Broadly speaking, liberals emphasise the values of freedom, individual autonomy, tolerance and equality. With this in mind, I wish to examine the following questions: is it possible to justify the existence of state run faith schools in a liberal democratic society? Indeed, is it possible to justify the existence of any faith school in such a society given the risk this kind of education may pose for the future autonomy of children? What qualities must an education system exhibit in order to be deemed liberal, and can faith schools evince these qualities?
These complex questions are entwined in a controversy in contemporary liberal theory; namely, whether autonomy or tolerance is the core feature of liberalism. It will be necessary to answer this question in order to pursue those indicated above. The debate over which value epitomises liberalism is echoed in the Rawlsian distinction between 'comprehensive' and 'political' liberalism. Rawls appears to favour the maximisation of tolerance in the political realm whilst preferring to emphasise the importance of autonomy in the private, moral realm. However, this distinction seems to suffer from a problem of coherence and this will need to be addressed in order to tackle the issue of faith schools and their place in liberal democratic societies.
Many liberal theorists (such as Raz and Berlin) advocate value pluralism; the notion that there are numerous, reasonable (but possibly conflicting) conceptions of the good life that individuals may wish to pursue and in which state interference is not usually warranted. Historically, value pluralists have tended to include religious conceptions of the good life with those which are deemed reasonable. But here a tension becomes apparent; liberals traditionally support the separation of church and state because, inter alia, this separation helps to engender autonomy which facilitates the ability to pursue reasonable conceptions of the good life. However, as many religious groups do not value autonomy as highly as the liberal, by leaving room for individuals to pursue their own conceptions of the good life and according to their deepest beliefs, the liberal-democratic state may end up tolerating (or even endorsing) a myriad of religious practices which are not conducive to the production of autonomy. If autonomy is liberalism's core value, value pluralism will almost certainly undermine its production.
I became particularly interested in the concept of autonomy with reference to paternalism when I was studying for my MPhil. As a qualified primary school teacher, my interest in the development of autonomy in children grew through work in both secular and faith school environments. I also have a keen interest in political philosophy and the philosophy of education. I feel that philosophy ought to have practical value and hope that my research will too.
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