Simon Kiss: When Wiccans and Neo-Pagans saved Halloween
And what pushback at one school forewarns about the future of public education
By: Simon Kiss
My five-year old has entered Grade 1 this year and so school has been a huge focus for me, as it has for many parents. Thanks to lockdowns, we had to take part in a lot of her schooling. Mostly we've been very happy with the quality of the education — but there are ways in which the experience has been underwhelming.
I was particularly struck by a series of e-mails a friend sent to me from the principal and vice-principal of an elementary school in Waterloo Region, about an hour outside Toronto, around Halloween. My friend isn’t interested in jeopardizing his relationship with the school. Anyone who monitors public debate knows that getting your name attached to any controversy can lead to gross abuse, so to keep things productive, I’m going to keep the name of the school and the players out of the telling of this story.
But here’s what happened: Just before Halloween, the Waterloo Region District School Board made headlines for "discouraging" Halloween, specifically asking that "children are not sent to school with costumes or shared food items."
The board was concerned about cultural appropriation and mocking of racialized peoples, and they were concerned about the costs wearing costumes might impose on poorer students. Both of these objections are reasonable, but rather than addressing them narrowly, with simple reminders, the school leaders sent emails to the school parents that was nothing short of a partisan manifesto in the culture wars.
The first email opens by stating it is trying to foster a "school culture that is respectful of diverse identities, prioritizes human rights, Indigenous sovereignty, equity and identity safety." Then it informs parents that this requires "a collective unlearning of social activities and practices of the dominant culture that can create harm, discriminate or further exclude marginalized identities." Righty-then.
Demanding students "unlearn" certain social activities in the context of state-mandated public school was a bold choice. This is a lot of emotional freight to pack into holiday that consists of dressing kids up in costumes to beg for candy.
Then the email made its demands: Students were asked not to send treats. They were asked to respect the choices of those who don't want to celebrate Halloween. Finally, for those families who did want to celebrate Halloween, parents were "encouraged" to educate themselves by reading two resources provided. One such resource was a link to the local public interest research group's anti-Halloween campaign. The other was to an article from the website from Everyday Feminism, an online publication dedicated to intersectional feminism.
From the rhetoric of "harm" and "pain" to the nonchalant, matter-of-fact, blanket commitment to the hopelessly complex goal of "Indigenous sovereignty" to the links to the local university public interest research group, there is no way to read this memo other than as a committed, political and ideological manifesto in the culture wars.
And then the pushback happened — from a somewhat surprising source.
It would have been reassuring if some parents had mobilized to defend students' liberties to dress as they wish, without having activities "unlearned" at school. But instead, in keeping with the norms of victim culture, the major dissent appears to have come from the local Wiccan and neo-pagan community. They took deep offence to the insult to their religious commitments to Halloween and Samhain.
It took only a few days for the school leadership to apologize:
We would like to apologize for our recent School Day announcement and how it negatively impacted the Wiccan/Neopagan communities at [our school]. We do not want any of our students or families in these communities to feel they are doing something wrong by celebrating Halloween/Samhain on October 31st/November 1st, or that their cultural identity and traditions are harmful. For this impact our message had, we sincerely apologize. We want to ensure all diverse identities are welcomed, respected and acknowledged within our school's learning community.
Several days of significance take place at the end October and beginning of November including Samhain the Wiccan/Neopagan New Year festival which happens on October 31/November 1st. We respect and are grateful for all of the communities that are part of the greater [school] community. October 31st/November 1st is a a day of significance for the Wiccan/Neopagan communities, where they celebrate the New Year, end of the harvest and take time to remember their ancestors.
Not so long ago, it was the religious right that used to rail against Halloween by using ideologically loaded arguments in larger protracted culture wars. When the religious right goes after Halloween, it’s for the holiday’s dark and Satanic undertones. Now it’s the progressive left adopting the same tactic, albeit with different language and ideological priors. Funny how the logic changes, but the targets stay the same.
One other constant remains: when you fill a compulsory education system with material that picks sides in political or social conflicts , you will get backlash from those in the school community who disagree with the substance.
But where was the backlash to this? Why did school leadership feel so comfortable taking sides in a broader culture war? Why did no one raise an eyebrow at a school emphasizing unlearning?
In his book Exit, Voice and Loyalty, economist Albert Hirschman argued that when faced with a decline in quality of a program, service, or good, consumers of said program, service or good have two options. One is to raise their voice within the organization and the other is to walk away, and go elsewhere.
Put brutally simply, voice is the mode of politics and exit is the mode of business, commerce and economics. If you don't like the quality of Mac laptops, you can switch to a PC. But if you don't like the way the roads are paved by the local municipality, you can't very well drive on other roads; you can write letters to the editor, meet with the local councillor, or run yourself. In short, you have to use your voice.
Voice is harder than exit. It takes time and skill and persistence for it to have its effect. But voice is also more productive because pushback and activism can provide information about what is wrong and contribute to positive solutions. Exit is easier, but you can also only exit once. Once you've left an organization, your influence within it is effectively over.
Notice in the episode above, the only people seemingly who raised their voices in opposition to the ideological tirade from the school's leadership was a — presumably — small group of deeply hurt Wiccans and Neopagans. All the other parents who are compelled to send their children to public school but who might take umbrage at the over-the-top and dogmatic manifesto chose to stay quiet. Or, at least, their voices weren’t loud enough to force a reaction on the behalf of the school.
This got me wondering if episodes like this are being played out across other Ontario schools. Sadly, it didn't take long to find four or five examples of similar episodes:
Close to home, the Waterloo Region District School Board has found itself in trouble over a review of the district's libraries for books deemed “harmful.” The board's description of the process is here. At the Toronto District School Board, the superintendent felt a student book club should not be discussing the recently published memoirs by Marie Henein, the lawyer who defended Jian Ghomeshi, nor apparently a book by Nobel Peace Prize winning activist Nadia Murad. At the same time, the government of Ontario is "destreaming" Ontario Grade 9 classes starting next year.
So, is there any evidence that parents might be adopting the other strategy available to them in the face of quality decline: an exit to the private-school system?
The Government of Ontario does publish enrolment statistics on private and public school enrolment in separate datasets here and here. If you combine them together you find that the share of Ontario students enrolled in private schools increased by almost a full percentage point within the space of five years. It's harder to come by a longer time series, but the Ontario Federation of Independent Schools references 4.9 per cent of students being enrolled in private schools as far back as 2005. If that's true, that means that the rate of exit from the public school system is increasing a lot. It took 10 years to go from 4.9 per cent to roughly six per cent. But it took 5 years to from six to seven per cent. That’s a doubling of the rate of exit.
One point that Hirschman makes, specifically in regards to public school and its relationship to private schooling, is that the people who are most likely to make use of exit are people who are quality conscious, not price conscious. They are also more likely to be people who have the time, resources, education and commitment to demand that school administrators provide a high-quality education. Tragically, the people most likely to bail from a failing public school system are precisely the people who would be most effective at using their voice to demand better from that system.
These numbers stop in the academic year 2019-2020, so it will certainly be interesting to see what the next year or two bring, post-pandemic. On the one hand, it's crystal clear, how essential teachers and child-care workers are to ... everything. And doubtless many will have been totally impressed at the level of commitment in extremely adverse situations. On the other hand, it's possible that a greater number of families may have gotten a glimpse of how public education functions in Ontario and been less than impressed — for any number of reasons, ideological commitments being only one among several possibilities.
Where does this all lead us? It's hard to avoid a dark feeling here. Public education is incredibly important. It integrates communities. It prepares students, on a pretty egalitarian basis, for their lives as citizens and workers.
Yet there is some good evidence that at least in Ontario, there's an increasing race for the doors to the private-school system. It's really unlikely that this is going to completely undermine compulsory public education in Ontario; well over 90 per cent of students attend publicly funded schools. And the vast majority of those parents are going to prove to be price conscious, meaning most parents simply can’t afford private school.
But creating a scenario in which wealthier parents opt out is a bad outcome for the public-school system as a whole. Privileged parents typically have the time and money to advocate for the quality of public schooling, to the benefit of everyone within that system. An exodus leaves the public school system to be run by unelected school officials, some protected by powerful unions, unaccountable to anyone in any meaningful way and on a mission to help students "unlearn" rather than learn.
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