Draft for comments

Wednesday, January 27, 2010
For OUP humanism book.

This is VERY VERY rought first draft. Many slips I know.


A colleague of mine once told me that, as a pupil of a Catholic school in 1960’s Britain, she once asked in class why the use of contraceptives was morally wrong. She didn’t expressing disagreement with the view – merely asked what the justification for it was. As a result, she was sent to the headmaster, who asked her why she was obsessed with sex. The culture her school fostered, so far as moral and religious education was concerned, was one of deference to authority – of passive, uncritical acceptance of religious dogma. This colleague, no longer Catholic, added that, even today, more than half a century later, she still finds herself feeling guilty if she dares to question a Catholic belief. Her upbringing was highly effective not only in censoring her, but in getting her into the habit of censoring herself. That disposition was so-deeply ingrained in her that it survives to this day, long past the point where religious belief ceased.

Many religions have, historically, encouraged such unquestioning, deferential attitudes among the faithful. In some cases, they still do. However, it is not only the religious that have been guilty of straight-jacketing young minds in this way, atheists stand guilty too. Under the totalitarian regimes of Stalin and Mao, for example, certain political dogmas had to be accepted without question.

Broadly speaking, humanists favour a liberal approach to moral education, an approach that emphasizes individual moral responsibility. In chapter XX I presented an argument that our individual responsibility for making moral judgements is unavoidable, an inevitable part of the human condition. It is our individual responsibility to make our own moral judgements, rather than attempt to hand that responsibility over to some external authority – such as a religion or political leader – that will make those judgements for us. Like or not, each one of us must shoulder that responsibility ourselves.

But if that is true, then shouldn’t we ensure raise young people in such a way that (i) they recognise they have this individual responsibility, and (ii) ensure they have the kind of intellectual, social, emotional and other skills they will need to make the best judgements they can? These are certainly the hallmarks of a humanist approach.

So humanists are typically opposed to those traditional, religious approaches to moral education that present morality as a set of facts handed down by authority that individuals must more or less unquestioningly accept. But they are no less opposed such “educational” techniques when employed by, for example, atheist totalitarian regimes.

So what alternative do humanists recommend? Many religious people appear to think that the alternative to traditional religious indoctrination is to abandon children to invent their own morality from scratch, tell them that every moral point of view is as valid as every other, and allow them to do whatever they like. However, this would be a caricature of the kind of moral and religious education that most humanists advocate.

Note, first of all, that encouraging children to think and question does not require that we abandon rules and discipline. What humanists advocate in the classroom is freedom of thought, not freedom of action. No doubt children need discipline and they need good habits drilled into them. But even while we enforce rules, we can still allow them the opportunity to question those rules and express disagreement.

Secondly, note that encouraging children to think and question does not mean that we cannot explain to them what we believe, and why we believe it. In fact there is no reason why a faith school promoting a particular religion should not encourage its pupils to think and question. Its teachers may say: “This is what we believe, and these are the reasons why we suppose these beliefs are true. While we might want you to believe it too, we don’t want you to just take our word for it. We are encourage you to think and question and make up your own minds.” Humanists will no doubt want to persuade their children of the truth of their humanist views, but they won’t want children to accept those views passively and unquestioningly.

Thirdly, note that a humanist approach does not involve telling children that every moral point of view is as correct as every other – they are all equally “valid”. In fact, a humanist approach stands in opposition to that kind of moral relativism. For if every moral point of view were as correct as every other, then would be no point in thinking about moral issues, for the view you ended up at would be no more true than the one you started with. Thinking would be a pointless waste of time. But of course, humanists suppose that, far from being a waste of time, thinking and reasoning can help us figure out what really is, and isn’t true.

Philosophy in the classroom

There is no specific humanist “method” of morally educating new citizens. All sorts of techniques might be employed to encourage young people to start thinking about moral issues. We should acknowledge, of course, that the kind and level of educational activities we promote will have to be geared to age and ability.

One sort of particular activity which has been tried in classrooms with some success is “P4C” or “philosophy for children”. In encouraging children to think critically and independently about moral issues, we are, of course encouraging them to think philosophically. There is, as we have seen, a rich and long secular, philosophical tradition on which we might draw in looking for resources to help us morally educate new citizens. However, teaching children philosophy doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of educating them about that tradition – about which philosopher said what, and why (such a history of ideas would probably only be suitable for, or even of interest to, much older children). P4C, by contrast, involves bringing children together in groups in which they engage in structured debate some particular philosophical conundrum (often chosen by themselves). This kind of activity has tried across the entire age range, and it has had measurable benefits.

For example, in 2001-2, the psychologist Professor Keith Topping, in conjunction with the University of Dundee, studied the effects on introducing one hour per week of such a philosophy programme at three primary schools in Clackmannanshire. Teachers were given two days of training. The study involved a whole range of tests, and also a control group of schools without any philosophy programme. This study found that after one year,

• The incidence of children supporting opinion with evidence doubled, but ‘control’ classes remained unchanged.
• There was evidence that children’s self-esteem and confidence rose markedly.
• The incidence of teachers asking open-ended questions (to better develop enquiry) doubled.
• There was evidence that class ethos and discipline improved noticeably.
• The ratio of teacher/pupil talk halved for teachers and doubled for pupils. Controls remained the same.
• All classes improved significantly (statistically) in verbal, non-verbal, and quantitative reasoning. No control class changed. This means children were more intelligent (av. 6.5 IQ points) after one year on the programme.

When the children were tested again at 14, after two years at secondary school without a philosophy programme, their CAT scores were exactly the same (i.e., the improvements previously been gained were retained), while the control group scores actually went down. Three secondary schools were involved and the results replicated themselves over each school.

Of course this is just one study and its results might be questioned, but there is a growing body of empirical evidence that this kid of philosophical activity does have measurable social, intellectual and emotional benefits for children. It produces not just intellectually, but also socially, emotionally and ethically more aware and sophisticated individuals.

For example, when Buranda State School, a small Australian primary introduced into all its classes a philosophy program along similar lines. It reported “significantly improved outcomes” occurred in the social behaviour of the students:

The respect for others and the increase in individual self esteem generated… have permeated all aspects of school life. We now have few behaviour problems at our school (and we do have some difficult students). Students are less impatient with each other, they are more willing to accept their own mistakes as a normal part of learning and they discuss problems as they occur. As one Yr 5 child said, ‘Philosophy is a good example of how you should behave in the playground with your friends’… Bullying behaviour is rare at Buranda, with there being no reported incidence of bullying this year to date. A visiting academic commented, ‘Your children don’t fight, they negotiate’… Visitors to the school are constantly making reference to the 'feel' or 'spirit' of the place. We believe it's the way our children treat each other. The respect for others generated in the community of inquiry has permeated all aspects of school life.

Similar benefits are now being recognized by British Government school inspectors. For example, a 2001 report on Colby Primary School in Norfolk, said:

A strength is the teaching of philosophy and thinking skills. In these lessons, pupils learn to listen, consider, and respond in a mature way to the ideas of others. This work is taken to a high level and clearly has a positive impact on children’s work across the curriculum, giving them confidence to speak and discuss ideas.

Of course, those who suspect their own religious faith might not survive early exposure to such independent, critical thought are likely to find all sorts of excuses for protecting their own religious beliefs from such scrutiny for as long as possible. “Thinking and questioning is all very well”, they may say, “But not too early and not too much – that’s a bad thing.”

The evidence, however, suggests that it is rather a good thing. Do we really want children to miss out on such educational benefits because we feel we must respect their parents’ right to indoctrinate their offspring mindlessly in a particular religion?

Faith schools

Humanists differ in their attitudes to faith schools. Some believe that faith schools should no longer be tolerated. They may argue that, if we are not going to allow, say, political schools that select on the basis of political beliefs, begin each day with the collective singing of political anthems, have portraits of political leaders on classroom walls, and promote party-political views (which, surely, would constitute a threat to any healthy democracy), then why should we tolerate their religious equivalents (particularly as many religious beliefs have a political dimension).

However, other humanists are prepared to allow faith schools, just so long as those meet certain minimum standards. They may suppose, for example, that even independent faith schools should encourage children to think and question, should expose children to a range of religious and non-religious views (preferably articulated by those who actually hold them), should make it very clear to every pupil that what religious beliefs they hold is a matter of their own free choice. Currently, many British schools fail to meet these standards.

Most humanists will, of course, oppose the state-funding of religious schools. Their secularist commitments lead them to suppose that there is no justification for the state giving religious beliefs a privileged educational status.

A further reason to embrace a humanist approach

Here is a further reason why encouraging a questioning attitude, rather than deference to authority, might be a very good idea. Professor Jonathan Glover, Director of the Centre for Medical Law and Ethics at King’s College, London, conducted research into the backgrounds of both those who joined in the killing in places like Nazi Germany, Rwanda and Bosnia, and also those who worked to save lives. As Glover explained in an interview in The Guardian,

If you look at the people who shelter Jews under the Nazis, you find a number of things about them. One is that they tended to have a different kind of upbringing from the average person, they tended to be brought up in a non-authoritarian way, bought up to have sympathy with other people and to discuss things rather than just do what they were told.

Glover adds, “I think that teaching people to think rationally and critically actually can make a difference to people’s susceptibility to false ideologies”.

In The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, Samuel and Pearl Oliner report the results of their extensive and detailed study into the backgrounds of both those who went along with the Final Solution and those who rescued victims. The found that the most dramatic deference between the parents of those who rescued and those who did not lay in the extent to which parents placed greater emphasis on explaining, rather than on punishment and discipline.

[P]arents of rescuers depended significantly less on physical punishment and significantly more on reasoning.”

[I]t is in their reliance on reasoning, explanations, suggestions of ways to remedy harm done, persuasion, and advice that the parents of rescuers differed from non-rescuers.

According to the Oliners, 'reasoning communicates a message of respect for and trust in children that allows them to feel a sense of personal efficacy and warmth toward others.” The non-rescuers, by contrast, tended to feel “mere pawns, subject to the power of external authorities”. Oliners also report that, while religious belief was also a factor, “religiosity was only weakly related to rescue”.

If we want to raise the kind of citizens that will resist the slide into the kind of moral catastrophes that marred the 20th Century, it seems that our focus should indeed be in moral education. But not of the traditional, authority-based religious sort. Our focus should be on raising independent, critical thinkers.