Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Foundation of Public Education and Why You Must Protect It

A local public school decided to send all Grade 8 students on an outdoor educational experience at a local camp. The purpose of the trip was to enhance their learning of nature and to provide the opportunity for the students to bond with each other, their teachers and their school. It was reasonably priced and the organizing teacher had been to the facility before and was highly impressed with the staff and their dedication to the kids.

I very strongly opposed the trip, have sent a letter to the principal and have called my local Trustee to explain the gravity of my concerns. If you lived within the boundaries of my school board, I would hope you'd do the same.

You see, the camp is a Christian Camp. Here are the first two paragraphs from the Camp's Welcome page (I have omitted the camp name):

Camp 'M...' is a Christian Camp that is committed to introducing children and young people to the message of Jesus Christ from the Bible through a camping experience that incorporates practical spiritual teaching, skill development, physical activity, friendship and lots of fun.

We want each camper to feel welcome, safe and accepted for who they are. Our goal is to provide real experiences; character-building opportunities that will develop young people physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually and allow them to stretch and flourish – to be the people God wants them to be.

The main purpose of this camp is not to provide outdoor education, it is to introduce, strengthen and indoctrinate children into the camp's specific view of Christianity. The camping experience is merely icing on a cake. I'm reminded of the story of Hansel and Gretel where they are attracted to the house by its candy covering but this is merely a ruse to get the children inside the house for an unrelated purpose.

My local trustee immediately recognized my concern. The two representatives at the school I have spoken to (a teacher and an administrator) did not. There is no requirement that they agree with me but it is disturbing that they do not even understand my objection. Instead of questioning whether the trip may violate Board policy or the Education Act they are trying to defend the trip. I understand that the trip may be a very important activity for the kids and I completely support its purpose. However, it may not happen at this camp!

Why am I so concerned? So what if a bunch of new teenagers hear a few prayers during a camping trip? Won't most of the kids simply ignore any of the religious messages? Why not just let the kids and the school have some fun?

The answers to these questions are complex but I believe it boils down to a simple, fundamental principle of public education; a grand pillar that must never be allowed to fall.

Education of children must take the form of giving them useful and substantiated skills and knowledge. The ultimate strength of the public education system is that it does not teach opinion, it teaches facts. We recognize that every human on the planet has a unique and complex combination of opinions on thousands of issues from aesthetics, politics, history to the supernatural and beyond. However because they are unique, it is impossible for there to be two or more humans holding opinions that are completely true. Either one person holds only true opinions, or no one does. If one person holds the truth, how do we find them? What tools do we use to determine that their opinions are, in fact, true?

The answer to this is the greatest strength of public education. 'Separate' or 'private' schools, by definition, tout that they are the ones with the answers. They wish to remain separate and private for the very reason that they believe they have the 'correct' opinion and they want to be able to enclose impressionable young children within a confined bubble where the only opinion they get to hear and are not allowed to question, is that of the school, its administrators and the benefactors.

The power of the public school system is not that it allows all opinions free reign in the school but that it allows only those opinions which have clear, substantiated and peer-reviewed evidence on their side. One plus one equals two is not taught because it is the opinion of some people that say it is true, it is taught because mountains of evidence demonstrate that it is. Public education teaches public knowledge that has passed the rigorous scientific method, the greatest tool that humans ever invented.

Teachers and administrators must recognize that their opinions may be flawed. They must also recognize that they are likely to not know which of their opinions are flawed. For this reason, teachers and administrators must agree to keep their opinions to themselves and never try to convince the children in their charge to adopt their specific ideas. They are bound by an understanding that it is their job to ensure that children are given only the knowledge which has been gathered by the most educated people in their field. As the saying goes, "only the facts."

But, teachers have one more important role. It's to teach kids how to think, not what to think. They need to teach children how to recognize the difference between opinion and fact. How to analyze opinions, how to distinguish between real evidence and anecdotes. Ultimately, it is not the teacher's job to make children think like they do, but to teach them how to find the flaws in the teacher's own opinions. Any teacher should feel proud when a student makes the teacher reconsider an opinion. They've done their job well.

I opposed the trip to the Christian camp because the camp will attempt to pass their opinion of their specific brand of religion onto the children under the guise of truth. They know that most children will not fall to their knees and believe during prayer before spaghetti but they are planting seeds. And, like every farmer and marketing person knows, the more seeds you plant, the greater the chance your crop will grow.

Stand up for public education! Contact your schools and convince yourself that your school is adhering to these high standards. Let's raise a generation of children that will not adopt our opinions but scrutinize and improve them.


kwandongbrian said...

You know that our views on religion and public education are similar but I wonder, in this case, if the school is just renting out rooms at the camp? There may well be crosses and bible verses on the walls, but perhaps there is no explicit religious content.

If there is, the students shouldn't go. It might be, though, that the facilities just happen to have a Christian theme to them in addition to be safe, interesting and close.

Hotels in Bracebridge desperately hunt for off-season visitors, making specials and offering discounts that they might normally not. Shortening or removing any off-season is sound business; I share your concern but maybe they are renting the facility but not the message.

I hope that's the case but keep demanding answers until you are satisfied.

HumanistDad said...

According to the teacher, they are not just renting out the space. The camp is being run by the staff of the camp and the teachers are there to supervise.

I was asked if I would agree to the trip if the camp refrained from prayer and I still said no (not that I have any real power to cancel the trip - I'm simply pointing out that they are breaking the rules). I trust the staff at the camp to do what comes naturally to them; try to convince children about their religious views. Even if there are no prayers will they be told god put that tree there?

The other reason you already identified. What about religious messages, artifacts and materials throughout the camp? To paraphrase Advertising article 4.2.5 of Board policy: Political, sectarian and religious advertisements and materials may not be given or displayed to the kids. If the camp were forced to nix prayers, the religious messages (bibles, statues, verses, etc) also need to go.

The accommodations required to make this trip possible get more and more onerous. The reality is, they shouldn't be going in the first place.

Oh, there is a camp even closer to the school that IS non-religious and offers a similar outdoor education/bonding program. I don't know what the price is but I'm not sure if it was even considered (I should also mention the Board owns a camp that the schools can use!).

kwandongbrian said...

Thanks for clearing things up. I just wanted to play devil's advocate for a moment.

I guess there are a few dozen camps in the area. Oh, you should suggest Camp Ramah (Skeleton Lake?) -the Jewish camp. If the choice of camp was religion-neutral, then Ramah should at least be on the list of possibles.

The camp the Board owns, that's 'Yearly', isn't it? I remember spending lots of time there -curiously- remember nothing but trees and the dorm-rooms. It doesn't matter for this discussion, just for nostalgia's sake, but do they have an open field or sports area there?

HumanistDad said...

Even better, there's Camp Agudah, the orthodox Jewish Camp. Ramah is a more moderate form of Judaism.

I've never been to Yearly so I don't know what is there. But, it does make me wonder why they are booking a trip at a private camp over the Board-owned camp. Presumably the private camps have more resources (surprise, surprise!).

kwandongbrian said...

Hey. I read on facebook that you were successful and that the camp will go on at a different location. I had been concerned that, because of your complaint, the whole camping trip would be cancelled.

I see the Centre For Inquiry is having a conference in Toronto at the end of October. Are you going (obviously, I am not).

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