DISCRIMINATION ON THE BASIS OF SEXUAL ORIENTATION IS WRONG
It's 2009, and most of us have joined the vast majority of western liberal democracies in that belief.
The second, and more controversial of the concepts, is what we'll talk about today.
BILL 44, CONCEPT 2: THE RIGHT OF PARENTS TO CONTROL THE EDUCATION OF THEIR CHILDREN SUPERSEDES THE RIGHT OF THE CHILD TO A FULL AND BALANCED EDUCATION.
Now, this one is far more touchy than the first. A simpler solution to this conundrum would have been to present these 2 concepts in 2 different bills, however it's no secret that there is a very vocal minority in the PC Caucus, and in the province at large, that wanted absolutely NO space between Concept 1 and Concept 2: As soon as 1 was law, the 2nd had to be also.
Let's break this concept down into workable sub-concepts...
SUB-CONCEPT 1: Parents have the right to control the education of their children.
I say, "true". Before public education, the parental role in education was inextricable from the education itself: Mother and Father taught the child what s/he needed to know to survive in the world. If the child decided (or, sometimes, it was determined FOR the child) to go into a field that neither parent could offer an education in, the child would be "apprenticed" to someone who COULD provide that education. At any rate, the parent's right to control the education of their child was absolute.
Since the dawn of public education, this right has seen its scope limited. As class sizes grew, the parent's ability to sit down and discuss their own child's needs with the teacher was reduced; likewise with their ability to, in most cases, influence the curriculum - when your 4 children were in an 11-child, one-room school-house, your discussions with the teacher as to what was and was not appropriate for your children carried serious weight. When your child is one in a class of 25, in a school of 600, with regimented curriculum and standardized province-wide tests, then the teacher is somewhat more limited in how much they can change the lesson plan to accommodate the beliefs of your family.
Ultimately, the parent still has the choice to home school their child, enroll him/her in the public school system, enroll in a private, charter, or faith-based school... however, the lessons and core curriculum which the student is taught are determined by experts in order to ensure that all high school graduates, for example, can be assumed to have met the same basic threshold of applied learning.
So, while the parent can no longer control, to the same degree, what is taught in the public school classroom, it is ultimately their right to determine whether or not their child even ENTERS that classroom, or goes to a school or system more in keeping with their family's values and beliefs. Therefore, sub-concept 1 is, to my mind, truthful: Parents do have the right to control the education of their children.
SUB-CONCEPT 2: Children have the right to a full and balanced education.
We, as a society, have determined this to be true through our actions. The creation and public funding of an educational system which permits all children to attend, free of charge, is one of the greatest steps that any civilization can take to ensure its posterity. We in this country, as in many others, have created a system and embedded within that system a curriculum and series of standardized tests to ensure that the curriculum is being adhered to.
That curriculum is set by a central body, in our case Alberta Education, with the input of many highly-educated experts and after consultation with school councils - made up of teachers and parents - from across the province. The curriculum that the students are taught is intended to give them a foundation in logic, problem solving, analytical thought, critical thinking, and the ability to retain and use a base set of facts on a variety of subjects, from Language Arts and Mathematics to Science, History, Humanities, and Fine Arts.
The goal of this curriculum is to give students a well-rounded education. That is to say, to educate them as fully as possible in a group setting, in a number of different subjects as determined by the aforementioned experts and school councils.
Teaching a student is, at its core, simple: Introduce knowledge of which the student is not previously aware, discuss that knowledge, prove it to be factual through critical thinking, and test the student to determine if that knowledge was retained. Of course, there's MUCH more to being a teacher than just following those steps, but at its core, education boils down to those 4 steps. The KEY to the process, though, is the FIRST step: Introduce knowledge of which the student is not previously aware. Challenge the student's ignorance or pre-conception. Where we run into difficulty, and where our 2 sub-concepts collide, is at this point: Sometimes, the knowledge, or what we as a society have deemed "facts", bump up against what the student has been taught at home and brings into the classroom with them as a pre-conceived notion.
This is the system that we have created... a system that attempts to impart a societally-agreed-upon series of facts in a myriad of subjects, along with the ability to reason, critically think, and solve problems. Using this system as our barometer, then, we can determine that we do, in fact, believe sub-concept 2 to be correct: Children do have the right to a full and balanced education.
Having proven both sub-concepts, then, we come back to the 2nd core concept of Bill 44: THE RIGHT OF PARENTS TO CONTROL THE EDUCATION OF THEIR CHILDREN SUPERSEDES THE RIGHT OF THE CHILD TO A FULL AND BALANCED EDUCATION.
There's the rub... WHO decides what constitutes a "full and balanced education"? Society as a whole. The same society that, once, accepted that some people could be the legal property of others. Or that the Earth was the centre of the Solar System. Or, more recently, that a "person" was defined as "a human being who is not an Indian". These are all ideas that were taught as facts in school, once. Clearly, society's values, the values and beliefs and accepted facts of the majority, are not always right or in keeping with what a child is taught at home.
The rights of parents superseding the rights of their children is always a sticky subject... we accept as a society, for example, that the right of a mother to have control over her own body supersedes any rights that her unborn child (or "fetus", depending on your social slant) may have. But DO we? There are examples of alcoholic mothers who have the babies taken by the province immediately upon birth, for the welfare of the child. Recently, a judgement in Manitoba suggested that teaching racism at home was a form of child abuse. Parents have the right to determine what medical care their child receives - unless the child's life is in danger, in which case doctors are empowered to take whatever steps are necessary - even if those steps are against the faith and wishes of the child's family - to save his or her life. A family that refuses to allow a life-saving procedure on religious grounds can be charged with abuse, or negligence.
So, is the act of a parent denying their child access to the full Alberta Education curriculum a case of "child abuse"? Or is it simply a case of the parent exercising their right to determine what is best for their child?
The obvious elephant in the room in this whole debate is religion. As I've stated before, I'm not a person of faith. However, I *did* attend Catholic school, and in Calgary, that means taking a course entitled "Religious Studies" each and every year. In elementary school, this course was essentially catechism: "Here's what we believe. You should believe it, too". Most of the students were Catholics, from Catholic families. It wasn't a big deal. By the time I got to high school, however, the message had changed drastically... it became "Here's what other people believe, and here's why". There was no indoctrination, no condemnation of different beliefs, it was just... knowledge. I was learning about the faiths of my neighbours and friends - they weren't being condemned or promoted, they were simply being discussed. As a result of that class, I grew in my understanding of others, how they thought, and why they thought that way. It was incredibly useful, and I would be a far poorer person for not having taken that course.
My parents *could* have pulled me from that course. They had the option, just as they had the option of pulling me from class when the curriculum called for the teaching of Human Sexuality. They didn't - in fact, in my 12 years of school, less than 5 students EVER left the class because of their parents' wishes regarding Sex Ed (and this was in the Catholic system, remember).
I *can*, however, see the side of parents who feel that their 8 or 9 year-old, who presumably they know better than anyone, is not ready for a discussion on human sexuality (the curriculum, I believe, starts discussing human reproduction in 3rd grade now). Those parents should, and do, have a recourse to pull their child out of the class when this discussion is happening. It's one thing to pull your 17 year-old out of Health class because a subject will be discussed that, statistically, he's probably already DOING, but quite another to be told by society that "your 9 year-old daughter NEEDS to know what a penis is for - and if you or your pastor isn't comfortable with that, then too bad". Dinner table conversations can clarify your position to your children, they can put today's school lesson in the context of your faith, but they can't erase the information that you feel your child wasn't ready to hear.
Discussion about religion is different, though. If a child will, as result of a simple classroom discussion, lose or act against their faith - then clearly the faith isn't being discussed and cultivated at home. Surely, faith that goes untested is not as strong as that which is tempered by being challenged. Remember the story of Job? (Hint: Check your Bible)
And let's not lose sight, by the way, of the fact that discussion ABOUT religion isn't even covered by Bill 44 - it's Religious Instruction, specifically. The classes I took in elementary - "write down 5 reasons you love Jesus" apply. The classes I took in high school - "what does it mean when someone says they are 'keeping kosher'?" - don't apply. And, as far as I know, they don't even teach those classes in the public system anyhow. Certainly not as mandatory courses, the way they are in the Catholic system.
My personal experiences and opinions notwithstanding, though, we as a society have a decision to make: Do we, as a society, get to decide what's best for kids regarding their education? Or do their parents? We've passed laws that say spanking a child is abuse. Whether or not the parent feels the child needs to be spanked is irrelevant: We have decided that a parent who strikes their child is wrong, and committing a crime.
Are we prepared, as a society, to say that a parent who causes their child to be excluded from a classroom discussion on human sexuality or explicitly religious instruction (catechism) that goes against the parent's, and presumably the child's, values system is similarly abusing their child?
If we accept that the child has a right to a full and balanced education, as I posited above, then it is indisputable that the child's rights are being denied in this regard. The fundamental question we have to ask, then, is this: Whose rights come first? The rights of parents, or the rights of the student?
They BOTH have rights. When those rights collide - as they do on this issue - which rights are we willing to sacrifice in deference to the other?