Integrating by Educating

A bell rings and children scuttle to their seats in an air-conditioned classroom. The teacher asks them to pull out their textbooks as she starts labeling shapes on the whiteboard. Today, they’re starting a new topic in math: Geometry. On the other side of the world, surrounded by barbed wire, in a makeshift shelter with a tin roof, children sit on the ground and take turns forming the letters of their name on a chalkboard. These two differing educational experiences reveal the luxury of Canadian classrooms and the struggles faced by students in refugee camps. With the Government of Canada’s recent commitment to accepting 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016, many young refugees will be making an important transition. As our society changes, it is important to adapt Canadian schooling to society’s evolving needs in order to build an inclusive community.

I recently attended a panel discussion on the role of education in creating successful pluralistic societies. The Jeanne Sauvé Foundation hosted a number of esteemed guests, from teachers and academics to policy makers. Among the academics were McGill Associate Professor Bronwen E. Low, currently doing research for her project The Urban Arts as a Tool for Transforming a Disadvantaged High-School; postgraduate fellow at the Centre de recherche en éthique, François Boucher; and PhD candidate and Westmount High School teacher,  Sabrina Jafralie, doing research for The Challenges of Teaching the Religion Component of the Ethics and Religious Culture. Among the policymakers were educational consultant Anne-Marie De Silva, and McGill Associate Professor Kevin McDonough, interested in questions of educational policy that arise in relation to democratic citizenship, cosmopolitanism, cultural identity, nationalism, and religion.

The panel began by establishing that at its core, education is not only a means to transfer skills, but a nation-building project. However, some see a tension in education between teaching traditional beliefs and values, and favoring tolerance of others’ ideals. The Ethics and Religious Culture Program (ERC) curriculum in Quebec not only attempts to quash this tension by creating a space to recognize others beyond oneself, but also teaches students to be analytical. The Ministry of Education describes the course as an opportunity for students to “reflect on aspects of certain social realities and subjects such as justice, happiness, laws and rules and learn about elements of other religious traditions more recently found in Québec society.” Its primary role is to increase cultural awareness and provide students with the tools they need to navigate our increasingly diverse society. However, the course still has a long way to come, as it is surrounded by controversy and opposed by French nationalists, parents of different religious denominations, especially Catholics and secularists from the Mouvement laïque québécois.

While secularists believe ERC encourages the idea that ethics only materialize through religion, some French nationalists believe the course focuses too deeply on multiculturalism and some parents even argue that it interferes and denigrates the religious values they teach their children at home. Sabrina Jafralie spoke of the challenges in dealing with multiple views in the classroom, including those of teachers. Trained teachers are expected to be mindful of sharing their opinions without letting them overpower the classroom. However there are a number of teachers teaching ERC without the appropriate training, making it difficult to estimate the course’s effectiveness. In 2009, the Assembly of Quebec Catholic Bishops sent a letter to the Ministry of Education calling for more resources to be dedicated to teacher support and the implementation of a formally approved manual for the ERC curriculum. There is little information available on formal training programs for teachers, although the Ministry of Education states teaching guidelines are provided for each part of the ERC.

Another goal of the ERC curriculum is to pursue the common good, a notion which remains highly subjective. For French nationalists,  common good seems to entail maintaining Quebec’s French heritage. Other communities, especially those composed of recent migrants, may desire a more multicultural approach that celebrates their diversity. This serves as only one example where the definition of the common good diverges. In the socio-political context of Quebec, an interesting question was raised: how can you pursue common good in an education system that privileges majority groups? Historically, Quebec has had a different model of integration compared to the rest of Canada, which prides itself for its multiculturalism. In Quebec, interculturalism places greater focus on Francophone culture, with other cultural strands simply bleeding into it. Some have argued that Quebec’s distinct cultural identity makes it somewhat incompatible with welcoming other cultures. For example, the Quebec Values Charter would have made it illegal for public employees to wear religious symbols. Additionally, other challenges faced by immigrants to Quebec show that life is not always easy for them. Immigrants face high rates of unemployment and poverty. Police brutality from a predominantly white, Francophone, male police force affects people of colour in Montreal, and even resulted in the deaths of Jean-Pierre Bony, a 46-year-old black man, and Fredy Villanueva, a Honduran immigrant.

The ERC attempts to tackle this by teaching critical thinking to students. One of the ways it does this is through media literacy. Often issues related to ethics and religion make headlines, and examining these messages allows students to develop a means of critically analyzing the information provided. This approach fosters dialogue that furthers appreciating the differences in others, and enables students to realize that they should not necessarily believe everything that the media tells them, which due to interculturalism may reflect the privilege of the French majority in Quebec.

Finally, the panel concluded by addressing the holes in our current education system and attempting to provide ways to eliminate them. Professor McDonough put forth a controversial suggestion that there should be less schooling in its conventional form by limiting the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Professor Bronwen supported this, saying that we should infuse the curriculum with the brilliance that often goes unrecognized in youth through the arts. Community artists who have survived genocide and other human rights violations have found an outlet through Montreal’s multicultural hip hop and slam poetry scene. One such artist is Aly Ndiaye, aka Webster,  a Senegalese Québécoise, who has released social justice-themed rap songs about the struggles faced by black, Indigenous, and other marginalized peoples. Professor Bronwen is working to use this form of urban art as a tool to inspire and motivate high school students, and give them a vehicle for expressing their diversity and appreciating the differences in others.

Perhaps this is the future for education systems in culturally pluralistic societies. Arming students with the ability to preserve and share their heritage in the form of the arts may create the most open-minded  generation yet to come. Schools today often neglect teaching students how to effectively control erratic adolescent feelings. By participating in hip hop or spoken word culture, Bronwen hopes that students will be able to better control their emotions to productively deal with conflicts.  It is also expected that a display of these emotions through the arts will stimulate complex conversations and interactions between students, teachers and administrators across cultural, linguistic and generational borders. In an interview with Litlive, she said “hip-hop . . . honours youth experiences, [and] gives them a place to voice aloud their thinking and feelings on things about the world around them and their place within it.” This new approach to learning goes beyond tolerance and aims to create a genuine sense of appreciation that would validate different cultures rather than simply placing importance on one.