Hickey on the Republican State and the Role of Parents in Education: A Response to David Quinn

In this post, Tom Hickey replies to criticisms by David Quinn of his recently-published article in the Irish Times on the role of schools in promoting civic virtue

It is very heartening to see that the article I wrote on “common” schools and civic values has generated such interesting debate. Certainly, issues relating to the intersection of religion and schooling seem to have excited the passions of so many engaged in public discourse in Ireland over recent years. Although this response is influenced by many of the comments on the Irish Times website, it is especially directed at the reaction of David Quinn in The Iona Blog (“Child-Citizens of the New Irish Republic”)

I wish to respond, in a broad way, to two (very much related) questions that seem to have been a concern. First, I wish to clarify my argument regarding the idea of republicanism. Second, I wish to clarify my argument on the role of parents in the education of their children. Ultimately, I wish to defend my argument against the charge that it involves the State imposing its own version of the good on its child-citizens. I should suggest that some may wish to jump to the points concerning education and schooling, skipping the rather dense paragraphs on republicanism.

On Republicanism

David Quinn suggests that I espouse a “comprehensive” and “left wing” version of “secular republicanism” reminiscent of “French Republicanism circa 1789.” In a broadly similar vein, one or two contributors to the Irish Times commentary on the article invoke George Owell’s 1984 and the Soviet Union. In the article, I make the point that the underlying goal of the state is to secure and promote equal liberty for all citizens. Republicans argue for a particular conception of liberty: “liberty as non-domination.” The present forum is not the one for a comprehensive elaboration on this conception of liberty, although I would strongly recommend the work of the Ballygar-born, Princeton-based republican scholar Philip Pettit (See especially, Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, OUP, 1997). Suffice it to say that to enjoy liberty as non-domination is to enjoy immunity from arbitrary interference in one’s choices. A slave, for instance, enjoys no liberty whatever, because his master can interfere with his choices arbitrarily, or at will. Republicans argue, therefore, that liberty as non-domination is an ideal that every individual would want, no matter what else they might want in their lives. It is thus a “primary good,” in the Rawslian sense. It is an ideal that is just as attractive to the devoutly religious as it is to doctrinaire secularists.

With this conception of liberty in mind, republicans argue for a state that is sufficiently powerful to protect all citizens, equally, from domination. In promoting this goal, the state must not itself become so powerful as to end up dominating some or many citizens (a state dominates a citizen to the extent that it enjoys the unchecked power to interfere in that citizen’s life). Realising such a state is quite a challenge of course; indeed the fact that modern states feature much greater ethical, cultural and religious diversity makes that challenge all the greater. The point is that republicans do not argue for an all-powerful, all-knowing state that imposes its own conception of the good on all citizens. All state interference (all laws) must track the avowable interests of all citizens.

In keeping with this conception of the state, the civic skills and attitudes I mentioned in the article are, I suggest, relatively modest. There is nothing tyrannical, surely, about the idea that child-citizens might develop understandings of the role of the democratic institutions of the state, or of the importance of minimal civic participation, for instance. Similarly, inculcating minimal skills of contestation amongst child-citizens hardly amounts to dominating interference on the part of the state. On the contrary, without such skills of contestation, child-citizens are surely vulnerable to arbitrary interference both from within and beyond their private spheres.

This brief elaboration on the “neo-republicanism” that underpinned my argument may assuage the concerns of David Quinn, and others. Indeed, Quinn’s suggestion that the republicanism I propose is itself a “comprehensive doctrine” is intriguing, and it evokes an interesting tension within republican scholarship. Neo-republicans distinguish between an “Italian/Atlantic” republicanism (which includes Cicero, Machiavelli, Madison, James Harrington and our own Wolfe Tone amongst its luminaries) and a “Franco-Germanic” republicanism (associated with the likes of Rousseau, Kant and Hannah Arendt). This latter version, and particularly Rousseau, prioritises the notion of the “general will” of the people. That is, the state does not dominate its citizens so long as the laws are in keeping with this “general will.” The difficulty is: how are we to identify this all-important general will? If we are to rely solely on plebiscitary mechanisms, for instance, the concern is that the avowable interests of cultural, ethnic or religious/non-religious minorities will be ignored. In other words, individuals associated with such groups will be dominated. (Think, for instance, of the Swiss prohibition on the construction of minarets, introduced recently)

Rousseau had the small, homogenous republic in mind, and so his understanding of republicanism seems less persuasive in the context of large and diverse contemporary political communities. Indeed, the profound influence of Rousseau on French republicanism might go some way towards explaining how the contemporary French republic dominates its Muslim minority. The Italian/Atlantic republicanism, or neo-republicanism, attaches more importance to checking power, even power exercised in accordance with the will of the majority. It insists on checking the power of the executive, for instance, and on a robust judiciary charged with protecting the fundamental rights of all citizens. David Quinn might be relieved to learn that it is very much distinct from the “French republicanism circa 1789,” which he seems to so abhor.

On Parents in the Education of Child-Citizens

I now move to my second point, concerning the role of parents in their children’s education. In the context of arguing for skills of contestation, I suggested that child-citizens “must be capable of critically assessing their own inherited religious or non-religious commitments, for instance, so that they are not permanently in thrall to those of their parents.” David Quinn suggests that I am “suspicious of the influence parents have over their children,” while Ursula Can (in a comment on the Irish Times website) dismisses my argument on the basis that parents “are the ones who actually bear, raise and are responsible for children.” In responding, I refer to Elaine Hogan Hanly’s subsequent comment that, given that the article was in the first instance concerned with the issue of school patronage, it was surely clear that I worked on the assumption that parents rightly have the most profound influence on their children’s upbringing and value-system. (I would accept that the phrase “child-citizens” may have some eerie connotations. However, the fact that a child’s most important relationship is with its parents does not mean that its relationship with the state is unimportant).

The notion that the state would purge child-citizens of their inherited religious or non-religious beliefs is absurd. There is a great difference, I think, between the state purging children of their inherited beliefs, and the state equipping them with minimal critical skills whereby they learn to assess for themselves which values they wish to continue to adhere to throughout their lives, and which to rethink or even discard.

My suggestion was thus rather modest: that the state intervene, through the inculcation of minimal civic skills, to ensure that children are not permanently in thrall to the inherited religious or non-religious beliefs of their parents. This might mean, for instance, that children be exposed to other religious and non-religious commitments and that they develop critical skills beyond the purely functional literary and numerical skills. In the end, many or most children are likely to end up holding similar comprehensive doctrines to those their parents hold, but this should have to do with love, familiarity and a sense of security or belonging, not with indoctrination, or the inculcation of a permanent antipathy towards alternative belief-systems. (For an interesting case on this issue, see the famous US Sixth Court of Appeals decision in Mozert v. Hawkins Co., where Protestant fundamentalist families objected to a compulsory reading series which exposed their children to religious and non-religious commitments other than their own. For insightful analysis, Stephen Macedo’s famous “God versus John Rawls” article: “Liberal Civic Education and Religious Fundamentalism: The Case of God v. John Rawls?” (1995) 105(3) Ethics 468).



To conclude, the article makes the fairly modest argument that “common” schooling seems preferable to “sectarian” schooling in the light of the broad civic mission of education in a modern, diverse republic. I should emphasise that, despite David Quinn’s suggestion that I “bristle with hostility towards denominational schools,” I specifically made the point in the article that “it would go too far to argue that denominational schools are invariably incapable of and unwilling to inculcate these civic skills and attitudes in their students.” Similarly, nowhere did I suggest that a universal common schooling system would magically produce an ideal citizenry, whatever that might even mean. A system oriented around separate schooling – in which atheists are schooled in one school, Catholics in another, Muslims in another and so on – seems objectionable on a republican analysis. Such a system does not seem conducive to promoting understandings of interdependencies, shared political vulnerability, shared citizenship etc.

Finally, too often, it seems to me, this debate is undermined by an “us against them” discourse, with so-called liberal secularists in one corner and the so-called “religious right” on the other. Surely we would be far better served if the debate is conducted with the equality and liberty of all citizens, regardless of their religious or non-religious beliefs, to the fore of our thoughts.


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