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Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Bibles for textbooks and baptismal fonts for water fountains: welcome to the Texas church aka school

Education in this country is considered a national trophy, one we've held onto since time immemorial. It is the cornerstone in our achievements as a wealthy, developed nation and provides a great source of export - ideas - as well as a perpetual supply of pride that the population may imbibe.

Britain is known globally for its successful tradition of higher education. At the peak of the educational pyramid that represents the stratification of the system are our universities, which are subject to further division through use of league tables. Our league tables have become increasingly popular over the last few years as the number of prospective university students has risen. Criteria pertaining to the suitability of any given university is the basis for league table rankings, which are conducted by newspaper companies among others.

Therefore, in a professional sense, the English education system appears to justify its reputation as being at the forefront of 'information inspiration'. Despite the relatively negative perception of the UK as a haven for jobless immigrants, many foreigners who come to live in the UK are mainly here to educate themselves - this is, of course, dependent on their origin, as we generally see immigrants from richer countries relocating to the UK for what some would call a 'privileged education'. One archetypal example is the case of Indian medical students migrating to the UK and eventually becoming established practitioners there; many members of the public would tell you how common it is now to be allocated a doctor of Asian descent.

In America, too, there is a standard of respectability for their education institutions to uphold. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone with a reasonable educational background who has not heard the name Harvard. Affiliated with the similarly famous Ivy League, which represents the supremacy of elitism in American private education, Harvard is a word synonymous with excellence. This is also the first concept of American education I ever grasped and still remains the most definitive answer to the Atlantic separation of our upper-most educational institutions in the UK and USA.

Recently, however, I have been magnetised towards a particular issue regarding American educational culture. Being a federation of very diverse regions, it shouldn't surprise outsiders that the image of one state is not necessarily a reflection of another. Hence the subject of my interest at present: the controversy of religious interference in the Texas education system.

Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer and mother - a category of American mother reminiscent of the devoutly religious republican icon Sarah Palin - is linked to an organisation of Christian evangelists who are seeking to overhaul the way schools in Texas deliver their educational curriculum to students.

Over a period of ideological fortification and developments to sponsorship (a burgeoning republican consensus in certain parts of America is partly accountable) Cynthia Dunbar and her religious associates have gained ground and authority in their mission to bring 'salvation' to the Texas state education board.

In her own words, Dunbar denounces the schools that promote the current education curriculum as unconstitutional, tyrannical and tools of perversion. The main objective of this potential overhaul and motive for this group's reinforcement is to rekindle America's commitment to religion.

Unlike the UK, in which religion is largely excluded from any democratic process, especially in Parliament, America is prone to garnering the support of religious organisations for political purposes - or is it the other way round? It is no illusion to state that social conservatism in America is a thriving breeding ground for American exceptionalism and staunch right-wing religious views. Dunbar is adamant that incorporating religion back into education is essential for the ensuring of patriotism in American culture. The fact that her cause is flourishing in the largest of the traditionally right-wing southern states is obviously not a sign of growing cynicism towards the presence of a black democrat in the White House.

As far as policy is concerned, this sectarian subversion by the evangelists is a swing towards the loosening of government strings on what is allowable in connection to the curriculum. The on-going debate raging between the teaching of evolution and the teaching of creationism is undoubtedly a major incentive for this radical 'rebirth' on the board. While they might not wish to completely eradicate all awareness of evolution in schools, the conservative evangelists are intent on having the subject downgraded to the position of an abstract notion as opposed to concrete scientific truth - much like religion is treated in the UK.

Among other typical components of the programme in line for removal are the teachings of Sir Isaac Newton (in favour of the study of the scientific advances through military technology) and the influence of Thomas Jefferson, who was an advocate for the separation of the church and the state. Strongly present in their aims is the active prescribing of capitalism, although they fail to put it that bluntly, which they see as the cornerstone of civilisation and the ultimate mechanism for the prosperity of America, God's ideal society - a beacon to the world.

Perhaps what is most perplexing about this pseudo-political intervention is the advocacy for reintegration of the church and the state, something not seen in Western civilisations since the collapse of Vatican rule in Europe. The UK first demonstrated its authority against the Pope when Henry VIII broke away from Italy and formed the Church of England. It is understandable why the premise of religion is still prevalent in distinct spheres of American culture, as the Bill of Rights, its constitution, was heavily influenced by the religious atmosphere of the age. Nevertheless, it does nod towards an intent to indoctrinate when such a cause becomes an instrument of top-down reform, especially in education, which is arguably the most influential aspect of modern society.

As a product of a social democracy that provides basic welfare support through a national health service and income tax, as well as being directed by a government that prefers to remain in control (that is potentially about to change), it strikes me as alien when critics of government control like Dunbar suggest that free enterprise should take precedence over a social fail-safe that guarantees some form of recovery if the system fails in some way. In terms of philosophy, this inclination towards economic autonomy in opposition to state control runs in the same vein as Adam Smith's proposition that markets benefit and individuals profit the most from minimal state supervision. The 'invisible hand' of the market - the people - will assert the economic balance and be self-levelling. Coming from a Keynesian perspective this idea as espoused by the evangelists in their preferences is greatly diametric, but there's horses for courses I suppose.

Also, in the UK we are so stubbornly inclined to excoriate the Conservative political party for being 'medieval' and 'backwards' in terms of its ideological leanings; but, in comparison to the status quo for American republicans (the conservatives of the US), our elite lot are actually fairly liberal. I mean, at least we don't see David Cameron pledging his allegiance to God every time he pipes up about the slipping standards and lack of discipline in our educational system. Nevertheless, with the symptoms of the subjugation of the UK to the USA at a constant hum under our airwaves, I wouldn't be surprised if the future of the UK's educational institutions was one as ominously hallowed as that of Cynthia Dunbar's biblical fantasy.

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