BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND—Walking down the street on a Sunday morning in the Republic of Ireland, an elderly man stopped us to say, “You go to your church, I’ll go to mine, and we’ll all meet in heaven someday.”
This week, however, our group of 14 Taylor students stayed in the city of Belfast, Northern Ireland. I would be shocked to have heard the same sentiment on these streets.
The peace walls, murals and memorials covering Belfast tell the story of the conflict called the Troubles between the Catholic Irish and the Protestant British.
While The Troubles ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the years of violence, division and political tension left a lasting mark on the communities still broken. Division between communities still lives on throughout many platforms, including the education system.
The majority of schools in Northern Ireland are segregated, as Protestant and Catholic children go to separate schools or at least are not taught together.
Only seven percent of students in Northern Ireland are in an integrated school. With all the hard feelings still festering within communities, integrated schools are very complicated.
Many see them as a way to establish peace by teaching children to understand differences. Others see integrated schools as a road to forgetting each community’s cultural and religious background.
Katie Klingstedt, program assistant intern for the Irish Studies Programme, has studied Northern Ireland’s education system for the last few years.
“I think that religiously integrated schools in Northern Ireland have the most potential for having a lasting positive impact on the peace process,” Klingstedt said. “However, effectively integrating a school is not just about getting an equal number of Catholics and Protestants in a classroom together.”
Klingstedt argues that simply filling a quota of different views in one school can sometimes expose those differences and cause disagreements among other cultures where this isn’t the norm.
There is only one way for this to be fixed, in Klingstedt’s opinion.
“The goal of integrated education, specifically in Northern Ireland, is establishing a pluralistic ethos,” Kilngstedt said. “Where different cultures are able to live with and respect each other, as well as getting more extreme students to move away from hardline sectarian identities.”
Our tour guide, lecturer and friend during our time in Northern Ireland was a religious studies professor at Stranmillis University College named Barbara McDade.
Speaking about shared schools, McDade said she believes it breaks barriers and leads to better work relationships and connections in the long run.
Integrating schools is not the only way to reach peace though, and integration is not easily done.
McDade says parents should have choices when it comes to their children’s education. She does not want to see all religious study to be taken out of schools.
“I just see it as being able to contribute to cohesion and understanding and I think we have a complicated landscape within education,” McDade continued.
I agree with McDade that there is no simple solution and that learning communities in schools is beneficial to students. Without understanding each other’s communities, I think it will be difficult to raise a new generation of nondiscriminatory students.
Within America, society has gone too far in the opposite direction by taking all religion out of schools. I don’t think public schools should have mandatory worship services, but I do think there would be less political and religious tension if students had classes that fully explained the different religions represented in our country.
How can children grow up to respect people on the opposite side if they know nothing about each other’s core beliefs?
“Kids are taught to put up barriers between themselves and others,” McDade said. “It’s not something they’re born with.”