Pupils in a London primary school were banned from viewing the eclipse on religious grounds. Some parents were furious but what they should not be, is surprised. The headteacher, the hapless Ivor Johnstone, was quite clear enough about the reason, “The school made this decision when we became aware of religious and cultural concerns associated with observing an eclipse directly“. But he gave no detail. So let me fill in the blank.
Hindu scriptures claim that an eclipse makes believers impure and many Hindu temples are closed down during eclipses for fear that the gods may be become impure. In Hindu astrology (Jyotish), the cycles of rahu and ketu, claim to be forces of dark and light, an eclipse being an event which shows the force of darkness prevailing, a dangerous period. Some believe that they need to wash immediately after an eclipse and chant the name of God to counter the forces of darkness. Kalahasteeswara temple, in Sri kalahasthi, does not close during an eclipse, as this is the only Indian temple which offers puja to Rahu and Ketu, protecting it from the power of an eclipse. Nonsense I know but if we have a system that forces us to doff our caps to all religions, no matter how wacky, this is the sort of weirdness that occurs.
This is the likely explanation, as Southall is a South Asian residential area, sometimes known as ‘Little India’. This is the large Hinduyemple in Southall. Note that all is not well at this school, as last year the Governors had to deal with serious complaints from staff that were not being addressed.
Election and education
If you think this is not a big deal, think again. The next election in the UK will have immigration as a far more important issue than education. In fact education has become a small subset of the immigration debate. Working class voters feel as though they have being squeezed culturally and numerically in their schools with large numbers of EU and other immigrants. Like or loath them, UKIP is now a political player. The political class would like to think that this is not an issue, as it largely doesn’t effect them, Labour does, after all, have a public schoolboy as its Shadow Education Minister, who sends his kids to private school. But it is an issue – just not the one I want to address.
Going back to the first paragraph, as education in England is being largely devolved, knowledge of what happens in those schools is being dissolved. Yet the much hated inspection regime has already had to tackle extremist religious views, in Christian, Jewish and Muslim schools. Barely a day passes without some sort of problem caused by religious beliefs in the school system.
RE (Religious Education)
RE (Religious Education) purports to be a solution to the problem. It is not. RE is part of the problem. Far from opening up young minds to different ways of thinking, it’s all about closure. Religions are not open systems of belief, they are closed systems of conviction. In my view it is philosophy, and not religion, that should be taught. The two are often confused but the love of wisdom is not the same as the love of conviction. Indeed, it is often philosophy graduates who end up teaching RE, even though it is far removed from their core knowledge and discipline. This is like a physicist being forced to teach astrology.
Giving undue respect to a pantheon of belief systems, not come to by choice but largely determined by where your parents were born and their racial background, religion is at odds with what should be happening in schools. It is not in line with the enlightenment values that shaped modern Europe, where education is not meant to mould students into unthinking closure but open their minds to critical thought and autonomous thinking.
This incident was an eclipse of a sort, a dark shadow of ignorance and superstition came across that school. Rather than be excited, as most kids were by a spectacle that supports the scientific spirit of open inquiry, the headteacher was forced to close things down and deny these kids a unique opportunity ad experience to have their minds opened up to the wonders of our solar system. If I were a parent at that school I’d be livid. As it is I’m livid that religious studies is still taught in schools. RE has to be taught in all schools by law. In practice, and this is a little known fact, it is often not taught at all. This is the sign, in my view of good leadership.