Limitations and Compromises: Religion and the Public Schools

When I was an English teacher in public high schools in the decade from 1957 to 1967, one issue I took to heart was the question of my own role in affecting the values of my students. There was hardly a piece of American or English literature in the high school curriculum that didn’t lead to the discussion of important value issues. I worried over questions of my own objectivity, and thought seriously about concepts like indoctrination, critical thinking and neutrality. How was I, a teacher active in the civil rights movement, to present Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience fairly to a group of young learners? How was a protestor against the Vietnam War to lead a thoughtful discussion with a class of high school seniors on the admonition by the poet Wilfred Owen to stop telling children The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/ Pro patria mori?

I wanted to retain my political commitments, but also to play a genuinely educational role with my students. I took my teaching cue from Ralph Barton Perry’s rhetorical question in his In the Spirit of William James (1938): “Who shall say that it is not humanly possible both to believe and also to harbor saving doubts; both to cast in your lot with one party and also respect your opponents; both to feel a passionate devotion to your own cause and yet desire to give every cause a hearing; both to believe yourself right and to acknowledge the possibility that you may be wrong?”


It was perhaps odd, but during that period, though I was interested in the philosophical questions related to my role as a teacher, I gave little thought to the sociological question of how my own religious upbringing and education had affected my values as a teacher. I had attended a Catholic elementary school and a Catholic high school, majored in philosophy at St. Francis College in Brooklyn and, while I was teaching English, went on to take an M.A. in philosophy at Fordham. I suppose my own recent interest in the question of how much my values as a young teacher, and the values of other public school teachers, were molded by a religious upbringing has been awakened by the current surge of often thoughtful books and articles about the role of religion in the public square. The particular part of the public square in which I have had a longstanding interest is the public school.

The discussions about religion and education that currently receive the most media attention are battles over the teaching of creationism; demands that the Ten Commandments be tacked up in school buildings; calls for prayer in classrooms—silent, student-led, nondenominational—arguments for including religious schools in voucher plans; and the championing of home schooling as an alternative to the “secular humanism” of the public schools.

At the heart of these combative disturbances within the secular culture is the sense on the part of many religious parents that the school is not a fit place for children to be spending their days, and that it is not a fit place precisely because school people, teachers and administrators, have worked so hard to squeeze every drop of religious spirit out of the school’s atmosphere and have left it a dry and vapid place. I find public schools not so starkly anti-religious; but I would acknowledge that there are good reasons for the worries of religious parents about the atmosphere in these schools. While the day-to-day disputes often reveal petty contentiousness on both sides, there are large cultural issues at stake. For over a century, the public schools have slowly been losing something important to numbers of their constituents, and some parents are striking out against that loss.

G. K. Chesterton, that old Catholic polemicist, had it right. “In The New Case for Catholic Schools,” an essay written early in the 20th century, he insisted on the significance of a school’s atmosphere. “I am only pointing out that every education teaches a philosophy” he said, “if not by dogma than by suggestion, by implication, by atmosphere.” It is the loss of a religious atmosphere that underlies the often testy behavior of the religious critics of the public schools. After a lifetime of working in and around these schools, I do not see the teachers and administrators as the chief agents spreading the plague of godlessness throughout the nation, as the more extreme critics would have it. Nor do the schools strike me as having been desirably sanitized of all value commitments, religious or otherwise, as some defenders of public education foolishly argue.

There are false values prominent in public schools, and I dare say often in Catholic schools as well, that might be challenged from a religious perspective. These so-called values are the products of two pervasive anxieties in the larger culture: parental worries over the success of their own children, and public concerns over the nation’s competitiveness in world economic markets. Will my child qualify for the right nursery school, the elite college, the high-paying job? Will the schools produce graduates capable of maintaining America’s edge in the world marketplace? From national education reform documents, to conversations at the P.T.A. meeting, to the admonitions of guidance counselors and teachers, these are the pervasive concerns. The school people do not initiate these values, but they are swept up in the cultural tide.

We have not quite exhausted a description of the atmosphere in the schools with our recounting of these pervasive anxieties. Think only of the science teacher who inducts her students into the world of careful empirical inquiry; of the English teacher who through his own enthusiasm, his reading aloud and his pointed commentary opens up the world of George Eliot or Willa Cather to his students. This is simply to say that the traditions and practices of subject-matter specialists can be one source of themes opposed to those dominating the school atmosphere. There are, as we shall see, other sources.

Chesterton believed that a Catholic atmosphere should seep into every nook and cranny of a Catholic education. Defending the importance of the atmosphere of a school in his deliberately provocative way, he said, “There is a Catholic view of learning the alphabet; for instance it prevents you from thinking that the only thing that matters is learning the alphabet; or from despising better people than yourself, if they do not happen to have learned the alphabet.” Chesterton’s words, in another essay, “The Superstition of School,” were eerily prophetic, anticipating what would take the place of a pervasive religious sensibility in public schools on this side of the Atlantic. “The moment men begin to care more for education than for religion they begin to care more for ambition than for education. It is no longer a world in which the souls of all are equal before heaven, but a world in which the mind of each is bent on achieving unequal advantage over the other. There begins to be a mere vanity in being educated....”

Religious and moral concerns were very much a part of the atmosphere of American education in the 19th century and well into the 20th. The notion that any large number of earlier public education leaders cared a fig about the separation of church and state is anachronistic nonsense. Horace Mann (1796-1859), the first Secretary of the Massachusetts state board of education and arguably the father of American public education, used his position as a pulpit from which to preach the importance of public schooling as an aid in the salvation of the individual and of the republic. His chief anxieties were not over the worldly success of young people or the triumph of the nation in world markets. He was troubled by those in the society whom he saw as heedless of others and seeking their own aggrandizement. He envisioned the schools as engaged in the complementary tasks of working toward the individual salvation of pupils and creating a citizenry that placed the good of the community above its private needs. In an essay in Lectures on Education (1845), he urged parents and teachers to forego the use of rewards and competition, because he thought such strategies corrupted young people and created selfish adults. Under such a practice, he wrote: “The intellect may grow wise, while the passions grow weaker. The pupil comes to regard a successful rival with envy or malevolence; or an unsuccessful one with arrogance or disdain.” Horace Mann would not be invited to any summit meeting of today’s governors or state school superintendents; he might be found babbling in a strange religious-moral idiom in the hallway outside the door to their meeting room.

Catholics long ago rejected Mann’s idea that the bland, liberal and non-sectarian Protestantism that he proclaimed should provide a moral fuel for the public schools. Overt forms of Christianity were, over many decades, drained from the schools’ atmosphere. The American Catholic Church, worried for good reason about the imposition of sectarian Protestant beliefs on its children, was actually a member of the uneasy coalition of forces that brought this change about.

In “The Religious Aim of Education,” Chesterton, writing in an uncharacteristic, politically pragmatic vein, speaks of the limitations and sometime political necessity of a secular public education. “It is only by a definite and even deliberate narrowing of the mind that we can keep religion out of education. I do not deny that it may in certain cases be the least of many evils; that it may be a sort of loyalty to a political compromise; that it is certainly better than a political injustice. But secular education is a limitation, if only a self-limitation.” Chesterton here states the two poles of our present dilemma: there is a genuine limitation to a secular education; but there is a political injustice in a publicly financed education that would impose religious beliefs and practices on those who object to them, as Catholics in the 19th and early 20th century learned so well. These limitations, this necessary compromise that is the condition of public education today, need not be read as anti-religious. Public school teachers reflect the values of the country of which they are a part, and no sociological surveys even hint that the United States is an irreligious country. It seems safe to say that many teachers bring to their teaching, as I did, values formed against a religious background. These values can serve as another counterpoint to the values dominant in public education.

It certainly is the case that most public school teachers refrain from specifically religious modes of argument in their classroom presentation. As a young English teacher, after a great deal of reflection, I concluded that my most important task was not the propagandizing of a particular set of values, but the induction of students into the practice of inquiries that emphasized the role of human reason and due regard for evidence. This was a general educational ideal I had formulated, and, at the time, I saw it as a corrective of my political impulses. Since then I have become much more conscious of the fact that my politics were rooted in my own religious upbringing. Of course, in my teaching I never quoted from a sacred text to buttress an argument, never appealed to a papal encyclical or a bishop’s statement or to a mystical experience of my own. Nor did I ever lead my students in a decade of the rosary for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I suspect many other teachers in public schools also have had their basic values affected by their religious backgrounds, but take care not to transgress the sensibilities of their students with any specifically religious appeals or practices.

The postmodern assault on rationality demands a certain wariness and a careful self-examination of our practices as inquirers and teachers as we go about our work; we no longer can wrap ourselves prematurely in the cloak of rationality. We need to question the “common sense” of the culture. Nevertheless, the educational ideal remains. The postmodern critique suggests that a variety of modes of inquiry can lay equal claim to competence in settling truth claims. Some religious thinkers have seen an opening here for “religious” modes of inquiry and argument, for entering the public square and public school classrooms on their own terms—for example, with appeals to sacred texts, church authorities or religious traditions. I find such an approach to the public square almost always politically imprudent, and, because it violates the educational ideal I have sketched, unacceptable in the public schools.

While I demur from the notion that the public schools are actively anti-religious, I nevertheless believe that there is more than paranoia in the accusations of some religious conservatives that the schools promote an ideology of secular humanism. “Secular humanism” suggests a fully worked out, intentional set of ideas. I would stick with “secularism,” because it connotes something less intentional and more vague, more a kind of sucking out and drying up of the atmosphere than a positive infusion. Chesterton saw what would fill the vacuum: the defining and practice of education as the seeking of individual and national advantage.

Since the early days of the 20th century, as more and more young people entered secondary education, the public schools, just as they were losing their connections to mainstream Protestantism, embraced a broad set of ends that went well beyond intellectual and vocational concerns. A report issued in 1918, called Cardinal Principles, spoke of “worthy home membership,” “citizenship,” “worthy use of leisure,” and “ethical character.” Questions about how one should lead one’s life, traditionally tied to religious explanations of creation and salvation, now wandered afield. Some religionists have complained about what is seen as encroachment on traditionally religious territory; and the backlash from some teachers and school administrators has been avoidance—a kind of playing school, or lack of seriousness, about important issues in literature and history and contemporary life. The school people do not wish to be criticized for going beyond their discipline, beyond their competency, and to be discovered raising meaning of life questions with their adolescent charges. Both the encroachment and the avoidance are real.

What is to be done? There might be changes made at the margins within schools that would be responsive to religious critics; they would consist of a kind of relaxation by teachers and administrators who presently balk at handling religious themes in literature and religious realities in history, who worry a tad too much about the impact of ecumenical blessings on graduation day, or a chorus of “Silent Night” at the winter assembly. The school people’s avoidance is partly a response to the watchdog mentality shared by both secular and religious critics of public education. Some civil libertarians defend the most vulgar and violent voices and visuals of the entertainment industry on the grounds that no one has proven satisfactorily that they have a pernicious effect on the young people who watch them; yet they are much troubled by the supposed ill effects on the young attendees at graduations of prayers and blessings offered by an array of local clergymen.

An infinitely better case can be made for vouchers or tax credits for parents who desire a wholly religious atmosphere for their children in school than for any major alterations of the church-state dynamic within the public schools. For those dissatisfied with the obvious limitations of the public schools, with their existence as, in Chesterton’s words, a political compromise and the least of many evils; for those who desire an education fully infused by the Catholic belief that we are created to praise, glorify and serve God, I see no other choice but to find or create Catholic schools that reflect this ideal—no easy task.

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