// you’re reading...


Free their minds

Stephen Law makes the case for a more liberal education

Stephen Law

Stephen Law

In my book, The War for Children’s Minds, I respond to an anti-liberal mythology that has developed over the last couple of decades – a mythology that tends to blame everything that’s wrong with modern society – from rising crime to delinquency to teenage pregnancy – on 60’s liberals, and in particular, on liberal attitudes to religious and moral education. Many social and religious conservatives now argue that, if we’re to cure these problems, we need to move back in the direction of the kind of traditional, authority-based moral and religious education that tended to predominate in religious schools before the 60’s.

I’m not objecting to religious schools (not here, anyway). My concern is with the type of education delivered in them. My fear is that many of the new religious schools now in the pipeline will offer a rather traditional form of religious education in which, rather being taught to think, question and make their own judgements, young people are encouraged to defer more-or-unless uncritically to some religious authority such as their imam or the Pope,

I argue that all schools, religious or not, should be liberal, in the sense that they should encourage young people to think critically and for themselves about moral and religious issues – including their own religious views. That will strike many as sensible. But not everyone. When the Institute of Public Policy Research recommended all children be encouraged to think critically about the religious beliefs they bring with them into the classroom, Melanie Phillips (Daily Mail) and the Daily Telegraph were outraged.

Many arguments are used to justify a return to traditional, authority-based moral and religious education. Often these arguments have a philosophical dimension. Some appeal to a familiar criticism of Kant and other Enlightenment philosophers: that they were wrong to suppose that reason alone is capable of furnishing us with moral principles. In which case, conclude defenders of authority, the individual has no choice but to rely on an external authority instead. Some appeal to communitarian ideas, maintaining that religious authority – and the social bonds it forges – provides a much-needed corrective to our increasingly fragmented and individualistic society. Some refer back to the thinking of Aristotle to justify a form of moral education based not on thinking, but on doing. Some argue that authority-based religious values are the only alternative to the moral relativism that, they insist, is eating away at the fabric of Western society like a cancer.

You will find all these arguments heavily woven into the thinking of a great many religious conservatives. They can’t all be dealt with here. Nor is there room to make a positive case for a liberal approach. I’ll simply provide a rough sketch out the kind of liberalism I defend, and then lay down a blunt challenge to those who believe that the kind of traditional, authority-based moral and religious education that tended to predominate in religious schools up until the 1960’s is acceptable.

Let me begin by clarifying what divides “liberals” and “authoritarians”.

Should children and young people be free to do just whatever they want? No. Everyone thinks there should be some rules. Just how restrictive these rules are, and just how aggressively they should be enforced, is one issue that divides “liberals” and “authoritarians”. Many believe that, particularly over the last fifty years or so, we’ve moved too far up the liberal end of the scale. We’ve become excessively permissive. The time has come to redress the balance – to move back in the authoritarian direction. Perhaps they are right.

But there’s another way in which we can distinguish between “liberals” and “authoritarians”. The issue here is freedom of thought and expression. To what extent should children be encouraged to think for themselves? To what extent should they be allowed publicly to disagree, to express their own opinions?

Here, too, opinion is divided. But notice that those who are pretty authoritarian on the freedom of action scale might turn out to be fairly liberal on the freedom of thought scale. It’s one thing to prohibit doing so-and-so. It’s quite another to prohibit people from thinking, saying or arguing that they should be allowed to do so-and-so.
We can represent the freedom of action scale like so:

This scale ranges from total hands-off anarchy at the top, where there are no rules or discipline at all, to an extremely regimented, boot-camp-style regime at the bottom.

We can now add the freedom of thought scale like so:


To reduce confusion, when the issue is freedom of thought, let’s spell “Liberal” and “Authoritarian” with capital initials. An “Authoritarian” believes we should place more emphasis on more-or-less-uncritical deference to Authority rather than on independent critical thought. They’re to the right. The “Liberal” thinks we should place the greater emphasis on independent critical thought and freedom of expression. They’re to the left.

You can see there are four possible combinations of Liberal, liberal, Authoritarian and authoritarian.

It’s possible, for example, to be, liberal with a small “l”, yet Authoritarian with a capital “A”. Take Alice, a parent who merrily tolerates all sorts of bad behaviour from her children, yet smacks them hard if they ever dare to question the religious faith that she has raised them to accept uncritically. Alice is in the top right quadrant of our chart.

Or take Sophie, who imposes a strict set of rules on her daughters. She expects them to tidy their rooms, do as they’re told, and be in bed by nine o’clock sharp. Sophie’s pretty authoritarian with a small “a”. But still, she wants her children to think for themselves. While Sophie is fairly authoritarian, she’s also Liberal. Sophie’s in the bottom left corner.

The question with which I’m concerned is: how Liberal or Authoritarian should we be when it comes to moral education? I argue that, whatever our views on rules and discipline, we should be more Liberal than Authoritarian. That’s to say, wherever we are on the vertical scale, we should be well to the left, and certainly not to the right, on the horizontal scale.

One common misconception about the Liberal approach is that it’s somehow incompatible with a religious upbringing. Christians, for example, will want to teach their children about Jesus and the kind of morality he represents. As Liberals, they’re free to do that.

The difference between, say, an Authoritarian Christian and a Liberal Christian lies not in what they teach children, but in how they teach it. The Authoritarian will expect children to embrace Christian belief more or less on the say-so of a religious Authority. The Liberal, by contrast, will certainly tolerate, and may even actively encourage, critical scrutiny of religious beliefs.

Just as some wrongly assume the religious must be Authoritarian, so others mistakenly suppose atheists must be Liberal. Robin Le Poidevin nicely sets out the positions at the extreme Liberal and Authoritarian ends of the scale like so:

“Compare these two desires: the desire to subordinate oneself utterly to the wishes of some authority… and the desire that one’s behaviour should reflect one’s own ideals, to act because one thinks it is right, independently of the will of any other individual. Which is the better ideal, as far as our moral development is concerned? The atheist insists the second desire is the better one. For the atheist the moral ideal is autonomy, or self government. The truly moral agent is one who wishes to be his own master, not the instrument of some other power, and not to trust the deliverances of some supposed authority, but to work out for themselves the rightness of certain kinds of morality.” (Arguing For Atheism)

Le Poidevin characterizes the atheist as a Liberal. That’s a mistake. Atheists can be Authoritarian too, as many totalitarian regimes demonstrate. The party member who sees herself as a mere cog in the great machine, who blindly and faithfully accepts what she is told, who dares never to hold or venture any opinion other than that which has been officially endorsed, may have a mind no less enslaved and ruled by Authority than that of a hard-line religious zealot.

Authoritarian atheist regimes can also be just as brutal in expunging unacceptable beliefs. In Stalinist Russia, the feared knock on the door would come, not from the Holy Inquisition hunting down religious heretics, but from the secret police hunting political heretics. What both regimes had in common was an Authoritarian obsession with controlling, not just action, but thought.

We can represent the various possible combinations of Liberal, Authoritarian, religious and atheist like so:


In the top right corner you’ll find the religious Authoritarians. Some consider the Pope to be the ultimate religious Authority. While he may not be treated as an infallible Authority by all his followers (many Catholics openly disagree with him on birth control), still, there are those who believe that, when it comes to matters of faith, the duty of any Catholic is to defer to His Holiness, rather than to make their own private judgement (perhaps the current Pope’s view?). The following, for example, is from the on-line Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on “infallibility”.

“[O]ne must listen to the voice of those whom God has expressly appointed to teach in His name, rather than to one’s own private judgment… he who chooses to make himself, instead of the authority which God has instituted, the final arbiter in matters of faith is far from possessing the true spirit of faith.”

In the bottom right corner is Joe Stalin – a brutally Authoritarian atheist. Over in the top left corner are the religious Liberals – they believe in God, but they also believe that each individual must judge for themselves what is right and what is wrong. When I presented this little chart to Keith Ward, former Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford, he located himself in the top left hand quadrant. Ward is a religious Liberal. Finally, in the bottom left corner, you’ll find the Liberal atheists.

There are regular spats between those at the top and bottom. Richard Dawkins is well known for his provocative attacks on religion. His criticisms frequently outrage believers. In fact what Dawkins attacks is typically a highly Authoritarian brand of religion. Dawkins tends to focus his attacks on those in the top right hand corner. Perhaps he would do better to build alliances with those Liberal religious believers in the top left corner (like Ward) with whom he probably has far more in common with than he does with any of those over to the right (who include atheists like Stalin, of course).

The noise and smoke generated by the battle over religion has tended obscure a no less significant debate. I believe the really crucial dispute is not between the believers at the top and the atheists at the bottom – it’s between the Liberals on the left and the Authoritarians on the right. It’s to this underlying, more vital dispute that public attention now needs to be drawn. Drawing attention to it is one aim of the book.

Now here is the challenge. Those who favour a move back in the direction of the kind of Authority-based religious education that predominated up until the 1960s should ask themselves the following question. Suppose political schools started springing up – a neoconservative school in Billericay followed by a communist school in Middlesbrough. Suppose these schools select pupils on the basis of parents’ political beliefs. Suppose they start each morning with the collective singing of political anthems. Suppose portraits of their political leaders beam down from every classroom wall. Suppose they insist that pupils accept, more or less uncritically, the beliefs embodied in their revered political texts.

If such schools did spring up, there would be outrage. These establishments would be accused of educationally stunting children, forcing their minds into politically pre-approved moulds. They’re the kind of Orwellian schools you find under totalitarian regimes in places like Stalinist Russia. My question is, if such political schools are utterly unacceptable, if they are guilty of educationally stunting children, why on earth are so many of us still prepared to tolerate their religious equivalents?

Stephen Law’s The War for Children’s Minds is published by Routledge


10 comments for “Free their minds”

  1. If Richard Dawkins is a liberal I’ll eat my socks!

    Posted by Adam | February 17, 2010, 1:21 pm
  2. the funny thing about liberality is that it confounds definition like quicksilver does. It’s rich, substantial, prone to dynamism, yet boringly predictable…

    It gets sorted out only when we see it in a context.

    Liberality has a context too. It’s called “Love Your Neighbour”.

    The adage has within it all anyone could want by way of dissent, argument, political incorretness etc etc - who said? that’s it?, how? etc etc …the wonder of it is, the more you discuss it the more urgent it becomes. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. Nothing enormous or fantastic about it. Just being able to give the ones you meet a little time of day; An ‘after you’. If we teach it (and we do and we can, but much more is now needed than we ever imagined),but if we teach it, it’s the only mantra we need. It just wraps itself round everything.

    Posted by kabir mustafi | February 17, 2010, 4:32 pm
  3. “if they are guilty of educationally stunting children, why on earth are so many of us still prepared to tolerate their religious equivalents?”

    because your tarring two disparate kinds of things with the same brush. religion=/=politics.

    and as an aside, in england at the least, the anglican schools tend to be of higher quality than purely state run schools. my local primary school was one of the top in my region (still is afaik), and a majority of the other top schools also have “….CofE Primary School” on their nameboards. one of my friends at the time i was moving on to secondary education became a church goer specifically so that he could get into a school called bluecoats, which was the best in my area…i went to a state run comp because i couldnt afford the travel, and my education suffered for it. there have even been muslim children at the anglican primary school i mention, their parents willing to “endanger their child’s souls” for the sake of a better education.

    now, whether or not this relation is causal or accidental is irrelevant, because the fact remains that these schools are religious, and they are the higher quality schools…i think it is a trend that is quite counter to the one asserted in the essay.

    Posted by andrew (a different one) | February 17, 2010, 11:19 pm
  4. [...] Berlin, religiösa friskolor, religion, utbildning | Leave a Comment  Stephen Law redogör i The Philosophers’ Magazine för sin bok The War for Children’s Minds. Han citerar där ur The Catholic [...]

    Posted by ”Happy are those who live under a discipline which they accept without question” (Isaiah Berlin) « Björn Östbring | February 18, 2010, 8:33 am
  5. Much depends on what is meant by “thinking critically” in relation to religious ideas or texts. How could one absorb religious poetry without an element of critical appreciation or historical understanding? In secondary education there is certainly room to move beyond memory work to critical understanding.

    Posted by Stephen Cowley | February 18, 2010, 9:57 am
  6. [...] Continues: https://philosophypress.co.uk/?p=1051 [...]

    Posted by Protect the liberalism of UK schools | HumanistLife | February 18, 2010, 6:30 pm
  7. I’ve heard Richard Dawkins talking to the Liberal Democrat conference where he admits to voting for them at every election. I found this a bit disappointing. You would think that he’d have ‘evolved’ beyond this.
    I met him once and he came across as a patrician aristo - a short tempered, intellectual snob - rather fed up and uninterested in what this Glaswegian sympathiser had to say. I totally agree with his analysis of religion but find his attitude off putting.

    Posted by Bill Storrie | February 23, 2010, 8:59 pm
  8. Is it allowed to think critically about democracy, human rights, sacrosanct property right … etc?

    Posted by Maximus | March 14, 2010, 11:38 pm
  9. Coming from the United States, I can see this issue being more prominent than it might be in the UK. Often, private religious schools here spring up (especially Fundamentalist/Evangelical Protestant schools) and are a way for parents to keep their children from being exposed to certain information that is available (i.e. Darwinian evolution, comprehensive sex education…). It is interesting to me that my Dad went to Catholic schools, which were popping up in places they hadn’t been before, because many Catholics felt that the public school system was being inundated with Protestant rhetoric and values. In some ways, this can be compared to “white flight.” As with racism and a desire by many white parents to keep their children in white neighborhoods and white schools, so too, parents are putting their children in religious schools where they will likely see less religious/ethic pluralism and instead will grow up with (the misconception) that the world is populated with people who look and think exactly like them.

    Critical thinking, and especially the ability to turn a critical eye on one’s own beliefs, is incredibly important to raising children into well informed, self reflective adults.

    Posted by Amanda | April 15, 2010, 1:37 pm
  10. Its very nice.

    Please send me the philosophers magazine

    Posted by bharat | August 8, 2011, 8:08 am