The recent controversy in the (as yet) United Kingdom concerning education in the city of Birmingham has much wider implications than this one city. The questions of what values in the 21st century need to be part of a schools ethos are of global significance. The attempts by religious conservatives of whatever denomination to restrict education to those sections of society and areas deemed important or supportive to their own preferred theological positions are on the increase globally. This is leading in some places to a fiercely contested war of words about what values should be taught in schools. Elsewhere, there is an actual physical war with many casualties, taking place over who should be educated and what kind of education is appropriate.
In Pakistan and Nigeria to take two topical examples, Islamist fundamentalists have physically targeted schools and women pupils in particular. The shooting of Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan and the kidnap of the Nigerian school girls and destruction of schools, by Boko Haram are just the extreme end of a wide spectrum of challenges to education of a non-religious, secular form. At a less, extreme level some Christian, Judaic and Islamic communities are not only challenging secular and inclusive curriculum’s but are campaigning (often successfully) for a curriculum biased toward their own sectarian ideologies. A battle against teaching ‘Evolution’ has a long and continuous history in the US. The recent complaints and controversy in Birmingham, England around a number of schools preferring a distinctly Islamic bias has also prompted a renewed debate on ‘values’, particularly ’British values’ in education.
A considerable number of high-level politicians, educators and media pundits have this month (June 2014) called for British Schools to reflect British values without making clear what these values might be. Apart from such vague wooliness, this call is a typically nationalistic response by the British pro-capitalistic elite which completely fails to understand what is really being suggested and what is at stake. For example, British values emanating from its bourgeois elite are bourgeois values. Bourgeois values include racist, sexist, chauvinist, elitist, colonialist, imperialist, capitalist, individualist and militarist values. These are values by which the British Empire was imagined and constructed – and which should be vigorously contested. This call also fails to understand that these particular values are not just British, but Anglo-Saxon bourgeois values. As such these same values are similarly at work in every other capitalistically ‘advanced’ country of Europe and North America.
In addition these British pro-capitalist elites, economic, political, financial and intellectual who are advocating a ‘British’ variant of Anglo-Saxon bourgeois values in schools often exhibit deceitful, oppressive, exploitative, greedy and corrupt practices emanating from the above noted bourgeois values. Indeed, it is against many of these dominant bourgeois values, that post Second World War education in the UK, attempted to push back against. From the 1960’s state education in the UK introduced more internationalist, egalitarian, anti-racist and eventually anti-sexist ideas and practices. For a while, a few small ‘flower-power’, ‘make love not war’ humanist stuttering steps were taken. Parts of the enlightened educational establishment even became critical of the history of British colonialism and imperialism, albeit in a much watered-down form.
Some elements of this post-imperial, post-war ‘enlightenment’ was echoed in the educational practices of many other countries belonging to the Anglo-Saxon bourgeois tradition, (Europe and North America) but never as a total alternative to dominant bourgeois capitalist values. It must also be noted that since the Thatcher and Reagan era, western education in general has been progressively tweaked to return to and impart bourgeois values of aggressive individualism, materialistic self-advancement, competitive enterprise and business studies. It cannot be surprising therefore, that many people originating from countries and cultures which previously suffered (and many who are still suffering) from British and American Anglo-Saxon invasive bourgeois values do not wish to have these rammed down their own throats or daily imparted to their offspring.
Many of these new immigrant workers – along with indigenous workers are also only to well aware that the above-noted ‘values’ have led Britain, Europe and North America to annex land and resources, conduct military invasions, condone routine tortures, and continue selective bombings of foreign communities. The lack of consistent ‘humanist’ secular values permeating and guiding the actions of the elites in the countries of Europe, UK and North America problem has been reflected within the educational establishments of all these countries. Europe, the cauldron of the 14 -17 century Renaissance, 16th century Reformation and 18th century Enlightenment has in the 20th become the arena for new forms of authoritarianism and the scene of a religious counter-reformation. North America the recipient of this European break from religious dogma and reactionary authoritarian governance has similar problems.
Not surprising then, that there is an anti-establishment mood creeping through the ranks of all those not part of the elite. A mood which would prefer an alternative set of values to those currently in vogue. Given the ruthless and exploitative nature of the capitalist mode of production and its bourgeois values and the lack of a consistent humanist alternative, it is not surprising that this ‘value’ challenge is being spear-headed by religion. Thus an influential number of Christian, Jewish and Islamic thinkers have looked to the ‘fundamentals’ of their religions and promoted them as an attractive alternative to secular capitalist values. And in the absence of a serious study of religion, both in regard to its scriptural texts and its historical practice, this can appear on the surface to offer a benign prescription for the conduct of human affairs.
However, not far below the surface of all religions lie a malign substrata of thinking and barbaric practices. This is not the place for a detailed resume of the malign sections of the various religious so-called ‘holy’ texts, nor for a condensed history of religious wars and atrocities. That material exists elsewhere, (some on this blog. See for example Religion versus Women’s Rights’; Religion is Politics’ and ’Fundamentalism’). However, in addition to the points made in the second paragraph of this article, a brief reminder of some of the horrific 20th and 21st century problems caused by religion is in order. The Catholic/Protestant divide; the Sunni/ Shia divisions, indicate that whilst religion may not be the only ingredient causing the bombing of innocents, the torture of captives or the beheading or rape of men women and children, the religious beliefs of these believers are insufficient to prevent such atrocities.
If we take only the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, then practically everyone is aware that each one is based upon ideological rejection of the others viewpoints. Each religion has its own sectarian textual values which logically exclude admitting equal validity for other religions or non-believers. Yet, if we are not to enter into a state of denial, or misplaced political correctness, we need to recognise the following. Religious beliefs and religious texts do in fact provide believers with authorised permission to be incredulous, intolerant, aggressive, homophobic, sexist, patriarchal and murderous. The Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur’an all give instances and examples of when and why it is permissible to discriminate against, hurt or kill other people on the basis of their religious ‘values‘. Of course not all believers will wish to do any of these things and many will not want to make the connection between these acts and their religion.
Yet when many contemporary extremist Christians, Jews and Muslims in the west, the east or the south, do exactly that, they also consider they are being true to their religion. When Pastors, Priests, Rabbi’s and Imans bless, excuse or justify such acts, (as some do), this merely confirms that religion in the future, as in the past, cannot be a source of ‘values’ which view and treat all human beings equally. Indeed, we cannot expect these religions (or any other) to do so. These three religions and their values in particular were imagined, created and developed 2000 years ago on the basis of tribal and localised communities of the ancient world. This period was well before the advent of intensive international communications and world trade. Since in the 21st century, it is abundantly clear we live in a global community something more inclusive is needed for now and the future.
Bombarded as we are from childhood by the multiple outlets and sources of dominant bourgeois ideology and its diverse analogues in the religious realm, it is difficult for people to clear their minds of one or the other or even both. For many individuals and communities, their religion has been incorporated into their form of identity. Nevertheless, it is clear that in a global society of interdependent humanity, the only values which make real sense for now and the future are values based upon the common humanity of all communities of human beings. That is to say humanist values. These are the only ‘values‘ ideological free from nationalistic or sectarian difference, dogma and malice.
Such a humanist perspective is nothing really new, for it is partially embodied in formal and informal international relations. The terms, ‘Crimes against Humanity’ ‘Humanitarian Aid’ and ‘Violations of the laws of Humanity‘ only exist in common and formal international use because of the 20th century need to transcend religious and nationalist prejudices. Crimes against Humanity were described by paragraph 6 of Article 6 of an International Military Tribunal after the Second World War as those which involved;
“Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war, or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated”.
Of course for the international bourgeoisie, this recognition of humanity was little more than necessary rhetoric after the defeat of the Nazis in World War Two, for they continued to commit and allow the perpetration of such crimes. But the fact that the concept of a common humanity was necessary then and has remained so since, indicates the concept was the only really inclusively valid one to use in our global intercourse. The class nature of the bourgeoisie elite means in general that they do not subscribe to any full degree of equality among human beings. This is because the economic system they control and benefit from is based upon inequality. Their system would end if economic equality was introduced. For this reason other forms of inequality, such as gender, race and sexuality were (and are) also tolerated by them and have to be fought against by those who suffer from them.
So the adoption of humanist values, although partial, is nothing new. Fully developed, they should have been and should still be, the transformative basis for global society in general as well as the education values for all pupils in all schools in the 21st century. More teachers and educators promoting humanist values are sorely needed in our schools and colleges. Less teaching bourgeois or religious sectarian values. Of course, humanist values will not by themselves create sufficient equality among human beings for as noted, there remains class differences which arise from the bourgeois ownership of the main means of production. However, the adoption of humanist values by individuals, communities, particularly by the working and remaining peasant classes, does offer the possibility of overcoming the divisions among them based upon nation, race, gender, sexuality, age, disability and religion.
In addition, humanist values adopted and consistently upheld will also ensure that any future revolutionary transformations, brought about by the partial or large-scale collapse of capitalism, will be conducted with these values to the fore – informing the practice of those revolutionary forces. The concept of revolutionary-humanism embraces both these challenging potentials – overcoming divisions and transforming the mode of production. It is also a concept which has the potential to overcome the sectarian political divisions standing in the way of solidarity among present day anti-capitalists.
Roy Ratcliffe (June 2014.)