Evaluating the NSW Ethics Trial - asking the wrong question?

So, the 10-week trial of an ethics class for year 5-6 students, timetabled in the same slot as SRE (Special Religious Education – “Scripture”) has come to an end. The smh reports that the evaluation phase is to begin:

THE future of the ethics classes in NSW public schools rests with a little-known South Australian academic.

Dr Sue Knight, a philosophy lecturer at the University of South Australia, has been appointed to evaluate the ethics trial, which finished last week.

Dr Knight's speciality is the teaching of philosophy and ethical inquiry in primary and secondary schools.

Indeed, Dr Knight appears to be eminently qualified

My initial academic training was in Philosophy, with the award of a PhD from the University of Adelaide in 1978. I wrote on the problem of universals, a fundamental problem within Metaphysics, and was examined by Professors J.J.C. Smart and David Armstrong. I subsequently turned to the field of Education, convinced that all students should have the opportunity to experience the intellectual growth that Philosophy brings. I completed a BEd in 1981 , at the same time becoming aware of the work of U.S. Professor Mathew Lipman, who, through his Philosophy for Children program, was engaging students of all ages (from kindergarten to the senior secondary) in philosophical inquiry. Having attended an advanced training workshop in Philosophy for Children in Montclair, N.J., I returned to Australia and sought an academic position within Education, working for a number of years at the University of Adelaide, and then at the (now) University of South Australia. My academic work is based on the view that it is through the development of well reasoned and ethically grounded thinking that education fulfils its individual and social goals, and my publications include both theoretical and curriculum-based work. For many years I have worked with teacher-educators, practising teachers and principals, as well as pre-service teachers and doctoral students, to embed Philosophy in the Learning Areas at both Primary/Junior Primary and Secondary levels of schooling. Much of this work has been in conjunction with a colleague, Dr. Carol Collins. I was involved in writing S.A.’s Senior Secondary Philosophy curriculum, and served as inaugural Chair of the Senior Secondary Assessment Board of South Australia’s Philosophy Subject Advisory Committee. In relation to Primary and Middle school Philosophy, I established, and held the inaugural Chair of, the South Australian Association for Philosophy in the Classroom and have conducted much of the Association’s professional development. I have held the editorship (jointly with Dr Carol Collins) of Critical and Creative Thinking: The Australasian Journal of Philosophy in Education, since July, 2006 I have researched (with recent support from the Ethics Centre of South Australia) and written extensively on Values Education, and engaged in public dialogue around the Howard government’s Values Education initiative. My current research centres on the inclusion of Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Mathematics into Science and Mathematic s curricula respectively at Primary, Secondary and Tertiary levels.

Readers should also take the time to check out her many relevant publications. I'm not an expert in the field, but it appears that Dr. Knight certainly is.

So what will she be assessing? Back to the Herald story,

The Education Minister, Verity Firth, said the evaluation would canvass the views of major stakeholders, including the religious faiths, which have fiercely opposed the classes.

Neither the public nor the parents of participating children will be invited to make a submission.

Dr Knight will determine whether the management of the trial by the St James Ethics Centre is a viable model for wider implementation in NSW state schools. She also will examine the efficacy of the course for improving students' understanding and skills in ethical decision-making, as well as make any recommendations for improvements.

It strikes me that the scope of the assessment misses the point. The thrust of the protest against the Ethics Course has not been that the course is poor quality. Of course, questions should be raised about the philosophical assumptions embedded in the course (in particular, the notion that kids should, ultimately, decide for themselves what the right thing to do is is, on the face of it, a walk towards a Lord of the Flies scenario) and the secularising motives of many of those championing the course, but that was never the main dispute.

The main protest has been over the timetabling of a non-SRE class in SRE time, contrary to the express restrictions in the current legislation. The Ethics class is far better suited to GRE time and may very well fit beneficially into that curriculum. The question of Ethics/SRE, then, is not about whether the course is a good course. If the course were an excellent course the main issue would still remain – SRE is undermined and diluted by this course. This is, after all, the main thrust of the St. James Ethics Centre argument, which speaks of

…the injustice perpetrated against children who opt out of SRE and who are not allowed to undertake meaningful activity at this time.

But that is to miss the point. The proper and productive use of time by those children whose parents have opted them out of SRE is the responsibility of the school. The argument here should therefore be directed against lazy supervision. It has been pointed out many times that DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time is compulsory in many schools and not seen as a “filler” or a waste. Many such options are available to children and SRE providers can hardly be blamed for that (presumably) small minority of schools who fail to use the time well.

These fundamental issues are outside the scope of Dr Knight's review, and yet they are the main issues that need to be decided. So more power to Sue Knight – I expect she will produce a comprehensive and illuminating report which all parties will benefit from. But it won't answer the main question – should SRE time remain protected? The ethics trial wasn't necessary to debate that issue, but it may turn out to be the Trojan Horse by which the question was sidelined. Let's hope and pray that the integrity of the NSW State Government holds up and the real issue is discussed.

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10 comments on “Evaluating the NSW Ethics Trial - asking the wrong question?

  1. Good point. Given that Dr Knight is “convinced that all students should have the opportunity to experience the intellectual growth that Philosophy brings”, it would seem unfair to deny this opportunity to those children whose parents also wish them to be educated in special religious education. Why should it be an either/or scenario?

  2. Good points. As a high school Scripture teacher, I still wonder where they are going to find this army of secular volunteers willing to give up their time to teach other people’s kids. It’s hard enough to find Christians willing to do it.

  3. Hi David and Mike

    Thanks for the feedback (and sorry for the massive post – so much to say!).

    Can I answer the last question first? I came across your site ‘cos I have a google tracker on ethics+trial+nsw.

    It actually found your “a short note on commenting” post – go figure.

    I was quite excited when I heard about the trial because I was looking for a secular alternative for my kids (let me stress that I don’t object to SRE, I just don’t like the way it’s done where we are). I have to agree with you both to a certain extent about ‘ethics’ as the appropriate alternative, but on balance I’m happy to go with it. I believe there should be a meaningful alternative and this looks like the only one we’ll get.
    @Mike – I’d be happier with something more in line with a athiest/freethinker course myself – just for clarity, I’d call it SNRE smile but I can see some problems with this as well. I don’t actually want to stand at the front of a class and teach that kids shouldn’t believe in God. I would favour a how to think approach instead of what to think. I think that’s what is trying to be achieved with the ethics class, hence the “what do you think you should do?” questions. @David – I’ve got two kids, brother I hear you when you say this is constant smile
    I can appreciate how you both feel about some of the undercurrents below this course which atheists are agreesively supporting, but I also believe it’s not as sinister as you think. My opinion is that atheists, agnostics etc probably felt when looking for an alternative that this proposal would be better recieved by faith groups than something outright atheist.

    My next question would be: If not ethics, what secular alternative would work for everyone?
    Accepting that faith groups don’t really want a non-faith alternative during SRE, the realities of our changing and diverse communities means we’ll probably get one or maybe more. What would be better?

    I’ve done it again – really long post, sorry.

  4. Hi Warren

    That’s not a long comment at all. Thanks for the interaction.

    As a Christian, I don’t believe there is an alternative. Aside from ethics which are “borrowed capital” from Christianity, what is there to teach? You might have seen the cartoon with the two guys in ties out doorknocking. The homeowner remarks that their literature is blank, to which they reply, “Yes, we’re atheists.”

    I’m not trying to be difficult, but the athiest/agnostic position that ethics can be secular is, I believe, a false assumption.

    A tree is known by its fruits. We live in a culture that still wants the fruits of Christianity as its birthright, but without Christ, without the tree. We think that rational thinking can maintain morality, but the secular west is disintegrating around us as we watch. This is the vindication of Christianity.

    So, there is really no option. What the atheists/agnostics want does not actually exist—or at best cannot be sustained. Western secular humanism is just a perversion of Christian humanism. It cannot survive on its own. We have the Words of the Living God. Secularists have an ethics wizard that turns out to have all the authority and cultural integrity of a little man behind a curtain with a microphone.

    Not trying to be offensive at all. This is just how I see things.

  5. Hi David
    I think this post makes a good point. The question of whether SRE should continue to be treated as a protected species is the only real question here, although if ethics classes go ahead, it might be fair to ask the next question: Is SRE an endangered species as well? (I’ve got some ideas about that)
    I have to say I don’t believe the first question is one that churches and people of faith are entitled to make (although everyone should be in the discussion). The fact is, that in state schools there are children from secular backgrounds, and at that time of the week when some children are being instructed in the faith of their choice (or most likely their parent’s choice – BTW, I haven’t seen any pigs head on a stick around our way), the remaining children are not being offered an opportunity to reflect on what they might believe. I think this is a social justice issue as much as anything. I don’t have anything against “drop everything and read”, but this is hardly treating all children equally. The question to me then becomes not one of whether SRE is being treated fairly but whether our children are being treated fairly?
    Another thing that makes me uncomfortable is the behaviour of prominent Christians during the trial. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the proviso before the trial that ethics were to be explicitly not offered to kids already in SRE (I know it didn’t work out that way, but this was an issue for both Peter Jensen and George Pell)? This idea makes me uneasy and raises a few questions.
    Can you be comfortable with the idea that churches could demand that children weren’t allowed to leave SRE?
    I appreciate that in this case we are talking about not letting them switch to ethics particularly, but the principle should matter, shouldn’t it? I’m not sure this should ever be ok, and those who pushed it have not exactly done themselves proud.
    Or taking these ideas further, can you appreciate how silly it would look if children were allowed to leave SRE so long as they agreed not to learn anything about ethics? You might not put it that way yourself but… you see what I mean right?
    MY BIG QUESTION:
    Is there, in faith groups in NSW in 2010, a fundamental intolerance of others? They way I mean this is in the sense of treating the teaching of your own beliefs as “protected” and “special” (as I’ve heard them called in the press and the blogosphere) does seem to me to be, whether you like it or not, an expression of intolerance towards the views of others, even if it’s a passive one.
    As an outsider this argument is essentially expressed to me as: “You don’t have to subscribe to our views, but you’re not entitled to explore your own views at the same time as us”.
    I sincerely hope that the ethics trial gets cleared to go ahead. I’ll be volunteering if it does. I also sincerely hope that SRE will continue in schools as well (I quite enjoyed it as a kid). I think the faith based groups can make a little more room for one new idea in this shared space (state schools). Anything else is to make a mockery of many of the values we do all have in common.

  6. Warren

    The issue here isn’t intolerance. The problem is that those who want to teach “ethics” in this time are teaching something that every student should be included in. An analogy would be only teaching maths during P.E. which limits the classes to the disabled kids. The time set aside should be for religious education only.

    The real issue is atheists wanting to teach atheism without the label and the stigma. They want to pass it off as morality without faith. Sure, let them explore their views, but let them also call it what it is, so they don’t sucker a lot of parents. I’d be fine with a class for atheists. To keep them happy, let them call their class NSRE. Then let them find enough atheist volunteers willing to give up their time to teach other people’s kids. Your willingness is relatively rare, I believe.

  7. Thanks Warren, some great points of engagement. Allow me to begin to respond tonight. I won’t cover everything, but hopefully enough to sustain the conversation.

    the remaining children are not being offered an opportunity to reflect on what they might believe. 
    well that’s not entirely true. They’re not given the specific opportunities you’re looking for in that particular half hour. I would hope, however, that parents at home and schools in GRE are providing many opportunities.

    Another thing that makes me uncomfortable is the behaviour of prominent Christians during the trial. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the proviso before the trial that ethics were to be explicitly not offered to kids already in SRE (I know it didn’t work out that way, but this was an issue for both Peter Jensen and George Pell)? This idea makes me uneasy and raises a few questions.
    I’m not sure what your point is here. I keep hearing from nswethics proponents (and I note the same in the OP) that one of the main issues that fostered the trial was concern for those students not already in SRE. On that basis the trial was intended to be offered to such students so as not to challenge SRE, but to provide an alternative for those not in SRE. Instead (and this is the complaint of Jensen, Pell and others) the trial has, in some schools, been offered to all students

    contrary to assurances given

    . The complaint, then, was about broken promises and implementation that was contrary to the initial reasoning given for the trial in the first place.

    Is there, in faith groups in NSW in 2010, a fundamental intolerance of others? They way I mean this is in the sense of treating the teaching of your own beliefs as “protected” and “special” (as I’ve heard them called in the press and the blogosphere) does seem to me to be, whether you like it or not, an expression of intolerance towards the views of others, even if it’s a passive one.
    Not at all. There is, instead, the desire to protect legislated time for SRE which is, currently, a legislated right. SRE is good for school communities, as it allows parents, at miminal inconvenience, to have their children exposed to different belief systems. The notion that, somehow, our schools should be secular is, istm, the intolerant position – utterly intolerant of religious belief.

    What is striking about all this, is that it has been secular atheists who have been leading the charge. Their main thrust has, consistently, been far beyond the “Ethics” course itself (and even the name is a misnomer – it would be far more accurate to call it “one particular method of philosophical enquiry”). The course has, as could have been predicted, simply become a vehicle to extend this agenda.

    What the “Ethics” course does is not teach ethics at all. It simply asks the kids “what do you think you should do?” in various situations. Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing bad with the question. I have 3 children of my own and I’m constantly asking them exactly that question.
    But I hardly need a segregated half hour to do it!!!. Rather, its a life-long activity.
    The course is, then, ultimately a bit of stalking horse. It doesn’t do what it says on the label and (I doubt unbeknownst to the publishers) has become a vehicle for the continued virulent campaign for total secularism in our schools.

    Now, having said all that, you’re well within your rights to lobby the State government to change the rules on SRE. As things stand at the moment, however, the “Ethics” course is a round peg in a very square hole. The strangeness of the whole thing is made more apparent when one realises that there’s a perfectly good round hole in the middle of the GRE syllabus where the course material would fit much more comfortably.

    If the concern really was that all students have such opportunity then the proposers of the course would have been far better lobbying the government to place it there – the synergies would be far greater. That they didn’t and, instead, have “allowed” it to be a vehicle to attack SRE is, I suggest to you, very telling.

    Thanks for your comment Warren. I really appreciated you taking the time to set it all out. Look forward to your response.

  8. Hello! I interviewed the creator, Phillip Cam, for the Token Skeptic podcast:
    http://tokenskeptic.org/2010/07/12/episode-twenty-eight-–-on-secular-ethics-classes-an-interview-with-dr-phillip-cam/
    I used to be a subscriber to ‘Creative and Critical thinking’, the journal that Knight co-edited, when it was running. smile Met the other co-editor, Janette Poulton, at the recently-held Federation for Australasian Philosophy in Schools conference.

  9. Thanks Mike – S’ok, no offense is taken.

    I think that whichever way the outcome goes on the just finished ethics trial, that the growing numbers of atheists and agnostics in our society is going to neccesitate change in the state school system (and many other places besides). Whatever evolves into the SRE space, I hope it has us all side by side and can likewise benefit us all.

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