First, the Children!

June 13, 2021

Christian Rioux is a regular columnist at Le Devoir.

«Do you believe in God? The question sometimes came from a little blond boy sitting in the back of the classroom. It could also come from a discreet and unassuming little girl sitting in the front row. How often has the teacher I am talking about been faced with this question? Countless times. But each time her answer was the same: “What I believe, it does not really matter. “

The main thing was to bring the child back to the current lesson. To tell him that some believed and some did not. For the Quebec teacher I am talking about – and she is no exception, far from it – the idea of ​​entrusting her convictions or lack of religious convictions to her class would have been extremely shameless. A form of disrespect towards these young spirits in formation.

This duty of reserve, the teacher Louis Germain expressed it better than anyone in a beautiful letter he sent in 1959 to his former student Albert Camus, who became two years earlier Nobel Prize for literature.

“I believe, throughout my career, to have respected what is most sacred in the child: the right to seek his truth. I have loved you all and believe that I have done all I can to avoid manifesting my ideas and thus weighing on your young intelligence. When it was a question of God (it’s in the program), I said that some people believed in it, others did not. And that in the fullness of his rights, everyone did what he wanted. In the same way, for the chapter of religions, I limited myself to indicating those which existed, to which belonged those to whom it pleased. To be true, I added that there were people practicing no religion.

What is fascinating for us in this text of touching sincerity is that there is no mention of the rights of the teacher at any time. Unlike our strange debate on secularism, which sometimes walks on the head, it is only about the right of the child to “seek his truth” and the respect due to these “young intelligences”. The reason is simple. For Louis Germain, the lay teacher did not have first rights, but duties. That our debate on secularism is today perverted by the logic of the rights of adults shows the little consideration we give to children.

Is it necessary to recall that the authority of the judge, the policeman and the prison guard is exercised on adults? What makes the teacher authority so much bigger, is that it is exercised on children whose innocence and intellectual fragility should impose the greatest restraint. Moreover, wherever secularism exists, it is the public school teacher who symbolizes it, well before the judge, the policeman or the prison guard.»

Christian Rioux, Le Devoir April 26, 2019

It would be a misunderstanding of first magnitude about the daily reality of a teacher’s work to imagine that the teacher does not exercise authority. Even the crisis of authority shaking contemporary schools has not really changed the relationship between the teacher and the student, especially in younger classes.

One could certainly advance that the teacher has more than authority, because he is a model. The first adult model, after her parents, for the child who arrives at school and often leaves her family for the first time. Anyone who has heard a primary school student talk about “her” mistress knows how big this character can be in the eyes of the child: a kind of demi-goddess. To the point where parents are in danger should they contradict the teacher.

This is why, as a reader has recently pointed out, the most indisposed in front of a veiled teacher will not be the little Catholic, where he himself lives in a family without religion. It will rather be the little Muslim (and his parents), who can never feel really free against a teacher who so emphatically asserts her religious beliefs. It is ironic that the nuns who still taught in the 1960s did not convert anyone. Perhaps. But who had the courage to stand up in their class to affirm that God did not exist or to simply ask the question? Do we really want to go back to that time?

The little consideration given to children in the current debate is also due to a conception of the school open to the four winds. A school where lobbies and ideologies, beliefs and opinions, are constantly parading. However, to play its role effectively, the school must be a refuge that allows you to take a step back and up. Knowledge has its requirements, and even its rites.

We do not enter a school like a railway station hall. Just like reading, you have to isolate yourself. You cannot concentrate in a fair where you are jostled by the crowd. To read, one needs a library where one imposes the silence, even if that means infringing upon the rights of some. In the same way, the school should be preserved as much as possible from the ambient noise. Today the cacophony, of beliefs and ideologies, must be squelched to respect what Louis Germain so aptly called “what is the most sacred right in the child: the right to seek his truth.”

Courtesy of an anonymous comment in Le Devoir that same day.

Translated and edited by Michel Virard.

Michel Virard