Doing God in Education

Review of

Doing God in Education, by Trevor Cooling, London, Theos, 2010, 74pp., ₤ 10 (paperback), ISBN 13 978-0-9562182-3-0, Open access, www.theothinktank.co.uk

This short and lively report examines the controversial question of how religious beliefs should be dealt with in schools in Britain today.  Trevor Cooling proposes an alternative to the widely accepted approach of objectivity and religious neutrality in education.

Chapter 1 begins with a reference to Paul Hirst’s influential 1972 article entitled, “Christian Education: a contradiction in terms.”  Hirst’s assumptions about the secularization of knowledge, and universal rationality permitted only an objective study about religion(s).  Religious belief was also not allowed to provide a basis for “an educational ethos,” nor was it permitted “to have a shaping influence on the curriculum” (17).  The reader of Doing God in Education is quickly brought to current expressions of this position as found, for example, in the writings of the British Humanist Association.  Humanists have partnered with other minority religious groups in Britain, insisting on fairness in education in a religiously pluralistic democracy.  They view religious belief as a private matter and therefore maintain that schools should “be strictly neutral with regard to religious matters” (22).  Children should be informed about the various religions, so that they can make up their own minds, but they should not be indoctrinated into any one religious belief system.

Cooling objects to this approach because it is not neutral and is in fact unfair.  It treats religion as irrelevant, irrational, “toxic clutter” which hampers growth towards autonomy. Ultimately, it privileges a secular and humanist set of beliefs.  He argues in chapter 2 that the very notion of a neutral curriculum is in fact an impossible one.  All thinking rests finally on “beliefs,” interpretative frameworks, worldviews, or faith.  Even “shared values,” which are commonly thought to be a key to binding communities together, are not neutral, but subject to differing interpretations.

Cooling goes on to provide a detailed case study in chapter 3, showing how even the teaching of modern foreign languages is not neutral.  Drawing on the work of David I. Smith and Barbara Carvill (The Gift of the Stranger, Eerdmans, 2000), Cooling shows how teaching the German language can (and should) move beyond teaching the technicalities of German grammar, vocabulary, and linguistic skills, to helping students to reflect on their own values, attitudes and behaviors as they interact with a native speaker in spiritually and morally significant ways (47).

What does the rejection of neutral knowledge and the embracing of the idea that interpretive worldviews underlie all knowledge entail for education?  Religious beliefs will now not be seen to be irrelevant clutter.  Rather, beliefs and worldviews will be seen to “constitute the heart of education” (32). Education now becomes “a process where we each learn to reflect on the interpretations we make and the beliefs we hold as we construct our own understanding of the meaning and purpose of life” (32).  With this approach both religious and non-religious worldviews are “treated as resources to be tapped in the cause of pupil well-being and flourishing, not as problems to be confronted and marginalized” (44).

In common schools, with a diverse student population, fairness will demand that students will encounter various religious and non-religious interpretations of all subjects taught.  Even mathematics instruction can (and should) move beyond learning that 2 + 3 = 5.  For example, teaching pie-graphs can include the teaching of empathy and gratitude as students wrestle with constructing a time pie-chart of the activities of a mother in an African village (44).  Science too will be taught in such a way as to put it into “its social, historical, philosophical, ethical and religious context (49).  This is because even science is not worldview neutral.  An atheistic worldview is not the only rational understanding of the relation between religion and science. This will further entail that creationism cannot simply be dismissed as a religious theory which doesn’t belong in the classroom (48-50).

Cooling’s argument also has implications for the long-standing and controversial requirement of compulsory worship in state education in the UK.  In 1988 attempts were made to revise the English and Welsh law to make school worship more acceptable in light of the growing pluralism within British society. But the proposed compromise, suggesting that all pupils take part in a daily act of worship that is “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character,” resulted in a “complex and bewildering cacophony of legislation and guidance” which busy head teachers found impossible “either to understand or to implement” (51).  After some consultative conferences held in 1997, a more inclusive approach has been proposed.  Instead of compulsory worship, regular assemblies are to be held to promote “reflection on values, beliefs and the spiritual dimension of life” (52).  Cooling finds this approach problematic, arguing that there is still an underlying bias against religious worship as “by definition an inappropriate activity in any educational context” (52).

Cooling prefers the approach taken in Scotland since 2005, but it is difficult to understand why this is the preferred approach because here too you have school worship defined in terms of promoting a vague kind of spirituality (52).  I would suggest that there is no adequate solution to compulsory worship in state common schools within a religiously pluralistic society.  The secularization of compulsory assembly times is inevitable – Scotland may simply be just a bit further behind in this process than England and Wales.  The underlying problem here is the notion of education being shaped by an established state church or by a Christendom model of the church. (Disclosure: I write as a Canadian and an Anabaptist Christian, who finds the notions of a state church or Christendom to be outdated relics.)

What about moral education (chapter 4)?.  Cooling correctly highlights the problem of trying to reach a pragmatic consensus about moral values.  We simply cannot come to agreement as to what constitutes human well-being (58).  Further, even the values that we might agree on are interpreted differently in differing worldviews or religions (29).  What is needed therefore, according to Cooling, is to see differing worldviews/religions “as a potential resource that contributes social capital through promoting the common good” (58).  He goes on to talk about “harnessing the power of public theology,” drawing on Miroslav Volf who brings theological insights into situations of conflict (59).  Other religious or non-religious traditions could be similarly encouraged to do public theology. One slight worry I have here has to do with the notion of a common good, because Cooling has earlier underscored the difficulty of coming to agreement on common values.  Can we, or can we not agree on the common good?  This needs a clearer answer.

How do teachers operate within the context of modern pluralistic common schools, given Cooling’s worldviewish approach to education?   Cooling provides some helpful suggestions in the section on “professional conduct” (61-3).  Teachers cannot pretend to be neutral, given Cooling’s approach.  “Neutrality amounts to practical atheism” (61).  Instead, the teacher’s faith needs to be seen as an educational resource, but, and this is a big but, the expression of that faith needs to be “carefully managed in light of the sensitive and complex context of the modern school” (61).  For one thing, proselytizing must be ruled out as inappropriate in “an inclusive and fair classroom” (61).  While there is something right about this, I believe this needs more careful nuancing.  After all, if neutral teaching is impossible, is not proselytizing somehow inescapable for humanist and religious teachers alike?

Cooling draws on some principles found in the Code of Practice published by the RE Council of England and Wales in 2009.  First teachers need to practice reciprocity, behaving in relation to other people’s beliefs as they would hope others would behave towards their own beliefs (61-2).  There also needs to be “a clear understanding of and commitment to the shared goal that is being pursued” (62).  Teachers as professionals will display dispositions such as “integrity, openness, authenticity, empathy, honesty and trustworthiness” (63).  Cooling also highlights the concept of “courageous restraint.”  The practice of courageous restraint requires that teachers be willing to stand back from what is naturally their first priority in order to respect the integrity of other people.  It further involves being willing to let fairness temper their advocacy of truth, being willing to accept that the truth they personally hold dear is contestable in wider society, and also welcoming the expression of points of view by pupils that they might even think to be wrong-headed (63).   This is not the same as neutrality, according to Cooling, because courageous restraint does not treat personal beliefs as private and irrelevant, but as a resource that needs to be openly and professionally used in the classroom. While I found this discussion refreshing, there are problems lurking in the background.  How much restraint should be exercised?  And again, can teachers agree on a “shared goal” in education, and will all teachers actually accept the list of dispositions that Cooling identifies as essential to professional conduct with regard to sharing beliefs and worldviews in the classroom?

Chapter 4 concludes with a brief treatment of faith schools.  Clearly, one implication of the central argument of this book is that faith schools have a place in a pluralistic society (64). If beliefs and worldviews “constitute the heart of education” (32), then faith schools cannot simply be dismissed because they are defined by a particular religious worldview.  All education and all schools are colored by a worldview.  Cooling goes on to defend faith schools adopting policies of student admission and teacher recruitment that favour those committed to the particular religious worldview of the school.  Against humanist objections to faith schools on the grounds that they are discriminatory, Cooling argues, “There is a ring of absurdity to a position which maintains that faith is integral to the school’s ethos and then insisting that the community cannot recruit the people who understand and can create that ethos” (65).  However, Cooling does concede that faith schools should try to become more inclusive, adopting selection criteria for students and teachers that balance the need to create a distinctive religious ethos with the need to ensure diversity in the school.  Creating a faith-inspired hospitable culture in such schools will again require courageous restraint. But, how much restraint will be required?  At what point will policies of inclusivity undermine the distinctive religious ethos of faith schools?  Will not the adoption of selection criteria that ensure diversity within a faith school not eventually lead to the school simply becoming another common school?  These are not easy questions to answer.

Doing God in Education is a fine example of academic scholarship being applied to current debates in the public realm.  Theos is to be commended for publishing works like this, which provide commentary on social and political arrangements from a distinctively Christian theological framework.

[This review was first published in Journal of Beliefs and Values, 2012, 33(1):134-8]

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