There is an illness plaguing our public school systems. And like a runny nose in a kindergarten class, it spreads quickly. When public schools become sick, it’s usually not too long before the whole nation becomes sick. The whole sad debacle unfolding in Nova Scotia is like a giant sneeze in the kindergarten song circle.
Let’s start with the superintendent, Ms. Nancy Pynch-Worthylake, and the school board. Young William Swinimer wore a bright yellow t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Life is Wasted without Jesus” to school. Those words offended another student, who complained to the vice-principal, who asked William to remove the shirt. The National Post reports that the vice-principal considers the words on the shirt “hate-talk.” There is more to the story, of course: the boy says that he had been “bullied” about his faith prior to this incident; the school maintains that he was suspended not only because of the shirt, but because of his defiance of the principal’s order; and the school says it is “expected that students will not wear clothing with messages that may offend others’ beliefs, race, religion, culture or lifestyle.”
Now, let’s get one thing straight: the board’s decision and its reasons for doing so are inane, thin-skinned, and not becoming of a liberal society. Judging from the board’s later reversing of its decision, after it consulted “human rights experts” (a process which should make us all shudder), it was also probably legally wrong. But more importantly, it undermines the purpose of the school. If the purpose of education in a liberal society is to teach future students to uphold democracy (a purpose which is often given as a rationale in defence of a state monopoly on schooling, though this is itself debatable), then surely it should be a place where offensive ideas do not equal suspension. The student wasn’t threatening anyone. Even if his shirt did “judge” someone’s life, I’m certain that it was considerably lower pressure judgment than most rendered in the halls of a public high school, for grounds other than religion. Anyone who’s been in a grade 10 change room before gym class can hear at least 34 significantly more offensive things than “Life is wasted without Jesus.”
The proper response from the superintendent would have been to hear the complaint and have the offended student talk to William about why he was wearing the shirt, what it meant, and whether or not it was in keeping with Christianity—and if so, why. That would have been a smart pedagogical move, and might have even led to mutual enlightenment, and maybe even a bit of respect between the parties. But no, our schools no longer consider eternal questions—or any questions which might lead to serious debate—worth talking about. Schools now prefer to manage conflict, or rather avoid anything that has even the slightest whiff of conflict about it. It’s telling that Ms. Pynch-Worthylake dwells on “the easy way to deal with this” rather than the right way, or the best way, for the children. Such is the sorry state of education in our late liberal society.
Williams Swinimer is absolutely justified when he says, “I believe this is worth standing up for. It’s not just standing up for religious rights, it’s standing up for my rights as a Canadian citizen; for freedom of speech, freedom of religion. I don’t think this is right.”
But such quotes show that Mr. Swinimer comes out the loser in this too. Had he been educated in the art of rhetoric and logic—the stuff schools should be teaching, instead of Orwellian “discussions” hosted by representatives from the Nova Scotia Human Rights Divisions—he might have known that a lame t-shirt is not the most persuasive way to convince one’s fellow students of the rightness and worth of one’s cause.
He also might have realized that a shirt which pronounces judgment does not necessarily follow the logic of Christ’s teaching to love our enemies, even our bullies.