SCHOOLS: A CRITIQUE
While there is much in Our Children Our Future to be admired, it does have its weaknesses. For example, I find its arguments against the denominational system and for the nondenominational one to be frequently unsound and unconvincing. The purpose of this brief paper is to examine some of these arguments.
First, I question the basic assumption of the Report that a unified system is at the apex of educational evolutionary development. In its Preface the Report describes the Constitutional guarantees of denominational schools as effecting paralysis in the system and stifling its ability to respond to change (p. xvi). It then concludes, "the next step in our evolutionary development must come, and we must ensure that it is towards the creation of a comprehensive, unified... administrative structure" (p. xvii). But as I look around me I see no evidence to suggest that homogeneity in education is the goal toward which Canadian society is struggling, or is the educational end of its striving. In fact, there is evidence to show that the Canadian public is asking for a variety of schools to preserve and foster diversity. Holmes (1991) sums up this trend:
The spirit of cultural and structural pluralism is... alive and well in Canadian educational policy as the following trends clearly demonstrate:
(a) the growth Of Private schools in urban, industrial Canada;
(b) recognition of independent schools in the form of provincial funding in British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec and Saskatchewan;
(c) limited recognition of fully funded but largely independent schools in Calgary and Edmonton;
(d) de jure and de facto conversion of Ontario's education system into a full dual (public secular/Roman Catholic) system (p. 94).
In the context of this pluralism it does not seem unusual for the provincial and federal governments to provide a French school in Mainland, on the Port au Port Peninsula and another in St. John's, to make provision for an Innu school in Labrador, and to support a micmac school in Conne River, all for the purpose of preserving and fostering French and aboriginal language and culture. It seems ironic, then, that at a time when we are beginning to celebrate diversity, the Royal Commission Report recommends the elimination of any diversity in education based on religious convictions. There seems to be much more tolerance of division by language and culture then there is of division by religious beliefs. But, it needs to be pointed out, one's religious beliefs, and the habits, conventions, rituals, symbols, and celebrations that grow out of them, are a fundamental part of the culture of Christian denominations and need to be taken as seriously as we take the culture of minorities.
Given the context described above, I find it peculiar that the Commissioners argue that the non-denominational system is one that accommodates "the changing nature of society" (p. 220). If by changing nature of society the Commissioners mean, as they seem to, that society is becoming more diverse and pluralistic, it is difficult to see how a non-denominational system better accommodates, this diversity. First, it, by definition, eliminates the diversity of the denominations by homogenizing the system. Second, it can only accommodate the diversity of other beliefs and religious convictions by ceasing to be a system based on the Christian tradition. That is, this system would, as it tried to accommodate diversity, retreat further and further from the Christian culture. Denominationalists are, I think, afraid that this retreat from Christian culture will be a forced retreat as they lose control of education. The experiences in other parts of the country give them cause to worry. For example, in 1988 the Supreme Court of Ontario ruled that religious exercises prescribed for the opening or closing of the schools of the Respondent School Board were an infringement on the freedom of religion and conscience guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Similarly, in 1988 in British Columbia the Supreme Court ruled the School Act, requiring schools to be opened by Bible readings and the Lord's Prayer, to be constitutionally invalid. In 1990 the Supreme Court of Ontario ruled that religious education courses in the elementary schools of Elgin County (a county whose population, according to 1981 census, is 90% of Christian background), were indoctrination, although they contained stories from other world religions, and, therefore, infringed the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
It seems to me that if we are to provide for and foster diversity in society we must provide for diversity in schools. This is what is being done in some parts of Canada and in some other countries. For example, in Holland parents may form their own school if they have a minimum of 25 students. The same policy exists in New Zealand (Lawton, 1990). The Sullivan Report on education in British Columbia also accepts the notion of diversity in schooling. The commissioners state that as long as schools meet certain requirements, "our wish is to encourage choice and diversity, both within and outside the public school system" (p. 56). We boast that, unlike the melting pot American culture, ours is a mosaic. I think that melting pot schools, as suggested by the writers of Our Children Our Future, are not the most appropriate kind to serve and foster a mosaic culture.
It also seems to me contradictory for the Commissioners to argue that we should eliminate denominational schools in order to protect "the general rights of individuals" (p. 220). If, for example, we "eliminate" the schools of Pentecostals and Roman Catholics, the majority of whom support the status quo, (p. 80) won't we be undermining their right to provide the kind of education they want for their children? I don't think we can argue for the elimination of denominational schools on the basis of protecting individual rights, for the very establishment of a non-denominational system implies that the majority of the adherents of the two denominations mentioned would have to abrogate their rights in deference to the rights of the minority.
The Commissioners have indicated that they rejected the denominational system because the majority of Newfoundlanders rejected it (p. 219). Whether or not the majority really did reject the present system is not at all clear, given the apparent contradictions and anomalies in the responses to their questionnaire. However, even if we accept the Commissioners' interpretation of the results, there is still a problem in using these figures to support their rejection of the denominational system. The problem arises with the Commissioners' use of the whole province as its constituency. It is my view that the constituency should not be the entire province but the denominations, whose authority will be lost in a non-denominational system, and whose adherents will lose the right to choose the kinds of school they want for their children, a right which the commissioners seem to support. We have provided schools for other groups - Micmac, Innu, French because we accept the principle of cultural diversity, and, it should be added, without feeling it necessary to get the opinions of the whole province on the issue. For the same reason we should support the wishes of those denominations whose adherents want to maintain the status quo. To do otherwise is to be guilty of discrimination and to contravene the principle of cultural and religious pluralism.
Finally, I find the commissioners' argument that "the direction of the future must be towards a system (non-denominational) which embodies tolerance and openness" (p. 227) to be weak. First, the underlying assumption of the argument is that a denominational system embodies intolerance and narrow-mindedness. There is no discussion of this point and no evidence to support it. Second, tolerance and openness are regarded here as independent values. They are not. In other words, we can only accept tolerance as desirable when we know and agree with what is being asserted as worthy of our tolerance. The Commissioners, for example, say that the school system they recommend should provide 'a school environment which reflects Christian principles" (p. 227). However, if a non-denominational school insisted on these principles, it could be said to be intolerant of non-Christian principles if they conflicted; and if it wanted to be known as a school that is tolerant and open, it would have to abandon them. The fact is that a school system is informed by a core set of values, which means that it cannot be tolerant of everything. For example, Roman Catholic schools cannot be tolerant of abortion on demand because such a position is subversive of a core Roman Catholic value. To be tolerant of it would be offensive to them, as offensive to them as the prohibition of abortion is to pro-choice groups. In their denominational schools Roman Catholics are free to express intolerance towards abortion. Would they be free to do so in non-denominational schools? Or would such schools be paradoxically, intolerant of this core value? If the answer is no, the principle of tolerance will have been undermined and a significant group of parents will feel unhappy that schools do not reflect their core values. If the answer is yes, because this value is only one among the many values that must be accommodated, schools can be accused of supporting the relativity of moral values and even more parents become dissatisfied. The point is that although we usually presume tolerance to be a good thing, the presumption is not always absolute and is usually overridden when we are asked to be tolerant of those values which conflict with and are inimical to our core values. In other words, tolerance can only be an independent value if it doesn't matter what we are tolerant of, if, that is, everything is tolerated.
This paper has argued that there are flaws in some of the Report's arguments for non-denominational schools. Specifically, it has attempted to show that the Commissioners were wrong to assume the non-denominational system to be at the apex of some educational evolutionary development. It also argues that this system is not better than the denominational system in accommodating diversity and pluralism, and in protecting the rights of individuals. Further, it points out that in using the whole province as a constituency (when analysing the results of their questionnaires), instead of each denomination, the Commissioners have, in their conclusions, ignored the wishes of the adherents of two denominations (Pentecostal and Roman Catholic) although the majority of them supported the status quo. Finally, it takes issue with the Commissioners' argument for non-denominational schools on the basis of tolerance and openness.
Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. Our Children, Our Future. St. John's, Newfoundland, 1992.
Holmes, Mark. 'The Future of the Public School in Canada'. In Allison, Derek J. and Paquette, Jerry (Eds.). Reform and Relevance in Schooling: Dropouts, DeStreaming and the Common Curriculum. Toronto: OISE Press, 1991.
Lawton, Stephen B. 'Restructuring Education: An International Perspective." Unpublished Paper, 1990.
Sullivan, Barry M. A Legacy for Learners. Ministry of Education, British Columbia, 1988.