07 August 2015
by Peter Barnes

Book banning and modern education

Should education be secular?

Book banning is usually associated with Germany in the 1930s or, perhaps more pertinently, with the prohibition of the publication of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover in the United Kingdom, from its writing in 1928 until the famous court case of 1960. Yet on 6 May 2015 readers of the Sydney Morning Herald were informed, on page 3 no less, that 'Scripture books promoting "dangerous" messages about sex and male power are being used in NSW public schools, leading to calls for a crack down on special religious education.' A lobby group known as Fairness in Religions in Schools (FIRIS) raised concerns about Christian teaching on pre-marital sex, divorce, homosexuality, and male headship. The education spokesman for the Greens, John Kaye, pronounced: 'This is dangerous stuff.'

It is usual for government departments to operate along the lines of the Circumlocution Office in Dickens' Little Dorrit. Nothing is done quickly; indeed, nothing is meant to be done quickly; and it is not always obvious that anything worthwhile is meant to be done at all. The Department of Education in NSW has recently undergone one of those sweeping reforms wherein all the letterheads are changed, and so goes by the beguiling name of the Department of Education and Communities (DEC). The definition of 'Communities', however, appears to be somewhat limited to what Schleiermacher called the 'cultured despisers' of Christianity. Exceeding all reasonable expectations, FIRIS complained about some Christian texts one day, and within twelve hours they were banned, without a single board of inquiry being set up, and presumably without the books even being perused. The relationship between FIRIS and DEC is obviously deep and close.

So on 7 May 2015 the DEC sent out memos to all schools that three books were to be banned immediately. These were Teen Sex by the Book by Patricia Weerakoon; You: An Introduction by Michael Jensen; and Your Sneaking Suspicions by John Dickson. This indicated some undue haste on the part of the DEC. In the first place, Dr Weerakoon's book was never written as a text for school students and was not on any SRE curriculum, and John Dickson's book is in fact entitled A Sneaking Suspicion. One suspects that the FIRIS and the DEC were involved in the old one-two punch tactic - FIRIS struck first, and the DEC was ready for the follow-up. Fairfax Media were naturally very co-operative. Alas, not many in the DEC seem to have actually read the books, and consultation was not even an optional extra.

The NSW Education Act of 1990 decrees that "The religious education to be given is in every case to be the religious education authorised by the religious body to which the member of the clergy or other religious teacher belongs." That ought to have been clear enough: it is the Churches which determine the curriculum. After all, it is the Churches who provide the teachers and who pay for them. They are not employees of the Department. However, Americans have seen their Supreme Court act as legislators over abortion in 1973 and same-sex marriage in 2015, finding these rights in the Constitution where nobody else could, and where they were clearly never stated nor implied. Working along the same lines, the DEC felt no constraints about reinterpreting what was meant to be plain English. The DEC set itself up as an arbiter of Christian theology, in the same category as universities in medieval times.

In response to the subsequent Christian outcry over this high-handedness, the Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, met with the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Glenn Davies, on 15 May 2015. Mr Piccoli appeared to be apologetic that there was no consultation by the DEC with the Anglican Church over the book banning, and wrote: "I wish to confirm that there is no ban in place on these books and I have requested the DEC to inform the Directors Public Schools accordingly." His final sentence was: "The NSW Government is supportive of and committed to SRE, as is the Anglican Church, and I look forward to continuing to work closely with you on delivering best practice SRE."

On the surface, it might have appeared that the waters were now smooth. Indeed. Yet smooth words do not necessarily indicate appropriate action, and it soon became obvious that no actual memo had been sent to local principals to tell them officially that these dangerous Christian books were no longer banned. In effect, the bans were lifted, but the books could still not be used. I received a letter from the Director of Early Learning and Primary Education on 10 June 2015, which used similar language to that found in Mr Piccoli's letter to the Anglican archbishop. This led to another request on my part that an assurance be given that memos had actually gone out to local principals informing them of the lifting of the bans. This required only a 'yes' or 'no' answer, and should not have meant much exertion on the part of the DEC. What it actually led to was another superficially reassuring but actually evasive letter form the Executive Support Officer in Learning and Leadership on 25 June. In 1946 George Orwell had good reason to point out that 'The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.'

Without going public, the DEC was arguing that Christian teaching which mentioned disease (i.e. cancer), death, and sexual ethics (i.e. sex is to be limited to marriage) could lead students to become depressed and suicidal. Child Protection Protocols, the Anti-Discrimination Act, and the Work Health and Safety Act have been combed to garner anything that could justify protecting high school students from Christian doctrine and ethics. Lady Chatterley's Lover may have been questionable in 1960, but a little over fifty years later it is the Sermon on the Mount which rings alarm bells.

For a body of educationists who profess to favour ethics over Scripture, the DEC has displayed little understanding of either. When is a ban rescinded actually mean that it is no longer in operation? When do clear statements of intent mean what they purport to mean? Is public education now state education? And does freedom of religion now mean freedom from religion?

The result of this whole episode resembles a disturbing combination of Dickens' Circumlocution Office and Orwell's Newspeak.