Egalitarian education under assault, book shows

Issue 

Taking God To School: The End of Australia’s Egalitarian Education?
Marion Maddox
Allen & Unwin, 2014
248 pages, $29.99 (pb)

To the traditional “three Rs”, Australia has added a fourth ― religion.

Religious private schools, religious instruction in public schools and religious counsellors have found generously-funded favour with successive federal and state governments, writes Macquarie University politics professor Marion Maddox, in Taking God to School.

The taxpayer-funded rise of private, religious schools, many of them extremely wealthy, is a huge retreat from the demands of the egalitarian, 19th century education reformers who campaigned for “free, compulsory and secular” education.

They gelled that project with a “nation-building” capitalist state that needed, for social cohesion and economic progress, an educated (and obedient) workforce beyond the minority catered to by the fee-charging, church-run schools of colonial times.

From the mid-1970s, however, Whitlam’s federal Labor government, in the first outing of a repeated “quest for electability”, instituted significant government funding of private schools (90% of which are religious).

With every successive government being quick to pander to the lobbying zeal of the churches (mainstream Christian, “happy-clappy” Pentecostal and other religions), the fiscal disparity between the private and public education spheres has worsened.

Religion has also been favoured in public schools with government-funded religious instruction and by outsourcing student welfare services to private religious providers through a school chaplain program.

This program was hugely expanded under Labor’s atheist prime minister Julia Gillard. Most chaplains are provided by aggressively proselytising, conservative, evangelical versions of Christianity.

All governments have subscribed to the “neoliberal” chant of “public bad, private good”, defending their privatising educational push under the rubric of fostering “choice”. This leaves public schools under-resourced and stigmatised as inferior, while only those who can afford it get to “choose” government-enriched private schooling.

Government hand-holding for religion in education should matter, says Maddox, because what is taught (creationism and Bible literalism, for example) is anti-science, how it is taught is opposed to critical thinking, and who it is taught to, and by who, is exempt from laws against discrimination on, for example, sexual orientation or marital status.

Maddox goes beyond this standard atheist critique of religion in education, however, by arguing against the influence of both “money and religion”, which are tightly conjoined in the Australian education system.

She reminds us that wealthy private schools are publicly-funded breeding grounds for entitlement to private privilege. In the top echelons of business and government, the privately-educated disproportionately predominate. St Peter’s College in Adelaide, for example, has produced nine state premiers and two federal education ministers.

Both the dollar and the dog-collar, Maddox concludes, need to be minimised in Australia’s schools. In fact, with the modern capitalist state now firmly wedded to private, religious education, the old demand for all education to be free and secular, divided by neither creed nor class, has become decidedly revolutionary.

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