More on Thinking v Faith

Stephen Law said the same things (as Anthony Grayling said, and as I said about that survey) back in June. They’re not very startling things to say, in fact they’re the good old bleeding obvious, but they’re not very fashionable at the moment, and they tend to get lost in all the droning about faith this and faith that.

“The liberal approach,” he says, “is entirely consistent with drilling and the instilling of good habits.” Indeed, thinking critically, challenging political or religious orthodoxies, is a highly disciplined intellectual activity…Many secular parents try to get their children into faith schools because they believe the discipline and order is better in a Christian environment. Law argues that this is a fallacy. In fact, many faith schools flourish by being selective. The authoritarian intellectual climate leaves children bereft of the intellectual and emotional skills necessary to deal with the modern world.

See that’s the problem. Even if it’s true that religious schools do better at discipline and order, that’s discipline and order bought at a very high price. If, for instance, that ‘discipline and order’ is achieved partly or wholly by means of intellectual authoritarianism, well, then it’s a case of getting the tools in order and then calling the job done. ‘Discipline and order’ in school aren’t the actual goal of education, they’re only a tool for the purpose of education. If discipline and order were the goal, it would be simpler just to gag the students and put them in irons for the day and let it go at that. The goal is education, including the use of a flexible mind. A mind that has been trained to accept assertions delivered by authorities as a matter of faith is not a flexible or a useful mind.

On one level, Law’s objective is simple – to insist on the value of clear and rational thinking. He says schools need to “teach young people to question underlying assumptions, diagnose faulty reasoning, weigh up evidence, listen to other people’s points of view”. It all sounds uncontroversial. But Law is convinced that basic Enlightenment values are under serious threat from the new authoritarians of New Labour and America’s Republican right. Blair’s faith schools, and conservative educationalists, are taking us back to the bad old days when children were told to take things on trust and never question authority…Law is profoundly opposed to moral relativism, and gets annoyed when people see it as synonymous with liberalism or a by-product of liberal modes of thought. One of his objectives is to “slay the dragon of relativism”. It’s not true, Law argues, that liberals regard all beliefs as equally valid . The disciplines of critical thought, the values of rational scientific inquiry, are non-negotiable elements in the true liberal world-view. They don’t just “believe in everything and nothing”. They believe only in what is reasonable.

Well, not in practice, probably, but in principle. Anyway the point is clear enough. Authority and faith and no questions, no good; critical thought and inquiry and questions, good. Don’t take my word for it: inquire.

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