Why Keep The Ryerson Principle For The Public School Curriculum

01/11/2013 12:55 EST | Updated 03/12/2013 05:12 EDT

To paraphrase John Locke in his Essay on Human Understanding, we want to be lovers of the truth; we want rational knowledge, we want proofs. And we want probability to help us assent to matters, where we do not have sufficient knowledge and proofs to ground our reason. And we want our ethics, which is the seeking out those rules and measures of human actions, which lead to happiness, and the means to practice them.

This very much describes the modern era, which is rather remarkable, considering it was written in 1690.

Another example, of how we are more connected to our past than we might think, is our calendar. July is named after the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, and August is named after his nephew Augustus Caesar, who was the Emperor during the life of Christ. After this readjusting of the calendar by Julius Caesar, September, (French/Latin for 7) became the 9th month, October (French/Latin for 8) became the 10th month, November (Latin for nine) became the 11th month and December (French/Latin for 10) became the 12th month.

We are indeed very much connected to our past and this should be an encouragement to us today when making decisions, because Canada's becoming one of the most prosperous, peacful nations in the world, was no accident.

As Newton said, we stand upon the shoulders of giants, and one of these is Egerton Ryerson, who founded the public school system in Canada.

Ryerson's great principle, upon which the public school system in Canada was founded, was that the curriculum should be benign to all sects, emphasizing our common ideals and ethics. And with this principle Ryerson, after 32 years of effort as Superintendent of Upper Canada / Ontario Public Schools, from 1844 to 1876, won majority public and legislature support that the school tax was to be levied not upon the parents of the children in attendance, but upon the real property of the district. Ryerson concluded as follows: "Wealthy selfishness and hatred of the education of the poor and labouring classes may exclaim against this provision of the law, but enlightened Christian philanthropy and true patriotism will rejoice at its application."

Ryerson is still right on this, and we should cancel the extra school fees that are a burdon on already struggling Albertan families.

And even more important than this, Ryerson's great principle that the public school curriculum should be benign to all well intentioned groups can help us with the controversies and challenges ahead.

Here are the thoughts of University of Windsor law professor Richard Moon, in his essay "The Supreme Court of Canada's Attempt to Reconcile Freedom of Religion and Sexual Orientation Equality in the Public Schools" appearing in the 2011 UBC Press book "Faith, Politics and Sexual Diversity" (here is a link

This excerpt is taken from Dr. Michael Wagner's book, Leaving God Behind, (p. 135-136) (here is a link

Moon is very conscious of the fact that education is not neutral and he draws out some of the implications of homosexual rights for the public schools. (For example, "Including these stories (of same sex relationships) in the kindergarten curriculum, will normalize same-sex relationships and, in effect, affirm their value").

Because education must be based on a particular perspective (or worldview), schools "cannot be neutral towards, or even tolerate, all values. The affirmation of any value or set of values will involve the exclusion or rejection of other values, perspectives or commitments in the community, including the deeply held religious beliefs of some teachers, parents, and students. ... If a school board or provincial government decides to advance or affirm a particular set of values, they must also reject other values - values that may be part of the religious commitment of some community members. Parents may have to live with the democratic consequence that their values are not included in the civic curriculum and perhaps even that their children are exposed to, or taught, views to which they are opposed" (Moon 2011, 334,336).

Moon is essentially asking us to reject the Ryerson principle and make the public school curriculum harmful to the views of many Christian sects and the sects of other faiths as well rather than trying to find an approach that emphasizes our common ideals and ethics.

In contrast, here is a suggestion for five tautology basics in keeping with the Ryerson principle of benignity; of finding an approach that emphasizes our common ideals and ethics.

Basic 1.

Let's teach the kids to always show great love, respect and kindness to all people, no matter race, creed, colour or sexual orientation.

Basic 2.

Let's teach the kids that sex is best saved for marriage, so that as much as possible, children can be concieved in a loving home environment, and spared the increased risks of AIDS and STDs. And that puberty, is probably not the best time for the kids to be making decisions about possible future sexual lifestyles for themselves or about anyone else. Focus on academics and learning. It's going to be OK.

Basic 3.

Let's make our schools a Family Safe Zone, where young families with children are built up and encouraged and praised, and there is no pornography or sexting or course language, and no bullying or teasing or fighting of any kind.

Basic 4.

Let's teach the kids critical thinking skills so that they understand that the good and true and beautiful does not always equal Hollywood's or the drug culture's or the tobacco advertiser's latest fad.

Basic 5.

And let's teach the kids conflict resolution skills that will help keep marriages together because the approximately 40% divorce rate in Alberta is way too high and hurting the children.

The Ryerson principle, that the public school curriculum should be benign to all sects (well intentioned groups), is a good principle, a great principle really, that has served this country well for over 100 years, a short time really, and hopefully will be permitted to serve this country well, for many years to come.

PS. Here is a link to Google Books, Ryerson's autobiography, The Story of My Life; the wonderful account - Ryerson meets the Pope