In defense of faith-based schools

Catholic system fosters diversity, tolerance and good values

By Richard Shields  THESPEC.COM
HAMILTON, Dec 13, 2013 

Is it really time for one school system in Ontario, as local writer Michelle Zimic argued on this page earlier this week?

In fact, we already have a single system, made up of several different systems — linguistic, denominational, and cultural. The single system is represented by the Ontario Ministry of Education, with its funding capacity and regulatory authority.

The Ministry of Education does not have a policy that requires educational outcomes to be "secular" but, rather, a manifold of content and outcomes that are seen as socially valuable. The fact that Catholic systems meet and/or exceed the standards and expectations of the province of Ontario ought, in itself, to be justification for being funded by the government. But the conversation about education ought to go further; and explore the value of diversity and nuance in educational organization.

Zimic's argument for the suppression of Catholic school boards is based on three assumptions: (a) that faith-based schooling undermines social cohesion; (b) that a single system of secular schools would contribute more to society than religious schools; (c) that amalgamation would be cost-effective.

To claim that religious schools instil intolerance and cause divisiveness in society simply has no foundation in fact.

In fact, there is no proof that faith-based schooling is the source of division and intolerance in society. A recent study (Cardus Education Survey 2012) proves just the opposite. Graduates of faith-based schools participate fully and responsibly in Canadian society and make significant political, social, and economic contributions to the common good.

Religion is a fact of life in modern pluralistic democracies. Religious education, rooted in the moral traditions of the world's great religions provides an ethical framework for citizenship and situates education within a global context that expands, not narrows, the horizons of young people. To claim that religious schools instil intolerance and cause divisiveness in society simply has no foundation in fact.

The writer's claim that "a single school system will bring families and children together with a common interest" is contradicted by educational research showing a breakdown of the school-family-community triad. The reasons for that breakdown and the difficulty in responding effectively to the challenges it poses to education are not likely to be addressed by suppressing any single school system. Indeed, the effective co-operation of family, school and community is more likely to be found in private schools and faith-based schooling.

The writer's underlying argument would appear to be that the secular state must provide a secular education and only a secular education to its citizens. This opens the thorny question of the relation of state and education. A secular state, as understood in Canada, is pluralistic and democratic. While Church and State maintain a realistic distinction, secularity in Canada does not imply the religious neutrality of the body politic or civil society. However, the secularity of the state is often misinterpreted to mean that religion is a strictly private affair, even an irrational or outdated orientation that should not influence what happens in the public sphere.

In reality, religion is a social and public phenomenon. People of faith have not only a right to their private opinions, but the freedom to publicly participate in religion as a visible and real community within the larger pluralistic community of Canada.

An essential part and integral component of the body politic is the family, of which education — schools and schooling — is an extension. Parents have a right to educate their children in a way that does not force them to choose between general education and formation in the beliefs and practices of their religious tradition. Faith-based schools in Ontario foster the integral education of the whole person. What makes religious schools "religious" is not simply classes in doctrine or initiation into faith practices, but the kind of place the school is, and the religious beliefs and values that shape it.

Not just Catholic, but Christian, Jewish, and other faith-based schools in Ontario are committed to be places of openness to others, where possibilities of faith and secular life are integrated. They aim to reflect and build on the educational values and goals that are held by the parents and to prepare children for an active role in society.

In a strange turnabout Zimic suggests that if Catholic schools are educating children better than the public schools, then the Catholic model ought to be adopted for all public education. This, unfortunately, would require the removal of the dynamic of religious faith that drives the Catholic system. Perhaps the writer's observation points instead to a need for some transcendent value system to animate the public school system. At any rate, if oranges and apples are both nutritious, why can't we enjoy the benefits of both!

Finally, the writer asserts that amalgamation actually cuts costs, a claim yet to be verified by the amalgamation of hospitals, schools boards, and municipalities.

Richard Shields, PhD, lives in Dundas. He teaches theology at University of St. Michael’s College/University of Toronto.

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