Author Archives: Ashley R. Berner

Education & Belief: Maclure and Taylor

Educational pluralism requires, in part, a political theory that legitimates the presence of belief (both religious and secular) in the public square while insisting upon state neutrality with respect to the content of that belief. Charles Taylor and Jocelyn Maclure’s Secularism and Freedom of Conscience offers one such argument. The book was originally written in French and intended for Canadians struggling with the growing cultural, religious and linguistic tensions in their pluralistic democracy. Secularism and Freedom of Conscience is a sketch – unlike the 800-page manuscripts we are accustomed to from Charles Taylor. However, like anything this eminent social theorist and political activist writes, it’s worth reading.

Maclure and Taylor start by distinguishing between two types of secularism, which they call the “republican” and the “liberal-pluralist.” The republican version favors a common civic identity shorn of sectarian particularity, which “requires marginalizing religious affiliations and forcing them back into the private sphere.” The republican version of secularism assigns the highest priority to moral equality before the law and is therefore wary of favoring or even accommodating differences based upon core beliefs. A private citizen may wear a Star of David, but a district judge may not. A Muslim girl may wear a headscarf at home but not at a public school. Religion becomes an essentially private affair.

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Education & Belief: Cultural Change

The structure of American public education, and its laws and culture, are now so familiar that it is hard to imagine how it might be otherwise. Yet as we have seen, American public education as it exists today is historically contingent, the product of distinctive ideas (about the person, society, pedagogy, law and religion), as well as of social movements that gave these ideas institutional expression.  The question, then, is whether the structures and mythologies that comprise public education are amenable to transformation. What are the conditions under which this might be possible?

Historians and sociologists are always trying to explain social change, accounts of which range from idealism (“Great ideas change history”) to individualism (“Powerful men and women change history”) to material structuralism (“Economic relationships and industrial developments change history”). I think the best analysis of cultural change is offered by the prominent sociologist James Davison Hunter, whose thesis incorporates all three into a sophisticated account. Cultural change requires 1) overlapping networks of individuals with access to financial, political, intellectual and social capital, who 2) articulate a common goal over a long period of time, and 3) create new institutions that embody those ideals. For the change to enter the cultural mainstream, a sufficient number of people must be convinced that it is 4) sufficiently plausible and 5) morally compelling.

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Education & Belief: Constitution

Is government funding for distinctive and even religious schools plausible in America? Yes, under certain conditions.

American public education already includes a growing variety of non-uniform schools. Charters are the most obvious example. They are allowed to have a unique pedagogical mission; to be culturally focused (i.e., Hebrew or Turkish, but not Jewish or Muslim); and to govern without union contracts. Religious groups can even manage charters through non-denominational foundations, and although the schools may not be religious in content or tone, they may provide voluntary religious “wrap-around” services on either side of the school day.

Online learning such as Florida Virtual Schools provides another example. Internet courses offer kids access to academic subjects that their neighborhood schools may not provide and can cater to a variety of special needs and family preferences.

Some states allow vouchers or tax credits that parents can take to alternative schools– not only pedagogical, but also philosophical and religious in nature. This arrangement is less common, but it comes closest to the educational pluralism in other nations.

Other innovations affect the uniformity model, such as the teacher training offered by Teach for America. In contrast to the typical state licensure procedure, TFA places high achieving graduates of elite universities in classrooms after a summer training program – not an Education degree.

These innovations are small in scale compared to the scope of traditional public education. However, they exercise an outsized influence on our imaginations and offer concrete experiences of diversity in teacher training, funding, governance, delivery and even, in some cases, religious content. Taken together, they offer hope that “public education” might come to mean something quite different from the uniform, state-control model designed in the 19th century. Continue reading

Education & Belief: Democratic Accountability

The key question, as Charles Glenn wrote in Contrasting Models of State and School, is “How the freedom of parents to choose how their children will be educated can be balanced with the opportunity for educators to create and work in schools with a distinctive character, and how both of these in turn should be limited by some form of public accountability to ensure that all children in a society receive a generally comparable and adequate education.” American public education does not achieve this balanced ideal, but many of its proponents worry that a civil society model as practiced in Europe and Asia would be worse.

The prominent political philosopher Amy Gutmann speaks openly about the challenges of democratic education, such as the fact that it cannot be neutral but is, rather, moral and teleological in nature. Rather than consider pluralistic education as a way out of this difficulty, she insists that the current state-control framework of American education “is an essential welfare good for children as well as the primary means by which citizens can morally educate future citizens.” She contrasts “public schooling” with the market mechanisms of private schooling that she believes will lead to unalloyed parental control. Gutmann thinks American public schooling is imperfect (she would like less bureaucracy, for instance), but believes that the practice of what she calls “democratic deliberation” achieves the optimal balance between the interests of the state, parents, and educators.

These are questionable assertions for two reasons. Continue reading

Education & Belief: Citizenship

“A high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society and to the fostering of a common culture, especially in a country that prides itself on pluralism and individual freedom.” (A Nation at Risk, 1983)

One of the main justifications for a uniform system of schooling, first articulated by Horace Mann and others in the 1830s and ‘40s, is that a common educational experience is necessary to make one people out of a nation of immigrants with different languages, religions and cultures.

Forming democratic citizens capable of self-rule had been a goal of education since Revolutionary times. Nearly all of the Revolutionary leaders wrote about the important role of a liberal arts education in encouraging attachment to republican principles and in energizing social mobility. Many of them opened schools and designed curricula for this purpose, resulting in high rates of literacy in the former colonies, particularly in New England (Pangle & Pangle in The Learning of Liberty). Mann’s contribution was to argue that state-enforced uniformity could do this more efficiently than the ad hoc network of schools that prevailed in his day.

The drive for uniform, state-sponsored schooling initially was resisted on political and religious grounds. However, as the 19th century progressed, the United States experienced large-scale immigration of European Catholics. Continue reading

Education & Belief: Pluralism Part 2

In a recent column for the New York Times, David Brooks argued that a healthy society requires a “thick ecosystem” in which diverse organizations create a rich “spiritual, economic and social ecology.” He contrasted this with an abstract, rule-based “one-size-fits-all” approach favored by government technocrats. He wrote, “Technocratic organizations take diverse institutions and make them more alike by imposing the same rules. Technocracies do not defer to local knowledge. They dislike individual discretion. They like consistency, codification and uniformity.”  Brooks’s contrast applies to public education: America favors technocratic uniformity, while most other liberal democracies prefer a diverse ecosystem.

Here are a few examples of diverse educational ecosystems from other countries. Some good sources on this are Helena Miller’s work on Jewish schooling; Salisbury and Tooley on international comparisons; and Glenn’s Contrasting Models.

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Education and Belief: Pluralism Part 1

Let me begin with a thought experiment. Suppose that a majority of parents in a school district wished their children to have a traditional curriculum that included Latin, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, sentence diagramming, advanced mathematics and experimental science. Also suppose these parents wanted the teachers to have subject matter instead of education degrees. Suppose, further, they wanted the philosophical framework of their children’s schooling to be Modern Orthodox Judaism. Finally, suppose that these parents agreed to comply with the district’s regulations for school facilities, extracurricular activities and student-teacher ratios, and to surpass the district’s academic standards. Would the district fund the new school?

No, because the United States’ educational system was not designed to allow this kind of diversity. This comes as no surprise to most Americans. But they might be surprised to learn that this is in sharp contrast to virtually every other liberal democracy. In England, for example, if such parents provide 15% of the capital costs, Central Government contributes the remaining 85% and also funds the ongoing operations of the school. In the Netherlands, the new school would be funded on an equal footing with the Muslim, Catholic, Montessori, and Anthroposophic schools down the street.

Why the difference? The answer lies in political philosophy and its interactions with history and culture.

In the 1840s and ‘50s, America’s states adopted a “state control” model in which the government provides a common educational experience Continue reading

Education and Belief: Ontology

Educational philosophy raises four distinct but related questions:  What is education for? What is the nature of the child? What is the role of adults? Who decides which view is right?

The last post highlighted several prominent disputes about the purpose of education. Even if we agreed about the purpose of education (say, that it existed to transmit knowledge and to foster democratic citizenship), the second and third questions – how we think about the nature of the child and the role of adults – are also deeply contested and lead to quite different pedagogies. This is because they ask us to consider our basic assumptions about human nature. This is what the Greeks called an ontological question, since it concerns the essence or the nature of a thing.

Two broad conflicts have played out in American education: the first between the traditionalist and the progressive, the second between the religionist and the secularist. What are the ontological distinctions between them?

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Education and Belief: Telos

“Formal education…presents pictures or maps of reality that reflect, unavoidably, particular choices about what is certain and what in question, what is significant and what unworthy of notice.  No aspect of schooling can be truly neutral.” – Charles Glenn, The Myth of the Common School (1988).

If Glenn is correct that knowledge occurs within a map of reality, then we need to look at the map’s assumptions. This is the work of educational philosophy, which asks four key questions:

  1. What is the purpose of education?
  2. What is the nature of the child?
  3. What is the role of the teacher?
  4. Who has or should have educational authority?

Schooling addresses these questions, even if implicitly.  An insistence upon high academic standards, for instance, implies something about the purpose of education, our view of the child who is being educated, and the locus of authority.

What I’d like to do in the next few posts is to look at each question and some of the ways each has been answered in the United States. My intent is not to argue that any one answer is right or wrong (although I do have my personal preferences). Rather, I want to highlight the sheer variety of responses and then examine how America and other liberal democracies differ in managing them.

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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 Continue reading