Tuesday, January 01, 2008

To keep the faith - or not

John Tory and the Conservatives lost October's provincial election, but the debates remain - not only whether to publicly fund one, or any, faith-based school system, but the very place of "religion" within public education. Even if one believes that there ought to be one, and only one, publicly-funded system, it need not follow that the system be entirely secular.

Those who believe that the churches have no place in the schooling of our children will predictably repeat the mantra that "church and state are separate", opting for a laudable principle first enunciated in American constitutional discourse. However, they conveniently forget that "Judaeo-Christian morals" are to be inculcated under Ontario's own Education Act. They suggest that separation of church and state means no religion in schools at all. Period. Thus, Christian prayer groups proceed directly out of the building into the freezing cold to do their god-bothering across the street. As a teacher, I don't want to dissuade freedom of association. And, the current reality in our schools, and indeed in general society, mitigates against having public education exclusively secular.

When arguing against religion in public schools, proponents of secular education offer that our increasing cultural diversity means that we cannot favour any one religion, even a Judaeo-Christian one (despite the Education Act). Ergo, no religion in schools. Ergo, an entirely secular system. However, this fails to recognize that, in insisting on secularism, they are merely substituting one world view for another. The fact that secularism may not call upon supernatural deities or forces does not make it any more valid to be enforced on public education, than is any world view or religion that does. Secular humanism is just as capable (arguably more capable) of marginalizing competing world views as is any religion, be it fundamentalist Islam, orthodox Jewry or Catholicism.

What we should be insisting upon in our publicly-funded schools is religious pluralism. Where, rather than being banished from any form of recognition, faiths are not only tolerated and accommodated, but actually celebrated. I am fortunate to teach in a school (as opposed to a system) where, I firmly believe, we get it right. Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School is a high school in the core of Hamilton that copes with one of the highest rates of poverty and dependence on social assistance to be found anywhere in Canada. However, what our students lack in the usual socio-economic indicators is more than made up for in a thriving climate of spirituality. We have a significant Muslim population, whom are excused from classes every Friday to pray in a common area - within the school! We have the Nya-Weh (Mohawk for "welcome") program where aboriginal students are invited to celebrate their spirituality through programs such as the Drumming Circle, among others. And, yes, every December we gather the entire school community, some 1,000 staff, students and invited guests, in the gym for our annual CHRISTMAS luncheon.

Certainly, the critics may suggest that all such religion, be it Christian, deistic or secular humanism, be simply kept out of the schools and taught in the home. However, in a system that tackles everything from evolution and creationism in the science curriculum to the recent emphasis on "values" education, burying our heads in the sand against the faiths, or lack thereof, that our students are bringing to school on a daily basis is simply a non-starter. We can have it all. By changing our world view of education from one of secular publicly-funded education to one that supports religious pluralism, we can continue to enrich the lives of the students we are teaching. Just ask anyone at Sir John A. Macdonald.

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