Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On 'creationist' schools

As an outside observer, I've been watching the free schools debate with some interest.  One of the developments that seems to have caused something of a stushie in the Twittershpere is this report that Gove has given the go-ahead for three schools to be run by creationists.

The 'church mouse' has responded with a piece in the same paper arguing that the belief that God created the world does not a creationist make.  In the narrow terms in which he poses his argument, I'm inclined to agree with him.  'Creationism' has to do with a literal interpretation of the creation story as outlined in Genesis and, consequently, a rejection of the theory of evolution.  But I was wondering more generally - what is it about creationism that matters so much?  We're only talking about a couple of (contradictory) chapters of Genesis here and believing these doesn't strike me as any more or less irrational than believing in the doctrine of transubstantiation, yet the Catholic Church already runs many more schools than 'creationists'.

So why get so excited?  It might be that people are concerned about the quality of science education that pupils will receive at these schools but I'm more inclined to think that 'creationism' is seen as indicative of an intensity of religious feeling.  This sense is more or less correct, in my view, but I'm wondering whether and to what extent those identifying it as such haven't fallen for what I've just decided to call the 'myth of the mainstream'.  Those belonging to ecclesia rather than denominations, sects or cults are more rational and moderate?  Arguably this used to be the case but one wonders if what we are seeing is the former increasingly behaving like the latter?  Organised religion is feeling rather defensive at the moment.  One wonders why, given the indulgence shown to them by the political class but perhaps they have an inkling that their time on this earth is short?  God is dead but there will remain, perhaps for ages yet, caves in which His shadow can still be seen.  So let's get some legal protection and institutional entrenchment for the aforementioned caves.

I appreciate I've posed a lot of questions in the above.  This is because I'm not sure about it myself but if people are concerned with the disproportionate influence that organised religion exercises in education, they would do better to address the general issue and advocate a separation of religion from the state, rather than getting exercised about what they see as the more egregious examples of the privileged position that the party of faith enjoys within the British state.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Short note on nationalist rhetoric (redux)

Sorry (again) but there’s a new (to me, anyway) and annoying strain in nationalist rhetoric which says in effect that the choice facing the Scottish people in 2014 is not nationalism vs the Union but rather what kind of nationalist do you want to be – Scottish or British?

 Nations and states have developed independently of one another and while the nationalist view is to see the marriage between the two as part of the natural order of things, not only is this not essential, historically it hasn’t been nearly as common as nationalists tend to assume. It certainly hasn’t been the case with Britain, which is of course not a 'nation-state' but a multi-national one.

 There is a political party in the UK whose disagreement with this simple fact is embodied in the very name of their party, which rather tends to reinforce the impression of them being a bit thick as well as bigoted. I’m talking, of course, about the BNP. Scottish nationalists should really be showing a better understanding of history and basic political concepts and stop this tiresome nonsense about how everyone who disagrees with them is a ‘British nationalist’.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

On military schools

'Ethos', 'aspiration', 'changing culture'.  Bingo!  Can I claim my prize?  There's a lot of jokes and serious points one could make about Labour's enthusiasm for what was - of course - originally a Tory idea of the military running schools but I'll restrict myself to two whilst avoiding the more hyperbolic comments some have made about 'boot-camps' and 'cannon fodder'.

One is that 'aspiration' is all very well but to imagine it is this - and not the fact that there are at least five people unemployed for every vacancy in Britain - that is the problem in the inner-cities just isn't engaging with the real issues that young people have to deal with.

The other is that (again) even if one accepts that 'social mobility' is the goal of the school system, these are unlikely to improve it.  Say what you like about faith schools - politicians who praise them are quite literally willing to practice what they preach, in that they will send their children to them.  But how many do you imagine would have their children in one of these institutions?  I don't think the point requires explanation beyond this observation.

More persecution-lite

I think it would be fair to say that religion in schools - along with uniforms, phonics and choice - is generally considered to be a Good Thing by the political class in Britain.  In Scotland, the education secretary Mike Russell assured a CHAS conference that he sees faith schools as part of the 'bedrock of education'. Alex Salmond agrees and thinks there should be more of them, a view shared by David Cameron who sends his daughter to a religious school.  Admittedly Clegg has voiced opposition in the past but he isn't so hostile as to rule out the possibility of his own offspring attending one - and no-one cares what he thinks anyway.  You didn't need to be told Gove is in favour and given Labour's tendency to ape absolutely every Conservative education policy, regardless of how barmy,  it shouldn't surprise anyone that Miliband thinks they're fantastic 


 You'd think this would make any advocate of religious schooling feel secure but apparently not.  The Bishop of Oxford, for example - who explicitly calls for schools to be used as platforms for evangelism - is among the surprisingly high number of privileged Christians in the Church of England who has developed something of a persecution complex.  C of E schools are 'under attack', he says.  We've already established that these are not coming from anyone in power who might be in a position to do anything about the status of faith schools but it is also informative to note what constitutes an 'attack' in the eyes of the bish:
"The bishop highlighted campaigns to force the Church to relax its entry criteria to its schools, which reserve places for churchgoers, and calls for state funding to be removed from faith schools."
Translation: tax-payers should continue to fund schools that exclude their children and any suggestion that this should be at least modified qualifies as a full-frontal assault. Anyway, surely the bishop should rejoice an be glad because great is his reward in heaven - for in the same way, they persecuted the prophets who were before him.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Comments systems

I don't know how to work them.  If you left a comment, I'm sorry but it got lost.  Unsure how to switch on blogger comments for all posts but you can leave a remark about my technological incompetence below this one if you like.

Some referendum advice for Salmond and Cameron

Apologies in advance for discussing this issue again. I appreciate it's boring but it's one with which we have to engage with here given the response of the political elites in Edinburgh and London. What Cameron and Salmond appear to have in common is that they have both misinterpreted the SNP's victory at the last Holyrood election - and Westminster in particular have responded by treating the issue of Scottish independence as an urgent matter which has to be addressed, hence the 'put up or shut up' insistence on a referendum.

The SNP responded as one might predict of a party who has a credo which it knows perfectly well is not shared by the majority of the Scottish people. The result has been a slow-motion car-crash where the advocates of national autonomy can't even spell out what this would actually consist of.

I have been concerned from the outset about the quality of advice that the Prime Minister has been receiving because despite this, the matter is apparently still being treated as if it were of pressing importance:
"David Cameron faces a "crunch point" in the next few months, senior Coalition sources have indicated, when he may have to take the most difficult constitutional decision of his premiership – that Westminster and not Holyrood will stage a referendum on Scottish independence."
It would be a disaster if Cameron was persuaded to initiate a referendum because contrary to the received wisdom, the issue of Scotland's constitutional future is not one that needs to be dealt with at this present time. Not only should Cameron not consider this option, he and Salmond should open talks where they discuss the sensible option of dropping this whole referendum idea. I don't think it would be as difficult to persuade Salmond of the virtues of this as one might suppose. All the polling evidence points to a 'no' vote, even when what is being offered is not independence in the sense that the term has been understood historically.

The reality of the situation is that the cause of Scottish independence is another under-reported causality of the Euro-crisis. The screech of the hand-brake turn that Salmond has performed on the whole 'independence in Europe' thing hasn't been heard as clearly as it should have been but the effects are being felt nonetheless. Nationalists, if they have any sense, would dearly love the breathing space to work out where they want to be in this uncertain world. Will the Euro-zone press ahead with fiscal integration as a response to the debt crisis and if so, do Nationalists want to be part of this country called Europe? Or do they want to remain part of the Sterling zone, which is a de facto admission that the UK will continue in some form?

These are questions to which the SNP has no coherent answers to. In fairness, one wonders to what extent it is possible to have them, given the uncertainty of the situation. Since this is the context, not only is it not urgent to ask questions about the place of Scotland in the UK, it is not even remotely necessary.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Dim clerics and God's judgment

Has your home been flooded? You shouldn't assume that this means God is annoyed, according to someone traditionally considered by people of a Christian persuasion to be an authority on these matters:
"He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."
You wouldn't have thought that one's exegetical skills would have to be particularly advanced before you caught the drift of this but apparently some bishops in the Church of England have drawn rather different conclusions about the recent wet weather:
"The Rt Rev Graham Dow, Bishop of Carlisle, argued that the floods are not just a result of a lack of respect for the planet, but also a judgment on society's moral decadence."
Judgemental and slothful, being obviously too lazy to read his own book. He better watch or he'll end up getting a smiting.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

On Scottish nationalism and the perils of political prophecy

Something one should learn from history is that human beings cannot predict the future. Throughout the ages soothsayers, prophets, sages, seers of various kinds - and more recently social scientists - have a long record of getting it spectacularly wrong about most of the things that matter. I studied for my degree during a time when an entire field of intellectual enquiry that was based on the assumption that human behaviour was at least in some way predictable had to come to terms with the largely unforeseen collapse of the Soviet Union.

More recently it has been the banking crisis that has put the nails in the coffin of the secular prophets. Against this background, only a fool would attempt to predict the future but as regular readers will know, that is exactly what I am so I'm going to do it anyway and make the following prognosis. If a week is a long time in politics, how long is two years? Nevertheless, the cause of Scottish independence is already lost and everything that follows from this point in time is essentially a nationalist damage-limitation exercise.

It's difficult to be precise about the moment when this realisation came. There was the failure to capture Glasgow at the recent council elections. Described as the Nationalists' Stalingrad by one disgruntled Nationalist blogger, which is a little hyperbolic for my taste but there was a sense of a turning point nonetheless.

But it has more to do with the way it has been dawning on the SNP that they have quite simply misinterpreted their admittedly stunning victory in the Holyrood election. This was not a vote for independence but an anti-establishment Labour and even more so, a vote against the pro-austerity, pro-Coalition Liberal Democrats.

Alex Salmond, for whatever else he might be, is not a stupid man and understands this perfectly well, which is why he has been selling a version of 'independence' that would have been unrecognisable to nationalists of the 19th century. It's nationalism-lite - no new head of state, or currency and by extension monetary policy, a reluctance to disentangle the armed forces, and no-one seriously imagines that after 2014 we will need a passport to visit our English family or friends. It is for these reasons I make the above prediction with such confidence: if the there is a 'yes' vote in 2014 it will be because what has been offered is not national independence in the sense that the term has been understood historically.

The curious question is why? States and nations have grown independently of each other and while at least some nationalists know enough about history to understand this, they still take the view that the state and the nation are destined for each other - and the occasions where this doesn't occur are considered tragic. I'm wondering if it isn't this, the assumption that what is in reality historically unusual to be the norm that has something to do with the Nationalist undoing? This is why they argue the burden of evidence falls on us, rather than the other way around. But since you ask, some of us like being part of Britain - a polity that is based on civility rather than ethnicity, that evokes an sense of belonging born of a shared history that extends to this blogger's very DNA. I am half-Scottish, quarter English and quarter Welsh: it is for you to give a compelling reason why I should regret the Union that made me like this.
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