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Promoting Political Debate about Schooling

Monday, 1 September 2014  | Bruce C. Wearne

Promoting Political Debate about Schooling

A personal and auto-biographical comment upon: Marion Maddox, Taking God to School: The End of Australia's Egalitarian Education? (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2014).

Ken Dickens, Principal of Christian Education National (CEN), is critical of this book but concedes there are worthy features in Marion Maddox's contribution. He rightly says that Australia needs the opened-up, political debate about schooling that this book seeks to promote. Such debate will have to critically examine Maddox's argument. There are problems with her perspective, not least with how the book deals with the schools CEN serves and represents.

But the key political discussion that we need is about curriculum and who is responsible for it. Here I address that issue rather than get sidetracked by the moral panic about Christianity and Christian schools. Publshers Allen and Unwin have fomented that with the help of cover blurbs from two prominent public intellectuals. Maddox avoids giving any explicit theoretical account of curriculum development in its political context. That is a big issue. Those who are the subjects of Maddox's critical gaze should be in the forefront of public discussion about the political character of teaching and learning in schools, of class-room organisation and school management, and of curriculum. Whose authority should be respected here? Such political discussion is also seriously under-developed in our national life. Christian parents who send their children to Christian schools will need the assistance of insights gleaned from a Christian democratic perspective if they are to rightly defend their support of Christian schooling for their children.

Such a discussion could, in time, help foster a genuine non-discriminatory civic respect for all genuine educational viewpoints. Christian citizens have a public responsibility to contribute to open political discussion, including discussion about justice in education. That is simply part of the life we share with all of our neighbours in this polity.

Reviewing Maddox's book has not been easy. I had to figure out what I wanted to say about her wide-ranging discussion. Finally, I decided that to take her book seriously is to reckon with it as a call to abandon the view that a just public order must have an inner or intrinsic connection to Christian discipleship and schooling. A just public order is characterised by public justice, not by neutrality or secularity. Neutrality and secularity do not actually help us ascribe respect where it is view. And so Maddox's concluding rallying call, "Let us reclaim the secular!" (p.203), prompts me to reiterate the view I first encountered in my final year as an under-graduate sociology major at Monash in 1971. That was when I realised my academic studies were truly a calling in which to serve God and neighbour. Maddox tells us that 1971 was the year she set out on her schooling journey. Her book shows she, in her generation, does not separate her lament about the demise of "Australia's egalitarian education" from her schooling and academic experience. In similar fashion, my brief account of the "secular" approach to schooling from which I turned away, accompanies my diagnosis of public education.

The book's by-line tells us that the author is "a product of both public and private schools." Marion Maddox spent the final two years of her secondary education at an elite, private school, a decision her parents made

… because of limitations at the old school, and made possible due to reduced fees because my father was a minister in the church associated with the new school (p. x).

Maddox demonstrates how she is developing a public policy perspective for schooling and education from "midstream". She does not pretend to describe the process as if she were outside of it. Now I note the word "product" which I try to avoid because of its association with a neo-liberal view of schooling as an assembly-line. But by such auto-biographical references Maddox reminds us that she is not merely a product and wants us to know something about her schooling experience and how her perspective has developed through her schooling. That is helpful. Our own involvement with public education, through our schooling, the studies we undertake to gain (legally-accredited) qualifications, and the education of our children, confronts us with our own political responsibilities. And in that confrontation, even the terms we use, though malleable, are never neutral.

Maddox, from Sydney, calls "public schools" what I, from Victoria, call "state schools". In Victoria the term "public" also means "private" in terms of elite church "public" schools. (That historical ambiguity needs to be unravelled!) Maddox has helpfully discussed the term "secular" in historical terms, but it is also necessary to explore the term "public" and not simply assume, as she seems to, that the true definition of "public" is on the side of those who agree with her definition of "secularism"—"merely a way of going about things that enables people with as many different views as possible to participate in public life" (p. 202). That definition comes on the second last page! It is part of her justification that secularism is not a rival to Christianity. Such a hurried conclusion confirms my criticism that the term "religion" remains fuzzy throughout. A thorough, critical review will have to explore Maddox's usage of such terms. Suffice here to say that what goes on in schooling and public education, along with the terminology we use to discuss our schools and guide public policy discourse, must sooner or later shape our perspective on public justice. And political engagement cannot avoid the critical examination of the terms we use.

As I have said, I'm a Victorian "state school boy". But the view I now hold of the meaning and purpose of schooling is not the "secular" view cumulatively conveyed to me in my schooling (1957-1968). The utilitarian pragmatism that infused the curriculum of my State primary and secondary education culminated with the same bitter assumptions I confronted in BA studies at Monash University (1969-1971). It was in reflection on my schooling to that point, that I became, and still am, a proponent of a kind of Christian education that provokes Maddox's concerns in Chapter 4, "Christ-centred, Bible-based, taxpayer-funded". In fact, I have spent my academic life developing a Christian democratic perspective learning much from the insights of Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) who Maddox labels "schismatic" (p. 91). Dissenter? Yes. Non-conformist? Yes. Kuyper schismatic? I doubt that very much. As a matter of fact, at that time and at least until the late 1990s, two famous etchings by Jakob Slegt had pride of place in Monash's J. A. L. Matheson library! They commemorate Kuyper's Free University in Amsterdam, established by the Dutch protestant working class, to uphold academic freedom and to counter the intolerant neo-liberalism that was squeezing the life out of Dutch academic, church and social life in the second half of the 19th century.

My confrontation with Kuyper's "neo-calvinism" began in 1971, when Maddox started primary school. I even started to read the translated writings of Dooyeweerd, a jurist at the Free University, and quoted him in sociology essays. His massive work sat on the Matheson Library shelf right next to the works of Immanuel Kant. The theoretical details can come later but this is to signal my dissent from Maddox's analysis. In a nutshell she fails to actually address the political dimension of curriculum development and how curriculum assumptions have a decisive impact upon the way students are taught to see themselves, the world, and their faith. Moreover, her discussion fails to plumb the depths of Christian traditions of dissent and non-conformity that continue to come to expression with deeply felt intellectual resistance among students to what they are being taught as well as to how they are being taught. Many primary and high school children, as well as university students, whatever school or academy, develop such resistance during their school years and academic training. They dissent. And they are by no means schismatic. They are not necessarily Christian, but there are those who inherit the non-conformist Christian tradition and they may even refrain from swearing and drug-use, being committed to staying chaste before marriage. Many go on to become supporters of Christian schooling and the reformation of public education.

As a Christian and former university lecturer I remain in contact with such "rebellious" students who continue to resist the privatization of their "values", who reject the supposition that their faith must be eroded in the face of reputed "facts" sold dogmatically as "secular" science. They maintain their religious outlook and they also resist neo-liberal secular humanism decades later despite the ongoing and relentless insistance that faith in God be privatized. They continue to make public their Christian profession. Some even dare to do so by supporting Christian schools, not just for their own children but for the children of whomever would want their children so educated. They do not view their beliefs as a possession to be held in private. They are not the disciples of John Locke, but of Jesus Christ.

Since 1971 I have tried to develop a Christian political perspective for education in dissent from public policies developed by politicians and academic administrators who are no longer interested in distinguishing the distinctive characteristics of schools—places of teaching and learning—from business enterprises or factories concerned with buying and selling. Such latter-day disciples of John Locke continue to unfold neo-liberalism's public policies for education and in my view deepen Australia's ongoing schooling crisis. Some of them may even embrace the "secularism" espoused by Marion Maddox. That neo-liberal view, that demeaning enslaving world-view, needs sustained critique with an alternative comprehensive political analysis about public schooling. This country needs schools to turn from the idolatry basic to neoliberalism.

Marion Maddox may not be suggesting that schooling and a legally accredited national curriculum return to the positivism and classroom consequences so pertinently described for the 1980s by Hugh Stretton (see Political Essays 1987 pp. 170-173). But then she has not explained how her brand of secular/ secularity/ secularism is to be taught, and/or re-introduced, into school class-rooms. She may insist that it should be taught but in failing to tell us how it is to be done, and how the curriculum is to be formed, she gets close to the dogmatic pose she infers will be the logical outcome of various confessional statements she cites. These confessions have been devised by school communities, often after the active engagement of parents, seeking to discern the faith-direction a school community's learning and teaching should take. A curriculum does not fall from heaven. It must be formed by educators skilled in the art. Critical curriculum formation needs to give due respect to how faith is presupposed in and by schooling. Political debate about education needs deepened understanding of curriculum if public policy is to focus upon doing justice to the nation's school classrooms and playing fields.

Bruce C. Wearne
Point Lonsdale
Friday, August 22, 2014

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