Retracing America’s path away from pluralism

This essay was first posted at the CLR Forum by the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University School of Law.

Let me begin with a thought experiment. Suppose that a majority of parents in a school district wished their children to have a traditional curriculum that included Latin, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, sentence diagramming, advanced mathematics and experimental science. Also suppose these parents wanted the teachers to have subject matter instead of education degrees. Suppose, further, they wanted the philosophical framework of their children’s schooling to be Modern Orthodox Judaism. Finally, suppose that these parents agreed to comply with the district’s regulations for school facilities, extracurricular activities and student-teacher ratios, and to surpass the district’s academic standards.

Would the district fund the new school? No, because the United States’ educational system was not designed to allow this kind of diversity.

This comes as no surprise to most Americans. But they might be surprised to learn that this is in sharp contrast to virtually every other liberal democracy. In England, for example, if such parents provide 15 percent of the capital costs, Central Government contributes the remaining 85 percent and also funds the ongoing operations of the school. In the Netherlands, the new school would be funded on an equal footing with the Muslim, Catholic, Montessori, and Anthroposophic schools down the street.

Why the difference? The answer lies in political philosophy and its interactions with history and culture.

In the 1840s and ‘50s, America’s states adopted a “state control” model in which the government provides a common educational experience supposedly free of sectarian influence. Many other countries during the same period adapted a “civil society” model, in which the government supports a variety of school types that reflect the beliefs and commitments of the parents. These schools are not entirely self-governing; they must meet government standards and curricular requirements if they accept government funds. They are, however, allowed to reflect the social, philosophical and religious views of their sponsors. The difference could not be more striking: in the United States, “public schooling” denotes educational uniformity; in Singapore, Ghana and Switzerland (for instance), “public schooling” indicates educational pluralism.

Both the state control and civil society models represent different strategies for coping with plural beliefs amongst citizens. A comparison between the United States and the Netherlands is particularly telling because of the historical and cultural similarities. Our educational systems developed at the same time (early 19th century) and were subject to similar intellectual influences (the French Enlightenment and Romantic nationalism); both countries encouraged immigration from different cultures and faiths (the Dutch and the Americans welcomed Jewish, Catholic and Protestant refugees from the European religious wars); both placed a high value on personal autonomy. Also, like most American states, the Netherlands had disestablished its national church in the late 18th century.

Yet despite the cultural and historical similarities, the nations adopted diametrically opposed approaches to public education. Their histories are complicated, and Charles Glenn’s accounts make for a fascinating read; see The Myth of the Common School (1988, 2007) and Contrasting Models of State and School (2011). In summary, however, the late 19th century Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper, a public intellectual and Calvinist theologian, argued that the government’s job was to ensure equality between society’s many participants, not to intrude upon the values that distinguished them. Non-sectarian schooling, he argued, was anything but neutral; it represented a unique viewpoint that deserved a place, but not the only place, within schooling. His arguments corresponded with a grassroots movement and consequently, for over a hundred years, the Netherlands has supported a wide range of pedagogically and religiously distinct schools.

The United States moved in the opposite direction. Leading educational activists such as Horace Mann, Chairman of the first state Board of Education in Massachusetts (1837), argued that uniform schooling was necessary to create civic unity, and that this required a non-sectarian neutrality between different views. Mann’s opponents, primarily Democrats and some religious leaders, argued that such education disenfranchised parents and undermined religious liberty.

What tilted the balance towards Mann’s view was the massive Catholic immigration in the 1840s and 50s, which ignited a tide of anti-Catholicism. In mid-century, nativists ran many of the state legislatures and published tracts on the threats associated with unassimilated foreigners, especially those thought beholden to a foreign prince (the Pope). The Ku Klux Klan burned crosses in Catholic neighborhoods and firebombed Catholic churches. Many Protestants were persuaded that the non-sectarian model of education was truly neutral, a view that would have been disputed by Catholics and Jews. In the late 19th century, several agitation groups began to argue that our constitutions required a “wall of separation between church and state,” and that any form of educational pluralism should be dismissed out of hand.

The American settlement of state-controlled educational neutrality in fact settled nothing. It failed to address the continuing challenge of pluralism, and it rested on the intellectually untenable claim of ideological neutrality. The challenge of pluralism is as alive today as it was in the 19th century. It is both integral to our self-identity (E Pluribus unum), and an economic necessity. As noted sociologist Peter Berger remarked, it is the challenge of the 21st century for liberal democracies.

Education simply cannot be neutral with respect to beliefs. This is because procedural neutrality always involves an implicit substantive choice about the good, the true, and the permitted. What about the claims that our system comports with democratic principles and with our constitutions? Both are far from settled matters. Constitutional scholar Philip Hamburger persuasively argues that it was not constitutional integrity but, rather, political fear hardened into culture, that brought Jefferson’s obscure phrase into the public imagination and then into constitutional jurisprudence; see Separation of Church and State (2002). As Constitutional scholar John Witte notes, the Supreme Court permits limited state support to religious schools as long as it results from private decisions, not state endorsement. Witte suggests that this opens up the possibility of state-level flexibility, moves the United States towards international norms, and restores a balance between disestablishment and religious liberty:

According to international human rights norms, the realm of education where parents and religious rights and preferences receive especially strong protection is not the ideal place for undue zealotry in application of disestablishment values. To be sure, international norms would not countenance any more than American law coerced religious exercises in school classrooms … but the constitutional purging of tax-supported public schools of virtually all religious symbols, texts, and traditions – in favor of purportedly neutral and secular tropes – stands in considerable tension with international principles of religious equality and of parental religious rights (Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment, 2005).

Witte and other scholars are developing new approaches to education by re-examining the historical record and introducing other jurisprudential approaches. Yet is difficult for many Americans to think about a radically different school system, if for no other reason than personal experience. We have been socialized to believe that the American way is the only way.

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