Like King Canute, the Victorian Opposition leader Matthew Guy - in a last-ditch effort to stem the rising tide of anti-clericalism in Australia - has announced that, if elected, his government will reintroduce religious instruction classes to state schools.
Although not borne out by the 2016 Census which revealed only 30% of Australians without religious affiliation, the decline of the influence of institutionalized religion has been swift and relentless.
Stoked by the conflagration sparked by the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sex Abuse, the moral authority of the churches has been irretrievably damaged. Confident of being on solid secular ground, the Victorian Labor government has ridiculed the Opposition’s Leader’s proposal as being completely out of step with popular opinion.
Pleas to scrap the Lord’s Prayer to open parliamentary proceedings and the cry to boycott Christmas celebrations in schools are typical of a rising secularism which rejoices if not in the death of God but in the demise of religion in our culture.
But if I might play the devil’s advocate for Matthew Guy, not because of the content of his proposal, but the unstated possible motive behind what appears a reactionary throw-back sop to his ultra conservative party rump.
My argument is that the most noble and urgent challenge for schools is to graduate virtuous and ‘ethically literate’ students. Even if a school’s Year 12 cohort all graduated with the highest Tertiary Entrance Scores, there would be no guarantee that the world would be any better.
What our society needs above all else are citizens of integrity with a powerful sense of right and wrong, a powerful sense of justice and a burning desire to make this world a better place.
The decline of institutionalized religion and the traditional family have created an educational vacuum which schools are afraid to fill.
An irrational obsession with delivering a value-free curriculum means that our students may graduate as budding mathematicians and scientists, but moral pygmies, largely ethically-illiterate.
Unless students have a moral and ethical framework, admonitions to our students about bullying, stealing and cheating are meaningless.
To the moral illiterate, the only ethical imperative is to avoid being caught and punished. The world around them offers endless examples of immorality and unethical behaviour often from our political and spiritual leaders.
Rather than lapse into moral relativism or cynicism, our curriculum should give our students the time and opportunity to explore ethical principles such that our students will develop an ethical intelligence, surely one of the most important of the many intelligences schools must foster.
Developing an ethical sense or intelligence may not guarantee that a student acts virtuously but the least we can do as educators is to give our students the opportunity to grow into morally autonomous, ethically-mature human beings.
If Matthew Guy’s proposal is echoing Crosby, Stills and Nash’s challenge that we teach our children well and give them a code that they can live by, then our curriculum must not exclude moral education. Churches and their schools have the freedom to include religious education in their curricula.
However, there is obviously little appetite in our increasingly secular society to include religious education in the curriculum. But if state schools fail to take up the challenge to fill the vacuum, difficult as it may seem, then schools will have failed their students.
Such a challenge is particularly problematic because there is a lack of consensus as to the morality, attitudes and virtues our society values and which should be the primary focus of our schools.