nothing about rainbows, except that they are pretty, mean that the child just received an education?

  22. 22
    Aratina Cage

    A prime example of just how much education goes on in religious “schools”: http://freethoughtblogs.com/axp/2011/10/17/as-strikes-again/

  23. 23
    Daniel Fincke

    Ophelia’s definition treats the meaning of education in normative terms, i.e., in terms of what it ideally should be, not in terms of loose description of everything ever called by it. Part of debate about values, which this is, means fighting for the best normative interpretations of terms. She is arguing for a definition because she is arguing for an ideal and a norm. If you want to challenge her, challenge the norm she is proposing for education, not whether she acknowledged that when used descriptively the word accommodates all instances of instruction more broadly.

    Think of it like with the word “morality”. Moralities descriptively include some deeply immoral codes accepted by various communities, religions, and individuals. Nonetheless, we can use the word “moral” in a normative way that contradicts truly immoral “moral codes” claims to the word as ideally used (even if descriptively, they count).

  24. 24
    roland72

    Remember in the UK “public school” means “extremely prestigious and expensive private school”. Also I don’t see them doing away with their Christian traditions. They are still having services in the assembly hall. But it’s nice that they’ve realised that spending money on a chapel, essentially a building with no purpose, can’t be a sensible allocation of resources. Baby steps, baby steps.

  25. 25
    sailor1031

    @14 Ophelia: but to paraphrase what we used to say in math class, 3+3 can = 782 for sufficiently large values of 3 – a concept that I am sure most religious would be comfortable with

  26. 26
    Tim Harris

    Ah, my old school, which I disliked mostly, and particularly the skool chaplain in those days, a humourless, bullying bore called Hampton, who taught science badly and handed out infantile little booklets of bible readings to those of us who were unfortunate to have parents who insisted on our being confirmed (after the farce of confirmation in St Paul’s Cathedral, no less, with the then Bishop of London burbling nonsense over as he laid his hands on our heads as we came up two by two, and as I muttered blasphemies and and obscenities beneath my breath), I simply stopped going to church. It all – or what was left of it – fell away. I see from the Telegraph story that Basil Moss, who was a few years above me and whom I knew slightly, is still going strong, a lover of his alma mater and of Xtianity, and still proselytising away – there’s a man who, like Andrew Sullivan, has never recovered from the shock of Sunday School. But I don’t see why the Bishop is complaining so much: the school is anyway being rebuilt, and it seems they eventually intend to build a chapel – and in my day, in the old Waterhouse building in Hammersmith, as I recall, the school chapel – I think there was one – was barely used, except by what we called the ‘pi-squad’, and it was the assembly hall that was used to inflict religion and morals – as you might geld cats – on the boys every morning (Jews and Catholics excused). It seems that that tradition persists…

  27. 27
    Ophelia Benson

    Barnes is so much nicer than Hammersmith…

  28. 28
    Scote

    @Camels With Hammers

    Pedant Fight!!

    Frankly, I don’t see this issue as a big deal, it was a minor point and I agree with Ophelia’s overall thesis. What I didn’t expect was such push back to the fact that Ophelia was claiming that education entails secularism, which it doesn’t. Ophelia is free to argue that an education *should* be secular, and that that *should* be the normative use of the term, but she didn’t. Instead she claimed that to already be the case. Confusing “ought to be” for “is”, as we can see by her own words: “[Education] is fundamentally secular.” IMO.

    “Moralities descriptively include some deeply immoral codes accepted by various communities, religions, and individuals. Nonetheless, we can use the word “moral” in a normative way”

    Because there is no universally agreed upon morality when you say something is “moral” you are always begging the question. If you were to say something like “morality is fundamentally secular” you would be making a claim just as unfounded as “education is fundamentally secular”. You can say “normative” all you want but I think you’d still be wrong if you assume your premises.

    /pendant

  29. 29
    Scote

    Opps,

    Should read

    “/pedant”

    I am soooo firing my copy editor… :-o

  30. 30
    Ophelia Benson

    Scote – you got “pushback” because you were rude. You brusquely “corrected” me as if I’d made a stupid mistake. It wasn’t a mistake; you just misunderstood. You’re still misunderstanding. Dan has it right.

    You were rude last time you “corrected” me, too.

    I don’t know how to make this any clearer. You need to learn to disagree as opposed to correcting.

  31. 31
    Scote

    Hmm…
    Unceremonious, certainly. Blunt, yes. And willing to go against the tide, definitely. But rude? I should hope not. Certainly no more so than you are. I consider you a tad short at times, including in your responses to me, but I don’t try to call it “rudeness.” Perhaps I should, given your apparent definition of “rude”?

    You called me “dogmatic,” for instance. Dogmatic? Really? What, exactly is my “dogma”? I may be stubborn and argue strongly for the point that I think is supported, but I’m still open to being convinced. So far, I’ve not been convinced but I don’t say that I’m incapable of being wrong. And while I can be a tad stubborn I do think I have a sense of humor about it. I’ve never, for instance, demanded that you, or anyone, give me Leica :-)

  32. 32
    Ophelia Benson

    Scote, I told you. You didn’t disagree with me, you corrected me. As I said, I don’t know how to make this any clearer. I wasn’t wrong in the sense you thought I was. I wasn’t wrong in the sense you thought I was about the bus ad, either. I don’t consider myself to be in a student-teacher relationship to you, so I don’t need you correcting me.

  33. 33
    Ophelia Benson

    Oh, and I didn’t call you dogmatic. I said “you haven’t been disagreeing with me, you’ve been correcting me, quite dogmatically.” Your dogma there was that you were right, period, and I was wrong, period, when in fact you simply didn’t understand what I was saying (and you still don’t).

    I think this is the third time I’ve said this: you need to learn the difference between disagreeing and correcting. That’s all. It’s not very complicated. Just do that, and we’ll be fine.

  34. 34
    Daniel Fincke

    Because there is no universally agreed upon morality when you say something is “moral” you are always begging the question. If you were to say something like “morality is fundamentally secular” you would be making a claim just as unfounded as “education is fundamentally secular”. You can say “normative” all you want but I think you’d still be wrong if you assume your premises.

    No, I’m not assuming my premises. I justify them rationally in other contexts. I am making a rational judgment. Female genital mutilation is immoral. When I say that, I don’t need to qualify that SOME people think it’s morally good and necessary. They are wrong. I don’t need to pretend this is a relative issue. They are damaging a fundamental functionality and good for women with no compensating benefit. They are hurting human flourishing and oppressing women. I don’t care if they think that’s moral. It’s not. And I don’t have to bend over backwards to accommodate false opinions in morality more than I have to in any other circumstance.

    This is not to say that on some issues cultures can’t differ and have contrary but equally justifiable moral positions which do work to create human flourishing in both cultures just through different ways. There can be some moral disagreements where both are right in their own cultural contexts. But not every situation is like that. Female genital mutilation serves no compensating good worth the harm it causes.

    Similarly, Ophelia is making the case that education that makes no reference to false “supernatural” beings (i.e., secular education) is the only kind that is true education in a world where all there are are non-supernatural (i.e., natural) beings.

  35. 35
    Daniel Fincke

    The point I will give to Scote is that Ophelia should in the future signal a little more clearly when she is incorporating a novel and interesting philosophical argument for a norm, rather than present it in passing as though already accepted. But the argument she is making is legit and beneficial either way when clarified.

  36. 36
    Scote

    “But the argument she is making is legit and beneficial either way when clarified.”

    I agree.

    My point was a minor one only.

  37. 37
    Ophelia Benson

    Ok in future I’ll try to remember to include the words “properly understood.” It was that kind of claim. Education, properly understood, is of its nature secular, because it is expected to teach things that are true as opposed to false, accurate as opposed to inaccurate. This thought is generally implicit rather than explicit, no doubt so that religious people won’t pitch fits, but it’s certainly there. People do not want their children taught inaccuracies.

    I make claims of this kind quite often, I think – the kind that have a “properly understood” in the background.

  38. 38
    Scote

    “It was that kind of claim. Education, properly understood, is of its nature secular, because it is expected to teach things that are true as opposed to false, accurate as opposed to inaccurate. This thought is generally implicit rather than explicit, no doubt so that religious people won’t pitch fits, but it’s certainly there. People do not want their children taught inaccuracies.”

    I disagree with part of this. Yes, people want their kids things taught what they think is the truth, but many people think their religious teachings are the truth, thus they would say that teaching a secular education is the education that teaches inaccuracies. So, both sides, secular and sectarian, can both claim that they are for teaching true as opposed to false information.

    So, saying “People do not want their children taught inaccuracies” and the rest doesn’t really clarify the issue in my mind. I still think a qualifier is needed. One can say that education should be based in objective evidence as opposed to religious doctrine and assertions. But words like “truth” and “accurate vs. inaccurate” lose some of their clarity when religion comes to play. Thus think it is best to avoid language that can be equivocal–not because we don’t understand your argument, but because your argument isn’t merely aimed at non-theists and has to hold up to attempts at counter arguments by theists who will be quick to try to muddy the water with appeals to “truth” and such.

  1. 39
    Norms And Definitions (With Primary Reference To Defining Education) | Camels With Hammers

    [...] Ophelia wrote an insightful, controversial paragraph: Churches don’t do education. Religion doesn’t do education. Churches and religion do religion, which is different from education. Education is what schools do. It is fundamentally secular – it is about the world, and exploring and learning about the world. Like newspapers, like forensics, like medicine, like so many human institutions, it is supposed to get things right. It is supposed to teach what is true, not what is false. Churches and religions are not. That is the fundamental radical difference between them. A secular approach to education is the only legitimate approach there is. A god-inflected approach is not education properly understood. [...]

  2. 40
    Fighting The Dictionary | Camels With Hammers

    [...] wrote an insightful, controversial paragraph: Churches don’t do education. Religion doesn’t do education. Churches and religion do religion, [...]

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