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Teaching Values… British or otherwise!

Charlotte Vardy writes…

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about religious literacy and Judaism; my post ended up extolling RE that gives young people the opportunity to become critically aware of the philosophical framework in which they think and learn, the freedom to choose to accept the prevailing framework or not.  Following my post Alan Brine and I got into an exchange of comments, which highlighted the differences which exist within the RE community as to the nature and purpose of our subject.  This, and a Twitter exchange with Mark Chater about the possibility of a National Curriculum in RE, whether it should, or should not, relate to the government’s British Values agenda, got me thinking about some pretty fundamental issues…

In our age of doublespeak one of the most important roles of RE and Philosophy is to throw light on how language is being used and misused, laying the big questions and debates which underpin the headlines bare and exposing the moral choices that young people will have to make, whether consciously or unconsciously, in how they live their lives.

It seems to me that there has long been a battle for control of the word LIBERAL and modern Britain is one field of this conflict.  Originating in the Latin liber, free, the word LIBERAL immediately recalls John 8:32 “know the truth and the truth will set you free“…

  1. On one hand LIBERAL has been associated with philosophies which see Truth as an absolute, objective, external reality which human knowledge either corresponds with – sticks to and transcends human limitations – or does not.
  2. On the other hand LIBERAL has been associated with philosophies which prize individual liberty, freedom to do as one wills – perhaps so long as nobody gets hurt.

The problem is that the values which originate in one definition of LIBERAL 1  are not always, even often, the same as the values which originate in the other definition of LIBERAL 2, and the two sets of values even have a tendency to pull against each other!  For example, most religions – including those which oppose same-sex marriage and abortion and see the LIBERAL 2 society as a nest of sin – see themselves as LIBERAL 1; follow them and achieve salvation through doing what is True and Right…

3.   LIBERAL can also be associated with the liberal model of education, the idea that a philosophical education sets people free by helping them to become aware of the frameworks in which they think and learn, to critically evaluate these frameworks and the assumptions they are based on and to make positive, informed decisions about what to think and how to live.  It is this sort of Liberalism that I identify with; and, as I see it, it is consistent with both LIBERAL 1 and LIBERAL 2 Liberalism, when taken in particular ways, but opposes sloppy forms of both!

Politicians often (intentionally?) confuse the concepts of LIBERALISM and LIBERTARIANISM.  As systems of government both CAN work for individual liberty…  but, as is seen in the tea-party politics of the USA and increasingly in the politics of our own Conservative government, right wing libertarianism can hardly be said to support LIBERAL 2 values and often fosters a nasty form of illiberalism.

  1. Right wing libertarianism supports LIBERAL 1 values based on the assumption that free-market capitalism and the survival of the fittest is Truly the optimal form of society – i.e. you are free to do what you like so long as you are rich and strong enough to look after yourself and your mode of thinking corresponds with our mode of thinking!  The libertarianism bit serves the end of free-market capitalism i.e. individual liberty and minimal government are fine because and as long as they make for a more efficient market… if and when they don’t we will revert to authoritarian government quick as you like.
  2. Left-wing libertarianism supports LIBERAL 2 values, doing what is necessary to maximize individual liberty, which probably involves ground-rules to protect the rights of the individual and a Rawlsian redistribution of wealth and opportunity.  It resists the authoritarian ideology and big-government typical of most left-wing politics though, wherever possible and can foster responsible capitalism, capitalism that is regulated so as to prevent it from enslaving the weak for the benefit of the strong.

Back in 2011 David Cameron gave a speech which launched the “British Values” agenda.  In it he criticized the Liberal 2 multiculturalism that developed during the 1970s – the sort of multiculturalism that celebrates diversity and positively welcomes a plurality of societies, politics and religions – for fostering extremism and allowing young British Muslims to end up wearing backpacks full of explosive on the underground, engaging in FGM and honour-killings and setting out for Syria.  He called for a much more 1950s, much more American, Liberal 1 model of coexistence which can be summarized as “assimilate or else“, conveniently ignoring the other factors which have led to the alienation of youth and the growth in extremist thinking… namely extreme poverty, poor education, lack of opportunity and a ruling class which is so obviously hypocritical, corrupt and out of touch.

Ten years after 9/11, six years after 7/7 the ramifications of a confrontation between a LIBERAL 2 west and groups willing to kill themselves to prosecute a LIBERAL 1 ideology had finally struck home.  There has always been real difficulty at the heart of LIBERAL 2 thinking.  How much is individual liberty worth?  What happens when people get hurt? How do we defend liberalism, use force to show people that forcing people to do things is wrong?  At such crisis-points it is easy for LIBERAL 2 thinkers to transmogrify into LIBERAL 1 thinkers, objectifying their values and, in the process, setting limits to liberty which quickly tend to multiply…


While David Cameron’s LIBERAL 1 values might seem to be tolerant, they are only tolerant to a point.  Any social, political or religious ideology which claims a Truth other than that assumed by the Conservative Party, any social, political or religious ideology which stands up for LIBERAL 2 values, the freedom for people to think and behave in ways that do not conform to Conservative notions of acceptability, will NOT be tolerated.   Today OfSTED defines British Values as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs; they seem inane and not even particularly British (not least since Cameron’s government has moved against every one of them in turn), yet… setting up a list of unquestionables and ranging school inspectors, the home office and the Police behind to enforce them and quell dissent has not been characteristic of LIBERAL 2 Britain since the darkest days of WWII when Churchill, through his rather more persuasive speeches, employed the same tactics against Hitler.

The fact that Cameron chose to describe his values as BRITISH VALUES is telling.  It is as if as a product of the 1970s and only a hatch, match and dispatch Anglican he is reluctant to make universal claims, so chose to wrap the limits of his liberalism in the Union Jack, much as politicians on the American right have relied on the stars and stripes to cover the shaky foundations of their LIBERAL 1 ideology.  The problem is that Britain is not America.  We have no written constitution or founding declaration of independence to set up the a priori of our LIBERAL 1 system. When Sky News asked the British public to describe British Values a staggering number referred to bacon, curry, tea, queuing and the weather… it is difficult to build a LIBERAL 1 ideology on these as quasi-objective points of reference… and using unislamic, racism, pride and patriotism as points of reference is hardly better.

Perhaps one cause of the British public’s staggering inarticulacy when it comes to values is that Christianity is in crisis in the UK, in small part because schools have shied away from teaching about religion in any way that might suggest that it is a plausible form of life and have neglected to teach philosophy, which could have offered generations of people the ability to to become critically aware of the philosophical framework in which they think and learn, the freedom to choose to accept the prevailing framework or not.

British people are, on the whole, better educated and of broader experience than American people, but without proper critical engagement this often translates into apathy and cynicism, apathy and cynicism which pull against the idea of having any firm values at all.  Will British people really rally behind Cameron’s values, fail to look beneath the Union Jack wrapping and accept the furtherance of free-market capitalism as the touchstone of acceptable social, political and religious ideas and behaviour? Perhaps only time will tell… although the dominance of the SNP in Scotland might suggest that Cameron’s values might have to be re-branded as ENGLISH VALUES before too long.  That would leave him wrapped in the cross of St George, an unfortunate image when trying to negotiate devolution, the Human Rights Act, our relationship with the EU and immigration…

Closing, I would reiterate the need for RE – and Philosophy where it is available – to be LIBERAL in the sense of providing young people with the skills they need to recognize, evaluate and decide about the framework within which they are being educated.  I can’t accept that it is healthy for Religious Education, indeed any genuine form of Education, to form the young… whether into a LIBERAL 1 faith perspective or a LIBERAL 1 political perspective.  Any attempt to form young people so as to accept any set of values without question – and without being given the ability to question, skills in philosophy and critical evaluation – is simply anti-democratic and inhumane.  Such exposes Cameron’s BRITISH VALUES for what they are, fundamentally illiberal, incoherent measures of political expediency draped in a flag.

We can do much better than this in defending Liberalism, given the chance… but the way to do it is NOT to take away education and replace it with training and formation, to shut down discussion and threaten those who raise questions with the Police.

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