An intellectual prisoner?


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It frightens me to think I may be an intellectual prisoner. That's because I've been pondering a question raised earlier this month in this newspaper: Should private schools receive the same amount of provincial-government funding as do public schools?

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/03/2010 (4645 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It frightens me to think I may be an intellectual prisoner. That’s because I’ve been pondering a question raised earlier this month in this newspaper: Should private schools receive the same amount of provincial-government funding as do public schools?

I teach at one of these schools, Canadian Mennonite University. And all my own education — from Grade 1 to postgraduate — was in religious schools.

The author’s question seems to hang on two underlying assumptions. One is that there is less academic freedom in a faith-based school than in a school more tightly controlled by government.

So, I asked a few of my students what they think. One student, who transferred from the University of Toronto, says she feels more freedom of enquiry now than she ever did. Another claims he is now more free to think out loud than when he attended the University of Winnipeg. A third, who transferred from Trinity Western University, an Evangelical school in Vancouver, says that at both schools he has been able to explore openly issues as diverse as homosexuality and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Were the three misguided or naive? Are they my fellow prisoners?

The second assumption seems to be that funding such schools is a waste of money. Since I abhor the waste of my tax dollars, I looked at the numbers that accompanied the reporter’s question.

Something confused me. If the government reimburses 10 to 85 per cent of a non-government school’s operating costs (usually around 50 per cent), where does the rest of the money come from? If it comes from elsewhere, as from parents or cookie sales, isn’t the government actually saving money, not wasting it?

Pity, then, those parents who support public schools with their tax dollars in addition to chipping in to the cost of running their children’s faith-based schools. These parents also carry 100 per cent of the cost of fixing roofs, replacing furnaces, painting walls, and all the schools’ other capital expenses.

Let’s return to the freedom part of the question, the part that really frightens me.

Jim Turk, the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, is quoted as saying that people who teach in faith-based institutions claim, “I know the answer to everything” and, thus, by implication, are not interested in learning, or teaching, anything new.

Imagine this: I teach part-time at Canadian Mennonite University. Previously, I set up a program and taught full-time at Providence College, an Evangelical Christian institution. Yet I am a professed, avowed, and staunch Catholic.

Isn’t that alone a quick ticket to prison? Try to imagine two Christian groups farther apart theologically, philosophically and historically than Mennonites and Catholics. For centuries, they tried to slaughter each other. Or, consider two more rival Christian groups than Evangelicals and Catholics. They are intent on converting each other all over the world.

For safety, should I not stick to teaching at a Catholic school or, at least, at a government-protected institution? Indeed, I have taught at both types, here and in Toronto and Montreal, but felt no freer there than where I am now.

Perhaps that should not surprise us. Isn’t it true that many, if not most, colleges and universities in Canada were started and are still enthusiastically supported by religious groups? Anglicans had a lot to do with founding the University of Manitoba, for instance, and the United Church still allies itself closely with the University of Winnipeg.

The assumption has not been that because you believe in one thing, such as deity, you close your mind to everything else. Nowhere was it written that truth sought from a secular perspective is somehow more valid than truth sought from the perspective of one’s religious beliefs.

In fact, virtually every venerable university in the world, from Padua and the Jagellonian, to McGill and Harvard, was started by people of religion wanting to learn more. Could it be that since religious belief assumes there’s an infinite amount of knowledge, it also assumes an infinite number of facts, ideas and perspectives to be learned and understood? History does suggest that religious belief spurs the imagination, as in the case of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Tolstoy, John Paul II and Madonna.

To the contrary history suggests that rigid, dogmatic attention to the obvious, self-evident physical minutiae of the everyday world stifles intellectual creativity.

So, might I be more, not less, free academically than colleagues at other schools who must, as a condition of employment, adhere to lists of what is and what is not “appropriate?” For example:

“If you can’t prove it, don’t talk about it.”

“If it risks making someone uncomfortable, stay away from it.”

“If you don’t agree with something that emerges from religious belief, don’t allow anyone, including yourself, to think about it.”

Nobody asks me to follow such maxims of appropriateness. I am free to explore whatever sparks my curiosity, or that of my students. I tell my students only to get their facts straight, be honest, and try to be fair and objective.

My fear of intellectual imprisonment is, thus, seemingly groundless.

As a postscript, I could ask about the erosion of freedom of religion and association implied in the question, why community-run schools open to everyone are called “private,” what happened to Manitoba’s constitutional obligation to fund Catholic schools, and about selective government support for non-religious groups such as homosexuals, women, First Nations people, immigrants, animals, and so on. But, perhaps, in somebody’s book, that would be inappropriate.

Ryszard (Richard) J. Osicki has studied and taught at faith-based schools all his life

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