Religion and education: On the inclusiveness of public schools

Room for all?

Election campaigns often prove odious affairs, and for religious minorities, Ontario’s provincial election was no exception. Canada’s Liberal party leader Dalton McGuinty, re-elected premier of Ontario last week, successfully exploited the public animus against religious minorities in an effort to convince voters that his party was the better choice. His counterpart John Tory of the Conservative party included as one of his campaign promises public funding for faith-based schooling provided that the teachers were accredited and the schools followed the Ontario curriculum. Tory’s reasoning? A matter of fairness: Catholic schools are publicly funded; children of other religious traditions should expect no less.

McGuinty, whose wife teaches in a Catholic school and who was himself educated there (followed by all of his children) countered by comparing faith-based schooling to segregation, ignoring the various public schools in Ontario that cater to specific demographics and interests – arts schools are but one example. Much of the Canadian public followed McGuinty’s lead, insisting that faith-based schooling was undeserving of public funding and employing arguments that ranged from plain ignorance about the manner in which religious schools operate to outright bigotry towards religious minorities, Muslims in particular.

But simmering beneath the debate about whether or not faith-based schooling deserves public funding is a set of questions no one has yet deigned to ask: Why does a segment of the population persistently eschew public education for faith-based schooling, and what can be done to persuade more religious students that they should enter into the public school system?

It is all too easy to laud the merits of the public school system from within the liberal democratic context, and easier still to denigrate religious schooling. Education plays an important role in the continuance of the liberal democracy, cultivating in young people the values, skills and knowledge that allow them – as political theorist Amy Gutmann puts it – to ‘consciously reproduce their society’. Given the value afforded to public education, it is pertinent to ask why one would want to abandon public education in favour of faith-based schooling.

Let’s reorient the debate and turn the gaze upon ourselves by questioning whether or not we are being hypocritical in the manner in which we critique religious schooling. It is all too easy to condemn religious schooling for alienating students from the wider society; for robbing them of the possibility of interacting and engaging with young citizens who are different from themselves; and for bereaving them of the education that is integral to the development of solid Canadian values.

But are parents with a strong desire to inculcate a distinct religious identity within their children deserving of our criticism? Are they wrong to seek out a space in which their children are perceived as ‘normal’? Is it so pernicious to desire for their children that they do not grow up with a minority complex; that they develop an appreciation for their own particular identity?

Consider the alternative. Yes, we laud the many virtues of the public school system, but is it as neutral as we imagine it to be; is it inclusive and accepting of difference and does it offer a nurturing space for students who are religious?

Many parents who send their children to faith-based schools would respond with a resounding no. They would insist that public schooling has a homogenizing influence upon its students that is narrow-minded and exclusionary. More importantly, they would lament the inability of the public school administration to comprehend the significance of religion in the eyes of members of certain faith groups. Though the public school system is ideally one in which all are shown due respect and offered the opportunity to participate equally, members of the majority are often unable or unwilling to take the perspectives of a minority religious group seriously, exacerbating feelings of alienation, marginalization and disempowerment from the wider school context.

My own experience bears out that reality. I attended a decent high school, and yet I found myself constantly struggling for religious accommodations. For quite some time, I performed my midday prayer with a few other students in a stairwell near the roof because the administrators refused to allow us use of a classroom. The noise and lack of privacy was less of a concern compared to the cold; I found it difficult to concentrate when my teeth were chattering and my fingernails were literally turning blue. I recall too a teacher refusing to allow me to write an exam at an alternate date because it conflicted with a religious holiday. He didn’t understand what right religious minorities had to extra holidays when they were granted Christmas break like everyone else, he announced snidely in front of the rest of the class. This was in high school; more worrisome are the students left to struggle for religious accommodations at the elementary level, when they are younger and even more susceptible to the whims of the administration.

Interestingly enough, though faith-based schools often use the same curriculum as do public schools in Ontario, some students argue that the public school curriculum, which claims neutrality on moral issues, is infused by the instructors with a distinctly anti-religious bend. Even history courses, they would argue, undermines the role of religion. Classes focussing on modern western civilization skip over the important historical contributions of religion. The Enlightenment of rationality and rights was supposed to have shed light upon civilization, thus extinguishing the darkness and sheer ignorance of religion; religion is thus viewed as an opposing and threatening force to the good that the Enlightenment brought forth.

Sex education is another area of concern. Teachers claim that they are not to teach a moral code. By removing morality, however, they often teach sex education in a manner that emphasizes the insignificance of morality. Thus instructors teach all students, regardless of whether they are sexually active or not, how to roll condoms onto bananas. This lesson subtly legitimizes sex for young people – it tells students it is fine to have sex as long as they are careful; one need only learn how to use a condom. Students who do not share that worldview unconsciously normalize sexual promiscuity by way of playing with condoms in the classroom.

Whether it be through subtle pressures – such that students are encouraged to participate in activities that are contrary to their faith, with the assumption being that students who abide closely to religious commitments are being forced to make such decisions by a parent rather than following his or her inner convictions – or through a more serious denigration of students’ comprehensive doctrines by way of the school curriculum, parents worry that the veil of neutrality slips away when it comes to religion, leaving their children alone to grapple with a moral system that not only does not comply with what they are taught at home, but also promotes contempt for religion.

Thus one may lambaste faith-based schooling for being segregationist and exclusionary – and indeed there has been much of those kinds critiques in recent weeks – but the reason faith-based schooling remains an attractive option is in part because of the way in which the public school system is perceived by religious minorities to instill in students values and beliefs that are not just biased, but anti-religious as well. In this manner, public schooling creates in minority religious communities a siege mentality that fosters a sense of powerlessness, insecurity and a preoccupation with one’s own victimization.

No one can reasonably expect the public school system to be perfectly accommodating to all students adhering strongly to their own distinct religious convictions and practices. But fair arrangements can be found if all of the parties involved learn to take the perspective of the other. It is not just the obligation of religiously motivated citizens to tolerate different beliefs; those who are not religious must also understand and take seriously the convictions of religiously motivated fellow citizens, for these individuals are constitutive elements of a liberal democracy. In the public school system, those in positions of authority need to familiarize themselves with their students’ background cultures and the traditional paradigms they bring with them. Students of all stripes need also become religiously literate, and the school curriculum should play an integral role in this aspect of their education. A class teaching religion would be historical and sociological, with its aim being to equip students with the ability to differentiate between and understand various religious practices and beliefs and to judge critically different standpoints and worldviews. In other words, the course would focus on enlarging a student’s mentality regardless of whether or not the student was religious. More than that, however, the entire school experience would be infused with a degree of sensitivity and tolerance that is in keeping with the multicultural heritage of Canada.

Ultimately, the public school system serves as a microcosm of society, whether in Canada or in other Western countries. It is often the first realm wherein children are engaged with a state body. The culture and social norms of the country are inculcated within students through socialization and active teaching from the earliest stages of schooling. Whether they like it or not, children are forced to sit beside other children who may come from completely different cultures and backgrounds. Children discover how to explain their ideas to others and how to listen to opinions that may seem strange or foreign. It is through this process that students are able to explore and expand their awareness of the world.

But beyond being a microcosm, the public school system has a substantive role to play in the development of future citizens who are equipped such that they are able to understand and engage with one another in a more meaningful manner. And to do so, our public system needs to be reconsidered such that it also provides citizens with the background by which they may consider seriously the religious commitments of others.

Safiyyah Ally is associate editor of altmuslim.com and a Ph.D student in Political Science at the University of Toronto. She is the host of “Let the Quran Speak,” a television show that airs Saturdays at 4:00 pm on VISION-TV in Canada.