Education and Belief

Thank you to Mark Movsesian and Marc DeGirolami for the chance to participate in the Center for Law and Religion’s blog. I am delighted to work with them in addressing questions about the relationship between religion, law and culture. My primary interest in the next few weeks is exploring these concerns in the context of American education.

America’s current educational battles are about competing beliefs and commitments. This may sound like a strange assertion, given the practical nature of the debates on No Child Left Behind, vouchers, teachers unions, the curriculum, and so on. However, beneath such disagreements are deeper and more profound ones that are philosophical and cultural in nature: about the purpose of education, the nature of the child, and the question of authority.

Put differently: educational policy always rests upon particular views about who the child is and what education is for. In this sense, schooling is always about philosophy – explicitly or implicitly. Whose philosophy, though? Why one set of assumptions and not another? How does American public education reflect past debates about pluralism and democracy? Finally, how might our present disputes be improved, and perhaps fresh solutions achieved, by re-visiting these foundational questions?

This task is difficult because of the inescapable nature of culture, the taken-for-granted backdrop to our individual experiences and social encounters.  Speaking in sociological terms, “culture” consists of the ideas and institutions in which we individuals operate, the sea in which we swim. Culture evolves, of course; a groundbreaking technology or powerful idea, translated into new systems and vocabularies, causes shifts in the texture of our lives. But once the innovation becomes established, we cease to attend to it, at least until the next technology or big idea comes along. Culture is both liberating and limiting: it liberates us from perpetual deliberation but limits our sense of what is possible.

If you doubt this, ask yourself how long it takes to get from New York to Boston.  Three or four hours, right? Yes, if you live in the modern era of planes, trains and automobiles – but not if you are traveling on foot or horseback.  Or, when was the last time you heard a vigorous argument for American monarchy? We no longer believe in the divine right of kings or use horses to transport ourselves, and our conceptual universe has adjusted accordingly. Constitutional democracy and automobiles are part of the texture of our lives, and we pay them no particular notice. We forget, of course, that neither was inevitable.

In a similar way, our cultural imaginations have adjusted to the current educational model, and we have forgotten how it evolved. It seems inevitable when in fact it is historically contingent. What is true of culture, broadly speaking, is also true of the subcultures of which it consists; teacher training, state and local educational bureaucracies, and schools themselves possess their own cultural logic.  This is neither “good” nor “bad” (culture just is). But to see this clearly, and to envision a different present, requires imagination and perspective, the two-fold process of zooming in to examine core principles and then panning back to look at how other societies have addressed the same issues.

Roughly, and in no particular order, then, these are some of the questions I’d like to raise on this forum. What is educational philosophy, and why does it matter? How do other liberal democracies conceive of public education differently, and why? What is the role that schools play in forming democratic citizens? Why is the question of academic attainment so fraught with controversy? How does culture influence constitutional interpretations on educational matters? Finally, how can such deliberations change the lives of our children?

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6 responses to “Education and Belief

  1. Curtis McWilliams

    I read with great interest your blog and look forward to your discussions moving forward. I would take some exception with your assertion that culture is neither good or bad, it just “is”. I would argue (clearly from the viewpoint that there is absolute Truth and as a result, there are things which are innately “good” and things which are innately “bad”) that certain cultures and sub-cultures can be “bad” or “evil”. Nazi Germany during WWII would clearly typify an “evil” or “bad” culture. Am I missing something?

  2. Thank you for your note and for the opportunity to clarify.
    I agree with you: the content of a culture or sub-culture can be morally “good” or “bad” (to put things simply). My initial post referred to the form, rather than the content, of how cultures function and how their components (individuals, ideas, institutions) relate. Our judgments about the moral goodness of any particular culture rely, of course, upon our view of the cosmos.
    More on this subject, and its relevance to education, another day.

  3. Can an open debate about why we educate our children drive real change when so much of policy is driven by the unmitigated self-interest of the teachers unions? Let’s say we as a society come together, hash out our differences, and come forth with a unified agenda to deliver excellent in education. What chance does it have of getting implemented against such entrenched and motivated/vested interests?

  4. Hmmm… you are asking essentially two questions, one about political philosophy and the other about cultural change. I’ll explore each of them more fully in the coming weeks.

    For now: I think the key to de-politicizing our educational system lies precisely in NOT “coming forth with a unified agenda.” The inevitable result of what Charles Glenn calls a “state-control” model of education, which our country instituted in the 19th century, is its relentless drive towards uniformity. Most other liberal democracies have made space for a plurality of agendas within a general framework of social obligation and provision (the “civil society” model).

    As to how political philosophy translates into new practices on the ground (or in the classroom, as the case may be): a post on social change, and contending theories of how that happens, is warranted – but only after we look at educational philosophy itself.

    Thank you for the comment.

  5. In today’s NY TImes, there’s an obit for Robert Glaser, the great educational psychologist who created the forms of assessment that we now use to measure student learning in our schools. But Glaser’s brilliant methods do not come with a ready-made philosophy about what to measure. In the current climate, policy-makers have created incentives for schools to focus their assessment on narrowly-defined literacy and numeracy skills. The logic is that these are the basic skills needed for employment and economic advancement. As a result of this apprach, instruction in the arts, civics, and many other “non-essential” subjects have been marginalized in the effort to raise student test scores on the basic. skills.

    Neglected in this bare-bones philosophy is the nature of the economy in the 21st Century – an ecomomy that requires creativity, entrepreneurship, and broad knowledge of the world for success. Media and entertainment jobs often draw upon those very subjects (such as the arts) that have been dropped in many of today’s schools. There is also a societal need to educate young people for civic particpation and responsibilty – yet another need now being neglected.

    In an iromic twist to this story, Robert Glaser himself had a deeper and more insightful philosophy of education than those who now use his assessment procedures. His obit in the Times offers up this quote of Glaser’s views on the matter: “the goal of education should be not only informational but also aesthetic and moral. It should aim to equip people with resilience and courage in the face of stress, a sense of craft in our work, a commitment to justice and caring in our social relationships, a dedication to advancing the public good.”

  6. Dear Bill,
    Thank you for mentioning Robert Glaser. What a wonderful quotation. It really captures a rich way of thinking about the human person and the whole project of education. Our human understanding and educational aims have been thinned out beyond recognition. Academic attainment is important, to be sure, but it speaks to just one aspect of the whole child. As you point out so well and so frequently, education forms and informs children in every way, for better and for worse.
    Ashley

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