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Proulx Report (Daniel Weinstock responds).

ONE OF THE FIRST LESSONS A FIRST-YEAR philosophy student learns is that ad hominem arguments are, in intellectual debate, the refuge of the cowardly and the lazy. Impugn the integrity and the good faith of their authors, ascribe dark motives to them, and you won't have to go through the more arduous task of addressing the content of their positions. Not that such arguments are rare. Pressed for time, compelled to address issues about which they may know very little, our politicians and journalists sometimes reach into the sophist's toolkit, and deploy ad hominem attacks to stand in for reasoned argument.

The responsibility of intellectuals, however, is to set a different standard for public debate. By treating each other with the courtesy and respect, by keeping attention focused on the merits of the other's case, intellectuals keep alive the ideal of reasoned debate which is the lifeblood of democratic polities.

It is thus depressing to find that Gary Caldwell's argument against the Proulx Report is premised upon a particularly insidious and misleading set of ad hominem arguments. Caldwell sets the stage for his attack by inviting his readers to consider its source: "technocrats" in the pay of the state, "seconded to the task force by their institutions" and having been "paid their salaries while they worked on the report." Is there any surprise that such people have simply ended up doing the state's bidding?

It is sad that I must devote even a line to clearing my colleagues and myself of such scurrilous attacks. For the record: I for one was not seconded to the task force. I continued to carry out my normal academic responsibilities while putting in long hours working on the report on a volunteer basis, as a citizen concerned about the future of education in Quebec. True, my salary is paid by taxes levied by the state to fund universities. Does this fact about the provenance of my salary in any way detract from my ability to think independently? Does that make me (horror of horrors!) a technocrat? Does the fact that one of the questions we asked ourselves in the report had to do with the appropriate role of the state in public education entail that our perspective was "exclusively" statist? Can one not, as Mr. Caldwell himself does in his response to us, ponder this question from the point of view of a concerned citizen? And finally, does not the fact that the government has been distancing itself from the recommendations of the report since its publication indicate that we were not in thrall to statist interests? Surely the error in this kind of logic is too obvious to require much in the way of a response.

In making insinuations of this nature, Gary Caldwell is impugning the integrity and good faith of the members of the task force, who for almost two years gave freely of their time to prepare the report, and did so independently of any established interest other than that of having a passionate commitment to improving and bringing greater justice to our public school system. Mr. Caldwell demeans himself and impoverishes the debate by grounding his arguments in ad hominem attacks.

Once his gratuitous attacks upon the motives of the members of the task force are set aside, what we find in lieu of an argument is simply the desire on Mr. Caldwell's part to have the state play less of a role in the organization of education. In his view, the state should simply take on a minimal role, which would consist of ensuring "police protection, language and media legislation, redeployment of public funds among schools, a minimum curriculum, and sanction of results." The rest, he claims, should be left to civil society. Failure to respect this division of labour between the responsibilities of the state and those of civil society inevitable leads, he menacingly asserts, to "institutional failure."

What are we to make of Caldwell's desire to have civil society reassert control over the content and the organization of schools? The first thing to be noted is that the rejection of the report by Quebecers would not bring this dream any closer to being realized. As things currently stand, the curriculum and the organization of our public schools is already overseen to quite a considerable degree by the state, in particular by the Ministry of Education. What's more, it imposes content and structure not only to those parts of the curriculum that are less controversial than religion tends to be, but in the area of religion as well. It is simply misleading to suggest that the religious curriculum we presently find in Quebec's schools -- which, it bears repeating, grants privileges to Catholics and Protestants which it denies to all others -- simply percolated up organically from civil society. Religion already is imposed from on high in Quebec's schools. What we recommend in our report is not that the state legislate in an area in which it does not presently legislate, namely that of religion, but that it legislate more fairly and equitably.

So, by rejecting the recommendations we put forward, Quebecers would not be moving one inch closer to the nirvana of civil society-controlled schools which Caldwell recommends. We would still have state control over public schools; it would simply be more unjust than it need be.

But is there anything to be said, independently of the debate over religion in schools, for the sweeping changes to the way in which we organize our children's schooling which Mr. Caldwell recommends? Is the rolling back of the role of the state a desirable end for our society to pursue?

I am not at all persuaded of this. Education is a right, not a privilege. Access to quality education, and thus to the tools which children will need to function in a modern society, cannot be left to the vagaries of happenstance. If education is indeed a right, than children must have access to it, whether they are born in Westmount, the Eastern Townships or Little Burgundy. Further, the fact that they are born to less favourable circumstances should not affect the level and quality of education they receive. To think otherwise is simply to deny that education is a right.

One of the functions of the state in a liberal democracy is to guarantee people's rights. There would be nothing to guarantee the right to education, or any other right for that matter, were their provision left up to the vagaries of the market or of civil society Markets and civil societies produce a lot of great things, and have an important place in the distribution and allotment of many goods and services. What they do not produce reliably, however, is just and equitable distribution. If we consider education to be a right, as I believe we should, then we need to immunize it from the tendency of the market and civil society to produce inequity. The best way which human beings have found thus far to ensure that this will occur is through the auspices of the representative, liberal democratic state.

This is not to deny that the liberal democratic state has its imperfections, and tends to generate its own irrationalities, which must be checked vigilantly. But we know of no better way of guaranteeing people's rights. For the foreseeable future, therefore, the state will play a role in the content and structure of public education. Pace Gary Caldwell, I doubt that many Quebecers want to go back to an earlier era and repudiate the widely shared social ideal that one's ability to avail oneself of the right to education should not depend upon one's standing in the market, or in civil society.
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Author:Weinstock, Daniel
Publication:Inroads: A Journal of Opinion
Date:Jan 1, 2000
Words:1285
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