Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Tales from the Christian Madrasas

Now that Mr Gove tells us that we're to look out for Extremists and Fundamentalists in schools, the kind of people who don't teach British Values, I start to wonder which of my teachers I should report to Special Branch. Come to think of it though, they were all white and Christian, which doesn't count. Nor, apparently, do the Market Fundamentalists to whom the government has handed schools. Seriously, people: we've given the education of our schools into the hands of liars, spivs, tax-evaders, low-pay merchants and con-men. Remember Robocop, and the police strike called because public order was being privatised? This is far more worrying. Just wait until your kids learn about slavery in their Corpo-School: "profits must be maximised. Labour costs need to be kept down. They got subsidised food, free accommodation and free travel to America. What's not to like?".

But I digress. Back to my schools. I was taught by the Sisters of Mercy, the Christian Brothers, some lay Catholics in a mixed comprehensive – and educational and social oasis compared to the other places I attended – and by the Benedictines. Segregation? Yes. Violence? Yes, official and unofficial. Sister Rosario wielded a rounders bat which was deployed for such sins as sheltering in the porch from driving rain or having a loose tie. Many years later, I was caned once for allowing a much older group to mess around in the library - they got off scot-free because they played rugby. A library, I should point out, that was subsequently closed and sold off because hey, schools don't need books! (I should confess that a certain English teacher 'dropped' the keys a night before it was stripped bare, allowing me to remove a couple of wheelbarrows-full of select favourites). The vicious nature of the official school regime was, predictably, reproduced unofficially amongst the pupils, who internalised the system's use of random terror to enforce a hierarchy.

Fundamentalism? Certainly. It was accepted that non-Catholics existed, but they weren't discussed. The roots of our religion were not examined, nor were our practices. Things were true (what we did and/or believed) or they were Not True (anything else). Debate was not on the curriculum. At the Benedictine school, I came to believe that my name was Shutup, as that's how I was habitually addressed. Religion was a matter of repetition, not examination or belief, and it informed much more than theological matters. Attitudes towards women, social structures, the kinds of responsibilities we had – or not – to our fellow humans, morality, politics…all filtered through a prism of rigid, undemocratic and unforgiving dogma.

Ah, but the teaching standards were rigorous? I'm afraid not. The Sisters of Mercy couldn't spell. The Christian Brothers helped me achieve 4% in a maths exam, having spent an entire term putting me in detention for refusing to copy out an exercise book neatly before I was allowed another one. The Benedictines divided teaching between wholly unqualified and bitter monks and wholly unqualified lay teachers, many of whom were failing to cope with alcoholism, with two massively inspirational exceptions. You haven't lived until you've witnessed an ex-SAS monk violently attack his colleagues and pupils while in the midst of an alcohol-fuelled crisis. I was made to take a Latin A-level. Despite being the only person in the class, I barely passed, having repeatedly pointed out that I didn't actually know any Latin at all. Whole subjects were passed over in silence: politics, citizenship, and in particular sex education, which consisted of one diagram in one book over the course of 7 years of secondary education.

Were we socially isolated? Yes - as Catholics the whole way, and as a sex except for a short and civilised sojourn in a comprehensive school. The other schools were like poor-quality madrases. Ritual performances formed the mainstay of the educational process, whether that was religious services, violence, sport or humiliation. Rigid hierarchies were encouraged officially and amongst the pupils, with savage punishments for those who couldn't or wouldn't conform (the homosexuals, non-sporty types, readers, ethnic minorities, non-believers). Rules were both cruel and arbitrary, designed seemingly to enforce control rather than ensure safety and development. In particular, I remember being held down by the prefects while the headmaster cut my hair, to which he'd taken exception. This was the day before a university interview. He claimed it was 'too long', despite several of his favourites sporting much longer styles. So I turned up at Cambridge looking like a battered mess. I also had an interview at Derby University. The lovely head of English ended our chat by saying 'We'll definitely take you. You're nothing like your head's reference indicates'. Turns out the vindictive bastard had written that I didn't deserve a place at university at all because I was a lazy troublemaker. I didn't go to Derby but I'll always be grateful. A year later, the school was closed down, amidst scandal aplenty on matters sexual and educational.

The result is that these schools produced two types of people on the whole: triumphant conformists who ruled the roost and broken conformists who got by, or ensured their survival by meting out to others what was meted out to them. None of us were rounded individuals equipped to cope with a world which wasn't structured or simple. No doubt the bullies and conformists found niches in which these skills served them well (such as in politics), but I suspect a lot more struggled outside. We weren't trained to empathise, to care for others, to respect a diversity of views, to argue for what we believed rather than to simply insist on its truth. we were good at put-downs, at excluding the weak and the different. Our world was Manichaean. Simple. Predictable even in the areas which were arbitrary. I – and I suspect many others – were emotionally and intellectually stunted in a variety of ways, and it took many years to adjust to the outside world, to a barely-known family, and to catch up with all the things we could have learned instead of being indoctrinated. I had some advantages - having been to a number of schools, I was used to making my own way, keeping quiet and disappearing at opportune moments, or simply enduring. I found my salvation, too, in books which offered an infinite range of alternatives, but also provided templates for life inside and outside the institutions. And I also had a reserve of bloody-mindedness of my own, from some unknown source. Perhaps I'd internalised the interminable stories of martyrs and resisters and turned it against them, because I found that there were limits to what I'd withstand or witness without intervening, whatever the consequences. I'm still shy and nervous about most things, but I do still have those limits.

Reading back, this is way too self-obsessed, too narcissistic (and these are just the highlights). Apologies for that. But I think there is a wider point just about detectable. My experiences made me a secularist and a socialist. I don't think there's any excuse for monocultural, unsupervised education, whether it's religious, single-sex or class-segregated by class. Such places reinforce social and intellectual isolation. They don't bolster genuinely held beliefs by justifying them: they enforce them. They produce rigid thinkers rather than reflective ones, people incapable of coping with a world that doesn't automatically find room for them. They may well attempt to reproduce the structures of feeling enforced at such schools in their adult lives, with often disastrous consequences for themselves and others.

When I'm dictator for life, there will be no religious schools, no fee-paying schools, no segregated schools. Religious and political indoctrination can be carried on at home if required, and the kids will be able to test such beliefs in the cauldron of a secular, democratic education in which they meet people of all classes, creeds, sexualities and sexes rather than being protected from reality by a damaging wall of separation and suspicion.

I only know one person from my schooldays now, from the comprehensive I briefly attended. We exchange Christmas cards. As to the rest: I occasionally Google staff and students in the fond hope that they're dead or imprisoned. So I guess I'm not entirely recovered yet…

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