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Vol. 3 No. 4 - Holy Cross 2008

A Time to Go:
A Note to Public Schools Everywhere

"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven," - Ecclesiastes 3:1

The nineteenth-century creation of the public school system in what was then Upper Canada can be credited to the efforts of Egerton Ryerson, a Methodist minister and itinerant preacher from Niagara. At the time, Canada was a thoroughly religious society, to such an extent that what would today be considered minor doctrinal differences (such as those between Methodists and British Wesleyans) were the root of real debate and division in Canadian political circles.

For those who were on the outside of the political establishment - Presbyterians, Methodists, and Roman Catholics, let alone the tiny number of Orthodox immigrants on the Canadian prairies - the question of an established state church was deeply problematic. The possibility of a combined church and state authority - the Family Compact aristocracy and Anglican church rule - was for many Canadians an unwanted throwback to the countries from which they had come, and a situation which they hoped to avoid at any cost.

It was Ryerson who, through his early days of preaching, advocated the secularization of many Canadian government institutions, including the public schools. While the initial separation of Protestants and Catholics into separate school systems in Upper and Lower Canada was intended to provide a wall against papalism, Ryerson's plan foresaw a school system which would provide a neutral and secular education for students from all backgrounds. In the nineteenth century, this common, secular school system would reflect what today would be considered traditional and religious values.

The adoption of the American idea of "separation of church and state" was likely an unintended outgrowth of Ryerson's scheme. The concept was never a Canadian one, rather, the "wall of separation" was a construct of the secular deism of the American founding fathers, who rejected the Protestant Christianity of their European forefathers. On a certain level, Canada always had a de facto state church - Anglicanism - which has during the last few decades of the twentieth century become a bastion of relativism. In this respect, one might say that the public school still reflect the values of the "state church" of such Anglican-inspired relativist values.

Like the secular culture around it, the public school system of the twenty-first century is a far different environment than it was two centuries ago. In many places, we see today a public school system where anti-religious sentiments form a new relativist foundation, where the rejection of any absolute truth is the substitute for a truly pluralistic school system. Like the popular music scene, the lowest common denominator is offered as the only moral baseline, and spiritual truths are reduced to the level of private opinion, best kept private, lest they provoke disagreement or argument. The concept of anything as absolute truth is necessarily dismissed, for fear of being seen as an endorsement of a particular ideology or spiritual belief. The same school system which would have half a century ago soundly condemned the distribution of condoms, referrals for abortions, and the teaching of homosexuality in classrooms now accepts such things as the norm - indeed, as the very evidence of an absence of bias.

Many (indeed most) Orthodox Christians still opt for public schools as a means of integrating their kids into the wider culture, to somehow help them prepare for life in the world. Yet one must ask, for adult life in what world? Does the "real world" of work corral co-workers by age group? Does the "real world" ask adults to forego culture and religion as part of everyday life, or reduce it to tokenism? If it does, our situation is indeed more serious than one might imagine, and to place Orthodox children in a system that reinforces this problem is a grievous mistake.

Perhaps it is the case that Orthodox parents continue to choose public education in order to expose their children to a variety of cultures and beliefs. Canada prides itself on being a successful multicultural experiment, a success story in the interrelationship of a wide variety of peoples. But is this the case in public schools? Or do students in fact not cleave together with friends of a similar background? Why is the rate of interracial relationships and marriages in Canada significantly less than in the United Kingdom, for example, where a far higher number of students opt out of the state-run school system, and where diverse and affordable private and independent religious schools exist?

Additionally, there exists a sleeping alarm in the mind of most Canadians regarding education and religion. The 2007 Ontario provincial election revealed this sleeping alarm only too clearly. To the surprise of many, the election was fought on essentially one issue, the question of funding religious schools. More precisely, the opposition party advocated that Ontario's public schools should absorb religious schools into the public school system, and while continuing to allow the teaching of religion in one class each day, to require that they offer exactly the same curriculum as the secular public system. Practically speaking, this proposal had nothing to do with supporting religious education, and everything to do with emasculating and destroying religious education in Ontario.

The proposal went down to defeat with the re-election of the sitting government, but for all the wrong reasons. During the election campaign, the governing party repeatedly raised the spectre of "dangerous elements" benefiting from government funding for the teaching of certain radical religious views. The identity of the exact groups were left to the imagination of the voters, but the target was obvious: the creation of the first Osama bin Laden public school gave most Ontario residents the willies. In the real Canada, almost all religious people are quite moderate - so moderate in fact, that most of us enrol our kids in public schools, by default. The few who do not - mostly Dutch Reform, Orthodox Jews, and a few evangelical Protestants - pose no threat to political stability. The fact is, most voters in Canada's most populated province bought the argument that religious communities cannot be trusted with the education of their kids.

One can only guess that most Orthodox Christians buy the argument as well, along with the thinking that public education forms young people with views that are not incompatible with the Orthodox faith. Contrary to the spin offered up by advocates of public education, the day-to-day influences in the classroom are not the rich, multicultural mosaic they would have one believe. Neither is it the teacher, whether they are lazy or motivated, faithful or atheistic, caring or cold-hearted, young and enthusiastic or mature and experienced.

Today, the most pervasive day-to-day influence on students in public schools is the popular culture. Daily contact with peers takes place in the context of the world of music videos, and in the language of ghetto slang (I recall teaching a Canadian-born Korean student who regularly spoke with such ghetto-talk. I asked him where he picked up this strange language, since he had never been to inner-city America). Clothing reinforces exaggerated sexual stereotypes, and the sexual morality taught by the media; alternative beliefs and choices are marginalized, if not openly ridiculed. Even in the finest schools, the dynamics of what some educators call "kid factories" - huge schools designed to "process" a "kid product" - ensure that the very culture of public schools will work against the sincere efforts of Orthodox families trying to raise a normal, faithful young person.

Orthodox teachers and parents often find themselves with few options. Most educators who happen to be Orthodox Christians have had little preparation to be teachers with an Orthodox Christian methodology or view of the world. For the most part, they have been trained in secular colleges of education. As a result, even many of the small attempts at establishing "Orthodox" schools (mostly in Quebec and Ontario) have focussed on cultural heritage, with some religion sprinkled in to the daily routine, with the fabric of education being little different than a secular public or private school. Parents too, lacking spiritual preparation in home parishes, often find themselves unready to engage the all-encompassing influences of the culture that is reinforced in public schools.

What options do faithful Orthodox Christians have for their families? The primary option is the need for developing personal conviction, and personal faith. In Canada, this is in short supply, and there is much room for improvement. If parents ever hope to have their children be true Orthodox Christians, their first priority must be to be faithful, active, and informed Orthodox Christian adults. The old axiom that parents are the first educator of a child holds doubly true here; one must look no farther than the decimation of youth numbers in Orthodox parishes across the country, and the matching decline of the number of active parents.

Secondly, the current culture of public and most private secular schools is a near-monolithic creature. The idea of "reforming schools from within" is very nice, but entirely unrealistic. Faithful Orthodox families who send their children to public schools in Canada today must be prepared (and must prepare their children) for a subtle, never-ending struggle against influences that will simply wear down a child's faith. In most cases (although not always), better options exists, although these require certain sacrifices many families are often not willing to make.

Independent Protestant schools are an option for some families, but the cost is often prohibitively high. Parents who are interested in pursuing this option can benefit from a grant program offered to eligible families through the Fraser Institute. One should be aware, however, that such programs are not a guarantee, since such student bodies may have just as many issues as public schools. In general, smaller schools (under 200-300 students) are much better able to create a family-like neighbourhood environment, which will at the very least not create challenges to the basic authority of the family, or to the principles of their faith. Schools vary, so one is wise to check out any options thoroughly before enrolling.

In certain provinces, Catholic schools are another option which is subsidized by the taxpayer. If such schools cultivate the same kind of tight-knit community discussed above, they can be a possible option. If they are larger, or if they are staffed with teachers who basically reflect the values of the secular culture, they can often be little different than public schools, and sometimes more spiritually confusing to an Orthodox student. I recall one young woman I taught, from an Orthodox family, who described herself as an "Orthodox-Catholic", and who was utterly confused by her experience in Catholic schools.

One of the best alternatives to public schools for Orthodox Christian families is home schooling. Canadian provinces have perhaps the most lenient and supportive arrangements for this type of education among countries the world over. In most provinces, the law explicitly supports the notion that education is primarily the responsibility of the parent, and that schools are simply tools of which parents may make use if they desire to do so. Home schooling takes a great degree of commitment, both in research and in instruction, yet it has the added bonus of strengthening family bonds, and providing regular opportunities to reinforce the character of one's kids to reflect what mom and dad hope to see in them (rather than what a stranger may think is best). British Columbia provides the choice of opting-in to public school support help for curriculum and evaluation, making it a good place to live for homeschoolers who can use some encouragement in their efforts.

The downfall of homeschooling is found in the nature of Orthodox parishes in Canada, made up predominantly of new immigrants or the children of immigrants, who face the pressures of work, along with the pressure to blend in to Canadian culture. Combine this with generations of public-school attendees in most parishes who have no idea the extent to which school have changed in the last decade, and the network of homeschooling supports in the local parish can be slim to none. For those families who have the uncommon gumption, initiative, and self-sacrifice to do it, homeschooling is an excellent option.

A fourth option presents itself as perhaps one of the best possibilities for Orthodox Christian families looking to leave the public school system, and that is the authentic, faith-based Orthodox school - and these do not yet exist anywhere in Canada. By some estimates, such projects are at least a generation away. Yet such schools can only exist if a number of the issues raised above are addressed right now.

Ideally, several parishes in the same area must work together to create an ongoing, weekly program to teach Orthodox children about the struggles of Orthodox living. This would be not simply an instructional program, but a chance to answer questions about Orthodox life and its difference from society at large. It would cultivate family participation in daily prayers, and would offer instruction in the Scriptures and the teachings of the saints for students, as well as their parents. Such a program would necessarily equip young people today to be a pool of faithful experts in different professions in a decade or two. By extension, campus fellowships must be put in place to continue the work of such youth programs beyond the secondary school level.

The secularism on which the public school system was built two centuries ago was intended to provide a neutral common-ground for students from all faiths. In the last few decades, most Canadian secular public schools have morphed into almost unrecognizable venues for the reinforcement of anti-Christian moral and spiritual teaching. Schools on which Orthodox parents would have willingly depended to support their own faith and values are frequently not in a position to do so, and even the most faithful and well-intentioned teacher is undermined in their efforts by the demands of curriculum and policy.

The emergence of numerous alternatives to public education force conscientious Orthodox parents to reflect on the reality of the rapidly changed public school system we have inherited. Today, it is incompatible with raising faithful Orthodox children, since by design it reinforces on a daily basis the very culture that is at odds with our faith, leaving faithful parents with few other options than to look for the closest exit.

Father Geoffrey Korz, (Holy Cross, 2008)

© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2008.