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Religion: a hindrance and a help for those brought up in it

08 June 2018

Dennis Richards reviews the latest books on education and childhood

PUT quite simply, Educated by Tara Westover is a wonderful read. On the surface, there are marked similarities with Rebecca Stott’s recently published memoir, In the Days of Rain, and the rather more celebrated memoirs of Jeanette Winterson, from Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit onwards.

All of them are, in some way, stories of liberation from childhoods where one variety or another of religious fundamentalism has been the determining environment. Brought up — although that term is hardly appropriate — in a Mormon family, she is clear at the outset that her story “is not about Mormonism. Neither is it about any other form of religious belief.”

Readers may be less sure about that, simply because her father lives his life as if the “Days of Abomination” were just around the corner. This kind of millenarian thinking has received little attention in recent years. But from time to time it is brought forcibly to our attention.

If you are baffled by the enthusiasm of many American Evangelicals and Mormons for President Trump, you need look no further than his decision to move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The return of Jews to Jerusalem — prophesied, as they see it, in the Old Testament — means that the Second Coming of Christ is at hand; think Hal Lindsey and his book The Late Great Planet Earth.

Cynics would note that the President’s move has, conveniently for him, delighted a section of his core voters.

Westover’s father’s paranoia, so evident in her story, will cast a whole new light on the irrationality and brutality that marked her childhood. There is an honesty, too, about her rebellion against an abusive brother: “In families like mine there is no crime worse than telling the truth.” Not until she was 17 was she able to go into a school/college environment. She had a mountain to climb.

A brilliant academic career has followed, thanks to the power of the written word and education. She goes first to the Mormon Brigham Young University, and receives top grades (which explains why she has nothing particularly negative to say about Mormonism). She can now include both Harvard and Cambridge on her CV.

Her autobiography has justifiably topped the New York Times best-seller list. Any sixth-former who feels repressed by a family environment that imposes a credal system of beliefs and conduct, religious or otherwise, will benefit from reading this inspiring volume. I dare say their teachers would enjoy it as well.

AS RECENTLY as 20 years ago, teachers would have had little understanding of the baggage that children bring into school from their backgrounds. The opening sentence of Attachment and Emotional Development in the Classroom, edited by David Colley and Paul Cooper, tells its own poignant story. “For too many children, childhood is a promise [that] society does not keep.”

Some will want to replace “society” in that sentence with “parents”, but for teachers in the classroom it is irrelevant. This volume is superbly researched, and provides the latest word on attachment and attachment disorder.

Every teacher has now regularly to interact with a child who is determined to sabotage, in the most unpredictable way imaginable, any chance of a positive relationship. It is baffling and at times frightening.

The comprehensive nature of the book leads me to fear that, in the present, more practical schemes of teacher training, it will be seen as over-complicated and -theoretical. It would have been a superb primer for a university-based scheme.

There is a wide range of contributors and a wide range of contexts. Using a case-study approach, the volume skilfully moves from theory into everyday practice.

A COMPANION volume, Creating Inclusion and Well-being for Marginalized Students, edited by Linda Goldman, focuses on children who are marginalised through loss, grief, trauma, and shame. As with the previous volume, the approach is academic in the first instance, but has case studies to show how best practice can help children and their teachers caught up in painful situations.

Some readers may be disconcerted by the American framework, unlike the wholly UK context of the other work, but the research and the practice have undoubted international value.



CHILDREN may, of course, feel marginalised for all sorts of reasons. It is fitting, therefore, that, as well as the aforementioned books, Kingsley has also published another volume to help schools to manage “difference”.

Unthinkable 20 years ago, How to Transform Your School into an LGBT+ Friendly Place, by Dr Elly Barnes and Dr Anna Carlile, is an important book, and will help schools to complete their transition into communities where difference is not something to be feared but something to be celebrated.


One aspect will bring a warm glow to readers of this newspaper: “Our research shows us that faith schools and schools serving faith communities tend to achieve great success with their Educate and Celebrate programmes. Faith schools already tend to be very good at pastoral care.”

The next stage of learning in relation to transgender (or non-binary) students may prove tricky, if only because our language is very much framed in binary terms. Pronouns are particularly difficult: I am not sure yet that “they laugh at themself”, for example, will catch on. Or how about “Ey laughs at emself”? And then there’s “Eir”, “Hir”, and “Ze”. I think I have some way to go.

Tara Westover
Hutchinson £14.99

Attachment and Emotional Development in the Classroom
David Colley and Paul Cooper, editors
Jessica Kingsley Publishers £19.99

Creating Inclusion and Well-being for Marginalized Students
Linda Goldman, editor
Jessica Kingsley Publishers £23.99

How to Transform Your School into an LGBT+ Friendly Place
Dr Elly Barnes and Dr Anna Carlile
Jessica Kingsley Publishers £14.99

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