Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Indoctrination or Education?

What is indoctrination? The Oxford English Dictionary (the really big one reduced to really small print) tells us that it means "to imbue with learning or to teach" and not one of the definitions given is negative. The more recent Oxford English Reference Dictionary (Second edition 2002) refers to the teaching element but adds "to teach systematically or for a long period to accept (especially partisan or tendentious) ideas uncritically". It is this second, more recent, negative sense that I wish to focus on for a minute.

No thinking person can be against education generally. For to be against education generally means that one has learned to be against it and that is self-contradictory. What we object to in education is when either the content or manner are inappropriate in some way. Inappropriate about what and inappropriate to whom? Ah, as Shakespeare had it in the mouth of Hamlet, "there's the rub".

Our common education in free societies has wrestled a kind of freedom by limiting itself. It has got the general confidence of the population by avoiding those areas that cannot command general respect or support. There are "hot button" issues from time to time but the school system manages, more or less, to deal with them and parents here and there who have lost confidence in the system use other options such as, home education or, if they can afford it, private schooling. Statistics show that increasing numbers of Canadians do both of these.

The most controversial things in education are those that matter most. So the personal beliefs of families about the meaning of life (which for most people are their "religious beliefs") we have decided to leave out of public education. Why did we do this?

Two reasons: because they matter very deeply to people and because there was no agreement about what should be taught or by whom. Thus at the very foundation of Canada in the 19th century, a major consideration in the provinces was how Catholics and Protestants would have their beliefs accommodated in public education. The Constitutional protection in some provinces reflects this to this day.

Now we have to rethink another set of beliefs that will tear public education apart and which are already doing so. Sexual practices and our views in relation to them. Make no mistake, the public school system has (rightly) left the religious beliefs and indoctrination (defined as teaching) to the families who are, as the Supreme Court of Canada has recognized, the primary educators of children, but it now needs to do so with respect to beliefs about appropriate and inappropriate sexual conduct. Why is this?

Well, simply because certain people believe sexual matters are sacred and personal and others believe they are public and political. The two views are completely irreconcilable (just as differing religious beliefs are irreconcilable).

The latter group, who have made "sexual orientation" an identity banner under which to march, wish to impose their conceptions of what is and is not appropriate sexual conduct publicly. Those who would prefer that public education stick with the three R's and that controversial sexual practices be left for the home are having their views trumped not accommodated. For some reason sexual indoctrination is seen as necessary (as education) in the schools but religious indoctrination is viewed as inappropriate. Why?

If the reason is "health" well, then, are we really giving children the full story about how healthy (psychologically, physically) certain sexual "lifestyles" are? No.

Those for whom the "new sexuality" (let us call it that) functions as a religion are zealous to be sure and they are, in their way, fundamentalist in their approach. They do not wish others to dissent. They wish to control. Increasingly they are doing so and the court decisions are helping them.

Canada, however, was founded upon the principles of accommodation and it will remain a free country only insofar as it develops a richer understanding of how the accommodation of differing beliefs is to operate in the public realm - - including public education.

The signs of the times are worrying indeed for they suggest that this lesson has been forgotten in Canada. When there are fundamentally differing beliefs that diversity allows to exist in Canada (and no one suggests that to hold for "traditional sexuality" is yet a banned category in Canada) then these must be allowed to share the public space.

The only way for that to happen is to drop certain matters out of public education entirely. It was once inconceivable that religion would not be taught in public education. It seems now equally inconceivable that "sex education" would be dropped from schools. Yet "sex -ed" is now about so much that is controversial and unaccepted by many that the programs themselves must be completely reconsidered in the light of the proper understanding of accommodation.

If the agenda of the "new sexual fundamentalists" is such that the win/loss nature of litigation is giving them a free rein (and reign) in the public schools, then we will have set the stage for a new round of wars about beliefs. That would be a very stupid thing to have done. The current phrase is correct; we "don't need to go there". Better to help the principals learn or relearn the principles and treat the "new sexuality" as what it really is -- a new sort of religion. It should be treated as such.

Iain T. BensonĀ©