John Dickson’s latest talking point in the rear guard action to defend SRE is to confuse the “public square” with the “public schools”. Dickson’s gambit is to avoid talking about the real impact SRE has on education or the specifics of how SRE in NSW is administered – and to play the victim card against FIRIS, our supporters and the education profession, by arguing that removing SRE is the same as “excluding religion“.
Because Dickson is playing a culture war game, his choice of language is shot through with culture war tropes, such as this. It is absurd to claim, as he does, that the curriculum and management of public education in NSW should be administered as if it was a”public square”, yet Dickson soldiers on in his effort to muddle the public understanding of this policy issue by turning it into a culture war shibboleth.
FIRIS certainly isn’t proposing to “ban religion” when it argues that the SRE policy is a bad policy – yet those are the binary choices that Dickson offers his flock. Dickson’s gambit turns this discussion into a zero sum game, but these terms, while seeming to offer refuge politically by making this issue a “no go” zone for politicians, ultimately doom Dickson’s interests. The advocates of SRE are destined to loose, because FIRIS occupies all of the moral high ground on this issue. SRE is bad policy, we oppose it, our efforts will, eventually, see it removed from the schools, but this improvement in education policy does not remotely constitute a “ban” or an “exclusion” of “religion” from either the schools, or the “public square”.
Dickson, and the para-church ministries he fronts, like the Bible Society, YouthWorks, Gener8 Ministries, Scripture Union, Campus Crusade for Christ, etc … will all continue to exist, they will, for example freely gather at the Lausanne Conferences and publish elaborate strategies about how to convert everyone in the whole world follow their religion.
All that will change for these para-church groups as a result of the FIRIS campaign, will be that they will no longer operate during the time set aside for education during the compulsory school day, with the endorsement of the Department of Education – which is really what this is about.
These groups aren’t battling for their existence, they are fighting for a franchise to use our schools as venues for mission. The reason for his is easy to understand – because schools are places where children are required (by law) to attend, the staff and the teachers of the schools, as well as the amenity of the buildings and administrative structure are under a legal obligation to host the clergy and other “approved” SRE providers, what these groups value – and lets be clear – this is valuable, is the administration of their program, which is not a personal freedom, but a public grant of substantial scope and scale. John Dickson isn’t seeking a right to use the public square, he’s seeking a right to commandeer part of the apparatus of public education.
To put a price on this, divide the total annual school budget & the rent on the assets by 3% – and that amount would be something like a fair price that the public is paying so John Dickson and Michael Jensen, and others can conduct “mission” in Australian Government Schools.
FIRIS, says: this is wrong and should be stopped because its a terrible policy.
Dickson isn’t seeking a right to offer religious instruction, he is seeking the maintenance of a grant of executive and legislative licence to operate within an environment that is compulsory, and paid for under clear operating principles for which he seeks an exception*. He and others seek to influence the behavior of others through the authority society vests in the schools. This is why we have arguments over the content of information on government forms, why there is something called “non Scripture”, why there is politics around this, and why there is a statue in force. These things (policies & laws) make up a franchise which Dickson is loathe to see taken from his “corporate” interests.
Rather than discuss this issue grounded in reason, his efforts are all directed at fueling a culture war stoush which begins by confusing the education system in NSW with something he’s fond of calling, a “Public Square”.
Consider for a second that the legislature passed a law that gave 3% of all the school books to Coca-Cola Amatil. For example for every 100 pages of educational material, 3 of the pages were set aside for Coca-Cola advertising and promotion. Would this seem absurd? What if I argued that restricting Coca-Cola from using 3% of the school’s text books was an imposition on the right that Coke has to “access the public square”? Would I be taken seriously?
But this is exactly the same argument that Dickson is making, and it is absurd.
Advocates of policy reform, should not however take comfort in the fact that Dickson and SRE’s advocates are making absurd arguments – because they rely on broad public confusion over just why our schools are “secular” in the first place, and an increasingly apathetic population who can be fooled by making arguments about the “cultural role” that the christian religion plays in the humanities.
More troubling however is that Dickson can exploit a historical lack clarity around the term “secular” to re-imagine the past, and to cast the NSW policy as some kind of foundational touchstone for a “healthy” form of secular society.
Dickson will get a lot of mileage from this tactic, which is shameful coming from a man of such obvious interest in history. The reality of Australian history and especially the relation of religion and education is Australia is much less flattering to organized religion.
If you are interested in a detailed analysis of this question, and how the matter played out while Australia was still a colony of the British Empire, this paper traces the issue in the debates and shows how clergy have relentlessly worked to prevent the secular principle from being realized in Australian schooling. Dickson is indeed acting out a historical role – but its a pernicious one, and something that Australians hopefully will not be duped into leaving by the road, as self interested sectarian interests – have always sought to advance their factional interests at the expense of the public good.
* The various legislative provisions that extend the right for clergy to access public schools were created as exceptions to the principles of public education, mainly due to political power held by clergy. Australia led the world in the creation of a system of education – which recognised that the the public’s interest in education did not extend to, nor seek to suppress religious observance, and did not extend to religious doctrine, which the state leaves in the hands of churches and religious groups who are free to assemble and worship in Australia.
The important thing about Australian education is that the the public’s role in providing education to its citizens was always limited – and sought to avoid “the religious question”. The reason for this however is that during the colonial period, the colonists found that clerical control of education was a disaster – so they terminated the longstanding tradition of leaving education in the hands of churches and created “public instruction acts”. That we have “public education” at all, was a social response to the pernicious influence that churches sought to impose on society by cleaving citizens into sectarian groups.