The right has finally abandoned their commitment to fighting for the abolition of 18C, the law banning offence and insult in racial matters. How do I know they’ve moved on? Because they’ve found another complex issue to turn into an oversimplified battle for “ferrdom!”. Last week the Catholic Church in Tasmania was notified that it had a case to answer in the anti-discrimination commission over a pamphlet, “Don’t mess with marriage”, which “set out” the Church’s teaching on same-sex marriage (spoiler alert) and was distributed to all students within the Tasmanian Catholic school system. It was this latter move that prompted Tasmanian citizen (universally described as Greens candidate and activist) Martine Delaney to make a complaint on grounds of offence. Senator Eric Abetz made a, uh, attempt in the, uh, Senate to have a vote in support of the Church, which failed. Now the gang is suiting up to make it a defining struggle of our time. Again. It may well be, but not in the way they think.

Were the case being directed against the Church per se, I’d be on their side (just as I and a number of others on the left are opposed to 18C in its current form). Were they being pinged for preaching against same-sex marriage on a Sunday or handing out leaflets in the street, they’d be well within their rights to cry “Ferrdom”, blah blah blah. But that’s not the complaint being brought, which is about the use of a school system to distribute some highly tendentious propaganda to a captive audience.

This clash, and the commission’s finding that the complaint has grounds, points to the changing role of religion, schools, sexuality, the works, in public life. Fifty years ago, the idea that you could tell Catholic schools what to teach and say to their students — beyond basic standards of maths and science — would have been seen as ludicrous. The whole point of Catholic schools was to have an education system outside of the state, to combat what the Church saw as a secular-modernist ideology spreading through state education. That disdain of the state did not extend to the state’s money, and when the Labor split occurred in 1954 and a Catholic party (the DLP) gained the balance of voter power, Catholic schools began to get some serious money. Labor capitulated to state funding of religious schools after years off wrenching debate in the 1960s.

Zombie-like, that funding has continued to stalk across the landscape. But in the interim much has changed. We were still a religious society in the 1960s, especially Catholics, and religion remained a major source of identity, individual and group. We rapidly became one of the most irreligious, if regular church/temple attendance is taken as a guide (rather than vague mutterings about a universal spirit etc blatted out to a survey-taker). At the same time, the economy began to shift, from physical/industrial to office/service/retail/culture/knowledge. The former jobs didn’t require a great degree of “subject” (i.e. personality) shaping. The latter do, as does the further education required to get them. A whole series of internal disciplines must be developed — reflectiveness, internalised abgnegation, emotional intelligence, abstract thinking, etc — and what better way to do that than religion?

Thus, just as a religious society was dying, the religious schools came into their own — because they act as a hothouse to develop those values, when society no longer can. Parents know this, with more or less degrees of explicitness — when they see religious public (i.e. private) schools as “better”, it’s often for that reason. That’s especially so with Catholic schools, whose facilities are often only equal to, or worse than, nearby state schools.

The process is a con, of course. The major religions know that if they applied a genuine religious/congregational test to potential applicants, their school systems would collapse tomorrow. They have become de facto providers of subjectivity shaping in an image-saturated market culture, which works against any sort of stable self-development. One of the great divides of our time is the type of subjectivity you get from your education, which determines whether you can be an effective subject in the world or merely subject to it. What people now mean by a “good” school is one that develops those abilities.

So many religious schools, having been state-subsidised, are now something other: quasi-state apparatuses (mind you, Australian society is really a quasi-state apparatus), to which the development of various dominant social classes is subcontracted out. The church, head teachers, teachers, parents, students — everyone knows this is a con. The Catholic Church hopes it can bang enough theology into its distracted charges that some sort of religious orientation will remain in their lives — both a genuine gesture to their salvation and a political move. The Anglicans impress the importance of franked dividends and table manners, and the Jewish schools simply try and head off their charges marrying goyim named Katie or Brad whose parents think a joint camping holiday might be the best way to get to know each other.

That becomes tricky when people start to bring their own identities to school. From the 1960s into the 1990s, approximately 60% of our literature consisted of people settling scores with a Catholic education by means of books, movies, plays, etc. We’ve moved into a new phase now, when so much of a person’s identity is being formed by mass cultural streams that adolescents aren’t simply adults-in-waiting, they have become autonomous people in many of their tastes, values and orientations. The latter includes sexual orientation. Many kids who would have been merely questioning, doubtful, confused, blah a generation ago, now have a defined sexual identity they project as stable and continuous, and consciously shaped to some degree. Some of these kids now go to Catholic schools. The question now is not whether the Church has the right to express its teachings to every student by means of a brochure — the question is why a student has to receive one (as opposed to pluralist information about multiple viewpoints), given out with the same authority as homework for year 11 maths is handed out.

The situation is one of rank hypocrisy on the part of the churches. They know that their schools do not form a genuine religious community anymore, but they’d like to pretend they do for the purposes of propagandising. Indeed, that’s the point: they get to reach the minimally or not-at-all religious who simply wanted a “good” school and never got a test of religious commitment applied to them, or their parents. The discrimination suit is plausible, in part, because most of us now feel that religion is a lesser part of a person’s identity than is their gender-identification and sexuality, which they embody into the world. The Church may well play this badly, failing to understand that most people now credit sexuality as more real, defining and meaning-giving in their lives than a religious overlay. They also seem entirely unaware of the contempt in which they are held by many people, not simply for the lies and cover-ups, but for getting to a point in the 20th century in which so many of their representatives appear to have got their meaning not from God, but from sadistic power over their charges (perhaps a companion pamphlet, “Don’t Mess With Small Children”, could be issued).

Such a discrimination case could be the start of a wider questioning of religion and education, something that is decades overdue. We need to do this not in the simple terms of state funding, but in terms of how much right religious institutions should have to run siloed education systems, where they attempt to reproduce themselves in a secular world through the old Jesuit principle: “give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man”. That is indoctrination, not education, and it’s time the structures that propagate it were put into question. That applies to all religions, and in this, the right may have undermined their own case, because they have been relentless in their criticism of Muslim schools, much of it quite possibly justified.

Since the rules for creating independent schools were relaxed by the Howard government, the whole sector has become the Wild West: Christian schools that pay lip-service to the science curriculum and teach creationism, orthodox Jewish schools with networks of sexual predation covered up by an appeal to community solidarity, Muslim schools lacking a commitment to teaching pluralist modernism. And all of them, and Catholic schools as well, teaching a view of gender relations that is out of step with the commitment to total equality between men and women that we are now told is our defining value.

The most radical question is why kids should go to one single school five days a week. The ideal future would be to make attendance at state-created but pluralistically run schools (i.e. some could be run by teachers’ co-ops, others by a teachers-parents board, others direct), with parents having the option of sending their kids to a religious or other culture-specific school — Steiner, girls-only, or a frikkin’ military academy if their parents wanted — one or two days of the week. The curriculum at the “main” school would be pluralist, modern, rational, scientific, evidence-based and inquiry-oriented, giving kids the tools they’d need to assess the claims being made to them in their “culture” school.

I doubt we’ll get a possibility that radical up and running off a single discrimination case. But I’m pretty sure this fight won’t go the way the right thinks it will. Like 18C. But not like it, because this could open up a much wider discussion of the institutions we want for the 21st century. If the case rules that any distribution of such a pamphlet is discriminatory, it will be a loss for free speech. All the more reason for those who believe in free speech to separate the public sphere from institutions of indoctrination — a fight that cannot but question the role of religion in education.

Peter Fray

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