New Internationalist

What’s my identity?

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Issue 422

Our May 2009 edition on Multiculturalism will be released soon. It’s a subject on which people have strong opinions and on which ‘experts’ endlessly split hairs. One controversial feature of contemporary cultural diversity are faith schools, especially when they receive state support. We decided to run a piece (below) in which a former student spoke about her experiences, voicing her own particular perspective. We hope you will voice yours.

Faith schools get a bashing even from committed multiculturalists. Supporters argue that faith schools acknowledge the importance of the child’s cultural identity, something they feel is missing from mainstream education; detractors say they are bastions of bigotry. As one young blogger put it: ‘In a free society you cannot protect your children from ideas. Those who would isolate their children to protect their religious beliefs are demonstrating an extreme lack of faith in those very religious beliefs. Political freedom, economic freedom – these are nothing compared to the power of intellectual freedom.’1

We decided to put some of the main criticisms to Laura McAllister, a recent graduate from Chairo Christian School in Drouin, Australia. Laura has just started on a career as an English teacher in a secular school.

Laura McAllister: I was at a state school until Grade 5; then my family moved to rural Victoria and I went to Chairo Christian School. It’s an open school, you don’t have to be Christian to go there or belong to any particular denomination. At state school everything was compartmentalized – God was confined to religious studies. At Chairo, God was included in everything. It was a Christian worldview; that’s how they teach. The school came about from the desire of the parents in the community to build [Christian] foundations in their children.

NI: How can a subject such as mathematics include religious thinking?

Laura: We weren’t constantly talking about God – you’ve still got the same curriculum as the secular schools. But the teachers had that Christian perspective: that God has created all these different things for us to study. Maths and science are parts of the character of God, as are the creative arts. My family is Christian, so they were more than happy for me to have that fluency and continuity between home and school.

‘You wouldn’t have a homosexual teacher or someone who didn’t believe, because there’s a certain Christian worldview that the school teaches’

NI: Faith schools are criticized for creating parallel communities, teaching particular faith values which may shape your outlook in later years, perhaps keeping you apart from other communities.

Laura: While I was taught from a Christian perspective, it was always very open. We would discuss different cultures and had exchange students – from China, Indonesia and Chile – from different religious backgrounds. In Year 9 I did a presentation on different religions of the world and how they saw things in comparison to Christianity. That was always welcome – to critically think about your perspective as an individual. It was never authoritarian. The school and teachers had so much faith in Christianity that there was never any need to fear that we couldn’t share different cultures or religions. Christianity is an individual thing, you have to commit your own life.

NI: There is often a conflict in secular democracies between the state’s twin guarantees of religious freedom and of equality for its citizens – as certain kinds of religious belief can constrain equality, particularly in terms of gender and sexuality. If education receives state funding it must reflect the ethos of equality. Faith schools are often criticized on this score. Were girls and boys treated differently at your school?

Laura: We were all treated as equals. In God’s eyes everyone is the same, male or female, no matter what religion, so there was no distinction, even down to dress. Girls were allowed to wear pants – obviously the boys didn’t wear dresses. There was always encouragement for girls to go into ‘non-traditional’ areas such as maths and science.

NI: What about sex education? The criticism is that sex education in faith schools is less than frank and unfair to sexual minorities.

Laura: We had a good amount of sex education. It was always very frank and open about sex in general and how God had made it to be pleasurable between a man and a woman. It didn’t focus on the negative, like you shouldn’t do this or that, but more on the positives of how God has designed us a certain way and the benefits of following that way. Homosexuality was also talked about. Of course as Christians we believe that God created a man and a woman to be together in marriage. But it was never judgmental: they never set out for us to be vigilantes or take action or anything. It was always said, you know, ‘Hate the sin, but love the sinner’. And that applies to everybody – nobody is perfect. So it was always: every human being has a value and is worthy. It was never a sense of condemnation towards homosexuals, but there was definitely a sense of what God had intended for us.

NI: A gay student from a Catholic school in Canada took his school authorities to court under equality legislation for not allowing him to take his boyfriend to the school prom. He won. Would gay students at your school have been comfortable to come out?

Laura: From my perspective there was never an issue like that to have to deal with. Sure, from attitudes projected they might have felt uncomfortable from their own insecurities, but they would always have been received with compassion and love no matter what.

NI: Pursuing the area of equality – say a teacher was from a different faith or didn’t subscribe to any faith at all: do you think they could have taught at your school?

Laura: I can’t say what their employment practices are. But the school is very overtly Christian; the staff were having devotions in the morning simply to focus on God and what He wants them to do. For a staff member to join who was opposed to that kind of faith would be illogical.

NI: What about homosexual staff – would they have had a problem working within the Chairo set up?

Laura: I don’t think any person in that position would want to put themselves in an environment like that, knowing that it was against the faith they were working with. You wouldn’t have a homosexual teacher or someone who didn’t believe, because there’s a certain Christian worldview that the school believes in and teaches.

NI: Faith schools teach creationism, often at the expense of evolution. What was your experience?

Laura: We were taught evolution and creationism; in secular schools they are only taught evolution. So you could say that Chairo was actually more diverse in theories of creation than the secular schools. In Chairo, evolution is taught as theory, whereas I know evolution is taught as fact in state schools. There is never any talk of Hindu or Buddhist or Aboriginal dreamtime theories of creation. At least at Chairo we looked at evolution as theory and looked at intelligent design as being the truth because when you compare them there are a lot of holes in evolution that you can’t explain. But we had students in my class that didn’t believe in creation. If they believed in evolution, they were allowed to believe that, obviously.

NI: You went to a secular university after school. What was the transition like, going from a Christian community into mainstream society where people have all kinds of different views and beliefs?

Laura: That didn’t bother me. At a Christian school they are able to deal with the big questions of life: Who am I? What’s my purpose? What’s my identity? You can talk about those things because the authority of the school comes from the Bible. So they always teach from that perspective. If as a student you are wanting those answers and are open to them, you have the opportunity to find out your identity and find out what you believe and what your opinions are. So going into secular university I would say gave me even more of a solid foundation of knowing who I was, to not feel like I was lost in this big multicultural world. There are lots of different things that you are faced with, but knowing my purpose made it easier.

Faith schooling in Australia

  • 200,000 students study in evangelical Christian schools in Australia – 6% of all students.
  • 16,000 are in Islamic schools.
  • 10,000 in Jewish schools.
  1. Source: Michael Bachelard, ‘At the crossroads?’ in The Age, 25 February 2008.

What’s your own view on faith schools and their place in culturally diverse societies? Join the debate by leaving your own comment over at the NI blog.

Notes:

  1. Saheli Datta at http://tinyurl.com/a9pcuc

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