Jesus Loves Me This I Know, For My Good Grades Tell Me So
It’s 8:45am and just over three hundred teenagers are sitting in an assembly hall. The youngest sit at the front and the oldest at the back, with almost everyone sporting the identical muted colours of the school’s uniform. The staff form a ring around the edges of the hall, looking suspiciously like the world’s least effective bouncers. There is a media desk at the back of the hall where a harassed-looking young man tries his best to make sure that the huge projector screen at the front displays what it’s supposed to be displaying. Most of the pupils sit quietly and politely, although there is the occasional furtive glow as someone checks the mobile phone that they were supposed to have left in their locker. A small, inoffensive man with a microphone stands alone at the front, completely at ease as he addresses his captive audience. He wears a dull grey cardigan, but it’s hard to miss the black shirt and bright white collar underneath. The screen behind him displays an enormous crucifix while he explains to the children that only through the love of Our Lord Jesus Christ will they become successful in life.
This is a Religious Observance assembly in a non-denominational state high school.
I have a friend who’s a teacher in the USA. We were college roommates when I spent a year studying at an American university in 2001 and we’ve been firm friends ever since. In fact, I’ve been to visit his school and his classes many times over the last decade and I’ve have the pleasure and honour of working with some absolutely amazing young American students. When I first visited, I knew almost nothing about the American education system. I’ve gradually learned more and more over the years and I’m continually fascinated by the intense similarities and the extreme differences between our systems. One of the things that has really attracted my interest is the way that religion is dealt with in American state schools.
My knowledge of this area is still a bit hazy, so forgive me (and correct me!) if I get this wrong, but it seems to me that the First Amendment pretty much ensures that public schools are not allowed to actively promote religion. No morning prayers, no sermonising, no pushing of any religious agenda. I’ve read about the court cases, seen the teenage atheist activists, spoken to religious and non-religious teaching staff. I genuinely think that the American concept (if not the implementation, sometimes) of how religion and education should interact is pretty wonderful. I accept that my understanding of the whole situation is probably quite simplistic, but the overall idea seems sound.
We have nothing of the sort over here. There are very few things that state schools absolutely one hundred percent must do in Scotland, but the provision of Religious Observance is one of them. Every school, primary and secondary, has a legal obligation to “promote the spiritual development of all members of the school community“. In practical terms this means that once every month or so most schools, including mine, essentially run a church service in the guise of an assembly.
These assemblies are supposed to feature representatives from a variety of religions and from the secular world, but they’re pretty much only ever Christian in nature. I’ve been at more of them than I can remember and I’ve never seen one that wasn’t about Jesus. It’s actually written into the legislation that the assemblies can be weighted towards Christianity to certain extent (due to Scotland being a “Christian country”, apparently), but it’s also clearly stated that other religions should be represented too.
The people who run these assemblies are very well trained. They’re not teachers and aren’t employed by the school itself, but they certainly know how to talk to young people. They’re engaging, funny and interactive. Students get to volunteer to play silly games at the front of the hall and win things like chocolate bars. Religious Observance assemblies are often much more lively than regular school ones. The problem is, this bubbly and entertaining atmosphere is used to mask the true purpose of the assemblies. Very few of these assemblies ever start out with an overt religious message; they usually begin with a presentation about some general topic that you would expect to hear about at any school assembly. Bullying, maybe. Sometimes litter and tidiness. Perhaps exams and the importance of studying. It never takes too long, however, for God to creep into the room.
The problem that I have with these assemblies is that they’re not debates. They’re not educational experiences. They’re not forums for young people to be shown the beliefs of some people in society so that they can draw their own conclusions. They’re sermons, and their messages are put across as if they are the only correct point of view. I’ve seen groups of students told that studying hard is not enough if they don’t have Jesus on their side. I’ve seen them told that only religious people have the right to debate the existence of God, since how can an atheist comment on something they haven’t experienced? On one particularly memorable experience, I saw a minister stand at the front of a hall and explain how some religions have got the whole thing wrong and how some faiths base themselves on violence instead of love, while a photo of the impact of the second plane was projected onto the huge screen behind him.
Students don’t actually have to sit through these assemblies. The same rules that state that these things must happen also state that any pupil can opt out of them and that any parent can insist that their child not attend them. The problem with this is that schools very often don’t advertise this at all. My school has nearly 1500 students and I am aware of one who knows about and has exercised this right. Any time there’s a Religious Observance assembly, she gets to go sit in a room by herself and read. I can sort of see why schools don’t make this information readily available; every student who opted out would have to be accommodated and supervised somewhere. However, it adds another unsettling layer to the whole situation. First, we force religious observance on our entire high school population through preachy, sermonising assemblies. Then we limit this observance to one religion, despite the fact that most schools here contain pupils from all kinds of religious and non-religious backgrounds. Then we actively hide the fact that people are allowed to opt out.
I think the thing that troubles me most involves the youngest students. Young people start high school at age eleven or twelve here. Many of the older students have developed the critical thinking skills to question what they see at these assemblies, or have at least developed sufficient teenage apathy to let it all was over them. It’s the youngest ones, the ones who truly are still children, who laugh the loudest at the funny jokes and who scramble over each other to volunteer for the silly games. It’s these pupils who are in danger of being indoctrinated via tasty chocolate and entertaining stories.
I love my education system but I hate this part of it. I’m a (relatively) young teacher with an eye on promotion in the near future, and it shames me to say that I’m a little nervous about rocking the boat too hard. I would LOVE to go to our head teacher and insist that he let me hold a secular assembly in the place of the next planned Christian one. I’d love to push him about why none of our parents or pupils have been informed of their opt-out rights. It’s been this way for so long that it feels very difficult raise the topic of change.
Meanwhile, as people like me dither and grumble, another group of students gets to hear about how they’ll never achieve true happiness after they leave school if they don’t embrace Jesus Christ.
Featured image: whiskeyboytx