Concerns expressed at CPAC’s “Common Core, Choice, and Accountability” forum are much touted in conservative debate: there is widespread fear that Common Core is a guise for the centralization of education. What was thrown into sharp relief at the panel was the great growth of this viewpoint amongst conservatives, tea partiers, and libertarians at the grassroots level.
Panelists worried mainly about the centralization of standards (and how that will affect curricula), the widely protested promotion of informational texts in English classes, and the gathering of student information, supposedly tracking kids through the entirety of their school and college education (Phyllis Schlafly, Founder of Eagle Forum, compared this to George Orwell’s 1984).
Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke was the panel’s moderator. She said Common Core’s supporters in the conservative party are “well-intentioned,” but added that the standards have been “heavily incentivized by the Obama administration,” and are “setting us on a course for national curriculum.”
Schlafly said this issue has gained a lot of steam on the local level: “The moms are coming out of the woodwork on this issue.” She warned against the Common Core English Standards’ new emphasis on informational texts: “informational reading morphs into liberal propaganda,” she said, pointing to the College Board’s new “Spring Board” curricula as an example.
Robert Enlow, President of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, called Common Core “yet another mechanism by which those who think they know more can tell parents what to do.” Jim Stergios, Executive Director of Pioneer Institute, denied that the initiatives are truly state-led, calling it “a remarkable claim.” He pointed to Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, and the strong incentives (in the form of grants and waivers) offered to those who adopted Common Core. He believes these incentives were, in actuality, arm-twisting bribes and blackmail. “There are friends among us who say this is truly conservative. That is ludicrous,” he said.
Stergios also criticized the standards’ emphasis on informational texts: “Reading between the lines of literature teaches kids about meaning,” he said, adding that it teaches important lessons on irony and nuance. “When’s the last time you read a textbook and laughed?”
The panelists received a strong and passionate reception from their audience. There were several Tea Partiers and mothers in attendance, all of whom expressed strong agreement with Schlafly’s points. One mother expressed great fear over Common Core, and what it may encourage in the future.
Unfortunately, many of her fears may not be grounded. Common Core is a creature touted and rebuked across party lines, and myths cluster around it like a deep fog. The panelists expressed some realistic concerns with Common Core—but their rhetoric was perhaps too strong on certain points. One of the reasons Common Core has become the “most heated debate over education,” as Burke put it, may lie at the fault of such rhetoric. There is need for more “informational texts” on Common Core itself, before the debate can achieve any real lucidity.
A glut of Ph.D.s and endlessly rising college tuition prompted Hollis Robbins to wonder in the Chronicle of Higher Education if we should revive the tradition of the private tutor at the post-secondary level.
As a matter of economics, why not consider the option of hiring a single professor to teach a first-year curriculum to a small number of students? At the level of the individual student, it may make sense to some families. Rather than spend $50,000 for a year of college at a selective private institution, one could hire a single Ivy League-trained individual with a doctorate and qualifications in multiple fields for, say, two-thirds the price (far more than an adjunct professor would make for teaching five courses at an average of $2,700 per course).
The idea becomes more attractive with multiple students. A half-dozen families (or the students themselves) could pool resources to hire a single professor, who would provide all six students with a tailored first-year liberal-arts education (leaving aside laboratory science) at a cost much lower than six private-college tuitions, and at the level of a real salary for a good sole-proprietor professor.
If Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) like those offered by Udacity and Coursera assume that education is primarily a question of transferring skills, which can be learned and practiced with or without personal supervision, the latter-day Septimus Hodges envisioned by Robbins reinfuse the idea of apprenticeship to education.
An apprentice, immersed in the work of her mentor, has the chance to learn things that her teacher may not know how to verbalize. In Edward Frenkel’s memoir Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, he describes his apprenticeship in mathematics, where professors set him problems to work, and invited him to departmental lectures where he could learn not only how to use the theorems that had been threshed out of conjecture, but the process by which they were generated and tested, and the aesthetic standards that many of his fellow mathematicians believed were a guide to truth.
Trying to teach Frenkel mathematics solely though textbooks and lectures, brilliant as he was, would have made as much sense as teaching blacksmithing out of a book. No matter how detailed the diagrams and instructions, the book would capture only the elements of the discipline we knew how to pin down into what Daniel Kahneman would call System Two thinking—the work we do deliberately, not instinctively.
Many college classes feel like they could be eclipsed by MOOCs because they’re taught at such a remove from the teacher’s own experience of their discipline that apprenticeship is impossible. Apprenticeship is more common in the last two years of college and graduate school, when students have worked through the introductory material in their hundred person lectures and move on to seminars with professors. Robbins’s reform would be intended to bridge this gap (he imagines that after one or two years with a tutor, students would join normal universities as transfer students). Read More…
Rarely do opinion pieces in college newspapers emerge as subjects of national controversy, but a recent essay by Harvard student Sandra Y.L. Korn has generated widespread denunciation among conservatives. Her essay—entitled “The Doctrine of Academic Freedom“—argues for dispensing with longstanding commitments to “academic freedom” in favor of what she calls “academic justice.” Academic freedom permits the airing and defense of any and all views, but she rightly notes that some views have come to be largely unacceptable in academia today. Since such views are not only socially unacceptable, but often discouraged or even prohibited as a matter of university policy, why should they not also be banned when they are articulated as findings of faculty research?
If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom’? Instead, I would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of ‘academic justice.’ When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.
As might be expected, Ms. Korn’s essay has provoked strenuous criticism, including accusations of “academic totalitarianism,” investigations into her personal background aimed at exposing her as a limousine liberal, and criticism from at least one highly visible blusterer in the conservative media.
The default position of these conservatives is that Ms. Korn is attacking the sacred holy of the academic enterprise—academic freedom. In other words, mainstream conservatives have adopted the view of … John Stuart Mill, the lion of liberalism. The same John Stuart Mill who stated that most stupid people are likely to be conservative. And perhaps he had a point. Because academic freedom is not a particularly conservative principle. Academic freedom has been the vehicle by which the universities have been transformed into liberal bastions today, but it is now the inviolable principle that conservatives are rallying around in their denunciation of a Harvard undergraduate. True to form, and as I have argued in a previous column, American conservatives tend to be subject to drift, and almost inevitably end up occupying the territory once held by liberals when they move leftward. Their rallying to apparently contentless “academic freedom” is a particularly vivid case in point.
I agree with Ms. Korn—academic institutions inevitably are dedicated to some substantial commitments, and (often with difficulty) attempt to “patrol” those boundaries, if not with sticks, more often by populating their institutions with people who generally share those commitments. “Academic freedom” was the means by which the substantial commitments once held mainly by religious institutions were initially destabilized and eventually rejected, and provided the cover for their replacement with a new set of commitments. “Academic freedom” purports to be an openness to all views and opinions, but itself contains an implicit philosophy that eventually becomes manifest in, well, Sandra Korn (who is entitled to the confident assertion of the victory that has been won on today’s campuses by her teachers). Read More…
A student is raped by a classmate, goes to the campus center for help, and is grilled about whether she provoked the rape, told she has to confront her accuser personally in order to be taken seriously, and, ultimately, hounded off of campus, since her post-traumatic stress makes her “unstable.”
You might recognize all the details from The New Republic‘s story about Patrick Henry College’s alleged mishandling of rape cases, but the above incident is drawn from Angie Epifano’s experience at Amherst. Patrick Henry’s Christian ethos informs the tone in which these students were brushed off (you’d be unlikely to hear concerns about purity at a public or secular private school), but the alleged underlying betrayal is more attributable to being a university than a Christian one in particular.
Treating Patrick Henry’s crisis as unique because of its singular status as a private, Christian school (one of only four private colleges in the country that decline federal funds and, thus, aren’t regulated under Title IX) masks a broader problem with administrations’ treatment of students in crisis, one that isn’t limited to sexual assault.
When students at my alma mater discussed the mental health or sexual assault resources, it might have sounded like we were cribbing from the “Never Ever Talk to the Police” lecture by Professor James Duane of the Regent University School of Law that was taking a tour of campuses. You’re talking to someone who’s job is to safeguard the community, not you, if, in their opinion, you present a legal, physical, or reputational risk to the institution.
One of my classmates recently went public in the school paper with one of the samizdat stories we’d been passing around. Like the students at Patrick Henry and Angie at Amherst, Rachel Williams was quickly cross-examined and pushed off campus when she came to the administration for help with self-harm and depression.
And so, when I say “yes” to the ‘I admit cutting myself’ part, he nods his head and closes his eyes like someone has just given him a bonbon. …
“Well the question may not be what will you do at Yale, but if you are returning to Yale. It may well be safer for you to go home. We’re not so concerned about your studies as we are your safety,” he says.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “What makes you think I will be safer away from school, away from my support system?” School was my stimulation, my passion and my reason for getting up in the morning.
“Well the truth is,” he says, “we don’t necessarily think you’ll be safer at home. But we just can’t have you here.”
Rachel’s experience was echoed repeatedly by students on campuses across the United States who were profiled in Newsweek (“Colleges Flunk Mental Health”). Whether schools attribute instability to irresponsibility or a neurological quirk, the reaction is the same: get them off campus before there’s any chance they might harm themseves and open the school up for an in loco parentis lawsuit like the one MIT faced after the on-campus suicide of Elizabeth Shin. Read More…
Few things annoy academics more than being told that their work is irrelevant. So there’s nothing surprising about the backlash against Nicholas Kristof’s column in Sunday’s New York Times. Kristof contended that America’s professors, especially political scientists, have “marginalized themselves” by focusing on technical debates at the expense of real problems, relying too heavily on quantitative methods, and preferring theoretical jargon to clear prose. An outraged chorus of responses (round-up here) rejected Kristof’s generalization as a reflection of the very anti-intellectualism that he intended to criticize.
Some of the responses to Kristof reflect the expectation of public recognition for every contribution to the debate that makes so much academic writing a chore to read. Even so, Kristof ignores fairly successful efforts to make scholarship more accessible—even if you don’t count every blog by every holder of a Ph.D. The Tufts professor and Foreign Policy contributor Daniel Drezner has more than 25,000 Twitter followers—partly due to the success of a book the uses a zombie apocalypse scenario to compare theories of international relations. The Washington Post recently picked up The Monkey Cage (full disclosure: several of my colleagues at George Washington University are contributors) and The Volokh Conspiracy, which are populated by political scientists and legal academics, respectively. Not to mention Kristof’s own employer. Just the day before Kristof’s piece ran, the Times hired Lynn Vavreck to contribute to a new site concentrating of social science and public policy.
At least when it comes to political science, then, it’s just not plausible that “there are fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.” On the contrary, there are probably more academics who try to communicate with non-specialist audiences than there were in 1994. One difference is that the public intellectuals of past decades were more likely to engage directly with normative and historical Big Questions. That change reflects the declining influence of political theory in comparison with causal analysis, as well as the weakening of the Cold War imperative of justifying liberal democracy.
Of course, writing for non-specialist readers isn’t encouraged in graduate programs, and doesn’t often align with the requirements for hiring and promotion. But there are anecdotal reasons to think that expectations are slowly changing, as departments struggle to prove their ‘relevance’ in a period of financial retrenchment. If Kristof’s piece promotes these changes, it will have served a valuable function whether or not its argument is compelling.
In fairness to Kristof, however, none of the observations refute his basic claim. That’s because he isn’t actually talking about “public intellectuals”. Rather, he means old-fashioned mandarins, who move easily between Harvard Yard and Washington, usually without encountering many members of the public along the way. In a followup on Facebook, Kristof observes that “Mac Bundy was appointed professor of government at Harvard and then dean of the faculty with only a B.A.—impossible to imagine now.” After nearly a decade as dean, Bundy joined the Kennedy administration as National Security advisor, where his vast intellectual firepower led him to promote and defend the Vietnam War.
What Kristof really offers, then, is less an argument for public engagement by scholars than a plea for another crop of Wise Men who lend conventional wisdom the authority of the academy. Not coincidentally, he presents as an exception to the trend toward academic self-marginalization the former Princeton professor and State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter, whose resume is as perfect a reflection of the meritocratic elite that Bundy helped create as Bundy’s own pedigree was of the old Establishment. More professors should learn to participate in public debate—including political theorists frustrated by the increasingly technical orientation of political science. But if ‘relevance’ means becoming mouthpieces of our new ruling class, then Kristof can keep it.
Elise Italiano fears that the push to “personalize” education through technology will, in actuality, individualize education and hamper classroom relationships. She wrote a thoughtful piece Thursday at The Public Discourse on the subject:
The very design of these technologies is to multitask, not to concentrate, analyze, contemplate, or wonder. When a teacher is lecturing, students can easily disengage, looking at other apps (some for school and others surely for entertainment), perusing websites, and checking email. Schools that value teachers’ wisdom, expertise, and guidance will wind up undermining their work by asking them not only to deliver meaningful content but to monitor students’ attention constantly. When competing for attention with a device, teachers are implicitly asked to become entertainers.
Her points are valid and well reasoned. Technology’s distractions could very well harm students’ ability to concentrate, reflect, and be still. Additionally, teachers may find themselves scrambling to procure the “next new thing,” for fear of losing their students’ interest: once you decide to use the latest technology to connect with students, you must be prepared to keep up with the trends. Thus there is a cost—monetarily and intellectually—to using technology in the classroom.
Italiano also sees a communal cost in technology’s isolating tendencies. Tablets, phones, and laptops make it easier for students to “tune out.” The focus in a technological classroom changes from student-to-student and/or student-to-teacher to a student-computer relationship, with the teacher occasionally breaking into this primary bond. The human equation in education, including the use of words to bond and instruct, becomes secondary to the visual, interactive, and individual.
Despite her emphasis on communal learning, Italiano also stresses students’ need for silence and solitude—for the “still, quiet, and intentional pursuit of truth.” This is one reason I think school and public libraries are absolutely vital to the education experience, and need to be preserved. They serve as “quiet zones,” where students can step away from the hubbub. School libraries could even enforce a “no cell phones” rule, where mobile devices and other distractions are left at the door.
The above points in Italiano’s story are all very strong. But one of her comments seemed a bit simplistic: she writes, “Though it is becoming clear that technology is changing the way we learn, it is not yet clear that it is improving it.”
This statement seems to denigrate the true good technology can serve in education. The use of technology in classrooms may be concerning in some ways, but it is not completely harmful. We merely need to consider the ways and times in which it is utilized. Some classes can use technology to great effect: there are a host of curricula with excellent interactive online tools. For science, math, and language classes, such auditory and visual materials make difficult concepts easier to absorb. Students can study in the way most suited to their learning style.
But these tools seem most useful outside of class, where students can study and peruse at their own speed. Class time, then, becomes a place where students can ask teachers’ advice and input on study material, whether online or in print. Teachers can help students troubleshoot and explain deeper answers to classes as a whole—thus transforming the online tools into interactive, communal assets. Rather than creating solitary learners, such a method could encourage group learning.
At root, education is a shared exercise. In order to truly foster classroom interactions and relationships, teachers mustn’t neglect the Socratic method. Teachers’ thoughtful questions, joined by rebounding answers and arguments from students, encourage a deeper connection with subject matter. The more students are forced to analyze, answer, and discuss, the more they will learn and remember.
Whenever the discussion of education arises, Plato’s Cave analogy comes to mind. The best, most fulfilling work a teacher can do is to move students from the impressions and façade of the Cave into the pure, clear sunlight of Truth. Education, at its fullest, is only secondarily interested in a student’s career. At root, it sinks into the marrow of their personhood and understanding of reality. Thus, teachers must constantly ask themselves: which tools best advance Truth, and which detract from it? How can I best advance students toward a clearer, deeper understanding of the world? If technology truly serves to advance this endeavor, then it should be used, by all means. But if its pleasantries and toys distract from deeper discussion or knowledge, we must discard it—like chains from about our necks.
In his State of the Union last week, President Obama talked a little about how he wants to improve the education system, but his most revealing line might have been where he listed the subjects he thinks our schools should be teaching:
Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C., are making big strides in preparing students with the skills for the new economy—problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, math.
History, philosophy, social studies, comparative theology, and literature are all left off the list. Obama chose to focus on the hard sciences, as opposed to the social (or, more pointedly, “soft”) sciences of the humanities. The classes he chose to emphasize are all about solving problems handed to you, not about choosing which parts of your society, life, or state are problematic.
Perhaps this was only because Obama was talking about how schools prepare our children to join the economy. In order to do a job, it may only be necessary to have the technical skills to manage the tasks delegated to you. But, as a citizen, we need more. As an eventual parent, spouse, or friend, we need more.
In the most recent issue of First Things, Helen Rittelmeyer paints a picture of what our politics look like when we start pushing philosophy, history, and other non-numerical disciplines out of the problem solving toolbox. She turns to the Roper v. Simmons and Miller v. Alabama Supreme Court cases, which examined the justness of sentencing children to death or life without parole.
The Roper majority did not explicitly refer to any neuroscientific studies, though several amici did. This omission was rectified in the subsequent juvenile-offender case Miller v. Alabama (2012), in which Justice Elena Kagan, distressingly confident that scientific and social-scientific conclusions are reliable and impartial and mean just what they appear to mean to the average layman, cited an amicus brief that states: “It is increasingly clear that adolescent brains are not yet fully mature in regions and systems related to higher-order executive function such as impulse control, planning ahead, and risk avoidance.”
The Roper and Miller majorities obviously meant to convey the message, “Executing juvenile offenders, or sentencing them to life without parole, is wrong. We abhor the idea. It revolts us. We would as soon bring back drawing and quartering as affirm this practice in twenty-first-century America.” In a decision hinging on the definition of cruelty, such ethical resolve is entirely appropriate. Yet when taking this moral stand, the justices felt it necessary to reach for evidence, and when reaching for evidence, they looked to behavioral science and neurology.
Would the justices really have been left adrift in these cases if they’d been brought before the Court before the prefrontal cortex had been surveyed and mapped? Would a ruling on torture by waterboarding or threatening the family of a detainee require a careful, longitudinal study of the effect such treatment had on physical health or performance on a psychological survey?
When teachers do their jobs well, they don’t just teach children how to correctly categorize test questions and then perform whatever rote formula or heuristic is required. Education doesn’t just give us skills, but also opportunities to use those skills. It’s little use learning how to do modular arithmetic if you can’t recognize moments when it would be of use.
Just as we teach students to apply math and empirical thinking, we must also teach them to be alert to the opportunities that the arts provide to help them act justly and live well. Whereof science does not speak, we are not required to pass over in silence.
But, in order to draw on our rich legacies of historical, philosophical, theological, and literary thought, we first have to teach it and be careful not to shame those who cite it as “soft.”
The biggest challenge I’ve faced is owning this new identity as a homeschooler. I told no one at work, preferring to stay completely in the closet about teaching my daughter at home. My corporation values diversity, but somehow being a home-schooling corporate lawyer felt beyond the pale — a topic simply too taboo to discuss.
In response, Dreher writes, “Come out, come out, wherever you are, homeschoolers! Kulynych is certainly right that homeschooling is not for every parent, nor for every child. But it might be for you—and you might have fun doing it.”
Why aren’t more people open about homeschooling? When people ask me where I went to high school, I usually have to take a deep breath before I reply. Here it comes. “I was homeschooled,” I’ll reply. And depending on the person I’m talking with, this answer may prompt raised eyebrows, short laughs, skeptical looks, or all of the above. The person may comment half-teasingly about my style, overall appearance, or “socialization skills.”
Honestly, I’m thankful and proud of my homeschooling background. From first grade to graduation, my mom taught me the classics, art, math, science, philosophy, theology, and languages. I took seven years of piano and 13 of violin. My mom encouraged my love of books, allowing me time every day to devour 19th century literature and write novels. I joined one local homeschool co-op’s volleyball team, and another’s weekly British Lit classes. My younger brothers play golf with the local high school, and have taken math classes at our local community college.
Homeschooling drew my family closer together. My sister and I studied alongside each other, sharing textbooks and competing over spelling exams. When my brothers reached elementary and middle school grade levels, I helped my mom homeschool them: assisting with science experiments, reading books aloud, teaching them rudimentary piano lessons, and helping grade their writing assignments.
If I hadn’t been homeschooled, I don’t think I would have read so many books, or written all those short stories and novels. I wouldn’t have looked into journalism as a potential major. I wouldn’t be sitting here, now, blessed with a writing career that I love. Homeschooling made me who I am, and I’m very thankful for my mother’s sacrifices and hard work.
But the general public does not see homeschooling in such a positive light. Most hear rumors of its fundamentalist, confining traits, and avoid it (or its adherents) like the plague. Far be it from me to dismiss their concerns: I know that, for some children, homeschooling was characterized by horrible abuse. The American Prospect recently published a piece on this topic, justly exposing some of the terrible practices permitted via homeschooling. But I would suggest that such abuse could be found amongst private and public schooled families, as well. The problem is not, at root, the institution: rather, it is the people who use and abuse an institution with malpractice.
Nonetheless, many view homeschooling as a way to foster nerdy, ill-socialized human beings, at best—at worst, as a sort of cultish and abusive custom. As a homeschooler with loving, kind-hearted, and smart parents, my experience was a far cry from all this: indeed, I would venture to say it’s a far cry from most homeschoolers’ experience. Yet to avoid the constant mislabeling, many keep quiet and stay in the homeschooling closet. Like the mother described in Dreher’s blog post, the shame and blame associated with homeschooling encourages parents to teach in the shadows, without support from their local community.
Homeschooling is not for everyone. But neither should it be the leprosy of the educational world. Its practitioners should be judged on their merits and manners, and its benefits and disadvantages should be weighed fairly, as with any other institution.
Conservatives are out to lampoon and destroy Common Core. Their reasons for this are legion, but their main objections boil down to one giant fear: the centralization of education. As George Will stated in a Thursday Washington Post column, “What begins with mere national standards must breed ineluctable pressure to standardize educational content. Targets, metrics, guidelines and curriculum models all induce conformity in instructional materials.” But “must” this centralization truly happen? Are these founded predictions, or phantasmagoric fancies?
Homeschoolers are getting worried, too: Dr. Susan Berry wrote at Breitbart, “When SAT, ACT, and GED exams are “aligned” with Common Core, homeschooled students—as well as students educated in private schools—may not be able to ‘opt out’ of the federally incentivized standards if they want to apply for college. These students could be pressured into adopting Common Core for curriculum at home so that they are familiar with the presentation of material on the newly aligned college entrance exams.”
First: all proponents and opponents of Common Core should take a good look at the standards themselves. When one actually looks at the material, it becomes clear that they focus on skills, not content. To use one analogy: the Common Core does not say how you should teach your child to ride a bike. That is up to your discretion. But Common Core will test your child on their ability to ride the bike proficiently. Thus, one cannot really “adopt Common Core for curriculum”—it doesn’t really provide curricular content. One could use it to measure the difficulty and proficiency of one’s curriculum, but that’s slightly different.
For some (myself included) this focus on skills is somewhat concerning. Questions of centralization and impending educational doom are somewhat questionable. But Common Core does prioritize grading and test scores over the actual content of learning. For those who believe quality content should be the end of education, and not merely means to a good GPA, this is rather disconcerting. In application, this emphasis could be harmless—or it could push teachers and students to work merely for the grade (especially since teacher evaluations will now be tied to student performance on the new achievement tests). This would devalue the truest, fullest definition of education—a view that constitutes learning for its own sake. As Patrick Deneen put it in a past TAC article, “A basic utilitarian mindset now dominates the definition and understanding of education and how it thereby constrains, limits, and narrows the scope of education’s purposes solely to the debased end of work.”
One hopes the new tests may function similarly to the SAT—measuring a students’ ability to read well, rather than dictating what students should read. This would hopefully give teachers the flexibility required to administer proper materials to their students, in alignment with their learning levels and context. But fear of grade repercussions could prevent teachers from studying materials with the desired scope and depth. Rather than ruminating over important, interesting problems, they may rush to study for the next exam.
Standards are important. And Common Core isn’t necessarily the boogey man painted by some in the conservative press. But in considering the standards’ adoption, we must ask ourselves important questions about education’s true meaning and telos. If we know what education is for, we can determine the best means to procure that end.
In one region of Germany, Muslim students can now be taught their faith in state-run schools, just as Catholic and Protestant students are. Germany has a tradition of teaching religion not just as history, but as a system of ethics, starting as early as first grade.
According to the New York Times, the courses are intended to salve concerns about exclusion and to try to influence their assimilation in the style of Henry Ford’s English School:
By offering young Muslims a basic introduction to Islam as early as first grade, emphasizing its teachings on tolerance and acceptance, the authorities hope to inoculate young people against more extreme religious views while also signaling state acceptance of their faith.
After another holiday season filled with lawsuits and news stories about the place of Christmas in public schools and in government business, Germany’s Islam classes might be a cautionary tale for religious conservatives who want to see their faith more closely woven into state education.
When running classes in Islam, generally, the German schools run into the same conflicts that must come up when they give students classes in generic Protestantism. Already, in one community, a group of Sunni parents are trying to keep members of the Ahmadiyya reformist sect from influencing the curriculum. When schools teach religion as a matter of ethics, not history, school administrators must either run ecumenical councils or, more likely, just set a curriculum more in line with the school’s goals than the faith’s.
What would a Christian ethics course in this mode look like? Perhaps the story of the loaves and fishes would be retold, as has become popular, as a miracle of sharing. After all, that’s a salutary lesson for first graders!
The separation between church and state is there for the protection of both institutions. The state has enormous power to shape culture, and it’s natural for religious communities to want that power deployed molding the culture in their own image.
But the state’s power will serve the state’s ends. So state-sponsored religious education will still, ultimately, be designed to raise good citizens, not good Christians. The two categories aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but if muddled together in an attempt to gain advantage in the culture war, it will be a lot harder for a religious tradition to untangle its identity should another Becket moment ever arrive.