Friday, October 24, 2008
I spent today at Humboldt University in Berlin participating in a roundtable discussion about the role of religion in the American and German educational systems. It was fascinating, partly because, I confess, my understanding of religion's role in public education in Europe is so dominated by the case of France. The French and German approaches, I've learned, do not resemble each other in the least.
I did not realize how central the government's role is in German religious education. Catholic and Protestant education occurs in the public schools primarily, not in the churches (which very few people attend). Most parents want their kids to have religious education, apparently on the belief that it provides a good ethical grounding. Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish students go to their own classes. (Germany is struggling to figure out how to fit Muslim students into the framework given the lack of an institutional authority in Islam.) The state funds these classes, approves the teachers, and approves the curriculum, in collaboration with the churches. If a teacher is found to be "indoctrinating" students, they will no longer be approved. From what I can tell, in Germany religious education means learning about religion more than it means being formed within a religion. Even the headmaster of a Protestant school here emphasized that "we are not missionaries!" As I expressed today, my view of religious education would be telling a student "God loves you"; my fear is that, in Germany, religious education amounts to telling a child "Some people believe that God loves you." That might be an overstatement, but the vibe is unmistakable from the conversations today.
Part of the stark difference in our approaches is our societies' contrasting views of religion. At this stage in their history, Germans seem to view religion instrumentally -- it is worth teaching because of what it can do. Many Americans still view religion as worth teaching because it is true. But two other differences loom large: first, Germans recognize that religion remains important to the well-being of their society, and they assume that the state should thus take responsibility for keeping religion in the conversation. In America, we resist equating or conflating "society" and "state." Second, Americans are much more leery about charging the state with significant responsibility for their children's moral and ethical formation. That does not seem to a problem for the Germans.
At the same time, Americans are not beyond reproach. When it comes to discussing the role of religion in public education, the Germans are at least able to talk about the practices that are most conducive to the common good; the Americans in the room tended to start with constitutional rights, and the conversation usually doesn't get much farther. Also, while we remain highly religious, our religious literacy is nothing to boast about, especially our knowledge of other faith traditions. I think that the benefit of having our religious illiteracy remedied by the public schools is outweighed by the resulting costs, but at the same time, when the problem is left to the market-dominating Joel Osteens of the world, it goes unaddressed. I don't agree with Germany's solution -- in part because I fear that there's a fine line between combating religious illiteracy and domesticating religion -- but at least they are making a concerted effort to do something.
One last observation: conversations like the one we had today are far too rare, at least in my circles. Within the law-and-religion "movement," we do spend a good bit of attention comparing and contrasting different religious traditions, but -- as far as I know -- there has not been much effort to analyze and compare law-and-religion issues across legal systems/cultures. Taking a comparative view of a single faith tradition's role in, and engagement with, different legal systems seems a fertile line of inquiry. The level of involvement in public education by the Catholic Church in Germany, for example, would be unrecognizable to many American Catholics. I don't know what conclusions to draw from that, but it seems to warrant further exploration.