Give me a child up to the age of seven,
and I will give you the man.
Traditional Jesuit Maxim
Let me control the textbooks and
I will control Germany.
Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945)
By the time of Jesus, the Greeks had long realised the value
of free enquiry. As the philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius
Suppose a man can convince me of error and bring home to
me that I am mistaken in thought or deed; I shall be glad
to alter, for the truth is what I pursue, and no one was ever
injured by the truth, whereas he is injured who continues
in his own self-deception and ignorance.
This was not the view taken by Christians, who claimed to enjoy
privileged access to absolute and immutable truths. These truths
meant that the prime purpose of education was not learning,
enlightenment, or discovery, but indoctrination. Indoctrination
is the Church's own word for what it sought to achieve. To prevent
free enquiry it was necessary for the Church to maintain a monopoly
in the field of education, and to ensure that the only brand
of education available was indoctrination.
Pre-Christian Greeks had understood the importance of education,
and primary schools were provided for both boys and girls. Rich
citizens would donate funds for public schools for the children
of their fellow citizens. Such philanthropy was part of an accepted
public duty of the rich and powerful in the classical world.
This could not continue under the new Christian hegemony.
Establishing the Monopoly
When writing was first developed it seemed to the uninitiated
to possess magical properties. Why this should be so is not
difficult to see. The uninitiated would watch as someone with
the knowledge of writing suddenly became aware of some important
information, not by being told about it, but simply by looking
at some markings. Obviously these markings contained great power,
and the reader must hold some great magical secret to tap that
power. Significantly, in Saxon times, the word rune
denoted not only a letter but also a secret and a magical charm.
The word spell has a dual meaning of "tell the
letters of a word" and "magical enchantment".
The word grammar also once had strong magical connotations.
Priesthoods of many different religions recognised the potential.
Priests and magicians could enhance their own prestige by monopolising
the secret of reading and writing. The link is clear in the
word hieroglyph, which means "priest-writing".
Such a connection was made all around the world, not just by
As soon as the Christian Church was in a position to do so,
it established a monopoly over reading and writing. The whole
system of public education in Western Christendom disappeared
during the course of the fifth and sixth centuries. With a few
small exceptions, education was now a monopoly of the Church.
In English this is reflected in the development of the word
cleric. Etymologically it is the same word as clerk.
For many centuries all clerks were clerics, since clerics were
the only ones permitted to learn to read and write. The only
universities permitted in the Dark Ages were those within powerful
abbeys. Schools of philosophy were closed down. Scholars were
driven eastwards to the protection of the Persian Church and
later the protection of Islam. The free exchange of opinions
simply could not be tolerated in Christendom. Only those who
had themselves been properly indoctrinated were licensed to
For centuries the Western Church did its best to stop anyone
else from learning to read. Pope Gregory I, who reigned from
590 to 604, wrote to one of his bishops a letter beginning "A
report has reached us which we cannot mention without a blush,
that you expound grammar to certain friends". Naturally,
the bishop was compelled to stop his wicked practices. Barbarism
was positively encouraged. In contrast to the East, reading
and writing were popularly regarded as absurd activities to
be mocked and abused when practised by the laity. When the Western
crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204, some of them were to
be seen around the city pretending to write. They thought it
so absurd, so ridiculous, that ordinary citizens should be educated
that they were mocking literate locals simply for being literate.
For the Western Church the danger with genuine education was
that it might have led people to dispute approved Church teachings.
All manner of education thus had to be controlled. Every academic
discipline became a Church monopoly, from astronomy to herbalism.
In 1565 Pope Pius IV decreed that medical doctorates could be
conferred only on Roman Catholics. Surgery was also closely
controlled, as was philosophy, and much law, as well as most
proto-sciences and the teaching of them. At this time no distinction
existed between chemistry and alchemy, and similarly no distinction
was made between astronomy and astrology.
The Church consistently tried to suppress the spread of new
ideas in western Europe, whether they were developed by heretics
within Christendom or leaked in from other cultures. All manner
of rational enquiry was considered a potential threat. At best
it amounted to interfering with God's works without invitation,
at worst it was blasphemy.
One reason for the Church enforcing a strict monopoly over
education was that it minimised the danger of ordinary people
reading the Bible. If people could read they might realise how
little conventional doctrine is to be found in the Bible. They
might find that Jesus never planned a Christian priesthood;
they might discover contradictions, expose the errors of Church
scholarship, or reveal the forgeries on which Church influence
largely depended. An illiterate population confined to looking
at stained glass windows could never deduce more than the Church
wanted them to know. Neither would they be able to discover
how little justification there was for any but the lowest levels
of the Church hierarchy.
The ignorance of the great majority of the population was convenient
for the Church in the Middle Ages, and it was clear that as
long as ignorance continued, faith in the Church's teachings
would also continue. As the Church knew, the key to learning
was reading and writing. The Church could not allow people to
become literate. From the late eleventh century Church Councils,
popes and other bishops forbade vernacular translations of the
Bible and also prohibited the reading even of the Vulgate by
laymen. Any attempt to make an independent assessment of it
amounted to heresy and was sufficient to incur the death penalty.
Access to books opened up a whole world that the Western Church
would rather keep to itself. So it was that, apart from powerful
nobles, only clerics were taught to read and write. They alone
were allowed access to ancient mysteries, and they alone could
interpret scripture. The Roman Church insisted that the Vulgate
was divinely inspired and this therefore was the only acceptable
version. The fact that it was in Latin was convenient, because
congregations throughout Europe could not understand a word
when it was read in Church, and they could not therefore identify
the many inconsistencies that it contained. Referring to the
dangers of printing, Cardinal Wolsey wrote to Pope Clement VII
This new invention has produced various results, of which
Your Holiness cannot be ignorant. If it has restored books
and learning, it has also been the daily cause of sectarianism
and schism. People are beginning to call into question the
Church's present faith and doctrines. Lay people are reading
the Bible, and praying in their own language... The mysteries
of religion must be kept in the hands of the priests.
The Church had scholars burned at the stake for daring to translate
the scriptures into living languages so that people could understand
them. William Tyndale wanted to translate the New Testament
into English so that every plough-boy might read it. Sir Thomas
More, then Lord Chancellor, now a saint, opposed him, holding
the traditional line that bishops should have the right to decide
who should and who should not be allowed to read the Bible.
As More put it in 1530:
It is not necessary that the Bible be in the English tongue
and in the hands of the common people. The distribution of
the Bible, and the permitting or denying it, is totally in
the hands of superiors.
Tyndale fled for his life. He was later captured in Antwerp,
tried for heresy, convicted, strangled and burned.
When translations did eventually come into circulation they
were invariably provided with a gloss to smooth over the unpalatable
bits. Time and time again those who made translations into vernacular
languages were perplexed to discover the lack of any mention
of the papacy. Wycliffe, in translating the Bible into English,
had started questioning the justification for various sacraments
in their existing form: he realised that Holy Orders had been
vastly inflated and that there is no justification for setting
bishops above priests. Confession he said did not require "ear-whispering",
and the doctrine of transubstantiation he saw as an invention.
The Roman Church was right to fear vernacular translations,
for it was their increased availability in the age of printing
that was largely responsible for a number of "heresies"
culminating in the Reformation.
Tyndale's translation eventually became the basis for the Authorised
Version. Still, the Roman Church stuck to its traditional line
for centuries to come. The Vulgate, although studded with errors,
was held to be divinely sanctioned, and other translations were
regarded as less authoritative. Until the middle of the twentieth
century, services in Roman Catholic Churches were conducted
in Latin, in the certain knowledge that virtually no one in
the congregation would be able to understand what they were
Christian priorities are made clear in surviving Christian
buildings. Almost every ancient village in Europe has a church,
but almost none has a school and the schools that were
built were usually for the privileged, the rich or those destined
for the service of the Church. Education was only for the select
few. It provided a training for those selected to become churchmen,
and ensured that the keys to the treasury of knowledge should
not fall into the hands of anyone who might be tempted to unlock
the door. Knowledge was power. Knowledge therefore had to be
rationed. So it is that throughout Christendom there are a tiny
number of schools that date from the time when Christianity
was at the height of its power. In early times bishops ran their
own schools for lectors, the education offered being limited
to some Latin, singing, and enough arithmetic to calculate the
date of Easter. No genuine academic subjects were taught*.
No grammar school could be opened without the permission of
the local bishop. The bishop's monopoly also explained why there
were no schools for girls. Even religious women, like anchoresses,
were debarred from teaching girls*.
Secular rulers like Charlemagne, who had favoured the idea
of educating laymen, had been opposed by the Church. During
his lifetime Charlemagne was strong enough to enforce his views,
but as soon as he was dead the monasteries returned to their
traditional position that it was not their job to educate
men who were not intending to serve the Church. In England,
as elsewhere, parish priests sometimes taught the sons of those
rich enough to afford the fees, but there was no effort at universal
education. Private benefactors set up schools to teach the elements
of Latin grammar, and these became known as "grammar schools".
Winchester College, for example, was established to teach grammar
to seventy poor scholars and ten "sons of noble and powerful
persons, special friends of the said college". The poor
proceeded to a clerical career via Winchester's sister foundation
at New College, Oxford. Of the schools that have existed since
the Church was at the height of its power, many are cathedral
schools, successors to the old bishop's clerical schools, now
supplying the Church with choir boys rather than putative priests.
schools were established explicitly for the friends of the Church.
The Jesuits became specialists at educating the rich and powerful
, as a conscious technique to further their own ends
winning converts, or influential friends, or both. In Protestant
countries many schools were originally founded specifically
to educate the sons of clergymen. Outside Europe the position
was generally worse. In South America the Dominicans refused
to found secondary schools, and opposed the teaching of Latin
to the indigenous people. In the past those who were privileged
enough to receive an education at the hands of the church schools
were thoroughly indoctrinated so that any natural inclination
towards inquisitiveness, rational thought, or doubt could be
Dr Thomas Arnold, Headmaster of Rugby, is credited with revolutionising
the school system in England in the nineteenth century. His
innovation was to turn out Christian gentlemen rather than just
Christian men: "What we must look for here is, first religious
and moral principles; secondly, gentlemanly behaviour; thirdly
intellectual ability". It is noteworthy that intellectual
matters ranked well behind religious ones: "None can be
more sensible than ourselves to the worthlessness of mere intellectual
achievement". Science was omitted from his school curriculum
on the grounds that mere facts were morally useless.
A cartoon reflecting early twentieth
century criticism of the traditionalist approach to education
The notion that girls might be educated was even more revolutionary.
Mary Ward, who proposed to educate women in the early seventeenth
century, met with nothing but opposition from the Church authorities,
and had to fight tenaciously to keep her schools open. In some
ways the girls were fortunate, for what they were denied was
indoctrination rather than education. Their brothers traditionally
spent their time reciting wholesome Latin sayings such as "The
prelates of the Church are the salt of the earth". The
overwhelming majority of schools founded by Christian Churches
in English speaking countries were founded after Thomas Paine
published The Age Of Reason in the late eighteenth
century and ordinary people were discovered to be teaching themselves
to read in order to find out what he had to say about Christianity.
After 1800 years, Christian authorities now started to see the
need to teach ordinary children to read and get them
fully indoctrinated in biblical texts as a way of inoculating
them against Paine's (and Gibbon's ) best sellers.
"Another Pied Piper" by E
J Pace, from William Jennings Bryan's Seven Questions
in Dispute, 1924.
This was an exeptionally popular Christian cartoon showing
the dangers of education. A piper representing science
leads children along the path of education to a dark cave
representing "disbelief in the God of the Bible"
In 1846, the Rev. John Allen, Inspector for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire
and Huntingdonshire wrote the following (which, he claimed,
reflected rural opinion):
We cannot help having a school, but we think it advisable
that as little as possible be taught therein. [Kay,
David and Kay, Joseph, The Education of the Poor in England
and Europe, (J. Hatchard and Son), 1846, p. 220.]
The Church permitted the establishment of universities in Europe,
but these universities bore little resemblance to their modern
counterparts. They were run by the Church and staffed by clerics,
with the principal purpose of producing new generations of clerks
(the words clerk and cleric are cognate etymologically
the same word). The basic educational content had changed little
from pre-Christian times, and had been tailored to Christian
needs by Isidore of Seville. Students studied the seven liberal
arts: three years for the Trivium (grammar, logic and
rhetoric), leading to a Bachelor of Arts degree, then four years
for the Quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry and
astronomy), leading to a Master of Arts degree*,
with the option of proceeding to a doctorate. Much of the content
was based on ancient authorities like Aristotle, no original
research. All original thought was discouraged.
The Church enforced an educational monopoly throughout Christendom,
except ironically in Italy, where a vestige of the pre-Christian
educational system survived amongst the rich. By controlling
the educational system, the Church also controlled the professions.
Not only were all scholars and teachers clerics, but all clerks
in noble houses were clerics, civil servants were clerics, architects
were clerics, so were physicians, and so were lawyers. The English
legal profession still preserves reminders of its clerical past.
Much that is traditionally associated with universities dates
from the time that the Church controlled them. The professorial
chair is an echo of the time when a bishop's cathedra was the
only sort of academic chair there was. A university degree was
originally a licence to teach, a reminder that no master might
teach without a licence from the local bishop.
After the Reformation the two English universities came under
the control of the Anglican Church. Biblical scholarship improved
a little, but otherwise there was not much change. The universities
were still run by the Church for the benefit of the Church.
They existed not for research or increasing the stock of knowledge,
but for training clergymen. Oxford and Cambridge were both closed
shops. Many scholarships were available only to the sons of
clergymen. Those who disagreed with the current Anglican line
were excluded. University fellows lost their tenure if they
strayed from the current views of the Anglican Church. For centuries
no other universities existed in England, so there was no choice
in the matter. All the fellows were in Holy Orders, and to gain
admission it was necessary to subscribe to the faith of the
established Church. Atheists, Jews, Roman Catholics and dissenters
were all denied a university education, although Roman Catholics
could at least attend their own educational establishments.
Jeremy Bentham founded University College in London in 1828
to enable non-members of the Church of England to obtain a university
education. Oxford and Cambridge continued in their ways for
years to come. Until 1871 only those willing to subscribe to
the 39 Articles of the Church of England were eligible to enter
the ancient universities. Tutors who started to question the
Articles, as an ever-increasing number did in the nineteenth
century, were obliged to resign*.
Students like Shelley (the future poet) who became atheists
and asked awkward questions were sent down.
Until the nineteenth century most European universities were
still controlled by the Church. Hardly any great discoveries
were made in them until they were reformed in that century.
Until then the centres of discussion, research and discovery
were the households of the independently minded nobility, and
learned societies, such as the Royal Society, founded during
the Enlightenment. University syllabi remained fossilised into
the twentieth century. For example, arguments in Paley's Natural
Theology had long been discredited by philosophers and
evolutionary theorists, yet it remained part of the prescribed
course of study for some students at Cambridge into the twentieth
century. (It is still part of the Natural Sciences Tripos
but now merely for historical interest.) At Oxford, doctors
of divinity still officially rank above all others, and doctors
in civil law and medicine, like those in divinity, are admitted
to their degrees "For the honour of our Lord Jesus Christ,
and for the profit of our Holy Mother the Church, and of learning".
They are incepted "in the name of the Father, of the Son,
and of the Holy Ghost" when the Vice Chancellor touches
them on the head with a Testament*.
the Church maintained a monopoly of all learning, the rare advances
that occurred were usually made by heretical clergymen. The
treatment they received is instructive. Pierre Abélard
had an original enquiring mind and was interested in resolving
contradictions in early Christian writings. He was condemned
for heresy in 1121. No one knows what the philosopher and naturalist
David of Dinant proposed, because most of his writings were
ordered to be burned by a Church Council in 1210. Later in the
thirteenth century a Franciscan, Roger Bacon, produced some
original ideas. He dealt with mathematics, optics, experimental
science and moral philosophy. He was accused of "suspect
novelties", condemned by the General of the Franciscan
Order, and imprisoned. Early in the next century William of
Occam came to prominence as an outstanding logician*.
He was also a Franciscan and like other Franciscans of the time
advocated poverty. He was denounced in 1323 for teaching dangerous
doctrines, and a few years later he was obliged to flee for
his life. Protected by Louis of Bavaria he comprehensively destroyed
the synthesis between faith and Aristotelian reason constructed
by St Thomas Aquinas. William is generally considered to have
been the only medieval thinker to have contributed significantly
to modern philosophy. Copernicus, a cathedral canon, was posthumously
excommunicated when the Inquisition realised the significance
of his cosmological work.
were less fortunate. Original thinkers like the Dominican friar
Giordano Bruno were burned at the stake. Michael Servetus, a
priest with a lively and original mind, was burned to death
by Lutherans (Calvin had wanted him executed, but in a different
way). Church attitudes continued after the eighteenth century,
although the risks for dissent were reduced. Thomas Malthus,
an Anglican priest who first understood the principles of natural
population control, was denounced and reviled. Gregor Mendel,
an Augustinian monk, was discouraged from his pioneering work
on genetics, and his writings destroyed after his death.
Christians knew perfectly well that women were not capable
of learning. Books destroyed women's brains. Learning made them
neurotic, hysterical and flat-chested. Well into the twentieth
century clergymen were agreeing with the popular nineteenth
century view that education for women, like other rights for
women, was "mad wicked folly". It was not until 1920
that women were admitted to Bachelor's degrees at Oxford University,
and later still at Cambridge. MAs were even more of a problem
since this degree made its possessor a member of the university's
ruling body where, contrary to the injunctions of St Paul and
St Augustine, they would "hold authority over men".
It was not until the second half of the twentieth century that
the last remnants of discrimination were overcome, and men and
women would be treated equally by the ancient universities.
Vestiges of Church influence remain at the ancient universities.
The headgear known as a square, popularly called a mortarboard,
is a variation on the Paris Cap, a type of clerical hat. The
gown and hood are also relics of clerical dress. Even in the
twentieth century the connection is maintained: the white bow
tie still worn by members of Oxford and Cambridge universities
as part of standard academic dress on formal university occasions
is also official dress for Anglican clergy. But this is all
pleasant tradition. More troubling for academics, there are
still many scholastic posts reserved for theologians. Elsewhere
in the world the position is little changed from the nineteenth
century. In Roman Catholic countries, the Church still typically
exercises control over universities, influencing the teaching
of disciplines from medicine to philosophy. In the USA Baptist
and fundamentalist universities flourish, their prime purpose
being to propagate or justify the beliefs of their founders,
just like traditional seminaries. Following ancient tradition,
their purpose is often not genuine education or research, but
Losing the Monopoly
The revival of learning during the Middle Ages was largely
attributable to men powerful enough to circumvent the Church's
monopoly of learning. As we have already seen, some vestiges
of the classical approach to learning had been preserved in
Italy. In the 1440s Cosimo de"Medici initiated a worldwide
search for ancient manuscripts. Through him the corpus of Pythagorean,
Platonic, Neo-platonic, Gnostic and other work found its way
into translation. He established the first public library. He
encouraged the teaching of Greek, the language of learning and
the original language of the New Testament, which the Western
Church had suppressed some 700 years earlier. He set up an academy
to study ancient thought, an idea that was copied elsewhere,
accelerating the Renaissance and preparing minds for the Enlightenment.
In England and elsewhere, wealthy townsmen started to endow
schools outside the clerical system. With the Reformation, it
became possible for laymen in Protestant countries to read the
Bible. Now the Roman Church felt itself even more under threat.
No provision for training priests in their duties had existed
until then, but as part of the Counter-Reformation the Roman
Church started to formalise its system of education. When it
had enjoyed a monopoly there had been no need to ensure that
even priests were properly educated. Now that its monopoly had
been broken the Roman Church had to compete with educated Protestant
clergymen. The Council of Trent established a system of seminaries
for the first time in 1562-3. The monopoly could still be enforced
in some countries, but in others the cat was out of the school
bag. Secular forces would eventually ensure that universal education
would become the norm. These forces brought education to the
middle classes, then to working men, then to poor boys and even
girls. Education would soon be available to all even
to women, to the deaf and to slaves but not before rearguard
actions had been fought.
All attempts at improving education for the masses were opposed
by the established Church. In 1807 a bill to establish rate-aided
schools to provide two years" education for poor children
in Britain was defeated in the House of Lords, largely through
the efforts of the bench of bishops. As the Archbishop of Canterbury
pointed out at the time, such schools would subvert the first
principles of education in England (i.e. the Church's monopoly)
and would leave "little or no control to the minister of
the parish". Education was not for everyone. It was for
those favoured by the Church, and the cultivation of the intellect
was a privilege that the Church wanted to keep within its gift.
In 1839 the Lords debated a proposal to establish a National
Council for Education, an idea that outraged Christians. As
the Bishop of Exeter observed during the course of the debate:
Looking to the poor as a class, they could not expect that
those who were assigned by Providence to the laborious occupations
of life, should be able largely to cultivate their intellects*.
The danger was that educated Christians would be less pliant.
As the reformer Henry Peter, Lord Brougham (1778-1868) was reported
to have said "education makes a people easy to lead, but
difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave".
Churches still tried as hard as possible to restrict education,
for example declaring it sinful to educate slaves, but it was
increasingly difficult to enforce the vestiges of its monopoly.
By the 1860s slavery in the USA had disappeared along with the
severe penalties then in force for anyone who taught a slave
to read or write. One of the last bastions of the Christian
monopoly of education had fallen.
The ideas of learning for the sheer love of it, of open research,
and of allowing an education to all were all fiercely opposed
by the Church. Genuine education was advocated by people outside
the mainstream of Christianity. Utilitarians held that education
and progress were the best way forward for the whole of humankind
, and that schooling should be available to all. Universal education
was promoted by men like the liberal theist George Birkbeck
(1776-1841), by followers of Robert Owen, the agnostic philanthropist,
by reformer Sir Francis Burdett (1770-1844) and by intellectual
socialists. Francis Place, a well-known freethinker, pioneered
education for the poor. It was supported by other freethinking
radicals and some dissenters. In England Charles Bradlaugh and
Annie Besant, whom all the mainstream Churches regarded as their
enemies, held that education was the best preventative of crime,
and that it should be compulsory for rich and poor alike. Universal
education was advocated by freethinkers and opposed by the Churches.
The Elementary Education Act of 1876 made education compulsory
and universal. In 1877 New Zealand introduced free, compulsory
and secular education. The Churches were outraged, and the Roman
Catholic Church, which still saw secular education as inherently
evil, was uncompromising:
If you have Catholic faith and Catholic hearts within you,
you will never give a vote to any of these infidels, whom
Almighty God will send to hell some day for leading a whole
generation away from religion*.
Free education in France was introduced in 1881, and in the
following year it was made compulsory and secular. In Germany
the pioneer of modern education, Johann Basedow (1723-1790),
stressed philanthropy in place of religion. The general pattern
was that the greater the power of the Church, the later educational
reform was achieved. Almost invariably, freethinkers led the
way and the Churches limped along later. It was only after Bentham's
University College had succeeded that the ancient universities
abolished their religious qualifications.
An American Catholic cartoon by U.S.
emphasing that the best protection against the dangers
of modern education is ignorance of contemporary ideas.
For 1,500 years the Church had tried to keep education to itself.
Now churchmen had to accommodate themselves to a new world.
They lost no time in changing tack and were soon presenting
themselves as educators, bringing light into the darkness of
millions. As they were obliged to accept the principles of universal
education, they set about using it to bolster their position.
In some countries this was done for example by developing Sunday
Schools. In North America, towns like Boston and states like
Massachusetts set up public schools under religious control.
They were instruments of the favoured Protestant Church, designed
specifically to serve Christianity and propagate Christian belief.
When the modern public school system, directed by Horace Mann
(1796-1859), came into existence in the nineteenth century,
the position was much the same for all primary and secondary
education. As Mann put it "…our system earnestly
inculcates all Christian morals; it founds its morals on the
basis of religion; it welcomes the religion of the Bible".
Fear of Catholic influence in schools
was a lively concern in nineteenth and
twentieth century America - now replaced by concern about
This American cartoon is more explicit
about fears of Catholic influence in education. A globe
is being swept away along with a history book and the
bible. Clergymen teach papal infallibility. A gory picture
of a bleeding heart hangs on the schoolroom wall, along
with the keys of Saint Peter. Also prominent are candles,
crucifixes, a holy water stoup, a rosary and even a
In some places education was used as a sort of bribe to encourage
conversion as it still is. But in Europe, once learning
had been freed from the grip of churchmen, the Church lost most
of its power. Science and philosophy flowered as secular ideas
flourished. Ideas like those of Marcus Aurelius were revived.
Christians fought more rearguard actions, as we shall see later,
but it could no longer restrain free thought. Moreover its objection
to free enquiry came to be seen as an indictment against it.
As Bertrand Russell pointed out:
The fundamental difference between the liberal and the illiberal
outlook is that the former regards all questions as open to
discussion and all opinions as open to greater or less measure
of doubt, while the latter holds in advance that certain opinions
are absolutely unquestionable, and that no argument against
them must be allowed to be heard. What is curious about this
position is the belief that if impartial investigation were
permitted it would lead men to the wrong conclusion, and that
ignorance is, therefore, the only safeguard against error*.
One of the last Christian victories of note in the field of
education was against Russell personally. In 1941 Russell, an
atheist, was offered a chair in philosophy at the College of
the City of New York. Christians of all denominations were outraged.
The Deputy District Attorney of New York State summed up their
position when he protested that taxpayers" money would
be used "to pay for teaching a philosophy of life which
denies God, defies decency and completely contradicts the fundamental
religious character of our country, government and people"*.
The offer was withdrawn after a sustained campaign by Bishop
Manning and other leading Christians, including Episcopalians,
Roman Catholics, Baptists and fundamentalists.
Britain the 1944 Education Act required that religious instruction
be given to all pupils, although it was silent on such incidental
academic disciplines as English and Mathematics. The practical
effect of this was to subject generations of British school
children to many hours of indoctrination. Moves were made to
abandon the requirement in the 1988 Education Reform Bill, but
the bishops used their position in the Lords to retain it. Despite
having been widely regarded for years as an anachronism that
should be scrapped, the provision was strengthened to give it
a more explicitly Christian emphasis. All state schools are
required to provide a daily collective act of worship wholly
or mainly of a broadly Christian character. Of course, the requirement
offends large numbers of adherents to other faiths. Similarly,
Religious Education, a subject that most people had expected
to be allowed to die quietly, was shaken into life and made
part of the core curriculum. In most primary schools and some
secondary schools Bible stories continue to be taught as events
that really happened contrary to the views of most theologians.
Christian ethics are presented as absolute truths, rather than
opinions. The Churches" role in history is misrepresented,
and in some particularly religious schools science is either
deliberately mis-taught or not taught at all.
Traditional style Christian teaching
- from an Irish school book
once commonplace - now rare enough and seen as offensive
enough to attract attention
Many teacher-training colleges are still dedicated to specific
denominations, and many schools employ teachers only if they
belong to the right denomination. In Northern Ireland there
is a greater and more divisive problem associated with religious
teaching. There, Roman Catholic children attend Roman Catholic
schools and Protestant children attend Protestant schools. They
all receive sectarian instruction. Their parents" religious
prejudices are reinforced, and distrust and hatred is fostered
for another generation. This sort of sectarian hatred and fighting
is closely linked with the provision of separate denominational
schools. The only other places in Britain where it has been
known are cities like Liverpool and Glasgow where Roman Catholic
and Protestant communities were also polarised into separate
communities with their own schools.
A Fundamentalist Protestant View of Education
- which also manages to suggest to
ingenuous children that scientists and psychologists "know
that God's word is true"
In many countries Christian schools continue to discriminate
as they have done traditionally, for example by accepting only
children from what are considered properly constituted families.
Children of divorced parents are thus denied admission. In Chile,
where divorce is not permitted, the children of separated parents
are not admitted into particularly religious schools. Elsewhere,
the effects of Christian educational policy are having even
more serious consequences. A common missionary practice was,
and still is, to offer a free education to those willing to
join up. The effects of this are often divisive and persistent.
For example in what is now Rwanda, nineteenth century Belgian
missionary priests helped reinforce the dominance of the Tutsi
minority by denying Hutus access to schools. The dislocated
balance of power resulted in periodic outbreaks of violence
that continued into the 1990s , culminating in the genocide
of April to July 1994, in which up to a million Tutsis and moderate
Hutus were massacred by Hutu militias, including machete-wielding
in Britain, church schools in the USA are state-funded. Christian
schools can even be established with the express intention of
"programming the mind". Many hold the fundamental
tenet that God favours US world supremacy. A popular programme
of religious teaching called Accelerated Christian Education
(ACE) works Bible stories and religious themes into all subjects.
It also puts a great deal of stress on Christian values and
almost none at all on science. ACE schools in England have been
criticised by HM Inspectors of schools on numerous grounds,
including the gaping holes in their curriculae. Many fundamentalist
Christians still want to deny a scientific education to their
children, especially if it includes evolutionary theory.
When it was published in 1859 Darwin's The Origin of Species
shook the Christian establishment around the world. It soon
established evolutionary theory among the educated classes,
but it took much longer for its truth to filter down to the
less well-educated parts of society. Many states of the USA
adhered to traditional Church teachings, accepting as fact the
creation stories in the Old Testament. Schools were prohibited
from teaching genuine biology. By the 1920s this position was
regarded as a joke by the outside world, although in the USA
there were still fundamentalists recommending that those who
advocated Darwin's theory should be burned, or even crucified.
Many states were still not ready for the scientific age. In
the so-called Scopes "monkey trial", a case heard
in Tennessee between 1925 and 1927, it was held that evolution
must not be taught to state school children. To the astonished
amusement of much of the rest of the world this line held for
another 40 years or so in the southern states of the USA. It
was not until 1967 that Tennessee repealed its law that forbade
the teaching of anything that conflicted with the biblical account
of the creation.
Sign in Dayton, near the Rhea County
corthouse, Tennessee, USA
Other states still retained such laws. In 1968 the Supreme
Court dismissed an Arkansas one as a quixotic and anachronistic
violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which
both guarantees free speech and forbids the establishment of
religion. In April 1972 the last remaining anti-evolutionary
law was repealed in Mississippi. Nevertheless, evolution remained
a controversial subject, and many schools still do not teach
it. Some states have local opt-out provisions, allowing fundamentalist
school districts to use non-evolutionary textbooks. School textbooks
often avoid the subject or treat it in such vague terms that
pupils cannot understand the fundamentals of the subject. Consequently
the American public is, throughout much of the country, profoundly
ignorant of one of the greatest intellectual achievements of
all time. Traditionalists continued to try to re-establish the
old ways. In the early 1970s many school boards issued instructions
requiring that creationism be taught in schools, until this
too was ruled to contravene the First Amendment. Nevertheless
it is still not unknown for American biology teachers to teach
that the world is 6,000 years old, and that fossils date from
Noah's flood. In recent years Creationism has been dressed up
and paraded as Intelligent Design, purporting to be
a scientific theory on a par with the theory of evolution and
so worthy of equal time on school curricula*.
In Britain, as in many other countries, theologians are appointed
to ancient chairs of philosophy, although they are not recognisable
as philosophers to other academics. In some countries the Churches
still run universities. In others an established Church still
appoints professors of theology to be paid by public funds.
have generally sought to prohibit any form of education other
than their own and to suppress ideas in conflict with their
own. The education that Churches have traditionally provided
has not been a genuine education, teaching children to think,
reason, invent and understand: it has been indoctrination, emphasising
rote learning, obedience and deference to religious authority.
Historically, within the Christian hegemony no boys were educated
for the love of learning, and no girls were educated at all.
Educating girls, women, the poor, slaves, the deaf was considered
to be blasphemous, or at best pointless.
became free and universal only when the Churches' monopoly was
broken, as it eventually was against a great deal of clerical
opposition. Well into the twentieth century, the Christian Churches
opposed educational reform. Even today the role of some Churches
is divisive: teaching opinion as though it were fact, suppressing
or misrepresenting science, using education as a bribe for conversion,
favouring teachers and academics on the grounds of belief rather
than ability, and in some cases perpetuating sectarian hatred.
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