Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Three Cheers for the Naked Public (School) Square!

Marc DeGirolami has posted his paper, The Constitutional Paradox of Religious Learning.  I recommend it to anyone interested in the role of religion in public education, though I'm hesitant to embrace his recommendations.  Here's the abstract:

The constitutional paradox of religious learning is the problem of knowing that religion - including the teaching about religion - must be separated from liberal public education, and yet that religion cannot be entirely separated if the aims of liberal public education are to be realized. It is a paradox that has gone largely unexamined by courts, constitutional scholars and other legal theorists. Though the Supreme Court has offered a few terse statements about the permissibility of teaching about religion in its Establishment Clause jurisprudence and scholars frequently urge favored policies for or against such controversial subjects as Intelligent Design or graduation prayers, insufficient attention has been paid to the nature and depth of the paradox itself. As a result, discussion about religion‘s place in public schools often exhibits a haphazard and under-theorized quality. Yet without a deeper understanding of the relationship between religious learning and liberal public education, no edifying policy solutions are likely in an area so fraught with constitutional complexity and high emotion.

This Article aims to fill that gap by giving the constitutional paradox of religious learning its due. It offers a detailed theoretical account of the relationship between religious learning and the cultivation of the civic and moral ideals of liberal democracies. It draws on that account to develop a unique model of religious learning within liberal learning that takes its cue from the historic purpose of the public school. Since even today it is widely supposed and insisted that public schools still serve a vital role in developing civic and moral ideals in young people, this Article‘s comprehensive examination of the constitutional paradox of religious learning is both timely and necessary if the seemingly intractable skirmishes over religion, education policy, and constitutional law are capable of even a modest rapprochement.

An important topic, to be sure, and one that Marc handles with a good deal of theoretical sophistication.  Nevertheless, I found myself growing less and less comfortable with where the analysis was taking me.  Let me take a stab at articulating my discomfort.

Marc argues that public schools, in their effort to instill moral and civic values in their students, would be wise to include religious learning as an educational resource.  Marc explains that moral and civic education requires schools to facilitate a student's participation in an external and internal conversation.  Religious learning fosters the external dimension "because many students remain firmly committed to particular religious traditions and practices," and consequently, "if students who do not share that committment . . . have any chance of tolerating, understanding, and perhaps even appreciating and befriending their devout peers, they must learn about what would otherwise be totally alien religious traditions."  As for the internal dimension, Marc writes that religious learning is essential for those students who rely, "perhaps even in ways that they would not consciously acknowledge, upon religious concepts to support their moral intuitions and commitments."

Operating on the theoretical level, I'm on board.  It's only when I try to think of what this might look like in practice that my "spidey sense" starts tingling.  For example, Marc suggests that a teacher could lead a discussion about the Catholic Church's exclusion of women from the priesthood.  A variety of perspectives and arguments could be entertained without the teacher staking out a particular position.  Marc explains:

[The hypothetical student] Eve’s particular answers are not especially important. What is important is instead to recall that Eve is a high school student who is only beginning to learn and think about these questions. Her conclusions are likely to change – indeed, one hopes that they will change, many times mise-en-scène that are other kinds of civic and circumstances of her life add layers of experience and wisdom and as she continues to participate in the conversation of civic and moral learning. The point of religious learning is neither to arm Eve for more dexterous socio-political combat with a hostile world nor to fix certain views in the imagined amber of her moral personality. Whatever conclusions a high school student may reach, the aim of religious learning must always be to enrich her civic and moral conversational engagements. Religious learning is therefore imparted – taught about, studied, discussed, and reflected upon – within the same educational moral understandings. When difficult religious questions arise, teachers should avoid arriving at firm conclusions but they should not shy from presenting arguments, pointing out areas of tension with other moral ideals, and offering persuasive and less persuasive ways to reconcile those tensions. All of this must be done delicately, to avoid the impression that the teacher is pronouncing judgment on questions open to reasonable disagreement. But the primary objective remains educative: the teacher should cultivate in his students the ability to engage with and explore the voices of religious traditions for their own moral development.

As for the difficulty in presenting all relevant views about a particular religious subject, Marc notes that, even when schools teach the Civil War, some perspectives on the war's origins and impact are necessarily left out of the conversation, but that does not justify shutting down the conversation completely.

Here's the problem, in my view.  Religious education is not the same as education about the Civil War.  The latter is the conveyance of information about an empirically verifiable event, along with various interpretations of that event's significance.  The former is not exclusively (or even primarily?) cognitive; rather, it is stepping into a set of truth claims that comprise a worldview.  A student exposed to the "facts" of a religion is unlikely to be inspired, and may find his appreciation for (external) or confidence in (internal) the religion to be sorely lacking.  For example, imagine a secular 9th grade history teacher taking on the responsibility to foster among his non-LDS students an appreciation for the LDS church.  What is that going to look like?  A train wreck, most likely.

Schools are not particularly good at nuance, in my experience.  Even in second grade, I've cringed when my daughter's teacher has taken on the topic of the Iraq War.  (My daughter: "why can't we bring them home?  They're away from their families!")  It gets a bit better in high school, but I would shudder to think what a classroom discussion about women in the priesthood would look like.

A broader point: I agree that we should foster critical thinking skills in our kids.  But I do not agree that we should ask our public schools to foster critical thinking skills in our kids by helping them question their own religious beliefs.  There is a bit too much of an "education as self-creation" tone to Marc's analysis.  Why do I hope that my daughter changes her conclusions about women in the priesthood "many times?"  If she does, I will gladly offer supportive conversations and unconditional love, of course.  But should the goal of her religious education be an ever-shifting set of conclusions regarding her own religious beliefs?

I've only been a parent for eight years, so I realize that I still have a lot to learn.  But I've become more convinced that the heart of a child's religious education should occur at home.  Parents, in my experience, are much better at nuance than schools -- public or religious.  One upside about not sending my kids to Catholic school (amidst plenty of downsides, I admit) is that more of the kids' moral and spiritual formation is left open to us at home.  Even in Catholic school, the difficulty of facilitating religious learning by lots and lots of students at the same time seems, on occasion, to lead to an overemphasis on bright-line rules, with less time for the relational and experiential aspects of religious learning.  The problems I encounter in public school do not stem from the school's abdication of responsibility for moral formation, but from intrusive efforts at moral formation.  I'm still conflicted on this, but perhaps the naked public (school) square is not all bad?


Vischer, Rob | Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Three Cheers for the Naked Public (School) Square! :