Education: No sex please, we're Brethren

Teaching the children of a religious order can be tricky. Especially if the subject is biology.
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The Independent Culture
Every teacher has his or her most difficult class: a group that drove you to distraction and put you on the verge of leaving teaching. Mine did none of the conventional things; they did not scream, nor riot, nor misbehave in any way. They were the complete opposite, they were very polite and their behaviour was virtually impeccable.

It began when the college where I worked received a contract to teach a small group of Plymouth Brethren on their own site. Classes were to be exam oriented and very small. "A piece of cake" was the general verdict in the staff room.

Initial contacts were very deceptive. The church elders, the parents (there were always some at the school) and the students could not have been more friendly. Then came the first discussion on teaching methods. The elders laid down that there was to be no use of computers and the Internet, no access to television, video or newspapers, no trips to the theatre and, above all else, no questioning of the Brethren's views. (I should add here that these are the views of only some of this group; there have been some schisms and divisions.)

Arguing was useless. For instance, you could point out that computers already worked many things in their lives - telephones, traffic lights and the bill at the supermarket - but no alteration could be contemplated.

Fresh battles loomed on the choice of books for the A-level English literature and language class I was to teach. Any mention of sex or contact between the sexes wasbanned. Out went old standbys, such as Sons and Lovers and Cider With Rosie. Eventually a list was drawn up. Violence and retribution were acceptable, so no problems with Macbeth and Hamlet. No frissons of sexuality could be found in Great Expectations, although there were some marriages. (We were not allowed to see the David Lean version on video.) Truman Capote's classic description of a gruesome murder and the execution of the killers, In Cold Blood, was deemed fine. "But remember", I was told, "no visits to the theatre".

"Could we do any acting in the classroom?" I inquired. "Out of the question," came the stony reply.

My biggest battle occurred over a collection of women's short stories. Initially it was deemed satisfactory but another check revealed the dreaded no-go area of sexuality. When I returned to the classroom the following Monday, I found that a hidden hand had removed over half the stories. Any protest or argument was in vain. Pointing out that in some years the exam board had asked candidates to comment on stories that had been removed proved pointless. "The children", I was told, "must not be corrupted." (Most of "the children" were 17 or 18.)

If all of this summons up visions of stereotypical bigots, nothing was further from the truth. The instructions were delivered in a very courteous and measured tone over a cup of tea. The manner was apologetic, but the directions could not be questioned.

Nothing about the school proved in any way conventional. Everything was spotless, there was no graffiti in the lavatories. The tuck shop ran on a trust basis with purchasers putting their money in a tin and giving themselves change. Nobody contemplated cheating. There was little noise and no rushing. In some ways it was like being in a 1950s musical. The boys wore ties, jackets and pressed trousers. The girls had skirts down to their ankles, socks and no make up. Their hair was always covered by a headscarf. Students stood up when the teacher came into the room. When they said Sir or Miss, they meant it.

Teaching was completely different to anything that I had done before. Discussion was out of the question; the class wanted you to tell them the "right" answer. They were very respectful and very quiet, especially the girls, who were very timid indeed. They could all be very childish but also very innocent. Outside, reading their Bibles, sat the parents and the elders.

The students' knowledge of the world was very limited. Virtually all of their socialising was done with other members of the church. Indeed, everybody seemed to be related to everybody else. Members of the group only worked for firms run by the Plymouth Brethren. Women gave up all forms of outside work on getting married. Men and women tended to marry young. Nobody went to university or any outside educational establishment. They seemed very removed from the world; they did not vote and took no interest in current affairs. The parents ran their own businesses and, judging by their cars, they were very successful.

The biggest problems occurred in the parts of the course that required discussion. The concept was virtually unknown, as well as many of the topics. This section was very media oriented and was difficult for a group who had virtually no contact with it. Essay titles, like "Discuss what should be shown on children's television", were almost impossible for a group which never watched TV.

One question asked the group to analyse an advertisement about a woman teacher putting a hot casserole in an oven and commenting how nice it was to work and produce a hot meal for the family. The questions asked inevitable questions about gender roles. The reaction of the boys and girls was simple and unquestioning, "women should stay at home after marriage". When asked why, they simply replied, "That's what we believe and that's what the Bible says".

Another question asked for their views on capital punishment. The group looked incredulous: "We believe in it and the Bible says so". In vain, mentions of the New Testament produced no change. In the end one of the elders came in and began to read passages from the Bible. We never did the essay; there seemed little point.

The Brethren were content with their world and their fundamentalist view of it. For me it challenged almost everything that I stood for. I never did bridge the gap and found myself compromised personally and professionally.

Only one student passed the A-level. I decided that she was something of a freer spirit. In a web of conspiracy, I deliberately left my unexpurgated copy of the women's short stories on my desk and saw her put it in her bag. She kept it for a week and then returned the book to my desk. I sometimes wonder what became of her. I suspect that she found it even more difficult to bridge the gap than I did.