Monday, September 06, 2010

Ethics Trial in NSW Public Schools

The Ethics Trial is being evaluated and there should a decision soon. Here's hoping.

I want to address the concerns raised by the groups who object to the ethics class.

Would the Anglicans be happy if the same course was run under the name 'Humanist Philosophy?'

I don't wonder at Catholics questioning how to determine right from wrong without reference to the bible - that's the point of the class. I believe the course would explore how we know right from wrong, through asking a series of questions. It is about the children working out answers for themselves. Or working through a process of thinking, without finding answers, but acknowledging that such processes can be complex.

The churches complain that they were not consulted. It isn't about them. That's the point. It is about redressing the current discrimination which, by policy, a policy written in conjunction with the churches, means that children who are not attending scripture class are not allowed to learn anything in that timeslot. That is discrimination. It would be discrimination if it were by gender, by nationality, by religion.

What are they so afraid of?

Judgment day looms for verdict on ethics classes pilot
Jacqueline Maley
September 7, 2010

The future of the controversial pilot of ethics classes in NSW schools is in the hands of an independent evaluator who will deliver her verdict this month.

Dr Sue Knight, an academic at the University of South Australia, is wading through submissions from religious organisations including Presbyterian Youth and the Sydney diocese of the Anglican church, and Cardinal George Pell and Bishop Peter Ingham on behalf of the Catholic Church.

Education Department officials and representatives of the Parents and Citizens' Association have had face-to-face interviews with Dr Knight. The state government is set to base its decision on Dr Knight's report.

The general manager of Presbyterian Youth, Murray Norman, complained that there was a lack of transparency with the trial and said it was difficult to obtain information about it.

The Anglican submission argued confusion was created by labelling the lessons ''ethics'' when the classes were in fact focused on the process of philosophical inquiry and did not give ethical or moral instruction.

As a consequence the trial was flawed and should not be used as the basis for introducting a permanent ethics program in schools, the Anglicans said. If the government wanted to continue with a parallel program of non-religious instruction in the scripture hour, a trial of "humanist philosophy" should be undertaken.

The Catholic Church submission criticised the implementation process for the trial, its content and its ''inadequacies in providing students with a clear framework for discussing and making decisions about what is right and wrong'', a spokesman, Jude Hennessy, said.

The Inter-Church Commission on Religious Education in Schools noted in its submission the apology of the Education Minister, Verity Firth, ''regarding the lack of consultation with any SRE [special religious education] stakeholders prior to the introduction of the lessons''.

Ms Firth visited Crown Street Public yesterday and was given a book of feedback from year 5 and 6 students who have attended the ethics class this year.

Student comments were overwhelmingly positive, said Lesley Holden, the ethics co-ordinator at the school.

''There was so much noise about it in the media I was concerned that what was actually happening in the pilot … there was no way that the children doing the course could be heard.''

Ms Firth said if the trial was approved as a continuing program it would be on equal footing with the religious education classes in the same time slot.


Melissa said...

Fingers crossed; I would really like to see the course content and see what I could adapt for use at home.

Heather said...

Hello :)

As an Anglican, I'm happy to throw in some opinions about the Ethics class - although I can't answer for all (we differ in opinion on this issue widely!). From what I've seen/read, it mostly sounds fantastic. The children are learning and practising critical thinking and discussing the implications of their behaviour. It's excellent that the incidence of bullying has decreased in schools where this kind of thinking has been taught for some time.

As a Christian, I do not fear the course. I admit that I feel torn: I value religious freedom above almost all else, and yet I want to do all I can to promote Christ as the saving truth. I am not afraid of students learning about ethics, but I am nervous on behalf of people who want to ignore God.

My main objection to the course is that it seems to hold presuppositions about what is “good” but doesn't outline the basis (as compared with the other SRE classes). For example, on Compass, the discussion group on "lying" was introduced with the following:

"So today’s topic is lying and telling the truth. So everyone knows that it’s a good idea not to lie but sometimes it depends, okay?"

How do we know it's a good idea not to lie? What is the basis for assuming what is good or not? If the main point of the Ethics course is to discuss how we know right from wrong, why are assumptions made up front? I heard a discussion early on in the ethics trial debate on 702 ABC radio, with Peter Singer. He explained that his decisions were based on the “Golden Rule" (treat others as you wish to be treated) which is, ironically, a teaching of Christ. Sadly, his thought process from that basis leads him to support bestiality and infanticide. Apart from appealing to the current law, without a common agreed definition of “good”, he cannot actually be disagreed with, or declared to be wrong. On the basis of the value of human life expressed in the Bible, I heartily disagree with him!

Another thought I'd like to express is this: I do not, in any way, support the discrimination of any child with regards to learning, particularly in the public school setting. But, from what I can tell, the Ethics course, however valuable in terms of teaching critical thinking, is purely a discussion time, relying heavily on the personal opinion of individuals (each founded in their own presuppositions). I therefore think it would be a valuable part of the standard syllabus, and that it should be explicitly acknowledged that such decision making is founded in individual's presuppositions. In terms of SRE time, then, if none of the current belief systems taught as classes are appropriate, I would prefer to see the introduction of a new belief system – for example a course on atheism.

Hope that makes sense – it's hard to condense many thoughts on to screen! Please respond to any issues – I am all for open, continued discussion on this topic.

Motherhugger said...

Hi Heather. Glad you're here.

I suspect the discussion about lying would have moved on to how we know what is good or bad. You can't judge the course on one sentence. If I was teaching the course I certainly would have included that. I find it curious that Christians take issue with the content of the ethics class when they teach their children stories about child sacrifice, immaculate conception/virgin birth, the fires of hell, stoning, leprosy, prostitution, crucifixion and so on. If my children will never attend Muslim scripture, or Jewish or Buddhist, then I consider that I have no right to criticise the content of those courses. Each to his own.

For another look at an ethics class, see here:

About Peter Singer. He is a philosopher. He is best known for his vegetarianism. He isn't involved in devising the ethics course. He doesn't even live in Australia. I agree his ideas about bestiality and infanticide for seriously disabled babies are confronting. However, he is not advocating that we have sex with animals and that we kill children. He is asking questions, and living according to his policy, which Jesus does not have dibs on (and was said, I'm sure, BCE, and has been said in many cultures), that you should treat others as you would like to be treated.

If you agree with 'do unto others', then you don't discriminate on the basis of religion, or discriminate against people who hold to no religion. If you wouldn't want your own children discriminated against in public schools, then you can understand why parents are angry.

Freedom of religion must include freedom from religion.

Yes, perhaps it would be good if all children had the opportunity to have discussion time around ethics or philosophy, but that wouldn't solve the problem that the children in non-scripture are, by policy, not allowed to learn. Starting a course in atheism wouldn't do. What would it consist of? Saying why we don't subscribe to any world religion? That wouldn't be productive. The ethics course is not just for atheists. It is for anyone who is not being catered for by the classes offered during SRE. It could be people who have a personal form of Christianity but don't belong to a church, people who have an indigenous spiritual practice, practising pagans or anyone else.

You are free to value your religion. Equally, we need to be respectful of others who have the right to believe whatever they believe. For people who believe there is no god, there is nothing to ignore. We need to all be respectful. Live and let live. Do unto others.

The more discussion about the possibility of an ethics course, the more I'm convinced that SRE does not belong in public schools. Public schools should not be battlegrounds for children’s souls. Your presupposition is that Christians should convert people, for their own good. That’s worth questioning. The ethics class isn’t trying to teach atheism.

Motherhugger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heather said...

I'm glad you're glad I'm here! Tone is hard to judge in cyber-land.

I'm sorry if I appear critical of the content of the course. You're right – I do not itemise and critique the specific content of any other SRE class. However, I consider that I do have the right, as I strongly believe you do, to consider their basis/foundation to be wrong. I am quite happy (in one respect) to be told that someone believes the Bible to be untrue. I will find it awful if we ever get to a point where we can never share a difference of opinion. It is possible to respectfully find out what someone believes, and explain why you think that belief is misguided or wrong.

I am also very sad and sorry that parents are angry about how their children are being treated at school. That is not right. I do not want to be party to some kind of perceived “forcing” of children not to learn.

Now - I have a curious memory of something that Simon Longstaff encouraged me to do some time ago! I had completely forgotten till tonight, that several years ago, when Simon regularly joined James O'Loghlin for ethics discussions on Monday evenings, I rang up to join in the chat. I forget what the specific topic was, but I was prompted to ring up and submit my dilemma as a Christian holding beliefs about future judgement, and balancing that with letting others believe whatever they liked. I was quite surprised that Simon encouraged me that to act ethically, I needed to actively try to persuade others of my beliefs in a respectful and loving manner. However, I would never support that to the extent that public schools are considered battlegrounds for children's souls. What to do!?

This leads me to a question I've been wondering about for a while, in terms of the whole “do unto others”. If a person had a reasonable belief that there was a bomb in a building which could explode at any time, what responsibility do they have? If it was you, would you take any action? If people you loved were in the building, would you politely inform them and let me make up their own mind about whether to leave? Or would you try to drag them out to safety in any way possible?

Also, I have to disagree about an atheism course. I think there is potential for a full and comprehensive course, which would suit well those who have faith that there is no god. Many things could be taught and discussed, including: the history of atheistic thought, reflections on the writings and lives of prominent historical and contemporary atheists, the place of concepts and values such as justice and mercy in atheistic thought, and also the process by which we determine what is “good” and the range of ethical beliefs which outflow, including moral universalism and nihilism.

I am convinced that everybody has preconceptions about the “good”. Therefore, the ethics course can only ever be a conversation amongst people with different world-views. Why do they hold those world views? How can they examine other world views and evaluate them? That's the point of SRE - and I support that atheists also be given time to understand and discuss their presuppositions. Then we could all have the discussions on ethics together, knowing that we will ultimately, and often sadly for me when people discount Christ, come to different conclusions.

Motherhugger said...

I just had a chat with the local Anglican minister, and we agreed on a few points. He is concerned that we call the ethics class what it is. If it is philosophical inquiry or Socratic inquiry, then call it that. Calling it ethics may be misleading. He also raised the issue of supervision of the volunteer instructors. Is there a feedback loop and a person who oversees the volunteers? Since the style of class is so open-ended, is there a point at which the discussion should end, and are there topics to be avoided? How much input does the volunteer have to impose their own beliefs?

All good questions. Perhaps the report on the trial will address them.

I explained that my main concern is to end the current discrimination and whether the children currently in non-scripture are taught ethics or philosophy or anything else is not so important to me, so long as the policy changes for them to receive instruction in something. Of course, it has to be something that means kids in SRE aren't missing out, and we are back to the same problem.

Heather, I miss our conversations.

If there was a bomb in the room, please take me to safety. On the matter of religious difference, I believe there is no bomb. When I die, no-one will know which of us was right.

Your ideas on an atheism course are interesting. However, if such a course was devised, it would still not cater for other children in non-scripture.

I'm studying at the moment (and Critical Theory is relevant to all of this), but when we have the time, we should get together to continue the discussion.