Sixty years ago the US Supreme Court outlawed enforced racial segregation in American schools. Black children and students were free, under the highest law, to attend any public school on equal terms with whites. But state and district authorities fiercely resisted change and the American Civil Rights Movement was born.
Education was the battleground. In 1957 in Little Rock Arkansas the issue was brought to the world’s attention when nine black students enrolled at the all-white Central High School. They were barred from entering as the Governor deployed the state National Guard.
This forced President Eisenhower to intervene. He sent federal troops to escort the “Little Rock Nine” to class. It was landmark victory, but progress remained slow. Only in the aftermath of further civil strife and the trauma of President Kennedy’s assassination was the Civil Rights Act signed into law by Lyndon B Johnston in July 1964.
The 50th anniversary of that milestone is being marked in countless ways across the United States this year. Its legacy runs deep through politics and wider society.
Just last month the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops announced their own series of events to commemorate the anniversary.
Louisiana Bishop Shelton Fabre outlined the significance: “Recalling the Catholic Church’s past participation in these important historic moments serves to challenge the faithful to work constructively today to enhance the common good for people of all races and ethnicities.”
Cross the Atlantic to Ireland and the issue of civil rights and education remains hotly contested, but here religion, not race, is the fault line. Few politicians and even fewer bishops are likely to frame the debate in similar terms to the United States.
In the Republic, nine out of ten primary schools remain under the direct control of the Catholic Church. Catholic schools, by definition, have a responsibility to bring Catholic teaching into all aspects of the curriculum and school life.
It’s perfectly reasonable for Catholic schools to do this. But is it reasonable for the State to fund this type of education to the exclusion of all else? In 21st Century Ireland, most non-Catholics don’t have the option of sending their children to non-Catholic schools – yet their taxes are supporting this hegemony.
Does anyone genuinely believe that this religious dominance of such a key state provision made no contribution to the slow decline of the Protestant population in the Republic post independence?
The implications are both social and economic. Modern, thriving economies rely upon diversity in this inter-connected world. Does Ireland truly present itself as a welcoming place for talented non-Catholics seeking opportunities for them and their families?
Former Education Minister Ruairi Quinn recognised the problem and began the process of bringing greater pluralism and diversity of patronage to the primary sector. In many quarters his efforts were denounced as an atheist’s charter.
But not by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who sees the benefits to society, and even the Catholic Church, of relinquishing some control in the education sector. He joined forces with his Church of Ireland counterpart Michael Jackson to bring Catholic and Protestant teacher training together for the first time, under the auspices of Dublin City University.
In a joint statement they promised “an environment and setting which is pluralist and respectful of the academic enterprise as a whole” and a new experience for trainee teachers that “honours the formative contribution which understanding one’s own tradition within Christianity brings to education together with understanding the faith tradition of others who are different from us,”.
It’s a significant move. But travel 100 miles north to Belfast and attitudes are entirely different. Whatever happened to Catholics taking a “universal” approach?
In Belfast, Catholic teachers, like their pupils, are educated apart. Any suggestion that the Catholic training college should merge with its Protestant counterpart is strongly resisted.
And any mild admonishment of an education system which separates children at four or five on the basis of their religion is met with a ferocious counter attack.
Speaking in Belfast last year on his way to the G8 summit in Fermanagh, President Obama said the following to an audience including many schoolchildren: “If towns remain divided; if Protestants have their school buildings and Catholics have theirs; if we can’t see ourselves in one another; if fear, or resentment are allowed to harden – that encourages division. It discourages co-operation. Ultimately peace is not just about politics.”
This statement of the apparent obvious was presented by many as a vicious attack on Catholic education. When President Obama and David Cameron then visited an integrated primary school in Enniskillen, this was seen as a further insult.
Yet, swap the terms Catholic and Protestant for Black and White and you get a better insight into where Barack Obama is coming from. It’s time for change.
In County Armagh, one small primary school has taken an important first step. In an historic first, this rural Catholic school has voted to transform to integrated status and welcome Protestant children from the local community. The vote by parents was unanimously in favour and polling in the area has shown overwhelming community support.
At present the Catholic authorities want to close the school. Sinn Fein’s Education Minister John O’Dowd has a decision to make – go with the Catholic authorities, or give the parents, the children and their school a chance. Many others are watching. This could be the start of something big.
(This article first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on September 7th 2014)