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Religion and the Middle School

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I’m fascinated with the Toronto school that’s allowing Muslim students to pray in their cafeteria on Friday afternoons.  It’s a hugely complex issue:  prayer in the public school, gender segregation in school, schools taking the role of in loco parentis a little too far…

Heather Mallick did a fairly solid job of slamming the practice outright in The Star on Tuesday, addressing the feminist, religious, and educational issues, and calling the move a decision made by “a lazy, frightened school.”  But, of course, I have a bit more to add.

I love the multicultural nature of our country.  I love that people can abide by different religious tenents.  According to Muslim custom, congregational prayer is mandatory on Friday afternoons (for men at least).  Instead of students being forced to leave the school, one school allowed them access to a room on site.  That seems like a really nice idea. So what’s the problem?

First of all, the cafeteria was opened as an option not because the mosque was too far or difficult to get to, but because too many students with permission to leave school for religious reasons were hitting the mall instead.  As Mallick details, the cafeteria option was a means to discipline students missing the service to socialize.  This is where I think the school went too far in acting like parents.  It’s not our job as educators to ensure that students participate in their own religious services.  At all.  As teachers, it’s our job to ensure students all have the freedom to participate, but not to ensure they actually do participate regardless what parents might desire.

Secondly, as someone surrounded by teenagers at work and home, finding a sneaky way to force teens to attend services is bound to backfire.  For children, I’d fully support forced attendance for families so inclined in order to develop desired traditions, attitudes, and beliefs.  But for teenagers, it’s a pivotal time of life wherein making good choices is a burgeoning skill.  They can’t learn to make choices if all the choices are decided for them.  And in order to see what works for them, they have to make a few mistakes along the way.  Check out any coming-of-age film for an example.  As a mom, if I found out my teen hit the mall instead of a religious service, I’d take away the privilege of missing Friday classes. Nobody can be made to worship or believe.  They can be inculcated as children, but then they have to have the freedom to participate willingly or else any attendance will just be a performance.

Finally, Mallick is outraged that in this day and age the service has to be led by a man (or boy).  The segregation of males and females, especially the menstruating bit, is hard to swallow.  And the argument that boys will be too distracted by looking at girls is contentious, especially since they’re grade 7 and 8 boys who typically aren’t as distracted as the girls would like.  But the suggestion that it’s shocking that a worship service can only be run be a man means Mallick is forgetting about Catholicism.  It’s a huge part of the western world, and yes, even in Toronto in 2011, Catholic services must be run by men.

I does boggle the mind, but that’s a tradition that’s been followed for a few hundred years now.  If we want to be fair to all religious groups, I think we have to allow them any tradition that doesn’t cause direct harm to the congregation or otherwise.  If I’m going to fight traditional teachings, it’ll be the ones that ban condoms and gay marriage – or promote stonings, or, well, you get the idea.

But back to Friday afternoons.  We used to have just Sundays off because most people were Christian and that’s their day of rest. Saturday wasn’t mainstream until the 1940s even though it was considered the Christian day to prepare for the Sabbath.  It needed union backing for full implementation.  It’s also the Jewish Shabbat.  Since we’ve got a growing Muslim population in Canada, why not start the weekend at noon on Friday and solve the whole mess.  Before people complain that teachers have too many holidays to begin with, I’d gladly take a shift in prep periods so that I teach the same amount in a week, then have prep time in one chunk on Fridays.  (But can I work from home?)