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03 Oktober 2007 @ 22:23
What's so special about faith, anyway?  

I should begin by clarifying the question in the title of this post. Faith is, of course, something of great personal spiritual significance to those who have it; what I want to know is, what is so special about faith from the point of view of public policy?

John Tory, the not quite eponymous leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, has recently backed down from his previous plan to extend public funding of religious schools (on which see, inter alia, this Jaköbische rant). Tory has now said that he would allow a free vote on the matter, which in practice is likely to mean that the proposal will fail even if his party were to win the election next week.

The current system, in which taxpayers get to indicate whether they wish to support the regular public school system or the Catholic "separate" schools, makes no sense whatsoever synchronically. The system exists because it was a political necessity at an earlier point in Canadian history; it continues because any party that tried to abolish the separate school system would alienate large numbers of Catholic voters.

Obviously, the present system is unfair; it grants a privilege to one religion that is withheld from all others. As Jake points out, Tory's approach is one—the stupid one—of two possible principled solutions. It would eliminate (or at least reduce) the unfair discrimination among faiths that exists under the present system. What it would not do, though, is eliminate the unfair discrimination in favour of faiths as against other kinds of beliefs.

Me, I'm an atheist. I also don't have children. But if I did have children, I wouldn't want to send them to an atheist separate school, nor do I want my tax contributions to go to such a school. This is partly because I don't want anything to do with any school that tries to indoctrinate students with any kind of beliefs about any religious propositions, even beliefs that I happen to agree with. (The other part of it is that atheism is really too simple to be spun out into a whole curriculum of (ir)religious instruction—what do you do, have the kids kneel down five times a day facing the Galapagos Islands and recite the words "There is no God full stop"?)

So I want my hypothetical children and my actual tax dollars to go to secular schools. But that doesn't necessarily mean schools that are just like the current Ontario public schools; religious instruction is not the only kind of instruction that concerned parents or taxpayers might want made available as part of their (community's) children's education. I think I would like to send my real money and imaginary offspring to a feminist school, or even an entire feminist school system. And, under John Tory's plan for Ontario's schools, why on earth shouldn't there be such a system, run on funds that would otherwise have gone to the public schools? If Tory wants to divert money not only to Catholic schools but also to Protestant schools and Muslim schools and Jewish schools and Sikh schools and so on, why not to feminist schools as well? Or how about schools that teach linguistics in addition to the regular Ontario curriculum? If religious schools are accorded this special status (and this cash), why only religious schools?

Obviously, feminism and linguistics are different from religion. Neither of them requires any belief in the supernatural; they are firmly grounded in observable reality, supplemented in the case of feminism by a certain sense of what constitutes fairness and justice. And there's really nothing about feminism or linguistics that would be contrary to the mandate of the public schools, so you could say that what I really should be doing is advocating that the public schools become more feminist in outlook and start teaching linguistics. This is probably true. But my question for John Tory (and the two or three other people in the province who actually think his plan is a good idea) is, what's so special about religion that people should be allowed to take their money out of the public schools if and only if they want it to go to religious schools instead?

If we think about the financial upshot of Tory's plan, it turns out to be very similar to previous proposals, by various large- and small-c conservative politicians, to introduce vouchers or tax credits for parents to send their children to private schools. In every respect in which it differs from those proposals, it seems to me to be even worse:

  1. The public schools would lose revenues not only from parents who actually send their children to religious schools, but also from other taxpayers who chose to support one of the separate school systems instead of the public one.
  2. Instead of simply signing away money to parents, the provincial government would be taking on the burden of arranging to fund an uncertain number of separate school systems, deciding which ones had enough of a supporting community to be viable, and so on.
  3. Only religious schools would be eligible.

Politicians who advocate for private-school vouchers argue that they are a means of providing "choice" in education. John Tory's plan is tantamount to a voucher system in which the vouchers could only be used at religious schools—a thoroughly arbitrary limitation of choice, and one that would, if introduced in that form by the legislature, almost certainly be challenged in the courts under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Tory's proposal deserves all the derision it has received and more. I'm glad to see that he won't be requiring his MPPs to vote for it, but why should he even waste their time by bringing it forward for them to vote on it?

Meredith L. Pattersonmaradydd on 4. Oktober, 2007 10:37 (UTC)
The Linden School looks interesting, but I think I'd like it better if its curriculum didn't sound so insipid. (Perhaps it's just the wording of the descriptions in the "school tour" section, but the book list -- particularly for high schoolers -- does seem a bit thin, particularly in the literature department. Shakespeare in 7th and 8th grades is cool, though.)

With all the focus on collaborative work, I also wonder how they handle the inevitable situation where most of a class singles out one girl as the "weirdo" and conspires to make her miserable at school, which was pretty much my experience up through about grade 11. Or, for that matter, how they would respond to a girl who wanted to work on a project by herself. I'm all for more feminism in the school system, but the feminist educators I've read seem to assume "girls will *of course* work together and treat each other nicely if they're in a nurturing feminist environment" as an axiom, and fail to consider the very real problem of girl-on-girl bullying. (To be fair, though, I haven't really kept up on the field since about 2001.)
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 4. Oktober, 2007 18:40 (UTC)

I'm sort of hoping that someone with much more extensive knowledge of the Linden School than mine will step in here, but my impression, for what it's worth, is that the school mostly gets it right. There is a certain amount of insipid—and essentialist—nonsense, but I think that's greatly outweighed by serious academic content, and the school seems to do a really good job of encouraging girls to be assertive and equipping them to deal with problems that get ignored by the public schools. I also have the impression that they deal with conflicts among the students in a much more open and thoughtful way than many schools—they don't just assume that everyone will get along, and when students don't get along, they try to work out what the problem is rather than either ignoring bad behaviour or punishing it without discussion. (I think this is as much because it's a very small school as because it's a feminist school; everyone knows everyone else.)

All of this, of course, is just my sense of the place as someone who has had only tangential connections with it, but I do know two people for whom the Linden School was an important part of their education, so perhaps one of them will comment here and give you an alumna's view.

w1ldc47w1ldc47 on 4. Oktober, 2007 21:08 (UTC)
Alumna checking in here.

I started to reply this morning, but I was running late and had to stop before I got it all said. Q's assessment is more or less right. I got the impression, working there last school year and this summer, that there's less essentialist nonsense these days and much more focus on what the research actually says about girls' education.

It's certainly possible to be the weirdo outcast there but it wasn't nearly as bad for me there as it was at public school. Part of that, as Q points out, has to do with the small size enabling problems to be dealt with in a personalized manner, but that's not all. The school has a strong focus in all the classes (where it's relevant) on social justice, anti-discrimination and anti-oppression, and general awareness of the implications of one's actions. IME, just the fact of that emphasis creates an atmosphere where picking on people for being different is less acceptable. I can certainly assure you that the faculty have no illusions about how girls treat each other.

WRT the booklist, I don't know how valuable my opinion is because I'm not really a literature wonk*, but I found having lots of non-canon material to be a plus, not a minus, even if it was at the expense of a lot of canon, since women-centered/authored/relevant books tend not to be canon, almost by definition. I mean there's no denying that The Color Purple (which I read in grade 10 or 11) or A Handmaid's Tale (currently required in grade 11) or even Alison Bechdel's Fun Home (on last year's grade 9 or 10 curriculum) are important books that it is entirely appropriate to teach from, especially for teenage girls. If those books are non-canon I think that says more about who's deciding what qualifies as canon than about the worth of the books, you know? But like I said, I what do I know? I'll see if I can get the other alumna (who actually knows a thing or two about literature) to weigh in.

Mostly, I found Linden's value came in teaching all the girls who studied there that, as human beings, we had a right to ourselves. That our minds and bodies are our own, and that we have a right to be seen and heard, is, I think, not taught to most teenage girls.

*can wonk be used wrt literature?
(Anonym) on 4. Oktober, 2007 23:46 (UTC)
Other alumna checking in. I'll try not to repeat too much of what the first one said. Pretty much all of it was stuff I wanted to say too.

Regarding the quality of the education, when I started university, I kept hearing from profs and academic advisors that I would have to learn how to learn all over again because all I did in high school was repeat information that my teachers had told me, and that the study skills I had in high school wouldn't work. I found that to be completely false, and realized that the level of critical thinking expected of me in my courses was no different from what had been expected of me at Linden. Also, for what it's worth, two of the text we studied in grade 12 English showed up in third year university English courses that I took. I think that the book list looked a little short, but I'm assuming that there's more than that and it just wasn't listed for some reason. They do teach a lot of literature that isn't in the canon, which I think of as a good thing, since it exposes students to texts that they otherwise might never see, and encourages discussion about why certain groups are traditionally listened to more that others.

As for the essentialist nonsense, there has been some of that for sure, but the main idea is that different people have different learning styles, and they need to be accomodated. When they talk about collaboration, my feeling is that they mean the learning happens in a collaborative way; discussions and questions are an essential part of every class, and students are encouraged to talk about the material and work together. There is some required group work (as I assume there is in any school), but students are really responsible for their own work.

What Linden also does that I find truly amazing (along with teaching girls about their right to their minds and bodies) is instill a sense of social responsibility without compromising their academic standards. Students are expected to be active members of their community, and also complete their (good quality) work on time.

A lot of people get turned off because of the word feminist, and I think that has a lot to do with how people often use the word, which can be misguiding. The idea isn't that women should be listened to more than men because they're nicer and don't make wars and have a maternal instinct and all get along (the people who work at Linden know that's not true), but that certain groups, including but not limited to women, have not been listened to historically, and their voices are just as important as the ones that are heard all the time. This is also applied to education and learning styles, so even if one way of teaching has been accepted as good, the teachers are expected to adapt their methods so that they are actively teaching everyone.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 5. Oktober, 2007 22:58 (UTC)

Thanks to both of you for commenting!

When I started university, I kept hearing from profs and academic advisors that I would have to learn how to learn all over again because all I did in high school was repeat information that my teachers had told me, and that the study skills I had in high school wouldn't work. I found that to be completely false, and realized that the level of critical thinking expected of me in my courses was no different from what had been expected of me at Linden.

I had a similar experience when I started at (the same) university, coming from a public school system outside of Ontario. It was alarming advice, but what was even more alarming was the fact that it actually seemed to be true for some of my university classmates. And it seems to be true for some of my students now. This makes me very, very worried about the state of the Ontario public (and separate) schools.

w1ldc47w1ldc47 on 10. Oktober, 2007 14:31 (UTC)
It's funny, I don't remember getting that advice when I first went to (a non-Ontario) university.
(Anonym) on 29. Marts, 2013 18:24 (UTC)
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