Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Luddites of Education

Throughout my career as a high school teacher, I believed, as I still do, that education is one of the prime tools by which society can be bettered and critical thinking cultivated. And yet there are Luddites among us who would severely circumscribe the use of this all-important mechanism, preferring that we limit access to ideas and thinking that they find personally objectionable. Two stories from my experiences sadly attest to this reality.

Once, many years ago, one of my students had chosen Robertson Davies' Fifth Business for independent reading. Early in the novel, a Baptist minister's wife is struck in the head by a large stone encased in a snowball, an incident that starts a cascade of events with profound effects on the fortunes of the protagonist. During a parent-teacher interview, the mother of a student who had chosen the novel, herself the wife of a Baptist minister, objected bitterly to her daughter reading the novel because of its alleged disrespect toward religion (solely evidenced by the snowball incident), assertively opining that such material had no place in schools. I told her that as a parent, she had the right to object to her daughter reading the book, but that NO ONE had the right to ban others from reading any given book.

A second incident during a telephone conversation with a Muslim parent, many years later, went along exactly the same lines; in this case, the man was objecting to his daughter reading Flowers for Algernon, also chosen by the student for independent reading. He objected to a scene entailing some brief and quite circumspect sexual content, and went on to say such material should not be available to students. Again, I told him exactly what I told the Baptist minister's wife.

So how is this relevant to the world of politics? Here in Ontario, a microcosm of the larger pluralistic Canada within which we all live, there has been much heated contention by a small group of right-wing Christian fundamentalists and those from other conservative religious backgrounds, many of whom are immigrants, over the revamped sex-ed curriculum slated to go into effect in the fall.

In this morning's Star, Martin Regg Cohn observes that the same dynamic is at work that I experienced in the two above incidents, noting that parents already have the right to remove their children from class when material they object to is being taught:
Apparently that’s no longer enough. Now, the protest movement wants to prevent everyone else’s children from hearing the updated Health and Physical Education Curriculum — an update strongly supported by teachers in the public and separate school systems, and broadly supported by parents who want the best for their children.
To be clear, the protesters are not only demanding a right that they already have — an exemption from the curriculum — but are insisting that everyone else hew to their world views of sexuality, pedagogy and ideology. They want to water down a curriculum prepared by experts after years of deliberation and consultation in order to accommodate their own interpretation of sex education in 2015.

In other words, “My child, my choice” translates to: “Your child, no choice.”
Cohn points out that such intractable and intolerant thinking could provoke a backlash against our practice of reasonable accommodation, and it is a risk being made worse by the usual suspects: the political right-wing desperate to curry favour among social conservatives:
At the most recent protest, the darling of the anti-sex-ed movement, MPP and recent PC leadership candidate Monte McNaughton once again took the microphone to proclaim his fidelity to the cause. Significantly, he brought “greetings” from Patrick Brown, the new leader he helped elect at last month’s Tory convention.
Although we reside in the 21st century, it would seem that the thinking of far too many people resides yet in a much earlier time, when ignorance thrived and education was looked upon with suspicion and disdain. It is time we all grew up.


  1. The problem with all organized religion -- of whatever stripe -- is its insistence on conversion, Lorne. Freedom of Thought is replaced by Right Thought.

    1. Very true, Owen. They want no truck with Hamlet's observation:

      What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
      infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
      admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
      a god!

  2. I wonder Lorne what it is about sex education that really bothers them and they now want their primitive beliefs imposed on parents who want their children to have healthy sex education. I've never understood people who think they have the right to dictate how others should live, I also think, given the dictates of their religion, that they have a problem with Wynne being openly gay.

    1. There is no doubt, Pamela, that many of them are deeply offended by Wynne's sexual orientation. Code phrases that refer to her as an 'activist premier', and statements that she is imposing 'her agenda' on the children of Ontario attest to their prejudice. What probably infuriates them even more is that the vast majority of us don't care that she is gay.

  3. Parents who won't let their children learn about sex in a sensible manner are setting them up to be easy sexual victims. Thankfully the complete ignorance of sex that children used to grow up in is nearly impossible these days, but that's what many of these parents want. I am sick of people who think nasty things only happen in big cities, so their small town kids don't need to know anything. Small towns dominated by all male industries such as mining and forestry are gender imbalanced and high risk for young girls who need to know everything they can find out, long before adolescence, in order to protect themselves. They cannot depend on their numbskull parents.

    1. I concur completely, ffd. Education is the answer to a whole host of problems.