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Principles of Public Education in a Pluralistic Society


Public education itself is threatened when the foundational principles upon which it is based are ignored.

Iain T. Benson

Socialists of various descriptions have long prided themselves in their concern for social justice and the principles of humanitarianism, pluralism and multi-culturalism. Yet the recent activities of the NDP government in British Columbia (which still claims a socialist orientation) demonstrate that it does not respect the principles that are necessary for a meaningful and functional pluralism and multi-culturalism in Canadian society. Three actions, in particular, have made this clear. First, the government's refusal to allow "pro-life" people to sit on hospital boards (and the related disbanding of locally-elected hospital boards made up of those who support pro-life philosophy). Second, the insistence that certain books which advocate the normality of "same-sex marriage" and "homosexual or lesbian sexual conduct" be allowed in public school libraries even against the wishes of the democratically-elected school trustees who wanted the books removed. And third, its refusal to meet with religious leaders to specifically discuss plans to amend the definition of spouse in the province's Family Relations Act to include "same-sex" couples. The government agreed to meet to discuss its general openness to religion, but then refused to discuss any specifics of the then-pending legislation not unlike those people who claim to love humanity but refuse to show acts of charity to specific neighbours.

At times like this, we need to remind ourselves about the nature of a functional pluralism in public sectors such as health care and education. We should recall that the public system must exist within a host of competing understandings of what is morally acceptable in society this is virtually the definition of "pluralism." The system must strive to be as "neutral" as possible with respect to the genuinely pluralistic nature of contemporary society. Because there is no such thing as complete "moral neutrality" in education, what is chosen as the "core" morality must be sensitive to what is considered to be "core" for citizenship. Therefore, a truly pluralistic system cannot include teaching as normal conduct what millennia of philosophy and all religious traditions teach as unacceptable conduct, whether its origins are rooted in biology or choice, and the public education system fails to be pluralistic the minute that it seeks to impose contentious moral or sectarian teachings on the students that attend.

Whether or not gay and lesbian advocates are willing to acknowledge it, the distinction between what we would now describe as "orientation" and "conduct" has long been recognized by philosophers and theologians, and it is the conduct, rather than the orientation, that raises the dispute. For this reason, it is simply inappropriate to teach that the conduct and the orientation are the same thing, or that the conduct is "normal," or even that viewing heterosexuality as preferable is a kind of "ism" akin to racism.

Any attempt to force indoctrination on students (beyond what is considered to be "core" morality) under the guise of "tolerance" or "anti-discrimination" usurps the public nature of education for private group aims and is a cynical misuse of the very terms it seems to support.

A wide variety of parents do not accept what some special interest groups advocate, and since their tax-monies support the public system, it is useful to recall three important principles relevant to the idea of public schools in society. These need to be discussed and, if necessary, relearned by parents, community groups, school board members, trustees and education ministry officials.

1. The First Principle: The Family is the Primary Educator of Children.

The fundamental principle upon which all else must rest is that the family is the primary educator of children and delegates that primary role to the public system. Everything in the school's approach to human sexuality education (to take one currently contentious example) must flow from that recognition. The fact that some children may not be taught a particular perspective at home cannot become the basis to assume that all children should be taught such perspectives in a public-school setting.

This concern is heightened when the area(s) being taught are ones that are charged with moral complexity and/or disagreement. Thus, in teaching "sex education," one must be careful to ensure that what is taught is within the delegated envelope of parental wishes and that sufficient structural integrity in the program allows meaningful selection by parents of the things from which they would prefer their child to be absent. In addition, the school ought to support the parent's primary role rather than do anything, implicitly or explicitly, to denigrate it.


2. The Second Principle: Public School Curriculum Must Respect a Meaningful Pluralism.

Because Canada is a multi-cultural and pluralistic society, what is taught in public schools must not interfere with the moral or religious views of parents. Therefore, if public schools are to continue to have the wide-spread support of the community, they must be accountable to a wide variety of views. Recent developments raise valid concerns that this principle is not being properly recognized. Just as non-religious parents expect that their children will not be "indoctrinated" by religious teaching, those parents who hold religious views ought to be able to expect that their children will not be "indoctrinated" with views that are in opposition to their religious views. Where a particular issue elicits wide-spread concern, it is necessary to evaluate whether that issue has any place at all in public education.

Parents who wish to have particular programs as "options" may arrange for them to be taught as such, but they must not be part of the standard curriculum of public schools until such time as publicly-funded schools of choice are established. This principle has application to a host of areas in public schooling. In making this assessment, care must be taken to distinguish between factual materials and those that go beyond facts into contentious areas. Where an issue or issues have not achieved wide-spread public support (if necessary by local referenda), then these should not be introduced. This approach is a basic minimum of any education that wishes to command the public's support.

In addition, it is important to recognize that a principle identified in such areas as human rights legislation must not be applied through the side-door as a means of justifying the introduction of curriculum in the public school. For example, the fact that human rights legislation may recognize "sexual orientation" in certain areas (such as the refusal to employ or allow access to accommodation, etc.) cannot justify the extension of this narrow recognition into broad social support for such concepts as "alternative family structures" being taught in the public school. It is one thing to ban restrictions against homosexuals and lesbians with respect to employment (although the legislation still allows discrimination where there is a valid purpose for it), but it is an impermissible extension to take that recognition as justification for social support of such things as "same-sex marriage" or the moral acceptability of homosexual or lesbian conduct.

Because of the philosophical and religious recognition of the distinction between homosexual orientation and conduct (where the conduct has been deemed "immoral"), the public system, if it claims to be functioning pluralistically, should not endorse what these major religions and ethical codes deem to be "immoral."

The dignity of all people (including convicted criminals, people with criminal records, the mentally or physically handicapped, the religious and those with certain sexual orientations, to name a few other categories recognized in human rights legislation) is another question, but it is far removed from what gay and lesbian advocates wish to achieve when they seek to stigmatize heterosexuals as "heterosexist" or label all criticism of homosexual/lesbian conduct as "homophobic." These terms, and any education that surrounds them, specifically have no place in public education beyond, perhaps, their identification as one of a long list of people that can rely on human rights protections in certain areas.

There is no more, or less, reason to teach about gay and lesbian discrimination in schools than there is to teach the litany of discrimination that has affected religious believers in country after country. But to identify criticism of homosexual or lesbian conduct (the normative position of the world's ethical and religious codes for thousands of years) as "homophobic" (in so far as it implies acceptance of homosexual conduct) is as obnoxious to pluralistic education as it is to identify non-Christian public school students as "pagans," "heretics" or "the unsaved." No teacher can be required to teach such approaches and no parent should be expected to have their child exposed to this in a public school. The schools should teach that many (including homosexuals and the handicapped) are unfairly discriminated against, but should not in any way seek to make normal what much of history and many today (speaking from either religious or personal ethical positions) still consider "immoral" or wrong. The distinction between orientation and conduct must be kept in mind at all times lest education become indoctrination.

3. The third Principle: The Public System Must Respect the Religious and Conscience Beliefs of Teachers to Refuse to Cooperate with Offensive Teachings.

A teacher, trustee, principal or government official who has formed a deeply-seated religious or conscience objection to contentious moral policy must be able to dissent and have nothing to do with it. The law in Canada recognizes that the State cannot coerce citizens against their conscience in a work-place setting. Therefore, a teacher who refuses to play any part in the indoctrination of young people towards either stigmatizing heterosexuality or advancing support for homosexual or lesbian conduct would be well within their rights to refuse cooperation. Teachers may rely upon the protections offered for religious belief and private conscience, the responsibilities of their employers to respect these protections, and their unions to properly represent them in upholding their protections. It may take litigation to the highest levels for this to be recognized and reaffirmed, however, it is the proper defense of right principle that keeps democratic countries democratic.



Benson, Iain. Principles of Public Education in a Pluralistic Society. Centre Points 3, no. 2 (Fall 1997): 1.

Centre Points is the newsletter of the Centre for Renewal in Public Policy, an independent, non-partisan, non-denominational, charitable institute focused on the relationship between moral discourse, religious conviction and public policy. It has an international research council that draws upon a wide variety of disciplines and involves Protestants, Catholics and Jews in its various projects.

The Author

Iain T. Benson is Executive Director of the Centre for Cultural Renewal, an Ottawa-based "think-tank". He travels and lectures widely in North America and overseas on philosophical, theological and legal issues related to "strategic cultural renewal." Iain Benson is a member of the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1997 Centre for Renewal in Public Policy
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