Scripture in Schools: It is “Special” for a Reason

Chris Ashton says it is a straw man argument to suggest religion is being woven into our public school system. Special Religious Education is “special” because of its limited participation.

Tim Dean’s recent article is certainly a spirited defence of secular ethics classes, but as an attack on scripture classes it hardly lands a punch.

“Scripture” is the old name for Special Religious Education (SRE) in NSW, Special Religious Instruction (SRI) in Victoria and Religious Instruction (RI) in Queensland. Dean’s attack misses the mark for a number of reasons.

Firstly, he wheels out the old straw man argument suggesting that scripture is being “woven into our public school system”. I have taught SRE in NSW and RI in Queensland, and in neither case did I meet anyone with such intentions.

In NSW, scripture is called “special” religious education as opposed to “general” religious education. One of its “special” qualities is its limited participation. There is no weaving into the system: students (which is to say, parents) effectively elect the SRE class they want to be involved with when they nominate their religion at enrolment. Then, far from being “woven in”, students are “taken out” to be taught alongside their religious peers. This is the way it has operated for years (I remember at Neutral Bay Public School in the 1980s there was Anglican, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim scripture, and possibly others, as well as “non-scripture”), and it what every SRE advocate I’ve ever met wants.

Secondly, Dean gives too much credit to secular ethics classes such as those offered in NSW, and places too much credence on their supposed neutrality and that of public schooling generally. His claim that “public education is not about indoctrination” is debatable; educationalists routinely claim that public schooling should strive to achieve such altruistic purposes as democratic equality, citizenship, equity and social justice. These left-wing motifs inform not only classroom practice in most schools, but also the national curriculum, the biases of which are clear and presented without apology in subjects such as history, English and economics.

But to Dean, all public education is concerned with is the noble task of “equipping our children with the tools to navigate a complex world… whatever their moral views may be.” As politically and pedagogically correct as that may sound, it is a foolish error to suggest that maths or English could be taught free of bias, let alone history (as colonisation and cold wars are discussed), geography (as students wrestle with Israel and Gaza), or economics (as it privileges Keynes over Friedman) – even assuming a neutral curriculum!

Thirdly, Dean’s article betrays his views on religion. He writes of the problem of students being taught on the one hand that the world was “formed billions of years ago”, and a biblical view of creation on the other. He laments that “faith often wins.” I might suggest that in our increasingly secular society faith often loses as well, but in any case, our author seems troubled by the very existence of supernatural faith, and the claims it makes.

If the NSW Parliament revoked the one hour per week of SRE in public schools it would be a great loss, but no great tragedy. School scripture is really only an extension of the catechetical work done in religious families and the evangelistic work done by churches, synagogues, and mosques. However, it is this broader context of religion that Dean seems ultimately unable to abide.

Finally, his article imagines that the purposes of scripture and the purposes of ethics classes are essentially the same, albeit, perhaps, with a slightly different underlying foundation. In his mind they are competing for the same space. Now I can’t speak for all SRE providers, but this is certainly not the case for Christian scripture. Given the very limited time provided for SRE – and I’m not suggesting that it should be increased – I don’t want to hear of any of it being wasted on religion as “the social glue” or something that “brings people together” or provides a “strong sense of community” or even as some vague source of “solace and comfort,” all qualities attributed to religion by Dean. You see, the other special aspect of SRE is that it is unashamedly dogmatic, and that it makes unambiguous claims. For Christian SRE, it means teaching plainly that true comfort and lasting hope in this life and the next is found only in the truth that we belong body and soul to our faithful saviour Jesus Christ, and that he has paid for all our sins with his precious blood.

Now you’re not going to hear that in public education. Perhaps it’s even “contradictory to what public education is all about”. I’ll concede that one to Tim Dean. But if he is as open-minded as he claims secular ethics classes help children to become, I’m sure he could agree that for one hour per week perhaps school could be the place for scripture lessons.

This article first published in The Drum on 24 July 2014.