Policy

The Libertarian Case for Public Schools

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The British contrarian Brendan O'Neill, having recently made the anti-imperialist case against Israel-bashing and the anti-Thatcherite case against free milk for schoolchildren, now makes the skeptics' case for religious schools:

"It saddens and hurts me that the two young men whom I raised to believe in the Ten Commandments have returned to me as two thieves with filthy mouths and bad attitudes."

As someone who attended faith schools from the ages of four to 18—and also a faith nursery, faith youth clubs, faith swimming lessons, faith teenybopper discos, faith football matches and faith outings to the seaside—I find the commentariat's fear of these institutions fascinating. Nothing freaks out today's privately educated ragers against religion quite as much as a school where the teachers talk to the children about God. They need to calm down, because the real secret about faith schools, the hidden truth, is that they more often produce intellectual sceptics than mental slaves….

[W]ere we Pope-fearin' Stepford kids? Far from it. Me and a friend beheaded a statue of St Vincent de Paul. The school Bibles were awash with cartoon penises sticking out of Jesus of Nazareth's smock and speech bubbles above the apostles' heads saying 'I am gay'. In flagrant defiance of priestly teachings, a legend scrawled on the walls of the boys' toilet said: 'Wanking is evil / Evil is a sin / Sins are forgiven / So get stuck in.' In their own little way, those four lines pose a serious theological challenge to the many contradictions of the Catholic faith.

What the faith-school fearers forget is that, yes, 12-, 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds are wet behind the ears and sometimes dumb, but they also don't believe everything they are told. They are developing a sceptical streak, which in 13-year-old boys might express itself crudely in the agonising cry 'What do you mean I can't masturbate?!', but which nonetheless speaks to an inner questioning of supposed big truths. When a teen is told that everything from bodily pleasure to playground arguments to wanting to be super-wealthy is sinful, he will instinctively recognise a contradiction between his desires and what is expected of him. This often leads, not to brainwashing, but to an instinct to 'kick against the pricks' (to quote Acts, chapter 9, verse 5).

There's more to the article, including a libertarian defense of parental rights and a reassurance to liberal readers that parochial schools these days "teach far less of that anti-sex, pro-God stuff and much more of 'mankind's a rotter for wrecking the environment, multiculturalism rules, the key lesson of the Holocaust is "don't bully Johnny", you shouldn't eat chips', and so on and so on." ("I just hope," he adds, that "the kids one day do to their recycling bins what I did to St Vincent de Paul.") But O'Neill's main argument is that religious schools are the best recruiters that skepticism has ever had. "Everyone I know who attended a Catholic school," he writes, "is now an atheist, an agnostic, a lapsed Catholic or a pretend Catholic (someone who attends Mass only so that his or her child will get into a Catholic school, hilariously giving rise to fake-faith schools). Meanwhile, it is often the trendily and liberally educated who later in life most feverishly embrace New Ageism, Buddhism Lite or end-of-the-world environmentalism. Suckers. Some of us had done that whole finding God and losing Him again by the time we were halfway through puberty."