Urging a Civil Conversation

Education, Religion and the Common Goodby Martin E. MartyJossey-Bass. 176p $23

Martin Marty, the church historian and trusted commentator on American religious life, has recently spearheaded a three-year, multi-pronged national conversation about religion and public life. Under the sponsorship of the Pew Charitable Trust, Marty’s symposia, focus groups and probes of this complex issue have ranged over 10 arenas of institutional life where the forces of faith are at work: e.g., politics, health care, social services, law, the media, education. Marty published last spring his first schematic summation account of these conversations in Politics, Religion and the Common Good.

In this volume, devoted to religion and education, Marty proposes a brisk national conversation about the role of religion in public education, religious schools and the thorny thicket of issues these topics raise. Because his model is conversation, few of the tough issues are left off the docket: vouchers; home schooling; religion in history textbooks; prayers at high-school football games; teaching evolution; whether Orthodox Jews in public universities should be forced to live in mixed-sex dormitories. Marty knows that many of these topics can explode into fierce arguments, at the drop of a slogan! Much of the debate about religion in education, after all, is less about education itself than about the culture that education produces. Unlike an argument, Marty contends, no one need win a conversation! Fair-minded and judicious, Marty does have some argued positions he distills from the conversation.


The results of the reported conversation might be summed up in the following set of guidelines (but beware: any such summary will of necessity be brief and will leave out many needed nuances in this allergic topic):

1. Teaching about religion belongs in publicly funded primary and secondary schools.

Religion has been a major part of our history. We cannot really understand our society if we bypass religion. Faith communities can contribute to the common good and help provide a wider and deeper range of human motivation for action. They generate narratives that inspire civil action and voluntary associations. Marty proposes what he calls a principle of natural inclusion: Where religion is relevant to a story or theme, it should be brought into the open and receive fair treatment. In most cases, to avoid controversy, schools have too often avoided religion entirely, thereby distorting certain themes and mis-educating children. Too often we see the opposite: a natural exclusion that mis-educates students about a society that is anything but singularly secular.

2. There are multiple stakeholders, who are legitimately concerned with the effects of education, both private and public.

Parents have a proper role to play and sometimes have rightful apprehensions about, for example, sexual education programs in the schools that undermine parental values. Religion touches core identities, and many families worry about an education in which identities get blurred and particular interpretations of life are treated negatively. Some philosophies of education neglect parental rights and cede the terrain entirely to the government. But the state also has legitimate concerns for a common citizenship. Can the government regulate home schooling to ensure that home-schooled children are equipped to become good citizens? Children also may have rights.

3. We need more careful teacher-training programs if we are to bring religion into the classroom.

Making room for religion in the classroom, in the wrong hands, Marty notes, can end up making room for only one religion to the exclusion of others.

4. We need to handle the treatment of religion in public schools with care.

When teachers teach about religion, they may reduce faith to something so bland that it waters down the Ten Commandments to what might be considered as ten suggestions. Education about religion in public schools runs the risk of being either so bland that it is boring or so volatile that it will disrupt school and community life. Yet not to talk about religion at all also makes a powerful statement.

5. We have not been very successful in dealing with moral education in the public schools.

So-called values-clarification education has often only sown more confusion or a sense of relativism. Marty cites the empirical study by Philip Jackson, Robert Boorston and David Hansen, The Moral Life of the Schools (1993). In their case study of 18 public and private schools, these authors conclude that formal moral instruction as a recurrent and identifiable piece of the curriculum is close to absent, except in the parochial schools they studied. Marty comments: It is no wonder that school boards and textbook authors tread cautiously when dealing with moral education. But they often fail to realize that treading cautiously is its own kind of religious and metaphysical commitment. To many religious adherents, it looks as though a competing worldviewsuch as secular humanism’has become the established or privileged religion by default, while the regular voices of the ordinarily’ religious are shut out. Yet religious minoritiesand those with no religionalso need to have their conscience and freedom respected. Treating religion in the public schools must walk a fine line between respect for pluralism, gag rules on religious talk and avoidance of relativism.

6. There are real and important differences between teaching about religion in higher and lower education.

As our courts have argued, there is less danger of proselytization in higher educationwhich, in any event, the First Amendment rules out in state schools. Still, there are many anomalies in this so-called thirteenth grade principle. University glee clubs can sing religious chorales without an eyebrow being raised; yet the same behavior, in high schools, could lead to litigious disputes.

7. Private education, even private religious schools, is never simply private.

Every citizen has some stake in the quality of education for our common citizenship. In a republic, parochial education is never simply private. Private educational institutions bear on the public order.... Public minded people should care about what happens in non-public schools, Marty writes. Private schools, as the famous James Coleman study on Catholic schools showed, often have constituencies that are more, not less diverse racially and ethnically and across class lines than the public schools. Private religious schools can be laboratories for developing citizenship, one sensitive to many worldviews and not channeled through public authorities. At their best, these schools help prepare children for participation in a diverse, vibrant culture. Conversely, some religious schools may protect faith by isolating the students from any positive regard for a wider public and common good. Agreeing with Marty here does not resolve the thorny question about vouchers for parochial schools, but it does place that question legitimately on the conversational docket.

In his chapter on religion and higher education, Marty poses a series of questions: Should the study of religion in universities be appropriately located in a separate department or spread through the congruent disciplines? Is American religious pluralism so rampant that any impartial study of religion is doomed? Should universities enable students to critique religious traditions? Why are some state universities happy to endow chairs for the study of Buddhism and Hinduism but become squeamish about a Catholic chair or an institute for studying evangelicalism? As Marty trenchantly remarks, not all who study religion will grow to appreciate it more!

In the end, it is hard to fault Marty’s insistence that a civil conversation about religion, education and the common good is urgent. It is also hard to disagree with his championing of a tense but creative interplay among the three realities. Yet in a society where genuine civil conversation is a rare achievement and the danger of culture war eruptions lurk just under the surface, we need to heed carefully Marty’s injunctions to handle the topic with care. And, perhaps, before plunging briskly into the topic of religion and education, we may need first to step back and talk about the importance, more generally, of finding ways in our society to further civic conversation for the common good.

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