No need to fear faith-based schools

By  Michael Higgins
  • September 18, 2007

{mosimage}The Toronto Star’s Web Forum was neatly categorical. The online results to the question “Should the province fund faith-based schools as John Tory has suggested?” were a staggering 71 per cent No and 28 per cent Yes. What happened to the remaining one per cent is anyone’s guess.

The Globe and Mail delights in disclosing its “enlightened” view on faith-based schools with depressing regularity — editorials, articles, columns and letters to the editor. It roundly and righteously proclaims: “As we struggle to avoid the polarization of ethnic and religious minorities, governments should not be contributing to it by encouraging kids to interact only with members of their own faith.” Who can argue with such sweet reason, they imply.

Well, let’s try.

Embedded in the Globe’s position is the unchallenged working assumption that faith equals indoctrination and that indoctrination equals intolerance and so, therefore, any measure that guarantees religion’s containment is critical. Because religion or faith is a private matter, religious adherents of any persuasion must do their work in the shadows, away from the public square, isolated in their quarters, dependent exclusively on internal funding, far from harm’s way. In short, the public needs to be protected from religion.

This dogmatic conviction is absurd but for reasons that continue to elude me seems to enjoy general acceptance. Do we have empirical and scientifically verified evidence that by marginalizing religion, isolating faith as a lethal virus and ensuring that public funding for any faith-based initiative or institution, particularly educational, is vigorously circumscribed, we will have social and political peace? Why do we assume that it is self-evidently true, indeed axiomatic, that when people of a shared faith come together to celebrate, transmit to the next generation and witness to the values and tenets that define their distinctiveness, such gatherings or structures are by their nature agents of segregation and division?

Ottawa resident Qumers Wejdan, writing to the Ottawa Citizen, puts it more brazenly and in my view more honestly than most editorialists when he notes, betraying his own unexamined biases, that “simply stated, the crushing reality is that religion and faith, with their inherent restrictions on knowledge and ideas, have no place in our school system, which is supposed to foster creativity and advancement among the younger generation.”

Do parents who send their children to faith-based schools — Roman Catholic, Mennonite, Jewish, Christian Reformed, Sikh, Muslim, etc. — actually believe that by doing so they are unwrapping the social fabric of Canadian life, that they are erecting obstacles to learning, fostering intellectual obscurantism, crushing creative thinking and advocating censorship? Do the teachers who work in such “systems” imagine that they are nothing more than guardians of unassailable truth?

Undoubtedly, there are “religious” schools that are narrowly sectarian, subordinating  learning to orthodoxy and creedal purity. But their number is minute. Faith-based schools operate on principles of social responsibility, fully recognizing the value of a genuinely multicultural environment, and are committed to the enrichment and not impoverishment of the larger community by resisting the easy homogenization of values that many see, wrongly, as progress. If what we treasure in Canada is the depth and perduring richness that comes from genuine diversity, why would we oppose public support for those institutions that underscore the gift that is the Canadian mosaic?

The lead editorial of the Ottawa Citizen for Aug. 20 got it perfectly right when it stated that “faith-based schools are the favoured instrument for preserving religious and cultural traditions while simultaneously teaching children all they need to know to become Canadian doctors and lawyers, writers and electricians, politicians and police officers.” And, moreover, “just like Roman Catholic parents, non-Catholics want to do this in a way that does not compromise their children’s identity as Canadians.”

How is this unpatriotic or anti-social?

On a personal note, I am the “product” of a Catholic elementary school, a public secondary, a Catholic undergraduate university and a very secular graduate school, and none of these institutions was a breeding ground of intolerance, especially the Catholic ones. So I need proof, not rhetoric or political partisanship, to convince me that a faith-based education is a breeding ground of bigotry and, therefore, should be deprived of public funding.

Catholic educators, in particular, should be vigilant in arguing for the inherent value of faith-based schooling, eschewing arguments that are primarily constitutional in nature and historical in origin. Either faith-based education works to strengthen a democratic and pluralistic society or it does not, and if it does (and I am persuaded it does, and the evidence is there for the taking) then we should challenge boldly and directly the fallacious arguments advanced by the vested interests that see in faith-based schools the spectre of jihadism, threats to public school hegemony, or a redoubt of privilege and exceptionalism.

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