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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