If all want sense, God takes a text

And preaches patience.

The Church Porch, Geo. Spencer

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has given us a decision in Espinoza v. Montana, suppose that one day the state of Montucky were to adopt a broad and inviting program of subsidies for lower-income parents to choose among private schools that are free to teach religion. One systemic effect of such an act would be new pressure on the public school to begin behaving in ways that attract parents who would no longer be conscripts, but rather, free customers.

In a word, there would be competition.

Experience already tells us that one substantial effect of choice is to lure to the private sector parents who have religious beliefs that could at last be served and celebrated in private school. Plainly put, the governmental sector of schooling would be at some disadvantage in a market where, by law, it could not serve such families’ preferences by teaching about God as the parent would have it.

There seems little prospect of the Court in any future decision allowing public schools to compete simply by adding religion to its ordinary curriculum. Which religion(s) would they teach, and what of the rights of dissenting and atheist parents? Are there options for P.S. 42 – that is, could public schools at least do something that would recognize the importance of the intellectual, spiritual and moral issues involved without favoring any particular belief over others?

Could they do something more than offering an hour’s “release time” once a week with some unpaid priest, pastor or rabbi who sets aside all other distracting duties for this one, for which he or she may be poorly prepared?

The alternative available to the public school may be awkward, but I should not give up on making religion, agnosticism and atheism all teachable with enthusiasm in the basic curriculum – and without violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment. There is, I think a way for the classroom teacher (or better, a certified and scheduled specialist), in the regular curriculum to do justice to contrary ideas without betraying his or her own convictions; it would have its occasional moments of disaster, but no more frequently or damaging than the available alternatives.

Moreover, it could open young minds to ways of thinking and of respectful disagreement on this world’s most fundamental issue.

This method that I have I mind is very old and always imperfect, but I think it a plausible exit from the public school’s looming problem of keeping those families who would now have become its free customers. The effective teaching of religion in public elementary and high school should be taken seriously as part of the teacher training for the Master of Arts, and at least some graduates should finish sufficiently adept that their handling of the transcendental could claim neutrality.

Without settling upon a “correct” answer for the pupil to memorize, the child would at very least be helped to understand that there is a crucial question all humans have faced since the beginning – from Eve in the Garden of Eden to politicians in the Rose Garden.

This method that is plausibly lawful is generally labeled “Socratic,” thus paying tribute to that old Greek who left us nothing written but who gave philosophy and law a way of separating ideas that are either mutually  opposed or simply different, and to do so without taking a side.

And here is a confession: I draw upon forty-plus years of experience teaching law to (mostly) young adults and not to children (except our own five) and that experience may be too remote from childhood and adolescence to justify my pontificating about the ideal pedagogy for elementary or high school pupils.

Whether Socrates ever visited his style upon children, we don’t know. But were I teaching in the public schools of 2040, I would at least give the old Greek – and myself – a serious try.

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