Dr. Dawg

And no religion, too

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Canadian classroom.jpg

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. —Walter Benjamin

Our schools are not the place for prayers.

No “prayer sessions,” whether Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist. No separate Catholic system—that’s an anachronism that must be addressed, and the sooner, the better.

But this view isn’t universal:

The Toronto District School Board is defending its decision to allow a Muslim service every Friday at 1:30 p.m. at Valley Park Middle School, saying it is meeting its obligation to facilitate its students’ religious beliefs.

“Obligation to facilitate?” Where on earth did they get that from? What “obligation?”

One single secular public school system should exist to instill basic knowledge and critical reasoning skills in our children—two essential ingredients of citizenship. Religion is not knowledge, but a system of belief.

I will not attempt to make the impossible case that there can be knowledge and reasoning devoid of belief. Objectivity is a still-fashionable myth. But I distinguish between beliefs and a belief system. The first may find their homes in the second, but most people, I suspect, hold all sorts of beliefs that are not integrated into a Theory of Everything—folk beliefs (so-called “common sense”), undifferentiated beliefs in a Supreme Being, beliefs in the consequences of action, and so on.

We live on and by belief. But a belief system is a totalitarian attempt to give everything a neat explanation, to reward and punish, to include and exclude, to filter and judge, to privilege faith over our own lying eyes, and ultimately to reduce the complexity of our perceptions of the world and each other to selected, ungrounded “truths.” Belief systems are human inventions, not keys to the universe. They do not liberate: they stultify.

If the key element of postmodernism is an “incredulity towards meta-narratives,” count me in as a subscriber. Religious belief systems are meta-narratives—and so, too, are political ideologies such as Marxism, although I admittedly treasure some of the insights in the latter. But there is a difference between insights—I do not discount the experience of the spiritual that lies encysted in the heart of the major religions, for example—and a systemic framework that inevitably carries with it moral imperatives.

The latter force our minds into pre-dug channels, create opacities, urge us into action that can have deeply harmful consequences.

A public school system should not be a madrassa or a yeshiva or a seminary. It is not a place for rigorous indoctrination of any kind. Teachers will have their beliefs, but the lack of a questioning and critical atmosphere in the classroom is a far greater threat.

In this respect, a public school system should avoid endorsation of human-built systems of belief that push our kids the other way—towards uncritical acceptance.

I remain enough of a Marxist to have grasped that our schools do indeed indoctrinate, and do foster acceptance of “the natural order of things”—that they still encourage other-directedness rather than inner-directedness. So I am, as I reject the introduction of formal belief systems into a school setting, also calling for a different kind of public school system.

But surely we can begin by sending a clear message: our collectively-owned public school system is not a place that should promote meta-narratives, religious or otherwise. It should not be a place where the closing of young minds is promoted as a virtue.

Reluctantly, therefore, I find myself on the same side of the fence as the Islamophobic ultra-Hindu Ron Banerjee, if for vastly different reasons. (Do your homework, media, and check to see how large his “group” actually is.)

One caution, though: while I appreciate the illusory nature of the distinction between the “cultural” and the “religious,” I would never advocate the secular extremism that would ban Christmas trees and Easter eggs, or the wearing of crosses, crescents, kirpans and Stars of David. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing—we’re Canadians, for crying out loud. But wherever the line is drawn, I do see it well and truly crossed when “prayer sessions” are organized on deliberately non-sacred ground.

If we can’t transform our schools into genuine learning centres, at the very least we should be able to prevent them from slipping backwards into the wreckage of human history that the various grand narratives have wrought. And no prayers in school strikes me as a very good place to start.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on July 6, 2011 2:14 PM.

DSK: chapitre trois was the previous entry in this blog.

CPCCA: a spectre is haunting Canada is the next entry in this blog.

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