Professor James Conroy

The contemporary drive to make education “relevant” and easy is part of the oversimplification of global issues that resulted in the Brexit vote, says Professor James Conroy, Vice-Principal (Internationalisation) of the University of Glasgow.

“Education needs to understand the forces at work in a globalised world. …We need to resist the temptation to blame others for our own poverty,” Professor Conroy said in his public lecture at the University of Auckland this week.

In Britain in the popular imagination, the European Union is to blame for taking the “Great” out of Great Britain. Brexit, people imagine, will make the country great again.

Liberal educators are complicit in this misunderstanding, he says. “Bourgeois elite texts have been thrown out. Novels of adolescent angst have replaced Shakespeare. Ironically, they’ve opened the door to facile, self-serving, silly thinking.”

As an educator, Professor Conroy introduced Latin and astronomy into the training of primary teachers. Latin, in particular, proved to be very popular, providing teachers with a good understanding of the structure of language.

Education in the last few decades has been ill-equipped to teach religious and cultural understanding Professor Conway says. A tendency since World War II to make religion into a social practice seen through a liberal or human rights lens has done a disservice to religious and cultural tolerance.

“Educators have made religion liberal when it’s not. They’ve tried to make Islam a tolerant religion – ‘Muslims are the same as us.’ This idea that we ignore the unpalatable. Tolerance is confused with appropriation of the ‘other’ as one of us.”

If religion is not taught in depth, it leaves learners unable to distinguish between ideas. Instead, he recommends we scrutinise our own culture deeply as though it were “other”.

He also believes the whole point of religion – “the relationship between the living and the dead” and the sense of explaining things outside of everyday reality – has been lost by making religion into an expression of mundane life, framing it within community cohesion and citizenship and ethics.

A visceral fear of migration of Central and Eastern European Catholics and Middle Eastern Muslims was a large reason for the Brexit vote. “Subterranean suspicion of Catholics in the UK and Muslims (whose immigration is not, ironically, curbed by Brexit) blended together in the popular imagination.”

Britain did not want to admit that many immigrants are harder working, smarter and more civic minded than many Brits, Professor Conroy said.

The drive towards identity politics and also, at the other end of the scale, towards homogenising our understanding of the world has lost sight of the real cause of the collapse of the European order – the flight of capital and underinvestment since the Thatcher years of the 1980s.

Professor James Conroy is Professor of Religious and Philosophical Education at the University of Glasgow. His lecture was hosted by the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work.

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