September 27, 2007
Religion and Education in Ontario
— Michael Sohn
While much media attention has been focused on the 2008 presidential elections here in the United States, political battle lines are also being drawn by our neighbors to the north. In the upcoming Ontario provincial elections, set for October 10, the place of religion in education has become a divisive and defining issue.
The basic debate revolves around whether non-Catholic, faith-based schools ought to be publicly funded. Currently, Catholic schools (due to historical circumstance) and public schools are funded by taxpayers' money. Dalton McGuinty, the current premier of Ontario and leader of the Liberal Party, supports maintaining the current system. John Tory, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and the main opposition to the incumbent leadership, has supported as part of his platform the idea that non-Catholic faith-based schools also ought to be included in public funding. He reasons that "we need to achieve more effective integration of Ontario 's increasingly diverse student population into the mainstream of our province."
Each position has its own merits and demerits. The advantage of McGuinty's position is its commitment to the assumed equal worth of all individuals. (Of course, despite his explicit support for the equal treatment of all Canadians in the educational system, it seems strange and unfair that among the religions, only Catholic schools are given distinct status for funding. McGuinty has tried to defend his position by noting the heavy weight of Catholic history and constitutional tradition in Canada .) In any case, while it propounds to be a "neutral" education intended for all individuals, this system ironically fails to recognize the status of religion in people's lives (except Catholics in Catholic schools), and thereby neglects a fundamental force of orientation and identity. It thereby does not seek to promote true understanding of religious or cultural differences. The merit of Tory's position is that it allows for the inculcation and formation of religious identities for people of faith in faith-based schools. However, this position fosters exclusivism because it allows for little contact and interaction between people of different backgrounds and faiths.
What emerges from this debate is a fundamental dialectical tension between what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has termed the politics of universality and the politics of difference. There is a conflict between the desire to recognize the universal equality of all individuals, and simultaneously to esteem the particularity of cultural and religious identities. Cast in this light, the tension in the issue of religion in education is an aspect of the tension endemic to any multicultural democratic society. In the end, then, it is no surprise that the debate over religion and education has become a defining one: Implicit in the issue is a commitment to the values and ideals that citizens hold for their society.
If these are the major positions, it seems that at least one option has not been considered in this either/or paradigm – a public education committed to education about religion. "Education about religion," distinguished from "religious education" that seeks to instill the values and beliefs of a particular religion, would seek to present major forms of world religions. The exact content of the curriculum for a class on religion would have to be debated and discussed, and invariably not all would be happy with it. However, if both McGuinty's and Tory's platforms on education end up excluding important aspects in our contemporary society – either the phenomenon of religion itself or people of other religious backgrounds – this approach would seek to be more inclusive, acknowledging both the phenomenon of religion as a valid form of human experience and its various instantiations in history. In doing so, it would cultivate a culture of understanding and perhaps even mutual appreciation of different religions – surely values that any province would wish to affirm in our contemporary, post-national multicultural society. Such a system, then, would seek to integrate students into a public education based on common values of mutual respect and understanding without neglecting their cultural and religious identities.
In 1971, Canada became the first country to implement an official Multiculturalism Policy, which was adopted as the Canadian Multiculturalism Act in 1988. In it, Canada vows to "recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage." In other words, Canada's "national" identity is precisely one that is constituted by and committed to recognizing its multicultural heritage. This ideal continues to be an elusive one, still being played out in issues such as religion's place in education.
John Tory's quotation comes from: http://www.johntory.ca/documents/Plan_for_Ontario's_Future_060907.pdf#cover.
The quotation from the Canadian Multiculturalism Act comes from: http://www.canadianheritage.gc.ca/progs/multi/policy/act_e.cfm
For a history of Catholic education in Ontario , see Michael Power's A Promise Fulfilled.
Michael Sohn is a PhD candidate in Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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