Catriona Robertson

journeys at home and abroad

Monoculture, what monoculture?

Faith Matters held a panel/Q&A event a couple of months ago in London (lovely venue – Royal Commonwealth Society), with Christina Patterson, columnist at the Independent; Jonathan Arkush, barrister and Board of Deputies of British Jews senior vice president;  & Muhammad Abdul Bari, former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain as panellists.

I was leaving for Scotland that evening, but stopped off on the way.  I missed the presentations but gathered the main focus of the evening was an article written by Christina Patterson.  Fiery discussion ensued with views about faith schools, ghettos & parallel living, tolerance, free speech, inter-marriage, homophobia, anti-Semitism, censorship, Islamophobia, female genital mutilation – and just about everything else on the religion v secularism list – aired through radio mikes.  The room wasn’t full; about half asked questions, and most were answered.

Having chaired multifaith round table gatherings myself, I know it’s possible to bring people of very different (and strong) views, beliefs and practices together and for it not to end in tears.  We can get to understand each other a bit better, whether we change our minds about anything or not.  There were no tears that night, but sensitivities on all sides were clearly trampled on.  Afterwards, participants gathered in like-minded groups rather than mixing, which seemed like a missed opportunity.  I heard the phrase “bigoted toe-rag” thrown about.

So, a bit too grandstandy and playgroundish for me, although a few participants obviously enjoyed themselves.  Plus points were meeting a young woman involved in bringing people together through the arts – good stuff – and having a word with Dr Abdul Bari (Muslim Council of Britain) about European networks.

One contributor said that, given the choice, they would ban both faith and private schools in favour of state education, which would include lessons on the world faiths.  I’ve heard similar views before: children should be given the choice of which religious tradition to follow and whether to follow one at all.

If it were food rather than religion (not that you can separate even these two), I suppose each school would give them a bit of veggy, a bit of fast food, a bit of organic, a bit of meat-&-2-veg, plenty of information about them all and then ask them to choose.

Three ideas pop into my mind.

  1. No school is “neutral” and children will pick up the values of any educational institution they find themselves in – just as they are influenced by their family.  They may reject what they inherit at some stage (and most of us, as adults living in a free society, leave behind some of the values and identity we’ve inherited), but children can’t help but absorb the values their lives are directed by.
  2. By keeping religious (& non-religious) tradition out of children’s lives except through formal learning, we could be depriving them of a part of their identity, or, even worse, asking them to choose one – who am I?  This feels like too much responsibility, too much of a burden for a child.
  3. People who reject value-led schooling (religious, Steiner, Montessori) in favour of a monopoly of state-run education put far more trust in the state than I do.

There was also a mention of Britain changing from a monocultural country to a multicultural one – with consequent difficulties.  It was apparently much easier when there was a monoculture.

For my money, I’ve never come across a monoculture, even within my own family.  There are cultural differences between England & Scotland, between Glasgow & Edinburgh and between the New Town & Morningside.  There are differences all around and always have been.  How we respond to people being different is the interesting part – do we all need to be the same in order to get along?  Are there limits to difference, and if so, what are they?  Teasing out these kinds of issues is part of the public conversation, through the media and the democratic process, to determine public policies which support us all to live our lives to the full.

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