Secular Schools: inherent limitations?

[Subsequent to my EPQ lecture in Malacañan on “Transformation Education for Social Justice,” (cf: https://taborasj.wordpress.com/2015/09/17/transformative-education-for-social-justice) the following question was raised: “Transformative education is, as I understand it, the conscious imparting of values, in addition to knowledge.  In this regard, does Fr. Tabora consider that secular schools have inherent limitations?  If so, how could those limitations be addressed in the context of secularism?” My reply is as follows:]

How schools understand themselves differ from school to school. Normally this is articulated in a school’s vision and mission. The vision speaks of the school’s self-understanding and identity; the mission, of the current historical challenges that the school addresses. The vision will state whether a school is secular, otherwise.

The “secular” school is distinguished from the “religious” school. The latter provides instruction not only in secular subjects such as mathematics and science, but also formation in religious education courses or even theology based on the faith that the school promotes. The promotion of the faith belongs to the core of the mission of the religious school. The Ateneo de Naga, for example, is a private religious school; it teaches Catholic Christianity. A Madrasah is a private religious school that teaches Islam.

The secular school does not promote a religion or faith, nor teach or require learning in a religious doctrine.

As such, a secular school may be either private or public. A private secular school is owned by private persons; it is a private corporation and functions as a private corporation based on laws and issuances of regulative bodies governing such educational corporations. A school that is put up by private persons in order to impart expertise in computers to its students (eg. AMA and STI, when they began) would be a private secular school.

Beyond the private secular schools, there are public secular schools. In the Philippines all public schools are secular. None promote any particular religion in a mandatory manner. As I said in my talk, part of the greatness of Pres. Quirino was in his refusal to cave in to the pressure of the bishops of the Philippines to make religious Catholic education compulsory in all the schools.

I say this because “the secular” is an important determination of the nation and of its schools that permits religious diversity and freedom of religion in countries such as ours that are multi-cultural. Great injustice was done when this secularity was not respected. E.g. At the turn of the century when the Americans leaders in the Philippines were supposed to be running a secular state, as Protestants they considered the Muslims “savages” because they were neither Christian nor Catholic as the Filipinos of Luzon and the Visayas were. For them, the latter were the “real Filipinos,” not the Muslims who fought the American intrusion in the country. This is indeed a problem that continues to beset the Filipino Muslim. Because the secular is sometimes encroached upon by religious Christianity in determining Filipino identity, the non-Christian inevitably becomes a second class Filipino.

In the Philippines, the religious private universities, colleges and schools have proven themselves to be able to provide quality education, especially in instruction. But where I believe there is room for substantial improvement was the topic of my EPQ Lecture. Not all religious education is transformative. Often, schools were content to output students who got jobs or public positions without having formed them to recognize and struggle lifelong for the common good. Here, the Christian religious input might have been essential: Christ comes “to bring life, and to bring it to the full” (Jn 10:10).

In this context, if a school is missioned at bottom to provide instruction, research and community service, there is nothing in the secular school that inherently impedes it from providing this service in a society such as ours which is manifestly diverse.

For the private secular school, a threat to the successful fulfillment of its mission may be the temptation to reduce the school inherently ordained to public service to a private business for maximized private profit. This threat is however shared by many private religious schools; for these a constant temptation is to focus on revenues and not service.

For the public secular school, the major threat is its vulnerability to public and partisan politics; it is vulnerable to the interests of administrative and legislative officials for performance ratings or for “votes” that become inimical to academic quality. The ability of government to provide credible safeguards for quality assurance for its basic and higher education schools is far from where it should be. Performance indicators are so linked to financial remuneration or budgetary advantages that performance reports are no longer objective. Legislators push for the approval of state universities and colleges (SUCs) despite lack of quality personnel and funding in order to reap the political benefits of having founded a public secular school.

As far as quality is concerned, the public secular school is also ultimately on the losing end due to the unlevel playing field for public secular and private schools (secular or religious). The public schools are funded by massive public money; the private schools must operate primarily on revenues from tuition and fees. But at least the perception is that the private schools deliver better quality. In basic education, in fact, it is public education that predominates today in basic education delivery; under the last administration quality has improved all around. In higher education, the perception seems to be true that private HEIs deliver better quality except for certain large SUCs like the UP, Bicol University or MSU. The uneven playing field means that quality assurance rules emanating from such as CHED do not ultimately apply to SUCs, no matter how much CHED thinks they do. Why? SUCs run on the legislated charters, not on a CHED permit. CHED cannot close a state university or college due to poor quality. Once the ambitious politician sees to its birth, there is no guarantee that it will be provided with appropriate personnel, funding, facilities, and the like. Today, many SUCs operate with substandard teachers, laboratories, libraries and facilities.

I am not saying it should be CHED to regulate the SUCs. CHED itself has its performance interests and should stay out of quality assurance. The quality assurance of higher education Institutions should be overseen by academic peers, i.e., independent accreditation bodies, not by government officials who Lord it over HEIs with their limited insight and contrived standards.

Nothing then in the secular school inherently impedes it from functioning well. But there are real threats to its proper functioning that are not inherent to it: the maximized profit motive and politicans.

Beyond its normal regime of secular education, a secular school can be either conservative or transformative. In my EPQ lecture, I suggested that this is a matter of free choice. For the secular school, an institutional commitment to the common good is more than sufficient to found it as transformative.

I hope these thoughts help.

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About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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