One of the triumphs of the human race was the invention of public schools. With the spread of public school systems around the world, no longer would the children of farmers and blacksmiths receive only the training their parents could provide or afford to hire. No longer would learning for learning’s sake be firmly closed to those without independent wealth or unexpected patronage. The lot of all people was no longer simply to learn a trade and be content with that much knowledge. The expectation arose that people would enter adulthood with a basic understanding of art, literature, music, mathematics, history, and many experimental sciences. Later revisions and additions would make it possible for children to complete schooling with a basic familiarity with classical Western philosophy and levels of math and science that would previously have required connections in august institutions like Oxford University.
A lot of societal changes presaged this shift in human society. In the west in particular, the Industrial Revolution and subsequent urbanization made the propagation of farmhands and apprentices far less necessary, created a middle class that expected more for its offspring, and created a demand for educated professionals that could not be fulfilled in other ways. The history here is massive and convoluted enough that almost anything can be linked to this social revolution with enough effort, but that history is not at issue here.
This revolution also had a dramatic effect on the role of religion in society. Religious organizations have a long history as the core of educational systems. In societies lacking public schools, it is usually not secular charities and benefactors that fill the gap and provide basic learning to the masses, but clergy. In countries where public systems exist in urban areas but have not yet penetrated into less developed regions, churches and mosques often fill the gap. In places where ethnic minorities have separate infrastructure, church and school functions are often deeply intertwined as part of what makes these groups distinct from the surrounding society. This has given and continues to give religious institutions enormous power to shape each succeeding generation of students…dramatically reduced in societies that have managed to implement secular public school systems. Secularism, when it works, cuts religion out of the system; socialism makes the system available to anyone, preventing religious organizations from keeping their niche by being more easily accessible.
This has enabled the public school system to become much more than it was. As a shared time of growth and experience for the majority of a country’s youth, school became where people acquired their sense of what it means to be a citizen of their country and the heritor of its culture. It also became the primary means by which people would learn how our world functions. School serves many purposes, depending on the priorities of those running them and the pundit consulted: babysitting to make the workforce possible, training future workers for basic jobs, breeding moral and upright citizens, or even conferring advantages not shared by those outside the system. But that function—bringing to the next generation an understanding of our place in the universe, how our universe functions, and how to gain further understanding—is incredibly important, and becomes more so as more and more available futures demand such understanding.
The growing importance of this role is not lost on religious organizations. In every one of these situations, virtually without exception, the religious groups that run the schools present their doctrines as the same kind of truth as math or science, rejecting the fact that these ideas simply do not have the same epistemic or empirical basis. Many of them also alter how they approach ostensibly secular subjects or flat-out reject some topics, inventing bastardized versions of biology, history, literature, physics, and even math to hide the contradictions between their views and our best knowledge of reality. It is absolutely routine for religious private schools (and public schools with unusually religious officials, for that matter) to deliberately mangle their presentation of evolutionary biology so that their concurrent, illegal, and wrongheaded counterpoint of creationist fairy tales looks better. It is even more routine for religious schools to ignore Stephen Hawking’s conclusions and pretend that God is necessary to understand the origin of the universe and its growing pains. They understand that they can exploit this role to propagate themselves, and do so as much as possible.
Whatever other of the roles schools serve these religious schools assume, they insist tooth and nail on that one, and in an ideal world, that would be the end of it. A world whose inhabitants valued truth would not permit the existence of institutions of “learning” that insist on delivering demonstrable falsehoods and statements with no supporting evidence as if they were true, regardless of whether those institutions were public or private. It would not be necessary to point out that religious schools, especially in systems where they exist alongside rather than within a public school system, use a separate hierarchy and set of fundraisers to deflect scrutiny from their operations and curricula; hire clergy instead of properly accredited teachers and counselors; and feel they have God’s approval for being totally incompetent and destructive when asked to counsel people of whom their religion disapproves, such as atheists, people with unwanted pregnancies, people with sexual orientations other than “straight,” trans people, and non-binary people.
This is where the specter of this or that religious order with a particular interest in education tends to phase out of its hiding place somewhere in the woodwork. “What about the Jesuits?” those who think religions have a legitimate role in education systems demand. Well, what about them? While many of these orders are less awful than their Southern Baptist kin, they’re still not true and they still tell students they are under the cover of the headmaster’s cloak, so they’re still not acceptable. And why do they want to run this particular show in the first place? If they think their methods are an improvement on how the public system does things, then that can be verified empirically and those methods incorporated into the public system or abandoned if the claim doesn’t hold water. A religious tradition that likes the idea of learning, questioning, and critical thinking should have no problem directing its children to a well-run public school system. If it does, we should question its commitment to those ideals, especially if those ideals are their stated impetus for wanting their own school system. That’s the question we should be asking: if the Catholic school system is indeed better in any way than the secular systems it exists alongside, what are they doing that makes them better, and how can that be ported over? (A lot of the time, the answer is “conveniently” shunting problem students to the public system, which does not have the option to send them away to keep its ratings high, rather than actually teaching or maintaining order in some genuinely superior way.) Providing an excellent and secular public school system—so excellent that anyone who wants to run or send their offspring anywhere else is automatically suspect—is a fundamental duty of any developed nation-state that is worthy of the term.
This is particularly poignant in Ontario. Ontario publicly funds a network of Catholic schools alongside its secular schools, based on a century-old agreement with Canada’s French-Catholic community that the other two such provinces (Newfoundland and Labrador and Québec) have since abandoned. (Alberta and Saskatchewan have similar but much smaller systems). The drive to withdraw funding from the Catholic system or otherwise replace Ontario’s four-part kluge (including French versions of both secular and Catholic schools…) with a unified secular system does not get nearly the attention and voter pressure it merits. Despite being overtly discriminatory to non-Catholic teachers (who have half the employment possibilities of their rosary-displaying colleagues), officially serving a diminishing segment of the population, banking on an increasingly unevidenced claim that they are somehow superior to their non-religious counterpart systems, and being a direct establishment of religion in a country that really should know better, the system remains very nearly a third rail of Ontario politics.
But even if it were a private system, like the Catholic schools in the United States, that still wouldn’t be acceptable.
Those are the standards I have for educational systems. They need to be accountable to the people they serve, so they need to be socialized. They need to be available to as many people as possible, so they need to be public and not have admission standards that disqualify people for arbitrary reasons like their bank accounts. And they need to be a source of true information about reality, so they need to be scrupulously secular. Tiptoeing around religious ideas does not forward that purpose. Giving religious ideas sanction that they would not achieve if expected to stand on their own actively sabotages that purpose. Undermining the belief in incorrect things is one of the primary purposes of education.
Or at least, in a world where people cared about truth as much as they should, it would be.