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Face-off: the Schools Debate

By ReligionJuly, 2009December 21st, 20237 min read

Earlier this week, we published an article by Almoni calling for the abandonment of the private school system. David Werdiger has written a strident reply. We present the two views, side-by-side:

Almoni’s view:

It is time to reconsider the rationale for not only Jewish schools, but all forms of private schooling in Australia which exist to support particular religious or ethnic boundaries as a guard against ‘assimilation’ or intermarriage.   This includes mainstream Protestant, Catholic, Islamic, and fundamentalist Christian schools.

The policy of providing subsidies for the development of ethnic and faith based schools effectively  acts to water down the principles of Australian multiculturalism, and to decrease the level of social cohesion.

The long-term effect of cultural and religious separation is a degree of unnecessary ethnic, religious and class-based segregation.  Students and their families have little experience of the ‘other’, for all the well-touted cross-cultural programs that exist in the interests of ‘harmony’. Unfortunately, this reflects an increasing trend in this country to retreat into what is called the ‘private sphere’, and avoid contact with others.

There is nothing better for young people than to mix with a diversity of other young people outside of their own narrow experience.  This principle should apply as much to Jewish young people as it does with Islamic and fundamentalist Christian schools, where it appears secular studies are neglected, and doctrines such as creationism are rife.  At minimum, the shared classroom would help to prevent increasing levels of religious extremism in all communities.

There is also the question of the economic non-viability of so many Jewish schools.

A society that supports fairness and benefits for all needs to support  public education for all through supporting the equitable disbursement of personal cultural capital and tax dollars.

How do we solve the problem?

Back when I went to primary and secondary school, there were plenty of frum girls and boys with kippot at state schools, and this did not appear to be a religious problem.   When there were haggim, kids did not attend. Given the fact that so much education can now be online, being away from the classroom is even less of a problem.

To make the proposal work I have three core suggestions.

  • First, that for those who require gender separate education, at least post-primary school, that there be more  separate boys and girls high schools.
  • Second, that the state fund  separate high-quality ethno-religious educational streams in state schools.  The one problem for the Jewish community, however, is that such a religious stream  needs to be made responsive to different religious and cultural streams, but for the moment, call that a ‘political detail’.
  • Third, that a charter of religious rights and responsibilities  for state education be established for the state system as there are bound to be some difficult situations. This charter could use  the Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities as a reference point.

For those who argue that their religious beliefs or desire for a private secular education requires entirely separate schools, I argue that they should then pay for those schools without state assistance or tax breaks. Of they can home school (which already happens and is a highly undesirable option).

Once people see they can get a high-quality ‘ethnic-religious ‘ education that preserves their identify and connections in the state system (at a cheaper price), I suspect that many will abandon the private system.

Kids don’t have to swap their hummus or ham sandwiches, but they should learn to know each other as people and friends for life, rather than as separate stereotypes.

David Werdiger‘s view:

As he makes very clear, Almoni’s comments about the private school system are about far more than the Jewish community. His comments are about the nature of multiculturalism in Australia. This issue has been touched on in several posts on this blog, and his perspective tackles it head-on.

He suggests that secular studies are ‘neglected’ at Islamic and fundamentalist Christian schools. Further, that some of these schools teach awful doctrines like ‘creationism’! The Education Department has standards that all schools must abide relating to literacy and numeracy, and particularly the VCE (for those who complete it). It is the function of the Education Department to set standards for all schools, public and private. As long as those standards are met, then schools should be free to teach whatever is appropriate for their market. It should not be the function of government to decide whether schools should or shouldn’t exist (or be funded).

Almoni takes a socialist, almost communist position: that people in Australia with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds should be forced to integrate and ultimately become part of the pervasive Australian culture (whatever that means).

It is quite timely that in a recent opinion piece in The Age, Lindy Edwards discusses different approaches to multiculturalism around the world. While some conjecture on what should be, she draws her inferences based on historical attempts at integration of immigrants into Australia. The attempted policy of assimilation, similar to what Almoni espouses, was shown to be a dismal failure. Governments cannot dictate or define culture. These things must be allowed to evolve in their own space and time.

Melbourne is a vibrant melting pot. Everyone is able to immerse themselves and celebrate the different cultures that happily co-exist here. I know where to get the best bagels, the best yum cha, and the best kebabs. This is achieved by allowing natural geographic movement of people into communities that share a common culture. In some countries, and to a small extent in some places in Australia, barriers have formed around some ethnic enclaves. This is not a good thing, and has been shown to lead to racial tension, which needs to be dealt with in a pro-active way on a case-by-case basis. However, the extreme alternative of government attempting to intervene and create a custom merged culture of their own is equally unviable.

Creating a government education system that tries to be all things to all people will end up being nothing for anyone. Any external force that attempts to push culture in a specific direction (even if that means just stirring the melting pot) will inevitably clash with that culture, and people will simply withdraw or find other options.

Going back to the Jewish community, this issue is one that has come up several times in this blog and its predecessor. Should Jews in Australia quietly blend in with ‘regular’ Aussies (whatever that means), and discard the practices of our grandparents now that we are in the ‘free world’? Or should we remain comfortable celebrating our Judaism in whatever way we please – be it dancing in the street, wearing a kippah and tzitzit, or a long black coat and fur hat on Shabbat?

I suggest that the key to the continuity of any culture is to leave it be and let it evolve in its own time, rather than to suggest radical interventions and shifts, whether internal or external.

The article originally appeared on Galus Australis.

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