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Response to Dennis Altman - why we donít need compulsory public education

By Ross Farrelly - posted Friday, 5 August 2005

Dennis Altman asserted in his article in On Line Opinion, “Let us send all children to state primary schools, here's why”, that part of our response to global terrorism should be compulsory public education for all primary school students in Australia. He implies that independent schools, and particularly independent schools of a religious denomination, contribute to the “balkinsation” of Australian society. Altman attributes the reasonably coherent and harmonious nature of Australian society to a considered indifference towards religion by the majority of Australians.

Altman’s arguments are seriously flawed in a number a ways.

First, it is not a devotion to religion which makes for divisions in society. It is the relative importance one places on the religious law and the law of the land. If the law of the land is seen as paramount, to be obeyed wherever one lives, then people of all religions can live peaceably side by side. It is only when religious beliefs are taken to be superior to political law and to have precedence over it that civil society is disrupted.


In his recent book, The West and the Rest, philosopher Roger Scruton makes the point as follows: “Religious tolerance is the norm in Western societies precisely because they are founded on territorial jurisprudence that regards sovereignty rather than divinity as the source of law.”

Second, it is not the study of religion that divides society, it is the immature, non-reflective understanding (or worse still a completely fallacious misunderstanding) of religion that creates divisions.

Truly understood, the message of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism and all the major world religions are very similar in nature, and a profound understanding of these religions will lead to a common experience of the shared humanity of all people. Properly understood, all major world religions lead their adherents from a self-centred life to a reality-centred life and a love of one’s fellow human beings; to a sense of altruism; and to a determination to co-operate and live in harmony. Faced with the threat of the “balkinsation” of Australian society, it is not compulsory secular public schooling we need, it’s a truly profound understanding of the major world religions.

Having said that, society has a right to know what is being taught in religious schools. We have laws against racial and religious vilification and speech which incites violence. Transparency and openness is necessary to see that these laws are not broken within the confines of religious schools. It is this emphasis on transparency which is the appropriate response to religiously motivated violence, not the censorship suggested by Altman.

Furthermore, to engender a deep religious tolerance, it is necessary for children to develop both a significant understanding of their own faith and also to be exposed to the beliefs, practices, myths and teachings of other faiths. It is difficult to understand another’s faith if one has no inner experience or understanding of one’s own. A token multiculturalism which nods towards cultural diversity and in which children gain a passing familiarity with national customs or religious ceremonies does not plant the seeds of a serious commitment to religious understanding and tolerance.

Third, the proposition that public schools are better positioned to teach civic values to their students is often stated but is not supported by evidence. One of the very few scientifically rigorous studies to address this question was conducted in the United States in 2001 and published as a chapter in Charters, Vouchers and Public Opinion. The authors defined political tolerance as “the willingness to extend constitutionally protected right and legal protections to groups and individuals whom one personally dislikes”. They concluded, “something about the environment, curriculum, or pedagogy of private schools leads them to outperform public schools in promoting political tolerance to their graduates (italics added).”


Finally, our best line of defence and our most effective means of opposing the senseless use of violence we see in the world around us is a better educated, widely read and liberally educated population. Independent schools operating in an education marketplace which promotes innovation, rewards success and in which there are genuine consequences for failure have consistently outperformed a state-controlled government education monopoly. For this reason alone we should support independent education and certainly not make primary public education compulsory.

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About the Author

Ross Farrelly works for a statistical software company. His blog can be found at

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