How the Netherlands could profit from Appiah’s vision on identities
There is currently a lot of noise concerning Dutch schools, segregation, the growing pluriformity of the Dutch population and the issue of building and sustaining a peaceful society. It ranges from a general fear, felt by many and put into words by Wilders, that Islamic schools will educate children against integration in Dutch society. And then there is this notion, held by many people, that the growing segregation between so- called white and black schools is due to Article 23 of our constitution, which grants religious schools the right to refuse children from a different background.
Article 23 Constitution
For the past hundred years, the Netherlands has known a schooling system in which the State finances not only public schools, but also private schools founded by parents on religious grounds. This constitutional right is established in article 23. Today, two thirds of all Dutch children go to a school that is at least officially religious (I will get back to this subject further later on). Many people fear that schools based on one denomination will try to indoctrinate their pupils with that particular religion, rather than teaching them open mindedness. Others fear that private schools will turn down pupils from a different denomination, thus further contributing to growing segregation.
Underlying this fear is the idea that a society needs all its inhabitants to share its most important values, and that different religions (especially Islam) have different values. This would result in schools with different denominations producing kids with different values, thus endangering the goal of maintaining a peaceful society.
Most religious schools are based on Christian denominations and, with the exception of a few schools based on fundamentalist protestant principles, these have all changed with the times and become very pluriform. Although officially Catholic or Protestant, they have in fact become secular. Their population is made up of a few kids with religious parents, many more kids with parents who have backgrounds in the official denomination, and many kids with secular parents or parents from a different denomination. Their teaching is pluriform in every sense of the word.
As for the fear that Islamic schools endanger the cohesion of our society: only 0.6% of Dutch kids attend an Islamic school and of the 43 Islamic schools, 80% are also pluriform in their curriculum. These numbers clarify how insignificant the problem is.
Is a focus on values useful in order to build a peaceful, pluriform society?
Kwame Anthony Appiah, a British Ghanaian philosopher, draws our attention to the fact that when we discuss values at a higher abstract level, we probably all have the same values: do not kill, do not steal, do not do harm onto others…who could object? It is only when values become thicker as he says, or more specific, that our opinions will diverge. And not only between cultures or religions. Even within one family the question of whether euthanasia is murder or merciful assistance can lead to big disputes. So the question of whether values are shared does not seem helpful when trying to find the key to peaceful cohabitation between people of different backgrounds.
Appiah implores us to pay more attention to identities and especially to the fact that each of us harbors many identities. Identities, according to Appiah, are a combination of what I would call roleplaying and (informal) membership of a group. When I am at work, I am usually first and foremost functioning in the role of an employee. But when I get a call at work that my child has been taken to hospital, my role as a parent – normally quite dormant in the workspace – all of a sudden takes over and I rush off to hospital.
Appiah makes the point that everybody harbors many identities that will sometimes conflict with each other, just as laws can conflict, and the context of the moment will help to determine which identity takes command. If my kid had only caught a slight cold, I would probably have left him with the housekeeper and stayed in the office.
Appiah contends that the same goes for things like citizenship and religion. He gives the example of his Ghanaian father, who was a practicing member of the Methodist church, but at the same time obeyed many of the religious rules of his clan. That same father was a convinced citizen of the world, whilst fighting for the independence of Ghana.
Identities can help us to meet the other
According to Appiah, our focus should not be on values but on understanding the other, “walking in his moccasins”, really meeting . He quotes Allport, whose research shows that just going to the same school or even living in the same neighborhood will not help. Children from different backgrounds need to work together on projects, discuss and explain to each other where they come from. But they will only listen to each other if they first search for a common identity. Be it love for football, French fries or philosophy, once two people have made contact through a common identity, it will be much easier to accept differences, to open up to the other’s perspective, to allow the other’s perspective to broaden their own.
So let’s stop worrying about article 23 causing segregation. It doesn’t, and Islamic schools are not the cause of segregation either. Let’s learn from Appiah, focus on common identities, and start organising more real meetings between people (especially school children) from different backgrounds, who normally would not interact. Perhaps schools can start forming partnerships with schools on the other side of the city and mixing kids on subjects like citizenship. After all, citizenship is something one can only learn by doing.
How to sustain a peaceful society whilst the population is growing more and more pluriform is a fascinating subject. My next step will be to research this subject in more depth, not only in its legal and philosophical aspects, but also at a practical level. Appiah’s suggestion – based on research by Allport – has ignited a spark of interest in me. Not only to research further the issues of shared values and identities, and see if it could be combined with Wittgensteins theory of the overlapping mesh of features and family resemblance, but also to try and find a pragmatic and realistic solution to the challenge of segregation, not only in theory but also in practice. My aim is to capture the results in a dissertation.