When I saw a report on Fritanke that the first humanist private school has been approved by the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, my first reaction was:
Summed up in rambling words, my reaction when sharing the story on Facebook was: “I'm not keen on this at all. I'm much more for the idea that resources are put into making all schools secular, rather than complaining about the ghettoisation of schools based on lifestance/religion and then creating another one”.
The school in question is the private Humanistskole AS, which has just started taking applications and is hoping to open its doors to 60 students in Autumn 2014.The opening of the school comes after years of campaigning by a group of humanists who wanted to be able to offer a secular/humanist lifestance school as an alternative to the private religious schools that are currently approved by the Ministry of Education and Research. The founders of the school, quite rightly, argued that humanists were being discriminated against purely on the basis that humanism is a lifestance/worldview and not strictly a religion.
I’m still getting my head around how it works in Norway, but as far as I understand it, most ‘private’ schools are private in name only; the majority of these schools are eligible for and receive substantial state (i.e. tax-payer) support. The Humanistskole, which will not charge its students tuition fees, is no exception. For clarity, I should stress that as far as I am aware, Humanistskole AS is the enterprise of private individuals and is not endorsed the Human-Etisk Forbund (Norwegian Humanist Association).
I think the starting of a secular humanist school is short-sighted and a massive own goal. Whilst it is of course a step forward for humanists/atheists to given the same treatment and opportunities given to the religious, this is a hollow victory for equal treatment under bad legislation and is a step backwards for true secularism.
The division of schools based on ideology (religious or otherwise) contributes to an ‘us and them’ mentality which serves only to increase social and ethnic divisions. Religious schools create factions of children, ignorant of each other’s needs, beliefs and way of thinking, having had little or no personal interaction with each other, who are then forced into a world where they are required to be part of a pluralistic community of people and ideas that they scarcely know. Creating a humanist school is contributing to rather than solving this problem.
The ‘if they can have it why can’t we’ search for equality is misguided in this case as all that it ends up doing is reinforcing the idea that it's OK to separately educate children based on what they/their parents believe (or don't) and that the state should have a hand in this. It’s also not just a matter of parents having the freedom to choose. As Andrew Copson so wonderfully put it: “... education is not analogous to baked beans in the supermarket, where one consumer’s choice has consequences only for their own consumption. Schools are social institutions.” The state’s responsibility and interest is in ensuring that children grow up to be capable and aware members of society, not separating children by and transmitting the personal beliefs held by parents.
The one area where I see a positive in all of this is the school’s replacement of the standard Religion, Lifestance and Ethics (RLE) curriculum with a secular/humanist philosophy course built around critical thinking, world religion and religious diversity, humanism and ethics. A curriculum based on openness, questioning, personal reflection and empathy is very welcome, particularly at a time when controversy continues to rage in Norway as Frp (the right-wing populist party recently voted into shared power) seem to be keen on reverting back to KRLE, which places Christianity back at the forefront of religious education. It seems a shame that the humanist school’s progressive new subject is restricted to only those 60 students that can attend this single school, when an open, critical and balanced religious education is exactly what we need in all schools, public, private, religious or otherwise. Perhaps it will set a positive precedent for change to RLE courses across the board (difficult to imagine for the near future whilst FrP are about), but I think it’s a long way short of making up for the negative, divisive precedent set by the school as a whole.
In April last year I had the chance to talk to some teenagers about their views on faith schools when I gave a talk for the Human-Etisk Forbund.
Towards the end of my post on it, I wrote “If there’s one thing I learned from such a short discussion, though, it’s that 14-year-old kids seem to understand the benefits of an inclusive secular education in a way that bone-headed governments and religious lobbyists don’t.” It seems I have to reluctantly include a small section of humanists to that bracket now too.
The British Humanist Association sum up the argument against humanist schools nicely: ‘It would be no less ethically unsound and socially divisive to set up overtly humanist schools in a pluralistic society than it is to set up religious schools.’
As secular humanists we should be putting our efforts into building an open, inclusive and cohesive education system; it should be about building bridges, not creating more barriers.