Allen&Unwin, 2014, 248 pages, $29.99 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
To the traditional ‘three Rs’, Australia has added a fourth – religion – as religious private schools, religious instruction in public schools, and religious counsellors have found generously-funded favour with successive federal and state governments, writes Macquarie University politics professor, Marion Maddox, in Taking God to School.
The taxpayer-funded rise of private, religious schools, many of them extremely wealthy, is a massive retreat from the demands of the egalitarian, nineteenth century education reformers whose campaign for ‘free, compulsory and secular’ education gelled with a ‘nation-building’ capitalist state which needed, for social cohesion and economic reasons, an educated (and obedient) workforce beyond the minority catered to by the fee-charging, church-run schools of colonial times.
From the mid-1970s, however, Whitlam’s federal Labor government, in the first outing of a repeated “quest for electability”, instituted significant government funding of private schools (90% of which are religious) and, with every successive government being quick to pander to the lobbying zeal of the churches (mainstream Christian, ‘happy-clappy’ Pentecostal and non-Christian) by promising that ‘no school will lose a dollar’ under their watch, the fiscal disparity between the private and public education spheres has worsened.
Religion has also been favoured with beachheads in public schools through government-funded religious instruction and through outsourcing student welfare services to private religious providers through a school chaplain program (massively expanded under Labor’s atheist Prime Minister, Julia Gillard). A majority of these are provided by aggressively proselytising, conservative, evangelical versions of Christianity.
All governments have subscribed to the “neo-liberal” chant of ‘public bad, private good’, defending their privatising educational push under the rubric of fostering ‘choice’, leaving public schools under-resourced and stigmatised as inferior whilst only those who can afford it get to ‘choose’ government-enriched private schooling.
Government hand-holding for religion in education should matter, says Maddox, because what is taught (creationism and Bible literalism, for example) is anti-science, how it is taught is antipathetic to critical thinking, and who it is taught to, and by, is exempt from laws against discrimination by, for example, sexual orientation or marital status.
Maddox goes beyond this standard atheist critique of religion in education, however, by arguing against the influence of both “money and religion” which are tightly conjoined in the Australian education system. She reminds us that wealthy private schools are public-funded breeding grounds for entitlement to private privilege - in the top echelons of business and government, the privately-educated disproportionately predominate (St. Peter’s College in Adelaide, for example, has produced nine State Premiers and two federal education ministers).
Both the dollar and the dog-collar, she concludes, need to be minimised in Australia’s schools. In fact, with the modern capitalist state now firmly wedded to private, religious education, the old reformist demand for all education to be free and secular, divided by neither creed nor class, is now deliciously revolutionary.