In recent months, the First Minister has opened up the debate on the future of education in Northern Ireland by stating a clear intention to bring the current segregated situation to an end. He made his wishes clear in a speech in October, and in his speech at the DUP conference he reiterated his desire to bring the “them and us” division in our society to an end. Other senior members of the DUP team have spoken about ending the “educational apartheid” that currently exists. This will, and ought to, stimulate a good debate on the nature and fundamental principles of education.
All kinds of questions arise: What kind of system of education does the First Minister envisage? Will it be a religiously “neutral” system where all religion and spirituality will be excised and everything will be unashamedly secular? Will it be spiritually sanitised to remove all Christian values from the curriculum? Or will there be an attempt to work creatively towards an agreed Christian ethos for all our schools that garners the support of believing people from all traditions?
At the heart of that debate will be the issue of the rights of parents to determine how their children will be educated. Catholic parents have consistently argued that they have a basic human right to educate their children according to their beliefs and convictions. They have fought hard, and have put in place a system of education that has delivered benefits for its pupils. Protestant parents should also be ready to argue for the same rights.
One Reformed theologian who gives good expression to that right is Nicholas Wolterstorff, Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale Divinity School. Wolterstorff correctly places the issue of rights in the context of moral responsibilities, since moral rights are never free-floating entities. They come as correlatives of our responsibilities. Since parents have the primary responsibility for determining the character of their child’s education, they also have the primary moral right to do so.
The argument runs like this. Children come into the world as the result of the physical union of their parents, and as the product of their physical substance. “Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” is how the ancient biblical writer described it. The result of this relationship is natural affection, in fact, the deepest of all natural affections, so wonderful and mysterious that there is no adequate scientific explanation. It is the delight and joy of parents to love and provide for their children, and they have a right and a responsibility to do so. Prominent within that love and nurture of their child is the desire to see their child mature into a person who acts responsibly and who finds joy and fulfilment in his or her life. That right and responsibility of parents therefore inevitably involves education.
Wolterstorff says that if we were all agreed on what constitutes responsible action and what is necessary for joy and fulfilment in life, then there would be no debate about the character and nature of education. But one of the most fundamental features of our situation is that we do not agree on those things. We have differences on what constitutes responsible action and on what is required if we are to live full and happy lives. Many of us believe that life cannot be enjoyed, and that we cannot function as fully mature human beings, unless we understand that our “chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him for ever”. Without that spiritual dimension, we fail to live as fully as we ought. That is why it is the right and responsibility of parents to determine the character of their child’s education. As a parent, my rights and responsibilities extend into the classroom and do not stop at the classroom door. Any system of education that fails to provide for my child’s spiritual needs, as well as his intellectual and physical needs, is inadequate.
Politicians and others will argue that while parents have rights and responsibilities, theirs is not a primary or exclusive right. It will be claimed that, given the sad and tragic history of our community, the welfare of the wider community must take precedence over the rights and wishes of parents. Wolterstorff notes that totalitarian regimes have always claimed that when left to their own devices, parents will often give a character to their child’s education that is injurious to the wider society. To prevent that from happening, those who are responsible for the welfare of the state or community, namely the officers of the state, must have primary responsibility for determining the character of education within that state. Whatever may be said in praise of the beauty and goodness of parents’ love, it is argued that that love must be sacrificed on the altar of a higher good.
There is indeed the good of the wider society and community that must be acknowledged, and we in Northern Ireland must recognise the particular challenges that we face as we try to move forward. But whatever plan or programme we adopt, we must see the exercise of parental love and affection as an indispensable ingredient within it. To preserve that love and affection, we must preserve the primary right of parents to determine the character of their child’s education.
As an orthodox Christian parent who desires that my children mature into responsible adults who find joy and fulfilment in their lives, I cannot jettison my Christian principles and fail to see them reflected in the character of my children’s education. I love them too much to allow that to happen. If I were not to educate my children to become responsible agents who enjoy life, which is the Christian vision, I would be failing at a most fundamental point of my parental rights and responsibilities. A successful educational system requires the full support of the parents of the children it seeks to serve, and it must reflect the basic commitments which those parents hold.
If we are to move towards the shared future that the First Minister desires, and for which we all long, then he is right to pinpoint education as an important element in its development. But if the educational model that emerges denies parents their rights and responsibilities to determine the character of that education, and especially the Christian character of that education, then our hope for a new future will never be realised. A totally secularised educational system will not get us to our goal.
What could get us there, given the right conversations and context, and the commitment of parents, is a new system of education which is unambiguously Christian but which stretches across the ancient divisions and is thoroughly inclusive. That would be a goal worth striving for.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Educating for Life (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2002) Chapter 12, Human Rights in Education