Can We Stop Fighting Over Schools?

Most other nations with advanced levels of universal schooling provide public support to faith-based schools with no evident harm to their social fabric and with considerably less conflict over schooling. The time has come for the United States to adopt principled pluralism as the fundamental and equitable structure of our education system.

A decade ago, no one imagined the level of conflict and alienation that Americans have experienced in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election and its continuing aftermath: Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the assault on White Privilege and Heteronormativity, and on and on. The Culture Wars described by James Davison Hunter in 1991 have spread to become what sometimes seems a universal war of all against all, in which everyone feels under attack.

Among those who no longer feel at home in American society are men and women for whom religious convictions “go all the way down,” forming the solid foundation of their life choices and moral judgments in every area, from the voluntary association in which they take part to how they raise their children. “We’ve lost on every front,” Rod Dreher warns. “Hostile secular nihilism has won the day in our nation’s government, and the culture has turned powerfully against traditional Christians.”

The sense that religious convictions are under attack is by no means a recent phenomenon in American life. The public schools have often been the focal point of such grievances, as they continue to be today. Horace Mann was criticized fiercely, in the 1840s, by Trinitarian Christians who argued that he was promoting his own Unitarian beliefs through the public schools of Massachusetts. In the century and a half since then, there has scarcely been a time when one or another religiously motivated group has not resisted the prevailing worldview promoted by the public school system.

Social Conflicts, Religious Convictions, and Public Schools

While these grievances have sometimes been exaggerated, they are an inevitable result of a monopoly—whether secular or religious—on the formation of youth. Government-managed systems of popular schooling are always a tempting instrument of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power, which profoundly falsifies the nature of true education. After all, education in its authentic form occurs in the context of enduring relationships between children or youth and trusted adults, first with the adults in their own families and then with other adults to whom their families entrust them. Education occurs, of course, not only in schools but also in other expressions of the life of civil society, including formal and informal settings under the sponsorship of religious institutions, among many others. As Elmer John Thiessen has pointed out, “children must be initiated into a particular home, a particular language, a particular culture, a particular set of beliefs before they can begin to expand their horizons beyond the present and the particular.”

The “common school” so much praised as the crucible of democratic citizenship can no longer function as it did when it was the expression of a coherent local community. Today, it is instead a shopping mall of competing messages with no moral core. It is a place where disapproval is reserved for those who assert any settled convictions about the nature and demands of a flourishing human life—apart from the maximization of consumption, of course.

We should not deceive ourselves: the generically Protestant common public school of the decades before the 1950s has not somehow become religiously neutral thanks to the removal of prayers and Bible-reading. A secularist orthodoxy has taken its place, insisting that religious beliefs be kept strictly private, in the tacit (and sometimes explicit) conviction that they will gradually die away as they cease to play any significant role in public behavior.

Nor has religion alone been chased from the classroom; so have civic virtue and the sense of national belonging. An educational theory—“ideology” would not be too strong a word—has taken the place of positive instruction in the beliefs underlying the American project and the virtues required by citizenship. The orthodoxy that today’s public schools inculcate is not some form of civic virtue, but rather the current platitudes about tolerance and non-judgmentalism. Those who shape the agenda of public schools today see themselves as freeing students from the limitations posed by families and traditions, thereby allowing them to reach the full self-defining autonomy considered the highest goal of human development.

Squashing Real Cultural Pluralism

Of course, this conception of schooling as built on questioning all received opinions and particular loyalties has never been subjected to a democratic process of approval, either locally or nationally. It is an imposition by those who have successfully claimed the right to define the goals of education without regard to the views of their fellow citizens. It has no respect for ways of life based on obedience to tradition or group norms; by its definitions, they lead to lives that lack authenticity. For all the talk of freedom, proponents of this ideology oppose public policies that support institutional accommodation of the cultural pluralism characterizing contemporary democratic societies. To be more precise: cultural pluralism is celebrated so long as it limits itself to surface expressions, such as music and dance and food. It is feared when it evokes fundamental beliefs, differences that “go all the way down.” These have no place in the multiculturalism, the superficial “diversity,” sought and celebrated in the contemporary educational system. It has been said that “diversity in Brookline [Massachusetts] means different colored people who have been trained to think alike.”

Lack of respect for fundamental differences while celebrating superficial “preferences” has created tremendous pressure toward uniformity of opinion, thinly veiled by the superficial glitter of “doing your own thing.” Religious institutions provide support for those who share convictions that set them apart from their contemporaries, but public policy and law increasingly seek to restrict the reach of such associations to symbolic activities. Thus “free exercise of religion” is defined down to “freedom to worship,” as though no other domains of life were protected spheres for the expression of religious convictions.

This intolerance of institutional and behavioral expressions of deep convictions reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of a free society, whose democratic pluralism includes the right (guaranteed in our case by the First Amendment) to associate on the basis of shared convictions within an overarching framework of law and republican government. Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff points out that “our contemporary proponents of the liberal position . . . are still looking for a politics . . . of a community with shared perspective. . . . The liberal is not willing to live with a politics of multiple communities.” The consequence is that, unless prepared to maintain a radical separation such as the Amish or Hasidic Jews, individuals with deeply held religious convictions are forced in many respects to conform to the norms of the surrounding culture. That culture, in turn, grows increasingly superficial, because it is not allowed to evoke the deep motivations of life.

Cause for Hope

All is by no means lost, however. We need not pine for an era when a generic, superficial Protestantism was taken for granted by most Americans. In the contemporary American scene, despite the cultural hegemony of an intolerant secularism, the social elements for constructing vigorous alternative institutions and communities are by no means lacking. Indeed, they have been stimulated by the collapse of the post-war “Judeo-Christian” cultural dominance. The challenge is to give principled policy support to this rich pluralism of convictions.

Here we could usefully look to the example of the Netherlands. In the nineteenth century, Dutch society was roiled by decades-long conflicts over schools. Protestants and Catholics vigorously resisted the efforts of liberal elites to impose a common set of beliefs through the schools operated by local government. The solution that brought a permanent “pacification” to these conflicts was the adoption of structural pluralism in education (and in other sectors of social and cultural life) that permitted educators to provide schooling based on a variety of worldviews and gave parents the right to choose among those schools without financial penalty. Today, about 70 percent of Dutch children attend schools that are not operated by government. Academic outcomes are strong, and education is not a focal point of political conflict.

We can see something like this beginning to emerge in the United States, though without the sort of coherent rationale that was articulated, in the Dutch situation, by Abraham Kuyper and other theologically sophisticated statesmen. The willingness of many state legislatures to adopt policies such as vouchers and tax credits that enable families to choose faith-based schools is in large part a reaction to the demand of religious minorities for educational alternatives.

Public policies supporting structural pluralism in schooling are capable not only of reducing the political and cultural conflict so evident today, but also of permitting schools to be more effective in the development of character and citizenship. Enhanced levels of trust resulting from the voluntary choice of families to attend a particular school, and to be mentored by teachers who share a commitment to that school’s explicit mission, can also have a measurable effect on academic outcomes. In Chicago, for example, “schools reporting strong positive trust levels in 1994 were three times more likely to be categorized eventually as improving in reading and mathematics than those with very weak trust reports.”

Opponents of allowing publicly funded schools to be autonomous and, in some cases, to have a religious character are fond of arguing that the effect of such policies will be to further divide society. They have been arguing that for nearly two hundred years, only to be proven wrong again and again by actual experience. Removing a major source of social and cultural conflict in fact has the opposite effect, allowing citizens to focus their cooperation in spheres of public life where their religious differences are not at issue.

Most other nations with advanced levels of universal schooling provide public support to faith-based schools with no evident harm to their social fabric and with considerably less conflict over schooling than occurs in the United States. Surely the time has come for a similar American “pacification,” through adoption of principled pluralism as the fundamental and equitable structure of our education system.

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