opinion
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The secular language

A surge of enthusiasm is prompted by the charter for schools, that admirable declaration of republican principles that is in every one of the 55,000 public schools in France

Although in educational matters France is not what it used be, I still cannot help feeling envy for the place. For example, when you pay an autumn visit to the bookshops in Paris and see the level of the textbooks high school students read in that country, you want to go back and enroll again. And forget the sort of textbooks in Spain.

Not to speak of the surge of enthusiasm you feel at the "secular charter for schools" - that admirable declaration of republican principles and duties that now stands in a visible place in every one of the 55,000 public schools in France. I don't know if this is all that French Education Minister Vicent Peillon's ambitious plan to recast the public schools amounts to, but it is an important step in the clarification of what public schooling ought to be in an advanced democracy. One of its 15 points says that "secularism ensures the freedom of conscience. Everyone is free to believe or not." An obvious fact that seems to have been accepted by the present pope, but which sounds like celestial music here in Spain, where the catechism seems to be making a comeback in the schools. Yes, at least in education matters the French do get value for their tax money when we don't. And "secularism allows the exercise of citizenship, combining each one's liberty with equality and fraternity." Holy secular words, which no doubt will be heard with favor among the Spanish left.

Yet this "charter" understands secularism in a manner more extensive than mere opposition to clerical interference in teaching. Whatever sympathy you may feel for anticlericalism (I can't deny my own), which is about as far as the average Spanish leftist goes, anticlericalism is not enough to lay a firm secular foundation for education. The sixth point speaks of "avoiding all proselytism and all pressures which prevent children from making a free choice." Certainly there are other tendentious and inquisitorial fanaticisms that do not come from churches, but do condition the freedom of citizens.

This "charter" understands secularism in a manner more extensive than mere opposition to clerical interference in teaching

Point 7 says: "All students are to have guaranteed access to a common, shared culture." And naturally, the basis of this culture is the country's common language. In France this common language is the vehicular language of teaching in every case, and the learning of it is especially reinforced in primary school. In Spain, the Castilian tongue shares the schoolroom with local official languages in several regions.

From the secular viewpoint, it is amazing that the explicit requirement of the new education law - that the common language is vehicular throughout Spain, though the co-official languages may also be so in their respective regions - has aroused the opposition of the parliamentary left. For the regional nationalists to oppose it is natural: just as the devout clerical believes that secularism seeks to extirpate his religion, so the devout separatist believes that the common language seeks to extirpate his local one.

But for the left to take this line... Indeed it is in these cases that you have to show the republican spirit - and not inane, sterile arguments about the king having his hip operation in a private clinic instead of a public one, and whether this is an unacceptable case of privilege in a democracy.

There has been lots of criticism of the PP's education law, and I share much of it, but to tell the truth, I find it hard to believe in the sincerity of those on the left who have never raised their voices against linguistic immersion, and are even heard to defend it, as is now happening in the Balearic Islands. What a pity we lost the chance to explain what secularism is in the Socialist Party's civic education course, which the PP has now eliminated from the curriculum. They might even have organized courses on it for parliamentarians in small groups in the back rooms of Congress.

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