‘Sealed’ modern subjects

It seems that I am not the only Eoin working on religion, education and secularisation in Ireland right now. Through academia.edu (or posh Facebook if you will) and the Human Rights in Ireland blog, I have in the last day or so been reading some work produced by Eoin Daly. Eoin is a PhD student in UCC and his work “addresses competing claims on religious liberty in the public education context”. This morning on the train I had some time to read his recent paper (sub needed) in Irish Educational Studies. The train from Drumcondra to Maynooth doesn’t go slowly enough for me to finish it in one journey but from what I have read so far, Eoin has written a paper that is excellent and condenses positions that up to now have defied condensation.

You can see from the abstract that Eoin is proposing that:

…the conception of pluralism invoked by those defending the [Irish] denominational education model in its current form fails to command normative legitimacy due to its non-universal, particularist and essentially communitarian scope.

By which I think he infers that there is a conflict at the heart of the Irish state’s educational provision: between a communitarianism that stifles minorities and a too-loose definition of the individual in society. Right? However, as much as I appreciate this paper, at base I think that Eoin’s argument relies on a ‘sealed’ modern subjectivity. By this I mean that the identification of secularism with being modern evacuates context from any discussion of all other possibilities. Most particularly, a conception of the self that constructs us as monologues of desire who seek optimal outcomes for us and those we care for creates this context-evacuation. It is as if we become ‘sealed’ to the world as citizens, as subjects and as moral people. To me this implies the closing off of subjectivity from contexts which change us and which we change in dialogue with others. People then are religious, are secular, are conservative or progressive. It is seen practically evident in those that resist the idea of learning throughout one’s life: ‘do’ college by 25, settle down etc.

So a republic needs secular schools, to impart what we know as knowledge to those who require it. These sites for the inculcation of doctrines are problematic for those who fear the trojan horse model of religion – a kind of epistemological ‘beware of priests bearing gifts’. Religion brings with it the seeds of contingency, of the unknowable and the unseen which blossom into flourishing religious zealots, intent on stealing our freedom. You know? The freedom that ‘knowledge’ (ie real knowledge about ‘the world’) brings? Schools, in this model, can be the sites of a kind of pure knowledge, one that stands outside of the messiness and fallen nature of the world. We need to seal off this knowledge from contingency (including a belief in the transcendent) before the child’s ‘nature’ is formed. Eoin’s co-blogger (!) Fiona de Londras concedes this point, I think, in her comment in another HRiI post: the revelation of “the strategic reality of education for most parents” she refers to is the practice, not the theory of ‘doing education in religious schools’ right now. (Why we move from the theory to the practice without one being in dialogue with another is perhaps a philosophical question.)

I am looking forward to reading the rest of Eoin’s paper which, fundamentally, I agree with, particularly his use of the ‘critical mass’ model of denominationalism which my own employers have used just once too often. However, a freedom of conscience that forms a basis of how Eoin believes we might exit out of this conflict does not exist. To quote the paper:

The religious liberty of the individual is made subject to an arbitrary contingency that is, the relative social or demographic prevalence of the religious or other group to which she might belong.

This implies a homogeneity which is theoretically constructed in the “religious liberty of the individual”. He is correct to say it is ideological, but it is theoretical in form. Our current reality is far more contingent than he (or even I) suggests. Or am I being unfair to Eoin’s argument?