I have just read that the Taliban’s new Education Minister has announced that he will close any universities whose curricula are not in strict keeping with Islam. Given what we know about the Taliban (and similar movements such as ISIS), this is hardly surprising news. But it is still distressing. No modern university can fulfil the demands of scientific research and teaching while hampered by outdated and irrelevant ideas.
When I taught in the Religious Studies Department of Britain’s Newcastle University, I was employed to teach Islamic Studies (and a course on the sociology of New Religious Movements). A colleague taught Hinduism, another Judaism. It was not for any of us to convert students to the religions we studied, nor to transform their lives or their minds through the values of each faith.
What applies to universities applies in a slightly different way to schools. Young children do not yet possess the rational skills that allow adults to analyse information given to them by others. Sadly, a majority of people in most societies lack the same skill in both the religious and political spheres. Antisemites are prime examples. All forms of religious fundamentalism give cause for concern.
Faith schools, even those of good general quality, such as Britain’s Catholic and Anglican schools, still foster attitudes of superior in children thanks to their orientation. Over many years in Northern Ireland, Catholic children went and still go to Catholic schools, whereas Protestant children were sent to the reverse. And separate schooling in a country so deeply divided between two communities only led to distancing and even violence.
When I wrote my report on Muslim schools in mainland UK, Music, Chess and Other Skills, I discovered that a high percentage of establishments held moderately or extremely favour for Islamic fundamentalism. Even the ban in some places on music, dance, chess, Shakespeare and more was hardly conducive to high quality education.
There is controversy over education in Israel, with divisions between secular schools (hiloli) that are run by the state and offer a contrast with the mainly Muslim Arab schools on the one hand and the schools of the Ultra-Orthodox (haredi) which focus on religious knowledge and form a basis for the yeshivas of the older age-groups disinclined to study secular subjects.
As a secularist, I am torn between the rights of religious people on one hand and the principle that a healthy society must be based on secular values. There is a massive debate here. My preference is for secular schooling up to 18, with religious subjects taught in universities in a balanced and objective manner. But I know religious communities will never be willing to let go their hold on what education they can control.