Education for pluralism: a challenge for today's Quebec.

Author:Leroux, Georges

My thanks to Gary Caldwell for giving me the opportunity to respond to his critique of the new Ethics and Religious Culture program. I would first like to make it clear that, contrary to what he wrote, I am neither the main author nor the official representative of the program. I had the privilege of working within several groups and committees interested in secularization, and the published lecture on which he bases his analysis is but a very secondary part of a collection of documents and publications, including, of course, the program itself, promulgated by the Ministry of Education, Recreation and Sports in July 2,008. My book represents no school of thought, still less what could be identified as a philosophy or ideology of the Ministry of Education.

I proposed that reflection on issues of secularization be undertaken after the minister announced in June 2005 that the government of Quebec would not invoke the notwithstanding clause and would establish a common, compulsory course, extended across all levels of schooling. The texts of this program for the primary and secondary levels very carefully explain its educational and social objectives, especially those concerning its two fundamental aims: recognition of the other and pursuit of the common good. It is therefore appropriate to refer to these texts in discussing the ministry's position, and this is what I will do here in addressing some of Mr. Caldwell's arguments.

Education for pluralism is one of Quebec's social priorities and hence one of the major recommendations of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. (1) This commission, coming in the wake of the long and rich debate on secularization that followed the publication of the Proulx Report (2) in 1999, was a busy political and social laboratory. Even though the Bouchard-Taylor Report does not reflect all the issues, notably because it does not contain a separate chapter on education, it has facilitated an essential analysis of the evolution of pluralism in our society. The commission's promotion of the new course seems to me a good starting point for discussing Mr. Caldwell's critique. Its work took place at the same time as the development of the program and reflects the same analysis of the social evolution of present-day Quebec.

The program has adopted the objectives of recognition of others and pursuit of the common good, and for the ministry these objectives call for initiating instruction that includes both ethics and religious culture, built on dialogue. Thus the program is put forward in a social and political context marked by the growth of diversity in our society, and is intended to give young people tools for their lives as adult citizens. It is a matter neither of ideology nor of indoctrination, unless one believes that democratic values constitute indoctrination.

According to Mr. Caldwell, the new course is the result of a philosophy of secularization based on seven fundamental and, for him, debatable pillars. I won't repeat these arguments since, although some of Mr. Caldwell's formulations seem to me unfair toward secularization in general and pluralism in particular (notably when be writes that normative pluralism represents a convoluted approach to universal truths), I can readily enough agree with his presentation of the fundamental premises of modernity. It was not our own intellectuals who discovered these. They are found everywhere in the development of Western societies that have reached modernity and have accepted the bargain of secularization: the rigorous separation of religious institutions (churches and others) from the state.

These premises are as present in Quebec as everywhere else, even if secularization here was the result of a much slower and more considered process than elsewhere. The public debate was long and highly nuanced and, contrary to what Mr. Caldwell has written, the consensus reached over the past 20 years is deep, because it is the result of a process of reflection carried through to maturity.

In this context, why is Mr. Caldwell opposed to the new Ethics and Religious Culture course? In his article, he seems to be torn between two main arguments. On the one hand, the new course is unacceptable because the premises on which it rests, which he characterizes as being based on utopian voluntarism, are fallacious. In other words, the course is a mistake precisely because it represents the modern secular position, based on the primacy of reason and individual liberty. This obviously puts Mr. Caldwell in the position of having to tell us, if modernity and secularism are errors, what multicultural societies should do to remain fair and tolerant in the face of growing...

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