Reading Religion and American Education

religions_and_american_educationIt’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment when religion and schooling turned from a dance into a WWE match between mortal foes. Most may point to the “Scopes Monkey Trial” where local laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution were publicly questioned. Others may go back a bit further to the Harvard Presidency of Charles Eliot who eliminated compulsory chapel and instituted sweeping curriculum changes that are today observed across universities worldwide. Or, one might go back to the heyday of the Enlightenment itself where reason and observation began to push God out of the way as the necessary agent to understand the world and humanity’s place in it.

Regardless of where you locate the start of this conflict, the disciplines of science and philosophy, educating for professions rather than vocations, and the emergence of a truly public, state-sponsored education system have always created friction with proponents of the old curriculum that put the Bible and Christian devotion at the center of the curriculum. Today the ACLU, Freedom from Religion Foundation, American Humanist Association, Americans United for Separation of Church and State have been central to maintaining a strict interpretation of non-establishment of any kind of religion in public schools against organizations that promote a weakening of that “wall” from groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, American Center for Law and JusticeChristian Educators Association International, and other groups like conservative denominations and political action committees. Activism on both side of the issue has been gaining strength and financial resources in the past few decades. The legal rulings have favored those who argue for a stronger interpretation of the 1st Amendment keeping religion and state funded schooling as distinct and unrelated as possible. Yet the conflict persists unabated.

News about this tension pour in daily. Just this week there have been reports of schools whose doctrines are at odds with LGBT student rights. The voucher program promoted by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may create constitutional problems not only with entanglement of state and religion, but with how religion impacts equal protection regarding admissions policies. Recently, Donald Trump said before the Faith & Freedom Coalition, “Schools should not be a place that drive out faith and religion, but that should welcome faith and religion with wide, open, beautiful arms.” One questions what faith he is talking about and how schools should practice that welcome. It’s a relevant question given his audience of conservative, evangelical Christians. Surely they would not applaud the wide welcome of Hinduism and Islam on equal footing with their own idea of Christianity, would they?

Legal issues abound with these ideas. But at the center of all of this are the students, our kids. What is school here to do for them and for society? What are kids supposed to learn before they get to college? At what point do federal and state funding of not only the public school system, but of the public tertiary education system get entangled? Where do Constitutional amendments start to conflict with each other and what has happened in the courts to sort these complicated issues out?

Part of my “research reboot” this summer is to take a step back, catch up on the latest research, and to sort through some of the older texts with fresh eyes – especially those that I have only read in part while working on my dissertation. The first of these that I am going to work through is Religion & American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma by Warren A. Nord. It was published in 1995 and while there have been titles since then which I will follow with, none of them go into the depth of this book from the time up until Nord wrote it. Sometimes you have to take a few steps back to put what comes next in context. My goal here is to offer a short post on each chapter in three sections which will sort of be a template for future books I go through.

  • The Gist – The main argument the author is making.
  • The Idea – I want to focus on one interesting idea that might be applicable more generally or might spark a research question.
  • The Relevance – This is the trickier part where I want to find a connection with what is in the text, especially since its older, with something happening today.

This is something I do through the typical research process anyway. I thought, hey, want not put it all here and if it is interesting to someone else, or if there are other ideas out there I have not seen in relation to it, sweet.

More to come.

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