School is not Church

Article published on Dec. 20, 2003
community published
Article published on Dec. 20, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The State, with its nationalist bent, has used religious education to indoctrinate people. In Spain and Europe as a whole we are witnessing a dangerous shift away from secular education.

A history of the secular State

After the emergence of Nation States in Europe as the unit of power for the perpetuation of the monarchical system came revolutions where the central focus of the system was the citizen and not the people or the kingdom per se. This marked out the separation of powers, keeping the Church separate from the State and from this came the ‘secular State’. Religious choice was up to the individual – but now this was a rational, mature and, above all, free, individual. This idea was widely accepted in the Protestant mentality and French rationale but was rejected in Catholic circles.

France was at the centre of this enlightened, reasoned revolution. The reasoning of citizens would be a sine qua non in the creation of a fair and rational State. That is why education was a constant concern of the educated. And an education based on reason and scientific knowledge – completely secular – was an essential condition for this mature and free citizenry. Remember the Kantian aphorism “Dare to think for yourself”.

The Spanish case and the ‘Institución Libre de Enseñanza’

Unfortunately, in Spain (right up to today’s democracy) there is only one example of this secular and modern (in the historical sense of the word) education in the famous ‘Institución Libre de Enseñanza’ which, during the Madrid of the Republic, was graced by the presence of students such as Lorca, Cernuda or Dalí and professors such as Antonio Machado. Franco’s regime, with its mythical vision of Spain as recovering its Empire (Catholic kings), imposed what came to be known as National-Catholicism – religion, the nation, State and education combined in one totalitarian project which lasted for forty years. Religion is closely related to the concept of the nation as an essential cultural parameter but the State is and must be something beyond the nation, and therefore, beyond religion as holism and national justification.

Spain’s current Constitution recognises the secular nature of Spanish education and of the Spanish State. These were essential conditions for Spain to be integrated into a secular and modern Europe – even Turkey boasts a strong secular tradition. But in the Spain of the Partido Popular [the current centre right government], things have changed. While skillfully stopping short of damaging the Constitution, the current government has equipped itself with enough ammunition to promote an underhand and “gentle” National-Catholicism, but one which has caught on rapidly. The increasing subsidies for state assisted education of a religious nature, the state of disrepair which public sector education has been allowed to get into, and education reforms which put religion on the curriculum with the same level of importance as languages or maths are all pulling in the same direction.

The return of National-Catholicism

And that’s not to mention some serious and significant abuses that the current right has allowed to happen. The Education Minister continues to pay the salaries of religious education teachers, but it is the Church which selects them or (and this is more serious) expels them as it wishes based on certain circumstances such as divorces or personal lives which sit “uncomfortably” or are “incompatible” with Christianity. This presupposes moral judgements on the intimacy of people which are inadmissible in a secular State. Meanwhile, the Catholic Order of the Legionnaires of Christ, which Ana Botella (the wife of the Prime Minister, José María Aznar) and the councilor for social affairs at the Madrid town council belong to, are expanding thanks to the capital buying secular schools and imposing its Catholic discipline of separating sexes and other obligations which do not currently exist in these centres. Parents are given the opportunity to move their children away, but sometimes it is difficult or impossible and the constitutional right of free choice in education has been undermined. In addition, the current legislation after the latest educational reform of the so-called Ley de Calidad de la Enseñanza [Quality of Education Act] paves the way for certain habits in religious education to be imposed in public centres, such as, once again, the separation of sexes in schools etc.

In the Spanish case, there is a clear shift away from the enlightened vision of a secular and rational education. In Spain and in the EU, the debates on multiculturalism, the right of other religions to express themselves freely in centres of education and other problems stemming form our increasingly polymorphous society will not be firmly confronted if we approach education as a religious battlefield or a Christian crusade. Only through a totally secular education can we resolve the problems of the clashing of cultures and religions which are part and parcel of migration. That’s why it is frightening that the Spanish right (also dominant throughout the EU) along with some European counterparts, are promoting a European Constitution which sets in stone a Christian approach to the old continent and gives carte blanche to less and less secular educational legislation.