Book Review: Discipline, Devotion, and Dissent: Jewish, Catholic, and Islamic Schooling in Canada

Book Review: Discipline, Devotion, and Dissent: Jewish, Catholic, and Islamic Schooling in Canada, edited by Graham P. McDonough, Nadeem A. Memon, and Avi I. Mintz

Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013. Pp. 272. $39.99.

Reviewed by Elmer Thiessen

It is helpful to consider the issue of faith-based schooling from two different perspectives. From the perspective of society at large, faith-based schooling is typically seen as a problem.  The editors of Discipline, Devotion, and Dissent, in their Introduction, survey the ongoing controversies surrounding the existence and funding of faith-based schools in Canada. The controversial nature of faith-based schooling is also reflected in the philosophy of education; witness a special on-line issue of the Journal of Philosophy of Education, edited by Anna Strhan, entitled, ‘Education and the “Problem” of Religion’.

What is sometimes forgotten is that religious schooling can also be problematic for parents and educators who are committed to faith-based education.  Alex Pomson and Randal F. Schnoor highlight one dimension of this problem from a Jewish perspective (Ch. 7).  The most fundamental question for a devout Jew (or Christian or Muslim) is ‘how to live in two worlds at once, how to be both [North American] and Jewish’ (or Christian or Muslim).  Pomson and Schnoor point out that until quite recently the great majority of North American Jews opted for a ‘supplementary’ approach to Jewish education.  Their children attended government-funded public schools, but were instructed in the particulars of Judaism in denominationally sponsored supplementary schools operating in the evenings and on weekends. Many Christian parents take the same two-pronged approach.  They send their children to state-maintained public schools, and leave it to the church and the home to provide their children with a specific religious education.  Increasingly, Christians and Jews and Muslims are finding such an approach inadequate because they find that public schools ‘do not seem to have any built-in ways to help young people from widely diverse backgrounds to find their cultural and religious ways, and build appropriately diverse and distinct identities’ (Ahmed, Ch. 6, p. 162).  Further, Christians and Jews and Muslims realize that faith permeates all of life and thought, and therefore should also inform the entire education of their children.  Hence the abandonment of public education by increasing numbers of religious parents, and the growth of faith-based schools and home schooling in Western countries in the last few decades (cf. Pompson and Schnoor, p. 171). 

The essays in Discipline, Devotion, and Dissent address the ‘problematic’ nature of faith-based schools from both of these perspectives by providing in-house descriptions of three types of religious schools – Jewish, Catholic, and Islamic.  The contributors to this volume were asked ‘to illuminate the lived experience of Canada’s faith-based schools by exploring three questions’ (p. 6):

          1.  What aims and practices inform and characterize Canada’s faith-based schools?

          2.  How do faith-based schools negotiate the tension between the demands of the faith and the

               expectation that they educate Canadian citizens?

          3.  How do faith-based schools respond to internal dissent?

The two perspectives I have identified above are explicit in the second question, but the contributors to this volume clearly touch on both perspectives when treating the other two questions.

These three questions shape the overall three-part structure of this anthology: Part A: Aims and Practices; Part B: Faith and Citizenship; Part C: Dissent and Critical Thinking. Each part consists of three essays, each written by a scholar already engaged in research regarding one of the three types of faith-based schools covered in the anthology. The ten contributors to the volume were asked neither to defend nor to critique the schools they discuss, though thankfully some of them do offer some implicit and even explicit evaluation (pp. 10, 6). 

In the Introduction, the editors explain why this anthology covers only Jewish, Catholic, and Islamic schools.  There simply are too many types of faith-based schools in Canada to do justice to all of them in one anthology. Instead, they chose three types of schools which were ‘qualitatively unique institutional “clusters” of points on the map of Canadian religious schooling that are of ongoing theoretical interest in terms of the questions we have raised above’ (p. 7).  While I agree that it is difficult to meet the twin needs of breadth and depth at the same time in one volume, it is unfortunate that the editors omitted another important cluster of religious schooling in Canada – Protestant schools, many of which have their roots and main support in the Reformed Christian tradition.  Not only are there many schools of this type in Canada (over 130), but they are in the main academically rigorous, committed to citizenship education, and have well organized infra-structures, with a national association (Christian Schools of Canada) and bi-annual conferences.  A treatment of these schools would have provided some significant and unique insights into the three questions addressed in this volume.

It is always difficult to try to summarize the contents of an anthology.  Besides, the overall orientation of the essays in Discipline, Devotion, and Dissent is descriptive rather than normative in nature, and as such might be of less interest to philosophers of education.  A few points, however, might deserve some attention from philosophers of education.  Several of the essays highlight the diversity within faith-based schools.  This theme is also picked up in a concluding chapter written by Avi Mintz, one of the editors of this volume.  Mintz highlights ‘the diversity of priorities, interests, beliefs, and expectations among administrators, teachers, parents, students and community members’ in faith-based schools (p. 238).  Such diversity challenges the usual philosophical stereotype of faith-based schools as monolithic and unable to stimulate discussion and debate.  Indeed, as is argued by Avi Mintz and other contributors to this volume, the diversity within most religious schools is an important aid to promoting deliberation and critical thinking, which are two central aims of a good liberal education.

Several essays highlight the fact that faith-based schools can contribute to the common good, and can also prepare students for life in liberal democracies.  Indeed, as I have argued in my book, In Defence of Religious Schools and Colleges (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001, Ch. 13), faith-based schools might even do a better job at citizenship education than do secular public schools. Along similar lines, Mintz, in his concluding chapter, argues that diverse ways of thinking about the importance of faith-based schools can play a positive role, not only for the faith community, but also for society as a whole:  ‘[C]ommunal deliberation that results from the conflict of diverse perspectives on educational options can be a powerful source of democratic education, both for the community’s children and adolescents and for the community as a whole’ (p. 240).  So here again, we see the coming together of the two perspectives alluded to earlier. Philosophers of education would do well to entertain the idea that faith-based schools are not only a  ‘problem’ but also an asset to liberal democracies.


Correspondence: Elmer Thiessen, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Medicine Hat College, 299 College Dr. S.E., Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada. T1A 3Y6. 

Email:  [email protected]