What is education and what is indoctrination? Reflections on the RE debate

Picking up on the debate at Stirling University on 23.10.14, the introductory blog to this topic by Alison Jasper and John I'Anson, and the contribution by Sarah Clark, Russell Hunter, a Masters student at Stirling University, here offers his thoughts on the debate. There will be one more comment piece next week. – Michael Marten, Editor]

After discussing with Dr. Fitzgerald the terms and use of education/indoctrination programs, I was excited to attend this panel discussion. I listened intently to the four panelists and came away from each of their presentations wanting to hear a bold statement. Was the current system about education or was it about indoctrination? They tiptoed around this issue.

Professor James Conroy came the closest to addressing it, but what did he mean when he said, “You cannot educate if a culture is not willing to learn, and if indoctrination was the goal, it failed”? He further argued that “there is no link to theological questions” in the Scottish school curriculum. He used statistics from his survey findings to show that religious affiliations are decreasing among schoolchildren today, which is why there is no indoctrination. To conclude that indoctrination does not exist because religious affiliations among schoolchildren are decreasing is questionable. I would be interested to see the survey questions. The teachers surveyed may not have fully supported the presence of Religious Education (RE) in the school curriculum and were so politically correct in their delivery of it that their RE instruction had a counter-effect. Would that not amount to indoctrination?

The Rev Sally Foster-Fulton was passionate but failed to convince me of RE’s future role in Scottish schools or even clarify its future role. “Time for reflection” is a nice catch phrase that she coined. I take it to mean coalescing support for RE by drawing attention to the fact that all religions have the commonality of reflection. Be it prayer, meditation, or just quiet time, time for reflection creates a common bond between each faith. She quoted the Scottish government’s policy on RE in the Scottish school curriculum. It would have been more powerful if she had clarified how schools interpret and apply this legislation and what role the church plays in all of this. That was the most confusing issue: what role does the church play? Is the government lobbying for time for reflection? If so, is that indoctrination?

Mr Douglas McLellan of the Humanist Society of Scotland focused on the 1918 Educational Act and the Catholic schools. He was all about secular education and believed RE has no place in schools. Yet, when pushed, he said yes, we need to learn about religions and have discussions about them. He failed to lay out how this is to be accomplished. He railed against the denominational school system but not against the nondenominational system. From my perspective, his presentation was one-dimensional and unfair. If a parent wants to put a child into a denominational school because of religious beliefs, why should Mr McLellan object? It is possible I am not sufficiently familiar with the Scottish system, but I must also ask why Mr McLellan did not talk about the 1980 Educational Act or the 2011 guidelines on RE implementation in the school curriculum? Why was he not challenged on that issue?

Mrs Sarah Clark spoke from personal experience. Her presentation was based on personal experiences working within the school system and critical religion at the University of Stirling. She provided a different perspective. She took an experiential approach to the subject and discussed values and beliefs that are transmitted through socialisation. She talked about what she termed a “dissonance” or conflict in the way the school system addressed RE, brought about by the fact that teachers and the school system take a politically correct approach while students wanted openness. She claimed that religion is interwoven across all educational disciplines, a circumstance that schools must address. Her plan for how this could be done included classroom discussions on the impact of religion on the development of various disciplines. Her realist approach allowed her to offer a framework for the implementation of RE in the school curriculum. At least she had a plan. She was the only panelist who suggested a clear plan for implementing RE in the school curriculum.

I watched the faces and reactions of the panelists as each of them got up to speak. It was immediately obvious that the divide of opinions was wide. When Mr. McLellan was speaking, The Rev Foster-Fulton and Professor Conroy made comments to each other and mouthed words such as “not correct,” or something similar, or they shook their heads in disagreement. This behaviour from someone who, just a few minutes earlier, had asked that we should all have a time for reflection seemed very disingenuous. The hard question for everyone on this panel and in the audience is the first question that should have been asked: what is the difference between education and indoctrination? If 'education' as a mandated curriculum comes from a hierarchy of power, is that not a form of indoctrination? Is a secular mandate on RE in contention with itself? Or does that even matter to those who can only see from their own point of view? How ironic that the panel all agreed the exchange of ideas and customs, religions and values, is the only way to move forward and yet they were closed-minded during the debate.

Those who advocate inclusiveness don’t always show it. Surveys are only as good as the questions asked. Education and indoctrination are intertwined much as someone’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. When a secular government issues a curriculum mandate, is it not indoctrination? The panel discussion has made me aware of the complications and pitfalls of a discourse that is interwoven across various disciplines, as RE is. More importantly it has made me question the words education and indoctrination. These words may be more alike than the panel is willing to concede.

Russell O. Hunter is a candidate for an MRes – Humanities at the University of Stirling and is the student representative for the MRes Humanities.