The war for young minds
Sunday Herald - Glasgow,Scotland,UK
The war for young minds
Author Stephen Law tells Iain Macwhirter why he believes the rise of faith schools poses a risk to Enlightenment values
STEPHEN Law is the typical product of a liberal household – or so his critics might say. He dropped out of school to become, in his own words, “a lazy good-for-nothing hippy” who was only interested in smoking and rock music. H e still doesn’t quite know how he managed to blag his way into London’s City University to study philosophy.
Law’s liberal intellectual parents positively encouraged him to question and challenge accepted beliefs and conventions. “I used to spend hours around the dinner table discussing politics with my dad,” he tells me. “It’s probably where I got most of my education.” So why did this impeccably enlightened family environment – which Law believes should be the model for our education system – lead him into the ways of rootless negativity?
It’s a loaded question, of course. An example of the faulty authoritarian thinking that he challenges in his book, The War For Children’s Minds. There were many reasons for his teenage idleness, but capacity for critical thought wasn’t one of them. Yet, it has entered our political culture that, in some way, the enlightened liberal thinking of the 1960s led to the rotting of self-discipline and respect and produced lazy, selfish behaviour.
In fact, Law isn’t opposed to discipline and doesn’t believe that freedom of thought is synonymous with disorder in class; quite the reverse. What he advocates might be called “tough liberalism” . “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.
So what Law is looking at is clearly very different from the popular image of “child-centred” learning, which some parents believe is so pernicious. The equation of classroom liberalism with rank indiscipline is widespread, and not just in the pages of the Daily Mail. Prime Minister Tony Blair has criticised “permissive 1960s values”. First Minister Jack McConnell has agreed that classroom indiscipline is partly a result of “out-moded” teaching theories.
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.
Law is profoundly opposed to the idea, held by some politically-correct liberals, that Islamic schools should be free to impose Sharia law and rule by clerics, within the British state system. This kind of misguided multiculturalism is a result, he says, not of liberalism, but of “intellectual and moral defeatism”. Reason does not preclude judgement. The Enlightenment, you might say, is a process, not an event.
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.
“This book is a kind of pre-emptive strike,” he says. “I was frustrated at constantly hearing the same bad arguments being repeated without anyone challenging them.” The ideas of the Enlightenment “have to be fought for all over again. We cannot allow religious authoritarians to take over and run state schools”.
Law also targets those US neoconservatives who believe that religion is the basis of morality and that society disintegrates unless there’s an external authority which is beyond critical questioning. Christian fundamentalist, Pat Buchanan, is a one of Law’s bêtes noires. Buchanan says that America is “locked in a cultural war for the soul of the country” against liberal secularists who “preach a hedonistic dogma where man is the highest authority and his whim is the only absolute”.
Even agnostics like Washington political analyst Irving Kristol believe that religion is essential to the functioning of an orderly society. The result of all this evangelical proselytising, says Law, has been the revival in America of pre-Enlightenment ideas such as Creationism. We musn’t let it happen here.
The faith argument isn’t prosecuted with quite the same vigour in Britian , largely because we don’t have a politically- organised Christian fundamentalist right. But Law targets Daily Mail journalist Melanie Phillips and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks for promoting “anti-Enlightenment views”. Sacks believes that our present moral malaise is a consequence of the decline in deference to religious values, while Phillips says relativism has destroyed educational achievement.
Law quotes her as saying: “The Englightenment gave us freedom and liberal values, but it also gave us … the Holocaust.” What she means is that the Enlightenment gave us politics, which gave us Stalin and Hitler.
ISUSPECT that once Phillips reads The War For Children’s Minds, she will give Stephen Law more than a piece of her own mind. I’m also looking forward to reading the response from US conservatives like the journalist Ann Coulter, author of How To Talk To A Liberal – If You Must, who is heavily criticised by Law for saying that Hitler was an atheist, which he wasn’t.
Law’s book will be attacked by Christian educationalists and conservatives for trying to start an intellectual war in the classroom.
But this particular war is about more than education. Law’s book is really an attempt to put morality back on to a rational footing, to show that you don’t need divine inspiration to learn how to be good. You can work it out from Kantian first principles. Kant thought that, when it comes to determining right and wrong, reason is all you need. Children, he argued, are natural philosophers and quite capable of understanding the principles of moral autonomy.
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.
Now, postmodernists and structuralists might say that Law is naive and reductionist and that he fails to recognise the social context of morality. It’s all very well laying down absolutes, but you have to take into account people’s different viewpoints. For example: you may say that it’s wrong to steal. But is it wrong for the poor to steal from the rich if they are starving?
Law is impatient with all this. “Postmodernists accuse me of authoritarian conservatism; that as a white male I shouldn’t be telling people how to live. But I don’t have a lot of time for that.” Perhaps he should find the time, because as an author of popular philosophy he can’t ignore the most influential strand of modern philosophy in British universities. “Structuralism” doesn’t even appear in Law’s index, and there is no discussion of the popes of postmodernism, such as Louis Althusser or Michel Foucault.
I suppose Law would say that what he is concerned with is not social structures, class or epistemology, but something more basic: the danger of the retreat from reason, a tide of irrational nonsense that is sweeping the West – from TV evangelists to Islamic fundamentalists; from Scientology to “Cosmic Ordering”.
It is a measure of how far we have come from the secular humanism that was almost universal in the West after the second world war that an academic philosopher such as Stephen Law should find it necessary to write a book like this.
In the end, he concedes – like the philosopher David Hume – that reason cannot give us moral absolutes, but it can allow us to form reasoned judgements, assess arguments, see through dogma, ideology, prejudice and cant. Liberal education promotes intelligence and emotional and social maturity. No democracy can function without it; and totalitarianism withers before it.
“Liberal education,” Law concludes, “can help immunise new citizens against the wiles of religious cults and other forms of psychological manipulation and brainwashing.” This is especially true in the age of spin. This defence of reason should be obligatory reading, not just in schools, but in parliament and the press.
The War For Children’s Minds by Stephen Law is published by Routledge, £14.99
11 June 2006
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