Educational integration: religion and society

Fifty years ago this year, just after my family had settled in Ireland, my parents were looking around for a school to which they could send me. In Mullingar, Co Westmeath, there were a few choices, but they all had one thing in common: whichever school I might attend, each one was part of a religious denomination. Most were Roman Catholic, one was Anglican; not a single one was secular or non-denominational, or even interdenominational. I ended up in a boarding school some 30 miles away, in which I was able to thrive. But back in Mullingar, every young person was growing up in a system in which, other than very casually, they were never likely to meet someone who did not share their inherited religious affiliation.

Actually in Mullingar that didn’t matter too much; it was and is a fairly open-minded place, and may even have been the first town in Ireland in which ecumenical partnerships began to emerge. But move up northwards towards Ulster, and this state of affairs mattered very much; indeed it matters still. In a society in which religious affiliations too often define political ones, the absence of informal interaction between people of different religious backgrounds from a very early age onwards has made the task of community reconciliation very difficult indeed. Young Protestants grow up not knowing a single Catholic, and vice versa. And because they often inherit all sorts of silly suspicions of those with other religious beliefs from their parents, these suspicions are protected and nurtured, so that they can ensure that one more generation is launched into society powered by the fuel of hatred and prejudice.

Education more generally should open a young person’s mind to understand the dignity and integrity of people from all backgrounds, and the best way to avoid the ghettoisation of certain groups is to ensure that they learn to live with and share society with people from other backgrounds and outlooks. In Northern Ireland more than almost anywhere else, this is imperative in order to avoid inter-community strife becoming a permanent and poisonous feature. For that reason, the arguments by the Catholic Church in favour of denomination education should be resisted much more emphatically – while of course recognising the right of the Church (and any religious group) from pursuing religious instruction for children outside the school gate.

It is indeed the same elsewhere and in other contexts: should there be Muslim, Jewish, indeed humanist schools? Is it not time to ensure that young people grow up recognising and valuing their friends from other traditions, while also maintaining their right to be recognised for theirs? Is it not time to have properly integrated communities?

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10 Comments on “Educational integration: religion and society”

  1. Don Says:

    To answer the first question in your last paragraph: yes – and if there was a move by those communities in whichever locality to seek the establishment of schools that reflected their core religious beliefs then I’m sure there would be no objections from others in the community. To answer questions 2 and 3 in the same paragraph and to echo their affirmation through the centuries: yes. Who would say No? What’s your plan?

  2. Vince Says:

    Yes yes, but you aren’t asking the core question of why precisely the Catholic Church is reacting as it is. You must never forget the race dimension when you consider these islands. The divisions between Norman and Celt is very pronounced. And below that Saxon-English and Celt. This can follow into professions and other areas of higher management for the shake outs of the Land Acts delivered the larger landowners being of Norman extraction then English. These entered the fee paying schools. So on into the professions. This follows through in the North also. And for that matter in Scotland and Wales. Granted, sans the Catholic Church. But the same for all that.

  3. Al Says:

    What is implicit in what you describe is important here, namely the weakness of the social contract in the Republic. Look at the factions in conflict due to the contraction of the state: urban/ rural; public/ private; employed/ unemployed.
    Were it the case that the state developed into a pragmatic republicanism the social contract would be stronger and the values you articulate more explicit in our lives.
    Whenever the state bowed to the will of the bishop, banker or brussels (forgive my B’s!), or other factions it weakened the perogative of serving the national interest.

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    It is particularly poignant to reflect on whether denominational education is suitable in the 21 century on the anniversary of 9/11, an event whose roots, among others, lie in an aberrant view of religion. That dreadful event should have been the best parable to warn us against the dangers of ignorance and indoctrination and instead has contributed to a radicalization of opposing religions, cultures and ideologies. As an educator I cannot but believe that the best answer to bigotry and intollerance resides in education itself, in bringing, as argued in the post, children of various denominations together, however I find it disheartening when, in the name of a market inspired idea of ‘choice’ schools (and in some respects universities as well) and education itself become just another commodity for parents to select according to their preconceptions. These dangerous trends need to be resisted at all cost, the state or what is left of the ‘res publica’ in our complex world has still a role to play in such matters, because when it comes to education ‘we really are all in this together’!

  5. Aidan Says:

    While your point about secular education has some truth I think that you are making the error of assuming that religion rather than ethnicity is the problem in NI. In some conflicts colour, dress and language are the identity markers, in NI religion is a primary marker.
    To put it a different way, sending your children to a Catholic school in NI is a way of enabling your children to get an ‘Irish’ education and sending them to a state school increases their exposure to the British Ulster view of the world. Creating a neutral space is easier said than done.
    Of course you can argue that wanting to propagate British/Irish or nationalist/unionist identities in itself negative. I don’t disagree with that point but the recent Olympics shows how important flag waving and badges remain in the wider world.
    I watched these two documentaries by Desmond Bell recently from the 1990s. One of them follows a group of schoolkids from Londonderry (as they called it) who discuss their identity. What is amazing is how the girls differ so fundamentally from the boys in seeing themselves as both British and Irish. The other follow two groups of ravers, one fro each side, and shows how their worlds coalesced for a time on the dancefloor.
    If you look at the bonfire scenes and the ‘peace’ walls (many more of which have been build since then) you cannot fail to see how intractable the divide was then and is now. Joint schooling might be part of the solution but those schools have to accommodate two different traditions. If you were Irish would you want your child to be given a singularly British view of history (and vice versa)?

  6. Ryan Maclean Says:

    As a child I was brought up in Northern Ireland, in a town called Downpatrick not far from Belfast, and it frustrates, upsets and annoys me how religiously focussed education is in these communities. Though I was raised a Catholic, I consider myself agnostic based purely upon my upbringing; I attended a Catholic Primary school and a Catholic boys Secondary School. It is upsetting that even now in 2012, we allow children to be raised in a toxic atmosphere that inadvertently promotes hate. I can remember vividly the vitriol and revulsion directed at Protestant families by my peers in school and by those older heads in the community who should really have known better.

    I remember the terror of being around for the annual riots on the 12th July and 9th August. It was a poisonous atmosphere in which children were actively encouraged to show contempt for the police, build roadblocks, throw petrol bombs and abuse those of a different denomination. I can remember seeing a blood van on the way to the hospital being hijacked by Protestants and lit on fire because it was delivering blood to a Catholic hospital. I was fortunate enough to be born in Scotland and to escape back to see my Dad before I was brainwashed into believing the hate, but I have plenty of former friends who still live in the same area and who believe that ‘Orangemen’ are subhuman because they follow a slightly different branch of Christianity.

    I truly believe education that is defined primarily by religion can lead to hate, as it excludes people and exists to make you think those who practice a different religion are not ‘normal’. In this day and age we should be promoting inclusivity in everything we do, and that must include education; this will ensure children are raised in a welcoming atmosphere where they can experience other cultures, not raise them to be hostile and unforgiving to those who are ‘different’.

  7. James Fryar Says:

    I’ve never understood why schools funded by the taxpayer should have any religious denomination whatsoever. Why not schools for Caucasians and schools for ‘Sub-Saharan African descent’? Why not schools for ‘natives’ and schools for ‘immigrants’? Why not schools for ‘right wing’ and schools for ‘left wing’? Replace the word ‘religion’ or ‘religious’ with any other term and we’d not tolerate such utter nonsense.

    The US has it right. Ban religion from schools and keep religious organisations out of State education.

    • Vince Says:

      But that’s precisely what we’ve got.
      And an FYI. In the US church schools are paid for by the parents who can deduct those payments form their taxes. Ditto any endowment of such schools.

  8. Colum McCaffery Says:

    “The problem with faith schools is not management structures or ownership. The problem is not even God. The problem is the teaching of values…. Now, most values taught in religious schools are either positive and progressive or at worst do no harm but some are daft and/or cruel, and – no matter what their parents want – little Irish citizens should be protected while at school from malicious nonsense about, say, equality, family, homosexuality etc. Anyone using the term “ethos’ should be required to say what it means in practice and if it includes cruel doctrines which decent people hope have been consigned to history, then it must be made clear that freedom means arguing with adults.”

  9. Eduard Du Courseau Says:

    I presume that you are also opposed to private schools and Gaeilscolaine (Irish-speaking schools), both of which generally only expose students to a very limited- usually elite- population, instruction and experience?
    To me there could only be one solution here: comprehensive and secular education for all which had entry quotas to ensure a balanced representation of each community and background. But do we have the political will to do this?

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