March 16, 2007

Separation of church and classroom

Should Canada's public schools teach religion? Our multicultural society depends on it, say two profes-sors.

by Lee Craig
Dr. David Smith believes teaching about religions in public schools will help students understand their multi-cultural communities.
Dr. David Smith believes teaching about religions in public
schools will help students understand their multi-cultural

While religion is seen by many as an unwelcome presence in Canadian classrooms, Dr. David Smith argues that religious education is crucial.

The University of Alberta professor of secondary education believes that teaching the world's religions to students will help them understand their multicultural community.

"Religious interests are already everywhere in schools, and this is especially true in Canadian schools in ur-ban centres …It's more a question of whether public education wants to engage a reality already present," said Smith.

"Personally, I think as educators we have a responsibility to not let it slide under the carpet of public policy, but rather, if possible, to make it more public."

Smith, who shared his views at a March 10 Philosopher's Café, believes the traditional separation of church and state in Canada has resulted in the ghettoization of religion. He thinks that this separation will not help young people understand today's world.

"This separation comes out of a long history of religious conflict in Europe. Unfortunately, (in Canada) this theory has resulted in the ghettoization of religion and the privatization of religious experience," said Smith.

"Everybody worships in their own way. The consequence is a cultural ignorance about the religion of others outside one's own tradition."

In a world with rapidly interconnecting cultures, it is not healthy for religious experience to be kept so sepa-rate.

"In liberal democratic cultures, schools are meant to create a public, not just to serve a public."

From this principle, he said, comes the idea that educators need to provide a space for children to learn about others.

"This is a controversial point, but I will make it anyway: sometimes kids need an alternative interpretation from what they learn at home, from their families, from their own traditions. Schools can be one place where this is provided."

Teaching about religions is not popular partly because religious factions have lobbied the government to not interfere in their traditions. At the same time, while adults may advocate one thing, young people are searching for an understanding of a complex world.

"They are very impressionable. Where can they get alternative interpretations that are responsible and are as open and free as possible?"

Smith pointed to the Internet as one tool children and teens have today to learn about religions and different cultures. "There is lots of information today, but I think it is far more important to have an open public discus-sion about this, rather than private searches on the Internet."

Dr. Patricia McCormack, a professor in the Faculty of Native Studies, is a strong supporter of teaching about religion in a comparative way, to help students understand different religious values. However, she isn't sure how educational institutions and governments would put a program together.

"There is a strong sense of exclusivity to many religions and to a certain extent, schools have tried to avoid this subject by simply not addressing it," said McCormack.

"If it is addressed it should probably be addressed in some kind of equal way for all religions and would take some serious collaborative or partnership work to figure out how to address these very sensitive topics," she said.

The question of who teaches students about religions is also crucial. "It's probably better not taught at all than taught badly."

McCormack teaches a class in gender stereotypes and racism. She says it is her experience that there are strong misunderstandings in the general population about religions and cultures. Because of these stereotypes, she sees that learning about world religions would be beneficial for students of all ages.

"All one has to do is tune into an episode of Little Mosque on the Prairie to get a sense of the misunder-standings that exist," she said. "It is really important that students have the chance to learn about other people and their cultures and move beyond the stereotypes that tend to exist."

She added that shows such as Little Mosque, a CBC comedy about Muslims and non-Muslims living in Saskatchewan, and North of 60, which had many aboriginal characters, are interesting in the way they play into and address certain racial stereotypes.

But stereotypes are enormously hard to change, despite progressive television shows, says McCor-mack.

Her students tell her they would love to see every student at the U of A take a class on aboriginal culture and values. She is sure they would like to see that in public schools as well.

She cautions that it can be difficult for teachers to put their own values and beliefs aside when teaching about other religions and cultures. And while those values may not be strictly religious values, there are other values teachers can impart.

"When aboriginals were moved into residential schools, or day schools, the curricula taught in all of those schools were curricula based in European and Canadian values," McCormack.

"Canada used education as a vehicle to assimilate everybody … In the early part of Alberta's history, the Galicians, from Western Europe, were intended to be assimilated into a Canadian nation state. What happened to aboriginals was really the same. Because of the boarding schools system, it got taken to an extreme that didn't happen to most immigrants."

When aboriginals were integrated into the mainstream school system in Western Canada their values, tradi-tions and spirituality were not accommodated at all, she added.

Further, if world religions and native spirituality are to be taught in Canadian public schools, everyone must respect the wishes of people to keep their spirituality private, says McCormack.

She pointed to the tremendous interest that the Canadian public has in native spirituality right now.

"A concern of people in the aboriginal communities is that they don't see their spirituality as something that should be just laid out on the table. A lot of it is seen as very private and rather personal," she said. "It's a very fine line to walk in terms of what one can say about these kinds of thing and what is inappropriate."