Thursday, July 26, 2007

Same old story, creating cohesive societies by promoting faith schools - secterianism in action

Quite incredibly so, from the UK to Canada to Australia and South Africa, in many countries the struggle to build cohesive societies continues. It all ranges from some kind of free-for-all multi-culti to lessons in 'localness' (eg Britishness as proposed a while ago by Gordon Brown, the current Prime Minister of the UK). I have supported in the past this idea not because I am a particularly strong nationalist (I'm not sure these days which nation would be 'mine' anyway). However, much is to be said in favour of aiming to ensure that recent migrants into the country at least have a clear understanding of what the basic values of their new country are, how its fundamental institutions function, and they should be taught (compulsorily, if need be) the predominant language of the place they chose to call their new home.

I am a strong supporter of public school education (as in publicly funded schools) precisely because they're any society's best shot at building a cohesive society (at least in the minds of kids going to school). Faith based schools, in that sense, are the last thing one would want to see. In a way, they constitute a form of child abuse as children are ideologically brainwashed while they're most susceptible to such influences. This harsh terminology I owe to Michael Selgelid, a good colleague of mine. He's right though. Everyone is entitled to choose any or no religion for themselves, but to permit proponents of such ideologies free access to children for extended periods of time, by means of their school education, is surely abusive at best. Tony Blair's city academies, for that reason along are terrible news. Surely segregation is fostered as opposed to reduced in societies following this path.

In Ontario the conservatives, fishing for the religious vote, promised to provide taxpayer's funds to faith based schools should the provincial voters elect them to office. Of course, this is in breach of a very important principle of modern democracy, that of the separation of state and church(es). Recent internet polls in Canada suggest that those against such measures are in the high 70% bracket, but the question is how reliable such polls are.

One of my colleagues, Professor James Miller, published this response to the conservative's proposal:

'John Tory deserves credit for tackling the problem of religious education in our public school system. But what our children desperately need is not religious education but rather education about religion. They need to become literate in the world's religions, and more aware of the beliefs, values and practices that shape contemporary Canada. To do so requires presenting these religions in a neutral light, something the public system, not religious schools, can best guarantee.' (Toronto Star)

Miller is right, of course. What is interesting is that precisely this rationale has been implemented in South Africa. Former education minister Kader Asmal (at one point a professor of education at Edinburgh University, no less) has introduced religious education in the standard curriculum of all public schools. Kids are not herded there thru the type of religious 'education' that I was subjected to in a Catholic primary school back in Germany (Catholic priest, yep, middle-aged guy in colourful dress, confession and singalongs included), rather they're informed about the history and content of the major religions. The result is that all children in the country end up having a better understanding of both their own religion as well as their friends' religion. They also are so enabled to make up their own mind as to which religion (or none) to adopt. In a liberal democracy providing public school education that is where the matter should end.

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