When I lived in Outremont, in Montreal in the seventies, I found myself caught in what I thought was a ridiculous situation, thanks to an education system divided up by religious faiths.
Our children at first went to an ordinary public school, effectively a school for English-speaking students, but under the name of the Protestant School Board.
The pupils at this school were mostly Greeks (53 per cent), Moroccan Jews (17 per cent), Chinese 14 per cent, and English-speaking a mere 10 per cent.
From the ethnic point of view, this was a great mixture. But from the point of view of education, it left much to be desired, because the Greek parents, who dominated the Parent-Teachers Assn, believed that an education was obtained by banging their kids over the head, and forcing knowledge into them.
However, that is not the subject of this piece. This is about religion, and the curious insistence of so many parents that their children are, as Richard Dawkins says in a recent documentary film he has made, the property of their parents, who have the unchallenged right to decide for their children what they should be taught to believe.
In our street, our next door neighbour’s kid went to a French-language Catholic school. Opposite us lived a Jewish family whose children went off somewhere every morning to a Jewish confessional school, and never seemed to return at any time that made it possible for them to play with neighbouring kids.
I remember thinking: this is a berserk way to educate our young, to shut them up with teachers whose purpose in life, basically, is to differentiate the kids from their neighbours, and teach them to stand aloof and have a suspicious and critical attitude towards the children next door. Catholic, Jew, Protestant --- these were the worst possible criteria, in my mind, for educating our children.
Unhappy with the Protestant system, my wife decided to teach our children at home for a year or so, and then, we tried to enroll them in the Catholic school, although they were neither French nor Catholic, believing this to be the best way to ensure they learned to speak French.
At first, they were rejected. Amazingly, for an educational institution, the Catholic school board wanted no part of English-speaking students. Indeed, they were so firmly opposed to educating anyone other than pur laine French Quebecers, that they had already rejected the large community of Moroccan Jews, even though their children were already French-speaking.
A year later, we tried again, and this time our children were accepted. Apart from another family of three English kids, ours were the only Anglophones in the entire student body.
Taught mostly by nuns, they were shoved at the back of the class and virtually ignored, but they did learn French, in the playground, from their fellow-students. They had rather a hard time of it especially the two whom we threw in, as it were, from the deep end, so that they found themselves in a totally alien environment with a language being babbled at them of which they knew not a single word.
My youngest son, at the age of six or seven, was taught by a tiny nun of about 4 ft 8 ins, and he would return home day after day snarling and cursing: “I hate that shrimpy fucking nun!”
Around about this time, the Quebecers realized that the world was passing them by, and they should open their schools to the foreigners among them. So eventually they set up remedial classes which required that my two youngest were sent to the east end to share a school with French students of the lower income groups. One of the features of French, Catholic education for my sons was that they had to undergo frequent fights picked with them by the locals. (Eventually, Quebec, in which the Catholic church had totally dominated education, rejected the confessional system, and established the country’s most determinedly non-confessional system.)
Dawkins in his documentary signals how far this situation has evolved in what I would consider the negative way in England, where, he says, now one of every three schools in the country is a “faith school” which is totally funded by the public purse.
I was brought up in New Zealand in an era when our education system, reformed by the Labour government, was becoming the admiration of the English-speaking world. Normally, children went to the public schools, managed by the national Department of Education and funded by the central government. People, like Catholics, who wanted their children educated in their faith, were free to do it, but had to pay for it themselves.
That is a system that I believe should prevail everywhere, but in recent years, as the populations of immigrants from different religions has expanded, greater pressure has been brought for state funding of this special educational choice.
This resulted last Ontario election in the proposal of the Conservative candidate to extend funding to other faiths besides the Catholic, to which funding, on ostensible constitutional grounds, was extended by Premier Bill Davis, some years ago. This was the issue on which the Tory candidate, John Tory, lost the election, his option for religious funding being rejected by the population at large.
This result confirms a point made by Dawkins in his film, “Faith Schools Menace?” It is commonly said that the population approves funding for faith schools, But Dawkins had an opinion poll done for his film by a reputable organization, who reported that 59 per cent believe taxpayer funding should be only for non-confessional schools.
The arguments made by Dawkins for his belief in denying funding for religious education will be well-known to most people reading this site. In England, the prevalence of confessional schools has in effect discriminated against children of non-religious families, many of whom have to travel long distances, past many confessional schools, to find a school that is open to them. He quotes parents who, in the hope of getting into what they think are the best schools, have faked being Catholics, and others who have actually converted to the faith to get their kids into the schools. He quotes authorities who say that education carried out independently of religion is a better education in every way. It grants children the freedom not to be indoctrinated, not have a fixed set of values shoved down their throats, allows them to learn with truly open minds. And certain research has been done that indicates that examination results are more dependent on the wealth or status of the family than on any other factor, religious or non-religious.
He studies the curricula of faith schools, and discovers that under the rubric of R.E. --- Religious Education --- are normally included many subjects that non-religious people would consider belong in the sciences or humanities, although in these schools their teaching is tinctured with the beliefs of the religion.
He has an interesting dialogue with the head of Catholic education in Northern Ireland, who kept asking him if he did or did not accept the right of parents to decide about the education of their children. His answer was that children are not the property of their parents, to be indoctrinated as the parents wish. They have the right to be educated to think and be critical. He asked the educator if he regarded the situation in Northern Ireland, in which the inculcation of tribal divisions begins in the nursery, and children in either of the faiths usually never have a chance to meet children of rival or contending faiths, as a desirable outcome of confessional schooling.
Similarly, he talked to a teacher of a Muslim school in Leicester, England, who claimed that their students were exposed to all information about controversial subjects, such as evolution. Yet it was clear from Dawkins’ conversation with her and her students, that these children were being inculcated with unscientific views of evolution, heavily dependent on Muslim attitudes.
Although the Ontario election result does give us some reason to hope, the evidence seems to be that the humanist cause has lost ground in recent years, and can be expected to continue losing ground.