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Response by Elmer Thiessen

Posted By: Elmer Thiessen on June 14, 2002
Response to James Anderson’s review
In Defence of Religious Schools and Colleges:

I am grateful to James Anderson for a very thoughtful and careful review of my book, In Defence of Religious Schools and Colleges. It is always a sign of a good review when a reviewer helps an author to understand his own work better or to see it in a new light, and Anderson did that for me.

His chief worry has to do with the practical implications of my philosophical defence of a pluralistic system of education which would include publicly supported religious schools and colleges. Anderson’s point is well taken – I skirted the practical issues concerning my overall argument. But I am a philosopher and not a politician! So I beg to be forgiven. But let me dare to respond to some of the practical concerns that Anderson raises.

I am well aware of American suspicions regarding religious incursions into public life and state controls of religious life. But, as I argue in my book, the notions of a religiously neutral discourse, or a “naked public square,” are mistaken, as is the notion of strict church-state separation. Indeed the church-state divide is proving to be rather porous in the last while in America.

The key practical question that Anderson poses is one of ensuring that religious schools and colleges will indeed support the civic virtues that are essential to public life. This is an important question, and I quite agree that I did skirt this question because it is so difficult to deal with. In a liberal democratic society, I believe the state has a legitimate role to play in ensuring that religious schools promote the development of individual “normal” autonomy. But, what about illiberal states? And might it be that even liberal democratic societies can be illiberal?

I am just as afraid of liberal fundamentalism as I am of religious fundamentalism. Let me boldly step into some troubling waters. Anderson worries about the public arena responding to religious schools that teach strict gender roles and gender heirarchy. I quite agree that all schools should teach the equal dignity of all persons, male and female, and that a liberal state should be able to enforce such teaching. But should a liberal state also ensure that the latest edition of political correctness be taught in all schools? Some religions simply differ from feminist and liberal fundamentalism regarding certain family values. Should we not respect these deeper differences, as long as the fundamental principle of equal dignity of all persons is maintained? With Yael Tamir, I would argue that the thinness of liberal discourse is its major virtue. To impose thick liberal values on religious schools is the height of intolerance and illiberality.

But, what do we do with schools that are obviously failing to teach the essential thin liberal values? Anderson quite justifiably draws attention to increased American nervousness about the dangers of sectarianism in the light of the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001. I can appreciate that the emotional response to these horrors might be a renewed call for a public educational system which will foster unity and tolerance. But, this kind of response assumes that religious schools foster disunity and promote intolerance. We are back again to the traditional objections to religious schools, objections that I showed to be unsound in earlier chapters in my book (chs. 2 & 3). And it would seem that Anderson agrees that I have disposed of many of the common arguments against religious schools. He doesn’t say which, so perhaps he views my arguments dealing with charges that religious schools foster disunity and intolerance as weak. I think they are strong. I believe that a pluralistic system of education will more effectively foster unity and tolerance than a monolithic state system of education. The primary reason for this is that respect for differences, including the differences of cultural/religious groups is a key to fostering loyalty to a country. Here I believe Canada has something to teach America, as Michael Ignatieff is fond of saying.

So, what do we do with schools that don’t teach a thin set of liberal values? Illiberal schools need policing. But, let’s make sure that the policing is done in accordance with a thin set of liberal values. And let’s make sure that we also solve the problem as to who polices the police? Unfortunately there is no easy answer to that problem.

Elmer Thiessen
Medicine Hat College
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 Response by Elmer Thiessen by Elmer Thiessen on June 14, 2002
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