Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Teaching ethics as an option to non-scripture

When the churches handed education to the government 130 years ago they did so with the proviso that a little time be set aside each week for religious education. In our school we offer Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, Greek Orthodox and Jewish, all taught by volunteers. Soon we will also offer Islamic.

A few years ago the P&C had a discussion about our options in offering some sort of instruction to children in non-scripture. The policy is that no instruction can be offered. You can't offer anything which might mean the kids at scripture miss out. At the time a Greens Senator put up a private members bill, which died.

I have three kids at the local public school. Initially they went to scripture. I know that a study of literature and art presumes a familiarity with the Judeo-Christian tradition (and Greco-Roman classics). I thought it wouldn't hurt, considering the option was watching a video for entertainment. But my kids were taught to pray for the son of the volunteer who was in jail, and that their parents are going to hell, and they should talk to their little friends about Jesus. Not OK. The teaching of scripture is not objective. It is indoctrination.

I attended Catholic schools. All my family are Catholic. Their kids attend Catholic schools. My area of study is theatre, English and classical mythology. I now identify as atheist. But I'll defend your right to believe whatever you believe, whether you are Christian, pagan, or Jedi, and I expect the same respect. And I certainly understand how belonging to a church fills the need for ritual and community, and the level of support and comfort it can provide.

When I explained to my daughter that she is not allowed to learn anything during non-scripture, she cried. She said it is wrong to stop children from learning.

Last night our P&C had a hearty discussion about whether our school will support the new ethics option. It was interesting that so many parents who don't usually attend these meetings turned up, although they didn't have the right to vote, not being paid-up members. I don't know why members of the religious community care so much about a course their kids won't be taking.

If you agree with the separation of church and state, then an option is to rid public schools of religious instruction. As no-one is suggesting this, then teaching ethics in the time that religious instruction is offered is a compromise.

If the situation was reversed - if children who identified as belonging to a major religion were told that each week for 40 mins they were not to learn anything while the other children were taught something - that would be a problem. No-one would dispute it. If it were Aboriginal children, or Jewish children or Chinese children, or blue-eyed children, it would be called discrimination.

When other options in religious instruction are introduced, there is no problem, for example, when Buddhism was introduced (which could be called a philosophy rather than a religion), no-one asked to see the curriculum. It didn't have to be approved by the P&C.

There is concern about the name of the ethics course - whose ethics? I believe the course that the St James Ethics Centre has devised is based on Socratic methods of enquiry.

Personally, I don't care if the course is called ethics, or philosophy, or lollygobbleblissbombs. I care that my children are told that for 40 minutes a week they are not allowed to learn. And yes, we know that ethics is part of everything, and embedded in the school rules and the way problems are solved. And we know that ethics is not a religion. But to offer something akin to religion, without being religion, ethics is the best we can do. We certainly can't offer French or crafts or anything unrelated that might attract the students currently in scripture because they identify as religious (rather than being in scripture because they think it is better than doing nothing).

There is concern over the curriculum, which is not fully available to the public at this time, and concern about what the course will cover when it is expanded to a full year course for all primary school students. I don't mind what the curriculum covers. I don't check the curriculum for Literacy or Maths either. If I did I would just home school and be done with it. I don't mind if the children discuss white lies or murder, or social justice or sustainability or abortion, with reference to the bible or Harry Potter or Disney films. I trust in the process and the Principal that it will be appropriate. I just want them to have the opportunity to have a learning experience.

Either public education is inclusive or it isn't. By not offering something for children currently in non-scripture, it isn't.


mimbles said...

Great post! We haven't discussed the Ethics classes at our P&C yet, I'm planning on bringing the subject up at the meeting this month though, it will be interesting to see how that goes. I'm hoping I can at least get some signatures for Penny Sharpe's petition.

Unknown said...

Thanks for helping spread the word about this, I wrote the policy proposal for an Ethics option and had it passed at our local P&C when my son was in Kindy. He is in year 5 now. It was taken to state conference and adopted as a state policy to be pursued/lobbied for. Other parents have picked up the torch and now we have the trial running.

Is great to see that small local actions can make a difference. We aren't there yet but hopefully with time we will get there.

Konrad Zielinski said...

Actually you would be surprised what gets taught in Buddhist scripture. My Son's school has a Pure lands Buddhist scripture class. We sent them to this one, even though we are not Buddhist.

So far the lessons have covered all sorts of things some good, learning to meditate and still your mind can be useful.

Then we have the unusual, Its better to sleep on your right side, mostly because that's how the Buddha slept, though dressed up with some questionable techno babel about sleeping on your left side putting more stress on the heart.

And finally things that are a little two strong, in my opinion, Namely the ten advantages of vegetarianism, with the implication that you will suffer for eating meat.

Looking forward to the Ethics option becoming available. Though my partner is a little more hesitant. She will want to know more about the Curriculum, before allowing it.

Unknown said...

Now I know .... Since my son started school this year, I have questioned why "scripture" or "non- scripture" is a 40 min a week part of his education.

Don't get me wrong - I am all for him learning (from his teacher, not a volunteer) about a range of world religons. In fact I think this is essential for him to become the kind and respectful adult I hope he will be.

I am flabbergasted to now also discover that in non-scripture he is not allowed to learn anything at all- that explains the Madeleine DVDs. The "non" should have alerted me to a problem.

A course on ethics is at least a learning option for my "non" student and one I support. But, the real issue is why we continue a 130 year tradition of teaching scripture. I thought public education in Australia was secular.

Hear Mum Roar said...

Bravo! I came from the facebook group about the ethics program, and was planning to write a blog post about this myself. I shall definitely link your post into mine:) I couldn't agree with you more.

Motherhugger said...


This is what happened at our P&C - branch stacking.

If the Anglicans insist on reviewing the ethics curriculum, I'll be suggesting we form a sub-committee to review the content of all religious curriculum taught at the school. Perhaps, if the Anglicans want to review the ethics one, then the Buddhists could review the Jewish one, The Greek Orthodox review the Muslims', the Catholics review the Anglican, the Muslims review the Buddhist, or some such configuration. Would that encourage respect and inclusiveness in our school community?? Do we have the right to form such a sub-committee? Or would it be better to live and let live, and respect our differences?

At this point, I believe it is not the business of the religious groups to have an opinion on the introduction of the ethics course. Either they accept it, or we move to remove SRE from public schools.

Motherhugger said...


This is what Jenson told his followers - 10 reasons the ethics trial is not a good idea.

Unknown said...

If you want to hear Jensen speak go to this page on the Youthworks webpage and have a listen. They are worried about SRE being removed from the schools.