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PETER WICKHAM: Religious education

Peter Wickham, [email protected]

PETER WICKHAM: Religious education

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THERE ARE TWO sides to this debate that has emerged regarding the decision of a Rastafarian family to “homeschool” their children. The angle that I am partial to needs to be prefaced by the acknowledgement that I am a non-believer who is of the opinion that religious preoccupations have infiltrated our educational system far too much.      

Education (as I understand it) should be a secular pursuit that revolves around teaching children life skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic at the primary stage. Thereafter it should help students to identify and enhance their talents in a way that enables them to make a contribution to themselves, their families and society. If properly understood, there is no part of this exercise that needs to or can be assisted by notions of “God” or the manner in which “he” has revealed “himself” to the world.

Notwithstanding, religious groups fully understand the extent to which an ability to infiltrate the state and educational system are essential to the maintenance of their influence. Our Anglican Church has a long tradition in this regard which can be traced back to Henry VIII who of course had personal reasons for renouncing the authority of the Pope.  Thereafter, the extent to which that same church has been a reliable ally of the state in the perpetuation of evils like slavery is well-documented.  The bargain was a win-win since the church was assured a place at the table of influence (God’s representative) and the state was assured that it would always retain moral sanction regardless of how vile its actions were.

Recently the church has been forced to become more creative in the maintenance of this relationship as the average person has learned to read and think independently.  Fully understanding the centrality of education to our belief structures, the Catholic Church has for generations immersed itself in the provision of education to the “masses”.  This is an important lesson that the Anglicans learned and explains why so many of our primary schools were established on consecrated Anglican land.  The scenario is considerably more scandalous in Trinidad and Tobago where the Catholic footprint extents to all the “better” secondary schools with the implicit assumption that they are better because they are Catholic.

In Barbados the newer religions have also caught on and opened schools which have been outperforming Government institutions for reasons that have nothing to do with belief systems.  Sadly, the simple among us have identified this correlation between religious institutions and academic performance and believe it to be causal (not casual).  The Muslims have joined the Catholics, “Seven Days” and fundamentalists on this educational journey and one therefore wonders what has taken the Rastafarians so long to get on board.

In all this, the state has been an unwitting ally by allowing its intuitions to reinforce the centrality of Christianity to education through school assembly and prayers to start and end of the day. 

The home school is already popular in the United States among religious fundamentalists who encourage their wives to remain at home and teach the children. As I understand it, this achieves several important objectives such as the facility to teach children that the basis of science is what is written in the Bible, less they fall victim to the suggestion that God did not create the earth in seven days or that men and women have the same number of ribs.  In addition, it helps to insulate children from other children that might confuse their belief system.  It is certainly easier to convince a child that it is abnormal for them to have two mothers or two fathers if that child does not have friends in exactly the same situation on the playground.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, I fully support the efforts of this courageous Rastafarian father who is seeking to assert his rights to raise his children according to the teachings of Rastafari.  His approach is no different to that of the Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists and Muslims, and frankly he has every reason to feel he is being discriminated against. 

The Constitution of this country allows him the right to practice the religion of his choice and the conventional interpretation of religious practice includes schooling. He should therefore be congratulated for his efforts and provided with the necessary tools by the state to enhance his homeschooling skills. It is unfortunate that we are instead seeking to prosecute this man and deny him access to his children for being true to his religious beliefs.


Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).Email: [email protected]