If you send your children to private religious schools, you might be part of something that “encourages division,” according to Barack Obama.
Speaking to a couple thousand people in Northern Ireland earlier this week, Obama said that children going to schools in line with their parents’ faith — Catholic and Protestant, in this case — is a bad thing that “discourages cooperation.” Although the connections between certain things in his speech seem tortured and unclear to me, it sounds as though he’s comparing religious schools to segregation.
“Because issues like segregated schools and housing, lack of jobs and opportunity — symbols of history that are a source of pride for some and pain for others — these are not tangential to peace; they’re essential to it,” Obama said. “If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs — if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation.”
So according to Obama, letting people make the choice about how to educate their children is tantamount to “segregated schools and housing” and “lack of jobs and opportunity”? Really? In which alternate reality does he find this to be true? Freedom of association is a good thing — and people have the freedom to make choices that you don’t approve of.
To me, the attitude embodied in this speech betrays a couple of things.
First, it says that Obama doesn’t think religious freedom is very important. People educating their children in the traditions of their own faith is one of the most important parts of religious freedom. I don’t always agree with what people teach their children about faith and reality, but I accept that their freedom is more important than my right to approve of their decisions.
Second, it says that Obama sees schools as agents of social engineering. It says that he believes sending all children to the same schools — to be taught the same things and raised to believe the same things — is the key to cooperation and opportunity. It’s a top-down mentality that says society is more important than individuals making their own decisions.
Obama’s supporters in this country have rushed to defend his remarks and argue that he didn’t say what he actually said. Here’s a member of the Los Angeles Times editorial staff defending him, for instance. But in order to defend Obama, Michael McGough finds it necessary to attack the people who have been calling attention to the president’s words. And then, instead of dealing with Obama’s actual words, McGough says the history of Northern Ireland makes it different, so it’s OK that he said those things in that context.
Many people today — conservatives and progressives both — believe that schools should be instruments of social change, in order to mold the world into the vision of what they want it to be. Most people in the mainstream don’t want individuals making their own decisions. They want children being taught whatever they happen to want them to believe.
Obama wants kids taught a progressive left way of looking at the world. Social conservatives want kids taught what they see as a “traditional American” view of the world. In both cases, the people involved are more interested in shaping children to be what they want them to be than they are in letting people live their lives in peace.
I find Obama’s words troubling. I’m not a proponent of any type of traditional schooling anymore — religious or secular — because I’ve come to believe unschooling and homeschooling are better models, depending on the children involved. But for those who want to use traditional schools to teach their religious values, that’s something we ought to celebrate, not attack.