Why John Tory Is Right–and Wrong–about Religious Schools

The great province of Ontario, Canada’s richest and most populous, is in the throes of an election. As many Canadians know, one of the hottest issues in that election is the promise of Conservative leader John Tory to consider funding religious elementary and secondary schools in that province.

As a native of Ontario, a product of its public school (and university) system, and one with some interest in questions of church and state, I’ll offer my full support for John Tory—and my full disagreement with him.

First, then, my support. Tory argues that if the government of Ontario ought to support a Roman Catholic separate school system, as it has for a long time, then it should support other religiously-based schools. It makes no sense in 2007 to continue to cater to the preferences of what used to be the largest religious minority in Ontario without offering similar support to others.

Tory is exactly right. Official support of Ontario’s Roman Catholic system was predicated upon the public system being Protestant, and it has been a long time since that system was even slightly infused with Protestant symbols and values. Instead, the system has been secularized, with secular values (citizenship, environmentalism, mutual respect, etc.) being taught and no religious education at all.

So it is the very definition of anachronism, and one costly in both money and goodwill among non-Catholic Ontarians, for tax dollars to continue to support just one particular religious system. If the state has evacuated the one system of its religious content (Protestanism), it can hardly justify maintaining the religious content of the other.

And here is how Tory is wrong, I believe. He should be saying that the public system is all Ontario needs. It is a system that provides the education the state legitimately requires of its citizens-in-training. Inculcation of religion can happen in the two other institutions well suited to providing it: one’s home and one’s religious community.

Rather than opening up the provincial treasury, then, to every religious group that asks for help–or, worse, opening it up only to those who pass some kind of secular muster (for how can the secular state decide properly which religious groups deserve funding?)–the Catholic system should simply be either entirely funded by that church or secularized and integrated into the public system.

To be sure, however, the public system must make two crucial changes if the concerns are to be answered of many Christians (Catholic and otherwise) and of many other religious people who hope for their own schools.

First, the public system must stop, in fact, inculcating a de facto religion of certain secularist values. It must stop preaching (I use the word advisedly) very particular secularist ethics regarding, say, sexuality, marriage, and family life (which tell children that some legal views are good and other equally legal views are bad); very particular secularist ethics regarding epistemology (which pronounce some legitimate views of rationality and science good and other legitimate views bad–such as whether one can rationally believe in sacred scripture or trust religious tradition); and so on.

Indeed, I want the secular public schools to be more secular, not secularist: to reflect our publicly-held values and only those values, and leave other questions to various religious and philosophical societies for further discussion.

Teachers have plenty to do teaching math, science, literature, music, and so on, plus our secularly-agreed-upon values of honesty, diligence, tolerance of legitimate diversity, enjoyment of positive differences, and the like. They should not be asked to referee on matters of current public dispute, nor should they arrogate themselves the right to pronounce upon such matters to young people who ought to be able to depend on them to provide an education suitable for all citizens, of whatever religious or philosophical outlook.

Second, in such a secular (again, please note: not secularist) school system, we need education about religions as part of the standard social studies curriculum. What do our Hindu neighbours believe and practice, or our Sikh neighbours, or our Jewish neighbours, or our Christian neighbours? (Yes, we need the last one as well, since we are now all strange to each other, and knowledge of Christianity can no longer be assumed of everyone, not even everyone who calls himself or herself a Christian!)

Religion, that is, should be a “teachable subject” in the curriculum, with training to teach it of the same sort as that required to teach English or science. We already offer religious studies degrees in our public universities, so there is literally no problem in supplying teachers for our lower levels, if we will recognize our need for such education.

(I thus am disagreeing with those who think religious education in the public system can be done by having clergy from various religions drop by and represent their faiths. Such visits might be helpfully illustrative, but as career advocates of their respective religions, trained to educate in a quite different venue of church, synagogue, or temple, they cannot be assumed to have the particular pedagogical skills or outlook required to teach properly in a public setting. That’s what religious studies and education departments at universities are for.)

Therefore, if we want to champion a single public system for the whole public, as I do, then that system must stop discriminating against religious views both by advocacy of a particular outlook, secularism, and by ignoring religions as the important social facts they are.

So John Tory is both right and wrong.

And so is the current public school system in Ontario–and in every other province in Canada as well.

0 Responses to “Why John Tory Is Right–and Wrong–about Religious Schools”

  1. Jackie Bolen

    As a product of the Canadian public school system, I know that I would have welcomed education about religion. Many of my neighbors and friends growing up in a big city (Edmonton) were people from different countries who had different religions. In most cases I knew next to nothing about them except the common stereotypes.

    It would have been helpful to get some education in school about their beliefs and thinking so as to move beyond the stereotypes into some sort of real understanding and appreciation. It seems to me that Canada is far from being a “Christian nation” and that our education system should probably be a reflection of this.

  2. Brandon Blake

    John, how is government’s prejudically funding of one system of schools while at the same time it discriminates against all others equal treatment??? When they were Protestant, they were not neutral, nor were they ever neutral when Bible reading was required. Today they are not religiously neutral as “non-sectarian” schools either. In order for government to be truly neutral it should treat all of its citizens evenhandedly without discriminating against any of them for religious reasons.

    Secondly, another big problem I have with this view is that government predefines what is and is not private. What is and is not sectarian. What is and is not religious. The public is secular and the private is religious. On what grounds does the government have to call the public arena a secular thing? On what grounds does government have a right to grant itself monopoly over what it defines as secular? Why should government be able to presume and decide legally that religion belongs primarily to churches or church-related institutions and to the privacy of the individual?

    Lastly, it sees schools as being another arm of the government—an extension of the government. But what is problematic about that is that schools (I speak mostly within a US context here) ran at one time independent of direct government management. Government schools never educated all the children. Education agencies don’t have to be owned and run by the government in order to operate as agencies of an education that performs a public service i.e. there were parochial schools, private and homeschools. Yes, you are not saying this, I know. But if we want to say that we are really interested in what constitutes “publically legitmate schooling?” We need to recognize all agencies especially in the area of funding.

  3. John Stackhouse

    Brandon,

    I’m not defending the past system. I’m explaining why the Roman Catholic system got funded in the first place: because the so-called public system was assumed to be Protestant, and that suited the vast majority of Ontarians, who were one or the other.

    I’m calling indeed for a religiously neutral single system.

    Second, I want the public system to be secular precisely in the sense that the “saeculum” (world) is what we share with all our neighbours. So let’s teach on that common ground. I have explicitly argued against it being secularist (namely, anti-supernatural).

    I don’t follow your point about governments deciding this or that. Of course governments decide these things: that’s what governments do, as representatives of the citizenry. “They” are “us” deciding, no?

    Lastly, I agree that other sorts of school systems have existed. And I’m not saying that they should not exist today. All I’m saying is that I don’t see reason for government to fund them.

    I have heard most or all of the arguments for Christian schools, and some of them make excellent sense. Fine: Let those who feel strongly about them fund them. But I don’t see how the state has a compelling interest to fund them, while the state does have a compelling interest to put its money into the best public system possible, a system that helps us all learn how to be citizens and neighbours together.

    If you retort that the public system doesn’t do that (and I agree that the public systems in both Canada and the U.S. are deeply flawed), then I must say that I still see the better option to be to continue to “salt” and “light” these schools with Christian support and to have the state exercise better its responsibility to provide good schools. I don’t see the answer to be abandonment of the public system by those who can afford to do so.

    There may come such a day when I think things are irremediably bad and escape is the only option left. But I think we’re a long way from there yet–and I say so as a parent whose three sons (all professing Christians, thank God) are public school products as well.

  4. Brandon Blake

    Point by point response.

    John: I’m not defending the past system. I’m explaining why the Roman Catholic system got funded in the first place: because the so-called public system was assumed to be Protestant, and that suited the vast majority of Ontarians, who were one or the other.

    Brandon: Yes, I realize why it got started. Everyone bidding for public funds. Hey if the Protestants can have it, why not us Catholics? Why not us Jews? And nowadays here in Essex County there are cries by Islamic Muslims for Islamic Muslims to have public monies as well. I’m all for it.

    John: I’m calling indeed for a religiously neutral single system.

    Brandon: I say there is no such thing John. Indeed, the public square–the public school system may be naked (anti-supernatural) but it certainly is not neutral. Which brings up the question as to why government continues to assume the role of principal (that is the main player) in education and directs funds in highly disproportionate educational measures to it’s own supposedly non-sectarian schools while the rest get peanuts. An illegitimate religious establishment exists by virtue of the fact that the government grants privileges to its own schools to the disadvantage of nongovernmental schools.

    John: Second, I want the public system to be secular precisely in the sense that the “saeculum” (world) is what we share with all our neighbours. So let’s teach on that common ground. I have explicitly argued against it being secularist (namely, anti-supernatural).

    Brandon: I’m all for there being government run schools. What I would contend for is the public recognition of the distinguishable rights of nongovernmental institutions such as families and schools along with the recognition of governments important responsibility for the public welfare of ALL citizens. What I’m asking is why the government (which is suppose to be concerned for the welfare of ALL citizens–which education is a big part of) should treat its citizens unfairly and discriminatorily on the basis of their religion when the government schools are just as religious!? Government has the responsibility to secure public justice for all of its citizens in the political community.

    John: I don’t follow your point about governments deciding this or that. Of course governments decide these things: that’s what governments do, as representatives of the citizenry. “They” are “us” deciding, no?

    Brandon: The question is not that government makes decisions, the question is why did it prejudicially decide to fund one system and discriminate against all others? And if the government is representative of all us–if it is “us” ultimately deciding, why are some of “us” left out and seen as “opting out” of the public realm if we choose non-state schools?

    John: Lastly, I agree that other sorts of school systems have existed. And I’m not saying that they should not exist today. All I’m saying is that I don’t see reason for government to fund them.

    Brandon: Because all these agencies–government run, church run, private and home schools deserve just and equitable treatment by government.

    John: I have heard most or all of the arguments for Christian schools, and some of them make excellent sense. Fine: Let those who feel strongly about them fund them. But I don’t see how the state has a compelling interest to fund them, while the state does have a compelling interest to put its money into the best public system possible, a system that helps us all learn how to be citizens and neighbours together.

    Brandon: John, schools, families and churches as “agencies of education” can perform and fulfill that public service. The state already recognizes different kinds of educational agencies. It’s NEVER been the case that the state educated all the children. Again, government bears responsibility for the public welfare and well-being of its citizens and as such it should not unjustly discriminate against these agencies that can perform these educational duties best.

    John: If you retort that the public system doesn’t do that (and I agree that the public systems in both Canada and the U.S. are deeply flawed), then I must say that I still see the better option to be to continue to “salt” and “light” these schools with Christian support and to have the state exercise better its responsibility to provide good schools. I don’t see the answer to be abandonment of the public system by those who can afford to do so.

    Brandon: On your first part, yes, I agree with you totally, but that is ultimately not the issue here. But as far as abandoning the public system by those who can afford it? Well, let’s just say that some people who supposedly “abandon” (I don’t even like the language here because the underlying assumption is to see government run schools as the only legitimate **PUBLIC** schools as if families and churches, etc can‘t do the job) can’t afford to pay for the government schools and their own school of choice because their income is insufficient–so they don’t really have a choice. Even those with sufficient income have a hard time paying. But again, I’m not about “abandoning” something considered legit. I’m for recognition of other legitimate agencies.

  5. Tomorrows Trust - A Review of Catholic Education » 30Se07 Blogs Comment on Faith-based Schools Proposal

    […] Why John Tory Is Right-and Wrong-about Religious Schools By John Stackhouse Tory argues that if the government of Ontario ought to support a Roman Catholic separate school system, as it has for a long time, then it should support other religiously-based schools. It makes no sense in 2007 to continue to cater to … Prof. John Stackhouse’s Weblog – http://stackblog.wordpress.com […]

  6. Beth

    Hey Dr. Stackhouse,

    I’ve never commented on here, but you know I enjoy your blog. I found myself nodding along especially with this one – it is helping me sharpen my own views about education.

    My parents placed me in the public system, for which I am grateful. At the city-wide meeting discussing the Saskatoon Board of Education’s decision to remove the Lord’s prayer from our assemblies and classrooms, amid an onslaught of protests from Christian parents, my father was the only one who stood up in support of the Board, for “secular” reasons similar to yours. His thinking has definitely shaped my own.

    Here is my question… if the public system were to rid itself of secularist values and stick to “publicly-held values” like “tolerance of legitimate diversity” and “enjoyment of positive differences,” how do they guard against teaching religious pluralism or relativism? This is what happened in my grade 5 class, when my teacher wrote us a song to sing at the Christmas pageant with a verse about how all religions are different ways to the same truth.

    Also, I’m wondering what happens when you teach values that aren’t grounded in a faith worldview. When I was in school, these values came across as relative, experiential and preference-based, as opposed to the “true” facts you learn in school, like 2+2=4. Our school’s values of choice were “respect, responsibility, excellence and joy” and frankly, they sounded rather lame and were often mocked as the system’s feeble attempt to replace religion with relativistic values.

    One more thing – doesn’t “secular” school also subtly promote compartmentalization and privatized religion, suggesting to students that religion is for private parts of life, and not valid or allowed in public places, like school?

    All of this is not to say I don’t heartily agree with you – I’m just wondering if you could speak to these dangers.

    Also, one glimmer of hope… my brother’s public high school in Saskatoon is offering a World Religions class. 🙂

  7. John Stackhouse

    The public schools, like other public places, do indeed do some bracketing-out of religious differences in order to transact our life with each other on common ground. But that’s no big deal, is it? It isn’t when I buy a shirt, or attend a hockey game, or drive a car–all activities that require a certain sharing of values with my neighbours, but not all values, and particularly not religious values–at least, not in any sense that impinges on those activities.

    This last qualification is the point: Where religious differences make a difference, then they should be allowed to do so in our public life, as in political elections, educational decisions, health care priorities, welfare policies, and the like.

    So what about public schools? I think the overlapping of our various religions’ “Venn circles” will be such that we can offer an adequate science education, mathematics education, literature education, social studies education, and more without deciding upon one religious option or another.

    What about religious relativism? It, of course, is a particular religious option itself, and must be treated as such. So teachers must not teach it as “the proper view” of religious difference. What they must teach is, indeed, both religious difference and genuine religious similarity–by the latter of which I mean religious similarity that a fair-minded and educated practitioner would agree is a similarity (e.g., Islam and Christianity are monotheistic; Buddhism and Hinduism share the karma-dharma complex; Confucianism and Daoism speak of the Dao and of harmony as high values, although they interpret both differently).

    Finally, public schools must no longer be seen as places in which everything of value is being taught. They certainly aren’t. Instead, they must be seen–by students, by the public, by politicians, and by teachers and administrators themselves–in their properly limited role of teaching those things, and in those ways, that are appropriate for them as public institutions.

    They simply must not presume to pronounce on matters upon which Canadians legitimately disagree, and stick instead to those things upon which we have reached a cultural consensus. That’s plenty to do, and schools and teachers overreach and needlessly antagonize parents and pupils when they don’t stick, indeed, to a truly secular curriculum of publicly-affirmed values.

    One last note. I taught religion in a public school for eight years: the University of Manitoba. One can teach a lot about the various religions of the world that is useful to young Canadian citizens and never pronounce upon the ultimate truth of any particular option, including religious relativism.

    And one can do so to the satisfaction of most people in the class, including strong believers in each particular tradition (as it was my privilege to do over those eight years–even at least two Jains, let alone a wide range of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and more).

    So I’m not just hypothesizing: I used to do it.

  8. Jonathan Helmus

    Clarification regarding educational funding:

    In BC, independent schools are 50% government funded. For example, if it costs the government $6000 per student in the public system, the government will provide up to $3000 per student in the private system. With 67,500 independent school students in BC, the government saves over $200M per year by allowing independent schools. Therefore, it can be a misnomer to think that funding independent schools is always a financially-costly decision for government (although 100% funding without a cap could become costly).

    However, thank you for your perspective. I’m still not sure what I think regarding the current system and you have added great information to ponder. I like the concept of a ‘more secular’ public system.

  9. John Stackhouse

    Sadly, Jim Skillen, who has done some good work for the Kingdom on religion and society questions, fails to construe my argument correctly and then insults me in multiple ways, including my being both stupid and imperialistic: http://www.cpjustice.org/stories/storyReader$1512.

    Oh, dear. For the record, Brother Skillen, I am not saying that religion is to be kept entirely private. Nor am I saying that everyone shares my worldview. And I’m not trying to impose my values on everyone else. Okay? I’m not saying any of that.

    What I am saying instead is that governmental institutions ought to manifest our common ethos as a society so that they serve that common purpose and do not exclude or privilege anyone who subscribes to that common purpose.

    Moreover, I am saying that public schools can be and should be such institutions. They can and should operate where the Venn circles of our various ideologies overlap in common education. Too much emphasis on our worldview differences (as per Brother Skillen and other apologists for an atomized educational landscape) can mean that we do not have enough commonality to educate our children together. Well, I think we do. And I think we had better, or I don’t see how we can have a common society.

    Furthermore, public schools can serve the great public good of helping our children gain a common education in both the formal curriculum and in the experience of living constructively with different people. That’s not going to happen if every group with enough money (their own and the government’s) and enough sense of its own difference splits off to do its own educational thing–which is what Brother Skillen seems to desire as an outcome.

    So what I’m saying is that different sorts of institutions can do different sorts of things, and they function best–individually and together–when they do their own things well. Families offer a certain kind of education; so do churches, mosques, etc.; so do public schools.

    I’ve read and heard arguments such as Brother Skillen’s for several decades now and I remain unmoved by them. We simply do share enough common ground (not, notice, “the same worldview”) to educate our children together, and people who would rather we all educate our children in our respective isolated communities I think (let me be blunt) are ultimately betraying both our society and a Christian vision of citizenship and peacemaking in the world.

    That’s what I’m saying. Brother Skillen may not like it, but I hope he will disagree with this line of argument and not the tiresome straw man he easily, and uselessly, knocked over in his own post.

  10. Brandon Blake

    John,

    Ummm…anything not recieving public support is considered private. When the Protestants were in power, they called their schools non-sectarian (though they were’nt) and had a monopoly on the public purse. All others? Take a seat at the back of the bus please. The same went for the nonmajoritarian religions and still does today. That’s not government’s proper role in our highly diverse society.

    Obviously not everyone shares your view of education, but what I think Skillen was referring to was you saying that we all share “common secular values.” It is on this basis that you think common schools should teach and exist. What’s problematic with that is that the question gets raised as to where those values ultimately originate. So if, as you want to say, that public schools must stop teaching secularist ethics on sexuality, marriage and family, (what, are these now not common values?) you’ll need to answer why at the most fundamental and base levels. It is at these levels (of origination and supposedly shared common values) we have the battle going on as translated into the content of schooling. What should and should not be taught. You may say these questions are not within the perview of school systems or governments and should be left to the church and family, etc, but that is beside the point, because one way or another these are being answered in an anti-supernatural way. This is DEEPLY religious John.

    You say that government institutions should reflect our common ethos and not priviledge one over another, but this is in fact what the government is NOT doing. Sure, if you want government schools with their secularist values, fine. But let’s not pretend that THAT is neutral nor pretend that government is being neutral in its dealings with both public and private schools.

    As for our having enough in common, yes we do share a lot but we have many diverse, cultural and moral traditions as well. Schooling has many purposes and parents ought to be able to choose that which is consonant not only with those common convictions but with their deeply held religious, cultural and moral views as well. Again, it is not government who should be the principle party responsible for the education of children.

    Also, you say that common schooling serves the common good through a common education as well as learning to live together. Well, common schooling is no better for serving the common good just as having a common established church is no better for religious diversity. You don’t need this for preparation for civic life.

    I don’t think Skillen or I would have a problem with your third last paragraph at all. He just wonders why government is viewed as being the principled and disproportionately funded party to educate our children.

    Lastly, let me state this bluntly John, how is that YOU are not essentially betraying our society and Christian vision of citizenship and Christian vision of peacemaking–essentially doing what you accuse Skillen of when you say, “Hey, private citizens can have their own schools, let’s just not let the government fund them.” How does that serve the public good? How does that help us live constructively together?

    Very confusing post John. Very confusing.

  11. John Stackhouse

    I’m sure my post is confusing to you, Brandon, given your extreme sectarian views.

    If you assume that we can’t have public schools unless we have not only common values but a common source for those values in a shared religion or ideology, then sure: I make no sense.

    If you assume that our public system is irremediably secularist, not merely secular, then sure: I make no sense.

    If you assume that a single school system is strongly analogous to a single state church, then sure: I make no sense.

    And if you assume that the state has no legitimate interest in the education of its citizens that could possibly interfere with parent’s preferences, then sure: I make no sense.

    But if you don’t make these assumptions, as I don’t, then I trust I do make at least a little sense.

    I agree, though, that my keeping the door open to private schools isn’t philosophically pure. I was trying to accommodate people such as yourself who are adamant about having their own schools. But you’re right: maybe I shouldn’t….

  12. brad

    Okay, here’s a different angle on the issue. The only truly “secular” subjects in school are perhaps mathematics, physics and chemistry. Everything else is inherently coloured by worldview and culture which are typically informed by religion. That’s true either systemically or at the level of the individual (student or teacher). Pragmatically, how do you extract only the non-religious (or non-supernatural) out of English literature when deciding which books to study? And is that really the criterion we want to choose by? But there’s a bigger issue.

    I think saying that we can compartmentalise ourselves (and by extension our societies) into “secular” and “religious” flies in the face of the intent of scripture. In fact, I think it is that attempt at separation (two-facedness) that is the cause of nearly all of our world’s problems.

    It is a goal far too pristine and sterile for me. Real life is far messier. I think students would be better served by helping them deal with the messiness rather than expending so much energy on the impossible task of avoiding it.

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