An American Education, or Why Peter Beinart is Wrong
I choose to believe, given Peter Beinart sends his own children to a Jewish day school, that his recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal is well-meaning. Beinart’s angst seems heartfelt and altogether sincere when he observes that parents who elect to send their offspring to privately-funded Jewish schools in the United States “are often asked to pay top dollar for schools with makeshift gymnasiums and antiquated science labs”.
In order to plug the funding gap which philanthropy alone cannot fill so that religious schools might “flourish”, Beinart’s solution is for the federal government to provide “substantial aid to religious schools”, picking up “pick up part of the tab” for those who wish to give their children a Jewish or indeed any sort of religious education. This approach strikes me has highly irregular, counterproductive, and in the longer term a grave threat to the unique American separation between church and state.
Beinart praises the Jewish schools of Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Indeed, here in the United Kingdom we do possess many first-rate Jewish schools, such as the Jews’ Free School in north London or Beis Yaakov High School in Manchester, which receive government monies (38 in number as of 2011, or 0.19% of all state-funded schools in the country). The schools cited are labelled as voluntary aided schools, where the state employs the staff and sets admissions criteria, but the buildings are owned by the charitable foundation which has a great deal of influence regarding how the institution is run – a model I sense Beinart may favour.
In the United Kingdom, faith schools are largely Christian in character: 22.88% of state schools for run by the Church of England; 10% by the Roman Catholic Church. Places in these schools are oft in great demand in catchment areas across the country. Regarded for their academic attainment and educational rigour, the phenomenon of competitive secular parents appearing at Sunday Mass for the sake of their kids is sadly not uncommon.
But above-average levels of accomplishment or an ostensible sense of religious pluralism does not make the funding of faith schools by national governments correct or just. The very notion of state funding for religious schools is antithetical to the basic principles of public education, which ought to be accessible to and actively encourage interaction between children of different races, religions, and social strata. By their very nature, faith schools are exclusionary, since they discourage admission of those who do not share in the faith of that institution.
Nadine Dorries, our mad Tea Party Queen
I can’t help but observe that, on social issues at least, we seem to have uncovered in Nadine Dorries our very own Michele Bachmann. By this I mean, a woman whose sociological worldview is founded upon an unshakable, unprovable, and mystical conviction, and who believes that this nation of ours would very much be better off if we all signed up to it. She appears to share too with Bachmann a wanton disregard for facts, and indeed learning and other methods of inquiry and self-criticism.
Having failed to regress our abortion laws by having women be subject to veiled counselling sessions administered by so-called “pro-life” groups (I say so-called, because based upon this woman’s attitude to welfare, life would appear to begin at conception and end at birth), Dorries now is looking at ways to alter the manner in which sex education is taught in our publicly-funded state schools.
Dorries has proposed the following, that schools be required to “provide certain additional sex education to girls aged between 13 and 16; to provide that such education must include information and advice on the benefits of abstinence from sexual activity”. Only girls, mind you: perhaps she has realised already that teaching abstention to primitive, slobbering 15- and 16-year-old males might just very well be a lost cause.
Grayling, the fool
The history graduate within cannot help but admire the sentiment behind AC Grayling’s initiative. The humanities are important. One product of what I have previously termed the Gordon Gekkoisation of our universities is that these subjects have been neglected in favour of more obviously-applicable and in the long term profitable courses such as Management Studies.
Yet if the aim of the New College of the Humanities is truly to redress this imbalance, and lead a restoration of the study of history and the classics, then they are bound to fail. For, their flashy, whizz-bang experiment in education reform fails to address the core issues which matter to arts students. Their response to the long-held gripe amongst arts students, that their tuition fees in a sense go towards the funding of the more expensive, less well-attended science courses, is to bill undergraduates double the amount they would pay in any other of the fine colleges of the University of London for the same course.
The history course, for example, is but the University of London international programme, packed full of modules including ones instantly recognisable to me when I first read the syllabus, since they’re still available at Royal Holloway, my alma mater. To cover up this sham, Grayling has tried to inject some whizz-bang and fuzzbox to proceedings by employing a number of celebrity professors. This includes Niall Ferguson, a pop historian who already has a time-consuming pre-existing commitment to Harvard and the LSE. Student will likely see Ferguson fleetingly: he is, in fact, only committed to work a minimum of five hours per year.
I wish I could say something a little more pleasant about this experiment, but all the signs indicate that Grayling’s New College is an expensive and laughable folly that not only fails to address the concerns of prospective arts students, but turns the other way to them, dismisses them out of hand and proceeds to make the study of humanities more elitist and less reflective of the cost of humanities education. Such an ill-conceived idea is a reflection of the man himself: AC Grayling is a jester, with an academic career to suit, distinguished only by its lack of accomplishments and originality.
In attempting to cure the ailment – the underfunding and neglect of the arts – an ailment which requires some form of key-hole surgery, Grayling and his band of merry men have performed what amounts to something as clumsy as amputation without anaesthetic. Based upon my undergraduate life, the state of the teaching of humanities is strong, but the faculties themselves are neglected and sidelined. This surely can be remedied with the existing structure so that when future students invest their £9,000 per annum, they receive in return a sense, whether via teaching hours or well-stocked library, that the university believes what they are doing matters. This project must take centre stage; Grayling is but a sideshow.
An unwanted French revolution
The burqa is the most visible representation of the worst elements of sexism, subjugation and intolerance within Islam. To live life cloaked entirely in black from the hairs on your head to soles of your feet, and to see the majesty of the world only through a tiny slit in a hood, is to live no life at all. European society should indeed wish to see the practice of veiling within Islamic culture slowly wither away.
But in the banning the burqa, as the French have now formally begun to do, the Élysée has managed to turn it into a symbol of liberation and individual expression. Since no state holds the right to dictate what its citizens can or cannot wear, covering the face with a cut-price polyester sheet has somehow become a noble act of defiance against a government’s nastiest oppressive excesses.
In the French instance, this ban on the burqa (or the niqab, in reality) is the destructive consequence of what happens when the fault lines of muscular, exclusive Gallic secularism and continental Maghrebi-centric xenophobia collide. On the one hand, it is an extension of the colonial mission civilisatrice, a desire to bring colonials into the life and culture of the métropole by commanding them to adopt a superior language, values and faith.
At the same time, this edict is driven by the desperation of a weakened President who feels the need to appeal to and manipulate the pervasive undercurrent of bigotry which encompasses a significant bloc of French society that has made immigrants from former outposts in North and West Africa into hermits. In this case, those who come from the Maghreb in particular are being actively encouraged, if not forced, to adopt French customs or face exclusion from mainstream society.
All of this flies in the face of the most admirable tenets of French revolutionary thought; that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights” and “liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else.” It is also symbolic of France’s decay into a dualistic society: of the empowered, those who are culturally French in the nationalistic sense of the term; and the oppressed, those who are not. Visit any city on the mainland and observe the ghettoisation of Arabs and West Africans in les banlieues, Bantustans on the peripheries, whilst the masters inhabit the expensive and affluent centres.
If French and indeed European society wishes to achieve the emancipation of Muslim women from the practice of veiling, it will not be accomplished through this kind of negative decree. A ban on the burqa is as repressive and as hysterical as the fatawa issued by the ulama of Saudi Arabia or Iran, making the French government in effect indistinguishable from the worst elements of religious autocracy. If anything, the ban will only embolden the miniscule minority of Islamic French women who practice this kind of facial drapery.
Rather, it is the American model of openness and religious tolerance, where the Bill of Rights forbids Congress from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” which demonstrates the liberating power of an inclusionary set of values working in tandem with education and economic empowerment. Waves of immigrants, from Catholic Irish and Italians, through Protestant Germans and indeed Muslims, have integrated themselves successfully into a society that places great values on contribution to the economic success of the nation, in addition to diversity and multiculturalism in the truest sense of the term.
The American constitutional, liberal model should be considered an exemplar to Western nations now and Middle Eastern states in the future. Benazir Bhutto – whose tragic, premature death struck a blow for the advance of moderate Islamic argument – put forth in her final tome Reconciliation that only democracy, education and the construction of an economic middle class could defeat the forces of militancy and extremism.
Education in particular, and individualism too, is even more vital in societies were men are the guardians of religious text and law. The cycle of oppression can only be broken, and the veil lifted from the face, by ijtihad: the independent interpretation of the holy sources, the Qur’an and the hadith. Literacy amongst women will shatter the control of access to information and enlightenment men presently have, and ought to enable women to discover for themselves that the burqa is by no means mandatory to religious observance.
The ban on the burqa, then, is no kind of victory at all, for those who wish to see Muslim women delivered from the medieval practice of covering one’s charms. Nor is it a triumph for sorority or equality, as Christopher Hitchens would have us believe. This is in fact a most unwanted and unnecessary French revolution, that will only serve to criminalise the practice of dressing now an individual sees fit, drive subjugated women underground into the clutches of oppressive masculine figures, and further entrench the partition of French society between those who are permitted to have and those for whom having is forbidden.
In favour of the Pupil Premium
Of all this nation’s fair institutions, universities have always been the most meritocratic. Admission is based, in theory at least, not upon wealth, status or background, but upon meeting the academic standards of the university. The achievement of the necessary benchmark is a reflection upon the intellectual curiosity and in-built determination of the students themselves, and is impervious to outside factors.
Anti-cuts campaigners have suggested that the increase in tuition fees will make our campuses less diverse, as poorer students from minority backgrounds are pushed out of the system in favour of the affluent middle classes. The same claim is made with regard to EMA.
There is of course something to be said for this, particularly in relation to EMA. Yet overall surely this assertion misses the point of the matter altogether. By eighteen, it is too late. People are stamped with their life’s destination not at eighteen, or sixteen, or even eleven when they enter secondary school. Rather, it begins as early as the moment of birth and the initial formative years.
It begins with parents who don’t have the hours to dedicate to their children because they both have to work to keep them in food, clothes and shelter. Or worse, it starts as children emerge from broken homes, with parents who deliberately neglect their offspring’s welfare. Even in these early years, young boys and girls can fall behind dramatically in their communicative and emotional development.
Patterns of fiscal and emotional poverty are then cemented in the school system upon entry. Adults with economic advantages possess the means to send their children to wonderfully expensive preparatory schools, at the same time the less fortunate attend the failing primary schools where pupils are packed like sardines into insufficient classrooms with limited resources.
A gross disparity, then, has already been entrenched before the age of seven, and is only exacerbated in counties which still operate the anachronistic grammar school system. A form of state-endorsed inequality, this bipolar system skims the cream from the top of the milk, leaving the rest to sour in the comprehensive schools. Students are by the nature of the Eleven Plus stamped as either Alphas or Gammas by the government, in a move that runs contrary to every one of their inclusionary mantras.
If the state wishes to make attempts at societal engineering, then the moment of university admission is not the time to begin. Intervention must begin much, much earlier. This is why the government’s new education initiative – the Pupil Premium – will be more effective than any slice in university fees at building a fairer society.
As of next year, schools in England will get an extra £430 for each poor pupil they induct. In total the scheme is worth £625 million (2011/12), and it is designed to “improve results among children eligible for free school meals who are traditionally the worst performers at every stage of education.”
Critics of the policy have portrayed it as a Robin Hood initiative for children, but Nick Clegg is correct to assert the initiative’s positive face. “All the evidence shows the best way to help bright kids from poor families get to university,” he argues, “is to target additional resources at them when they are younger and so give them a head start.”
I agree with Nick. Government should not use universities as sites for righting the wrongs of childhood social policy. If the problem is under-representation, then government must target the playground, not the campus.
An edited version of this article was published in London Student, February 14, 2011.