The Tristram Hunt nun comment on Question Time last week (which merely involved asking whether someone was taught by nuns) followed a predictable trajectory that is tiresomely indicative of modern day politics and PR. A supposedly controversial comment live on air, the following splurge of moralising Tweets, and then finally the obligatory climb down apologising for any "offence" caused.
Hunt's comment provoked a horrified response form Cristina Odone, a social conservative (to put it mildly) and former editor of the Catholic newspaper The Tablet. Odone proclaimed how nuns taught "real values" rather than British ones. By "real values" she meant religious values. Because only religious values can be "real", of course. Odone later labelled Hunt's comments "arrogant and ignorant."
Odone's basis for such accusations rested on the intellectually vacuous strategy which is all too common on forums such as Question Time, namely argument by personal anecdote (many of those who chastised Hunt also did so through argument by personal anecdote). Hunt's ignorant because unlike Odone, he didn't have the life-enhancing experiencing of being taught by a nun. Odone was taught by great nuns. Which means that nuns must be great teachers. He's arrogant because to question whether a nun is necessarily qualified teacher is to look down on someone's religious faith.
This perverse account distorts whose belief system is more likely to nurture arrogance and ignorance. Know that whenever you debate with a religionist, they believe their moral outlook, their way of life, is superior to that of any other religionists and most certainly that of an atheist. So nuns are likely to be great teachers by virtue of them being nuns. What matters for Odone et al isn't the goal of ensuring high quality teachers, as teaching qualifications at least aim at, but that teachers abide by a particular dogma. Moral purity is necessary for teachers too, which for Odone would probably disqualify gay people from being teachers, just as she disqualifies gay people from marrying on the basis that it would be a "pantomime ceremony" in which "Gays will be faking it".
Andrew Marr repeatedly asked Tristram Hunt on the Andrew Marr Show on the Sunday after Question Time "can an unqualified nun be a good teacher?" Hunt should have been bold enough to not shirk the question, as he did, but instead pointedly respond with the reasonable point that being divinely ordained isn't a sufficient criterion to justify teaching young people
We must consider why it is that religionists so strongly defend the right of their fellow ilk to educate young people. Is it reflective of a deep love of education? It is because of a desire to educate a child in the best way possible? Or is it because schools constitute a golden opportunity to evangelise, to bend the malleable mind of the young into a dogma which you have vested your life into believing? We must ask why religious bodies are so intent on setting up faith schools (they are particularly active when it comes to free school applications). Is it because they want to ensure a balanced, high quality education? Or is it because religious organisations can use schools as part of an agenda to impact government policy? In April 2012, the Catholic Church wrote to every state funded Catholic secondary school in England and Wales asking them to encourage pupils to sign a petition against gay marriage.
Indoctrinating young people into a belief system is morally abhorrent. Education should be about nurturing the mind to be able to come to its own decisions and presenting numerous different perspectives in a balanced way. Education must encourage inquisitiveness and independence of thought, rather than blind acceptance. It must teach pupils how to think, rather than what to think. Whereas an atheist teacher should allow pupils to express theistic views, because it is reasonable for an individual to hold and express core beliefs, a nun or religious teacher will ensure that in their teachings, ultimately their side comes out on top. So, as Bertrand Russell put it, "In all stages of education the influence of superstition is disastrous" because "Inconvenient questions are met with 'hush, hush' or with punishment." Child poverty? Natural disasters? Murders? Fear not children, all part of God's plan. Pray to God, go to Church, and you shall avoid such troubles.
If we're going to stoop to Odone's level by deploying argument by personal anecdote, I'm sure many atheists like myself can throw some back at her. I recall my Christian junior school Headmaster explaining in school assembly that either the world is meaningless and was an accident, or there is some divine meaning to it and it was created by God. To a ten-year old like me, it was so captivating. It made sense. I recall my Rabbi berating me for not wanting to attend Hebrew School classes. To be a good Jew and thus a good child, I was told, I had to attend them. I know of a teacher who, when asked who would go to hell, the non-Christian who did good all their life, or the person who caused harm all their life but had a death bed repentance and conversion to Christianity, he replied the former. In all these instances what mattered to these religious 'teachers' wasn't education nor the interests of the child or person, but whether that child or person conformed to their particular religious doctrine.
Can a nun be a good teacher? No they can't. Nor can any teacher that imposes their religious dogma on young people. The taboo shouldn't be Hunt questioning whether nuns are good teachers. The taboo should be defending religious indoctrination of young people.