Irish Churches and Primary Schools

I was home in Ireland over the weekend. I was struck by the political anxiety of the people I talked with. Dyed in the wool captains of industry were out marching against the commercialisation of water provision. Retired grandmothers were cheering on the new Greek government. A Beckett play in a small Marxist theatre was practically sold out, the diverse crowd greedily buying books beforehand by Marx and Connolly and Klein.

In the midst of this popular agitation, the Irish media continues to have conversations that miss the point. This morning, the Irish Times offered a critique of religious schools by the Cork-based philosopher Desmond Clarke. The basic contention is:

Children have a right not to be taught in an uncritical way about values and convictions.

From that premise, we are to understand that the school system in Ireland should be secular – meaning disconnected from churches – because that is how to ensure critical reasoning about values and convictions.

The article does not offer a definition of critical thinking, assuming instead that we all understand what it means. Furthermore, it does not interrogate what is meant by “values” or “convictions”. How are they similar? How are they different? These basic reading comprehension questions leave the, dare I say it, critical reader, confused as to how the argument is constructed.

But the very interesting thing for a Christian reader, who is trying to be self-critical, is how the philosopher has understood the experience of being religious. Again and again, the state of having Christian convictions is presented as a state of being uncritical. At one point, Clarke says “The Catholic Church, through canon law, requires parents to send their children to a ‘Catholic’ school.”

The relevant canon is 793 which reads as considerably less demanding than Clarke suggests:

Parents, and those who take their place, have both the obligation and the right to educate their children. Catholic parents have also the duty and the right to choose those means and institutes which, in their local circumstances, can best promote the catholic education of their children.

Irish political discourse in the press and on the TV is obsessed with following the liner notes provided by the status quo, even in the face of a popular conversation existing which is much more suspicious. Irish social discourse is similarly in thrall to the cues and stage-directions set by a certain kind of powerful account of ethics – the one which is uncomplicatedly certain that a thing exists called “Western, liberal values”.

That example from Canon law demonstrates there is a vast amount of wriggle room for the devout Catholic between what their church actually teaches about education and the version of that which gets published in the Irish Times. This limp attachment to the lived reality of religion in Ireland is a defining point in conversations about “secularity”. We do not need to investigate or listen. We do not need to be critical of our own assumptions. There is something about the logic of Irish discourse about religion that assumes that everyone gets born with a familiarity with what the whole thing entails and we can just write it off without knowing our Radical Reformation from our Orthodox.

The Presbyterian churches with which I am most familiar might leave me with a biased perspective, but the one thing that doesn’t hold in Christian communities is “uncritical” belief. Sermons are too often dominated by apologetic concerns. Home Bible studies are sites of existential exchange over the difficulties of being human. The dreadful worship music that the Protestants love often sings of doubts and trials and the boring spiritual disciplines that the Catholics love often obsess over the authenticity of the individual in their values and convictions.

If these churches are running schools, then it is highly unlikely that they are teaching, in formal curricula or more importantly, in the actual classroom, some unreflexive claptrap.

An example of how complex lived religious identity in Ireland actually is, can be grasped by paying attention to one interesting sentence from Clarke’s piece. He says:

If one insisted that publicly funded schools should always reflect the beliefs of the majority, then the results would be obvious in a state where a voting majority is Marxist, Muslim, Mennonite or Calvinist.

If you drew a Venn diagram with those four belief systems, I would have one foot squarely in Calvinism and the other foot overlapping with the other three. Between Islam and Calvinism, I share a firm monotheism. Between Calvinism and the Mennonites, I insist that Jesus is what that deity looks like. Between the Mennonites and the Marxists, I insist that we should always have a profound suspicion of the powers-that-be. And between the Marxists and the Muslims, I too agree that justice based on equity is the only viable way to establish societies.

I am a typical Irish evangelical Christian. I do not fit inside the boxes that get uncritically deployed by proponents of a thing called “secularism”.

More worryingly, the philosopher does not seem to know that Mennonites are a separatist sect and do not easily do business with the state. The results would be anything but obvious if the majority living in an area were Mennonites, because a majority of Mennonites wouldn’t even bother to vote, nevermind send their kids to schools where they have to sit still for hours on end and learn about nutrition from drawings of pyramids instead of in kitchens, chopping celery.

Irish Christians need to recognise the profound mess they have made of the educational system through their involvement in it. I long for the day that the last few notionally “Presbyterian” schools get disconnected from our General Assembly. They can go off and become the pure and perfect factories for social advancement that they yearn to be. I wish the Catholic bishops would recognise that Old Nick himself couldn’t come up with a more destructive discipleship programme than forcing people to baptise their children to secure places in schools where they will be taught the parables of Jesus as anemic morality tales as part of an assembly line process where they receive the sacraments not as apocalyptic events of divine revelation, but milestones towards puberty.

Calvin, Hobbes, school

Christianity is about action. It is insufficient to think that we are educating our children by exerting control over schools so that we can compel a vague notion of some of our ideas along with teaching them long division. But because Christianity is about action, the account of Irish political secularism fails catastrophically to even engage with the lived reality. When the churches are kicked out of the system and schools are liberated to finally be hothouses of critical reasoning and incubators of entrepreneurship and microwave ovens of active and concerned citizenry, the very same malaise will set in. Turning vibrant ideas into standardised curricula advocated by teachers who don’t believe it and enforced by parents who can’t care less about it… the noble march of neo-liberal secularism will find itself caught in the same bogland the Catholic church is in now.

Christians can let go of schools. Not because the arguments from political secularism are any good, but because our ideas lead to action, that spill out of the classroom, into the schoolyard, across the street into the housing estates and over every square inch of the good world we get to inhabit.

Your Correspondent, May be a little chemically imbalanced but he’s been right about a lot of things

3 Replies to “Irish Churches and Primary Schools”

  1. Can I ask what you view as the ideal relationship between religion and public schools in Ireland?

    To my mind, the status quo is unacceptable. If you are a teacher who is not Catholic, your employment options are very limited unless you are willing to work in an environment where you don’t subscribe to the ethos. If you’re a primary teacher, you may find yourself having to prepare children for a Catholic sacrament (often with minimal support/interest from some parents).

    For parents not of the majority religion, the downsides should be equally obvious. The extreme, but not uncommon cases, highlighted this week include parents whose child was not accepted by any of the local public schools because he was not the same faith as the patron.

    At a local (to me) multi-denominational school, religion (mainly Catholic) is facilitated in the school hall after hours and run by local churches and parents. Around 50% of kids in second class made their communion last year.

    This, to me, is infinitely better for everyone. Parents of other religions and none don’t have to tell their kids to ‘Listen to teacher except when she mentions God’; parents who want their children to make their communion are supported; teachers who may not believe, need not preach; priests deal with families who have faith and genuinely want to share this with their children – rather than dealing with parents who are going through the motions because it’s on the schedule for eight year olds.

    Side note:
    Re. the article you highlight, I’m not sure the interviewee was saying that Christianity itself is not critical. I had read the article before your blog post and took it to mean only that having teachers teach a particular region as fact – sandwiched between a history lesson and a science experiment – is many miles from ideal.

  2. Great comment, thanks for it. I had meant to write about the ideal relationship between religion and public schools in Ireland but the PhD keeps getting in the way of me ranting about things I know nothing about. I will write about that this week.

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