More Sen

Harmonic convergence time. I mentioned I’m reading that book of Amartya Sen’s (very slowly, you’ll notice as I give page numbers, but that’s because I’m reading other things too, also because I want to read it slowly – okay it’s because I don’t read well). It’s all, so far anyway, very ‘aha’ kind of reading (which is why I want to read it slowly) – just ‘aha, aha,’ every sentence, with no anecdotal stuff in between to give you a chance to read without going ‘aha’. In other words it’s one of those books that says very eloquently exactly what you already think so you keep sort of twitching like something in a cruel electric experiment. I knew it would be that kind of book, but it is, all the same. I gave an especially violent twitch while reading what he says about ‘faith’ schools in the UK, and resolved to do another N&C quoting that part. And while doing News found this article in the Telegraph.

[Sen] felt that Tony Blair’s government, for which he had voted, had unwittingly made two serious policy blunders – increasingly encouraging a society in which the ethnic minorities and especially Muslims were defined almost exclusively by their religion and endorsing the establishment of faith schools…Although he wanted mainstream British schools to broaden their curriculum to include more on the contribution of, say, Muslim mathematicians to science, he added that faith schools “are a pretty bad thing. Educationally, it’s not good for the child. From the point of view of national unity, it’s dreadful because, even before a child begins to think, it’s being defined by its ‘community’, which is primarily religion.

Well, see, that’s exactly one of the bits I was going to quote in here. Because I think he’s right, right, right, and I think everyone should listen and heed. Page 13:

Despite our diverse diversities, the world is suddenly seen not as a collection of people, but as a federation of religions and civilizations. In Britain a confounded view of what a multiethnic society must do has led to encouraging the development of state-financed Muslim schools, Hindu schools, Sikh schools, etc, to supplement pre-existing state-supported Christian schools, and young children are powerfully placed in the domain of singular affiliations well before they have the ability to reason about different systems of identification that may compete for their attention.

Which is exactly what Richard Dawkins says – very rightly, in my view – about children and religion: they have it forced on them long before they have the ability to reason about the subject, and the subject needs to be reasoned about. That’s what Sen is arguing (to a chorus of ‘aha’s from me): that it is both possible and necessary to reason about what we consider our identity, what we want to make a priority and what we don’t, what matters more than what. That it is crucial to be aware that it is a choice, and that it is a choice that can be reasoned about: our freedom and our ability to reason are both important here, and are both available to us, but only if we are aware of them and do make use of them. ‘Faith’ schools work to entrench the opposite idea: that we don’t get to choose, and that it’s not a matter of reason or choice but one of inheritance.

“We have many different identities because we belong to many different groups,” he said. “We are connected with our profession, occupation, class, gender, political views and language, literature, taste in music, involvement in social issues – and also religion. But just to separate out religion as one singularly important identity that has over-arching importance is a mistake. One of the problems of what is happening in Britain today is that one identity, the religious identity, has been taken to represent almost everything.” He argued: “Of course, this policy immediately has the effect of making some people extremely privileged – those who speak in the name of religion. There may be some moderate people but mostly they are extremists who appeal by saying, ‘Forget everything else, you are a Muslim’…This is a point of view that Islamic terrorists share with western theorists who define human beings only in terms of their religion because both agree that if you are Muslim, then that is your primary identity.”

He’s talking at the Institute of Public Policy Research, the Asia Society, the Nehru Centre and the Institute of Contemporary Arts. I’d go if I were in London.

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