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What’s the future of Australian Christian education? Review of ‘Taking God to School’

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Taking God to SchoolA review of Taking God to School by Marion Maddox. Published by Allen & Unwin.

There has been little sensible discussion about the recent radical rise of religiously-oriented school education in Australia, probably because the educational mainstream simply couldn’t believe what was happening. Meanwhile, Australian religious education advocates of all types have been playing a shrewdly quiet game of politics and funding, building a massive irreversible presence in Australian society.

The quiet time is over. Professor Marion Maddox’s latest book Taking God to School, long awaited after her sensational God Under Howard (2005), presents a forensic exposé of the Australian Christian religious education scene. It is a well-researched account of government support of religious schools and religion supported in government schools, widespread activities that Maddox claims should have nothing to do with “the state’s business”. Such goings on, she argues, break long-standing Australian promises of “free, compulsory and secular” education, established in the “forward thinking” mid to late 19th century State Education Acts, and poses an immediate credible threat to Australian plural society as a whole.

However, beyond its obvious success as highly readable social science, Taking God to School’s campaign to ‘reclaim the secular’ in education is a heartfelt, articulate and rhetorical defence of something that never really existed, and, even if it did, could exist no longer.

However, beyond its obvious success as highly readable social science, Taking God to School’s campaign to ‘reclaim the secular’ in education is a heartfelt, articulate and rhetorical defence of something that never really existed…

Secular education was envisaged in the 19th Century, she argues, from a high-minded ideal separating state and religion. It is, Professor Maddox asserts, an ideal to which we must return. However the meaning of the term ‘secular’ in widely illiterate mid-late 19th Century Australia, had little to do with a US-style non-religious centre to politics and public service. It had much more to do with Irish Australians and English Australians not attacking each other in the street, and getting their children to attend any school at all. When the various state education acts were established, their masterminds never in their wildest nightmares imagined a plural school system or, indeed, society, that included Asians, Muslims or girls going on to get medical degrees. That aboriginality would even been discussed in 100 years times, let alone aboriginal education, would have been laughed out of the all male mahogany-panelled rooms. Few anticipated that society would ever lapse from a dominant Protestant Christianity that went to morning service then home to tuck into the Sunday roast. The febrile politics of Catholic ex-pat Irish independence is entirely absent from Taking God to School.

This was the era of the Eureka Stockade and Ned Kelly, the era that was deeply suspicious that the Protestant English would always rip-off the Irish Catholics. It was a society divided, not between religion and no religion, but between two branches of the one religion, deeply entwined with two different nationalisms. At the time, Australian Catholics were (quite rightly) deeply suspicious of majority Protestant motives in public schooling, and huffed off to form their own schools, a move that Maddox skims over. ‘Secular’, in this social tension, meant ‘non-sectarian’, not ‘non-religious’. It bore little resemblance to the kind of grand ideological ‘secularism’ conceived in the American and French revolutions, with religion politely tucked away as a private exception. Yet that is what Maddox wishes it to mean. She claims that “Religion-state separation [now] looms as unfinished business in Australian political culture” numerously citing US Supreme Court constitutional rulings, and claiming that religion-state separation “resonates strongly in the Australian consciousness, but hardly at all in Australian law”.

However the rise of the religious schooling sector (currently at over 50% of all enrolments in senior secondary), and a conspicuous lack of popular resistance to religious programmes in state schools is not the work of a few conspirators involved in ‘selfish political vote buying, judicial abdication and public indifference’, as former high court Justice Michael Kirby barracks on the book’s back cover. Along with many other features of Australian social and political life, this rise suggests instead that the big bold black ideological lines drawn in holy US political documents, furiously debated on The West Wing, are simply not the Australian way. Despite our lack of churchgoing, Australians are not ideologically secular, or at least, not in the way Professor Maddox wants us to be. Nor are we that particularly ideological, per se. Our egalitarianism and religiosity is a more subtle, conventional thing, more like test cricket.

Furthermore, Australians are no longer able to accept big ideologies about religion or non-religion imposed by a government, or, for that matter, a worldwide church. And this is not moral failure: it is a radical change in the way Australians form belief. Perhaps this is the root of Maddox’s frustration, as she finally—and somewhat anti-climactically—tries to blame the rise of religion in Australian education on economic rationalism.

It would also fail because religion is, and ever has been, central to humanity.

However the proliferation of ‘school choice’, religion in schools and private schools of all sorts, has less to do with economic policy, or even religion. Where previously Australians accepted truth top-down on the basis of authority, if somewhat grudgingly at times, they now build belief bottom-up from the lived experience. Individual experience matters, and the individualistic religious experience matters most of all. Knowledge and authority seems to most valued when it is organic, constructed and negotiated. Even if Maddox’s vision of a grand ‘secular’ ideal imposed on 19th century Australian education was accurate – and I don’t think it is – it still would not work today.

It would also fail because religion is, and ever has been, central to humanity. To devise an education system that removes religion for the sake of social harmony is to deny one of the key elements of history and knowledge. It also over-indulges the long-outdated assumption that there is such a thing as a ‘neutral’ knowledge site, where secularism might squat impartially in a school. The decision to exclude religious influence from education is as much an ideological, values-laden belief, as including religion. Maddox concedes the importance of religion in knowledge in a sudden back-flip on page 147, declaring that state schools should have “pluralistic, non-confessional religious studies”. This should be in a “creative divorce”, which seems to mean teachers policing a perilously imaginary line between students being informed about something and actually starting to like it. However controlling this ‘confessional’ and ‘non-confessional’ boundary also relies on an outmoded one way teacher-to-student understanding of schooling, so insightfully critiqued in the UK context by Professor Trevor Cooling’s A Christian Vision for State Education. The learning experience in practice is much more dynamic.

Such a programme, as she describes it, also appears very close to a liberal ecumenical version of Christianity, which Professor Maddox has confirmed to me is her own faith position. It is abundantly clear that Maddox is no fan of the evangelical version, and this is a driving force throughout her narrative. Rather than include a theological debate, however, Maddox claims the neutral ground, and often depicts evangelicalism in education as a colourful form of stupidity. Far too many cases of the loopiest material from writers and tiny schools, on the far outer edges of Christian education, are cherry-picked and presented as evidence of the mainstream. Some of these activities are startling, and should be deeply embarrassing for Christian Education. Yet there is a gesture of contempt in Professor Maddox’s over-focus on the extremity. It treats a large Australian demographic as an absurd fundamentalist ‘other’, simply shoved off into the dark territory beyond the pale of reason.

Yet, for all that, it was satisfying to me as a researcher to see in Taking God to School comprehensive lists of schools and church leaders, hitherto under-recognized academic research, and Christian publications such as Eternity. In other words, the interior-language of Christian education has been finally overheard, and analysed by one of Australia’s most powerful and critical academic voices. Maddox observes much about Christian education that is absolutely accurate. Some of it is shocking, but there is also a great deal that, whilst designed to shock, will be taken by insiders as a clear confirmation that many goals of Australian religious and private school education are actually being achieved. That Maddox and many others don’t agree with them is fine: we are, after all, talking about the national heart.

Taking God to School should be read by everyone leading or teaching in an Australian school, those with even a passing interest in Christian education, and anyone wishing to contribute to the vision of Australia. Let the sensible discussions begin.

David Hastie is Director of Cambridge International Courses at Presbyterian Ladies College, Sydney, and is a PhD candidate in Education at Macquarie University, researching the effects of religion on English Teaching in NSW Protestant schools.

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