Editorial: School for scandal
Education is a fundamental concern for humanists – so it's no surprise that AC Grayling's New College is dividing opinion
Education is a fundamental concern of humanism. The belief that people should not rely on received wisdom or revealed truth but seek knowledge for themselves means a life of never-ending learning. This does not mean, however, that all humanists would agree on what exactly constitutes a good education. When we ran an article by Francis Beckett calling for the opening of an atheist school – his response to the growth of faith schools being: if you can’t beat them join ’em – we received letters of support and derision in equal measure.
The recent announcement that AC Grayling, author of the secular bible, is to open a New College of the Humanities has proved similarly controversial. His initiative is designed to promote the humanities at a time when they are under severe threat from Government cuts, a sentiment many humanists would surely support. However the fact that the college will charge fees that are twice as high as Oxbridge has led to charges of elitism. In this issue, Sally Feldman examines the furore.
Meanwhile we feature a private educational institution of an altogether different kind. The Mustard Seed Secular School in Uganda has to charge fees (of about 33p a day) but the huge bulk of its funding comes from donations from New Humanist readers. You can find a photo essay by Andrew West that shows how far the school has come with your help. We are also launching a new campaign: the Muslim school next door to Mustard Seed has closed, and if the school can raise the £22,000 it will cost to buy the school block and land, they can expand to a point where they can become a self-sustaining long-term enterprise. Do support it if you can.
And if we’re concerned about the influence of religion in schools, what do we make of the fact that the government funds religious groups to preach to a captive audience behind bars? Should we oppose the whole thing or lobby for humanist chaplains to ensure an alternative? Richard Smyth goes behind bars to find out.
Two leading novelists have contributed their passionate views in this issue. Terry Pratchett, recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, follows his controversial documentary on assisted dying – broadcast bravely by the BBC – with a strong defence for the rights of every individual to choose and control their death. And the author AL Kennedy offers a preview of her latest novel, which exposes the psychics and mystics who exploit the suffering of others.
Another dilemma for rationalists is how to maintain a principled critique of religious dogma without caricaturing religious people. In recent times this has only become more difficult with the rise of new voices on the far right across Europe for whom Islam makes a convenient new focus for their racism. Paul Sims examines this tricky subject in our cover story.
Not sure what you think? Last issue Christopher Lane argued that doubt is better than certainty. Physicist Mano Singham takes issue with this notion. Comedian Marcus Brigstocke rather likes the idea that it’s okay to be in two minds. But there is one thing he’s certain about. In our Q&A, he explains why he doesn’t believe in God and thinks He is a “colossal bastard”.