Dan Smith looks at whether Richard Dawkins's involvement in the New College of the Humanities private university is consistent with his atheist ideology.
By Dan Smith
The creation of the New College of the Humanities (NCoH) – a new private university in London staffed by some of the world’s leading academics and charging fees of £18,000 per year – is a frightening extension of the government’s growing thirst for free-marketisation.
The increase of competition within the educational field promises to widen the gap between the richest and poorest in society and has already given birth to an increase in university tuition fees and the growth of free schools.
However it is the curious involvement of Professor Richard Dawkins – the eminent biologist and renowned atheist – which seems particularly odd.
Firstly, it is important to recognise that the rise of free schools, the increase in tuition fees and the foundation of NCoH are part of the same cohesive neo-liberal project which believes free-market principles improve educational standards due to increased competition.
NCoH is the logical conclusion of the rise of free schools because it comes as a result of the erosion of state authority and the idea that the market can provide for everyone’s needs. The enforced abdication of state authority creates a power vacuum which is filled by other powerful actors – such as private companies or organised religion.
The establishment of NCoH does not in itself contradict Dawkins’s disciplined atheism but, when contextualised within the narrative of educational liberalisation and marketisation, it can be seen to conflict with Dawkins’s rabid religious scepticism because the rise of free schools has fortified the influence of organised religion.
The problem with free schools
There are numerous reasons why free schools reinforce hierarchy and exacerbate social division but, in this case, the most pressing factor is the ascension of faith schools.
Free schools in Britain are based on a Swedish model which has been criticised for rapidly increasing the number of religious schools, giving influence to controversial institutions such as the Church of Scientology and the Plymouth Brethren, and empowering fundamentalist Islamic organisations. Indeed, half of Michael Gove’s first round of free schools had a religious ethos.
Gove himself has acknowledged concerns that faith schools may use new legislation to push their own agenda but, unlike in Sweden, no guidance has been issued relating to free school applications. Indeed, David Cameron’s favourite think-tank, the right-wing Policy Exchange, argued in its Faith Schools We Can Believe In paper (pdf) that free schools are increasingly vulnerable to extremist influences.
Many faith schools have remained within the private sector so as to not compromise their religious beliefs but, under a free school system, they can access state funding without state control. Furthermore, teachers in free schools are not required to hold recognised teaching qualifications.
Dawkins and religious education
According to The God Delusion Professor Dawkins believes:
“Children are educated, again often from a very early age, with members of a religious in-group and separately from children whose families adhere to other religions. It is not an exaggeration to say that the troubles in Northern Ireland would disappear in a generation if segregated schooling was abolished.”
Dawkins conceptualises religious education and the enforced endowment of religious beliefs onto children as a form of child abuse and lies at the very core of his critique of religion. One facet of this criticism is that segregation and in/out groups creates conflict.
Dawkins’s association with NCoH is therefore hypocritical on two levels.
Firstly, opportunity to develop the NCoH has only arisen because of the spread of free schools and the inevitable rise of faith schools – something which Dawkins, if he is to remain intellectually consistent, should be opposing; secondly, both free schools and elitist higher education further encourages segregation on the basis of wealth and class – Dawkins criticises religion for encouraging segregation, so why doesn’t he apply the same analysis to education?
Dawkins’s involvement with the NCoH neo-liberal experiment suggests he may be more interested in his own wealth and self-interest than academic integrity. According to the Bible, Jesus told his disciples:
“…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Fortunately, for Richard Dawkins at least, there’s no such place as the kingdom of God.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.