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On Arguments Against Religious Education

Academic freedom is something I’ve written about a good deal over the years—and quite recently—which I suppose has been inevitable, since if you teach at a religiously-based institution you always hear that the problem with such places is that they constrain academic freedom.

To that claim, I have always responded that I have taught at religious institutions because in them I have academic freedom. (And if you follow up the links in that post I just mentioned you’ll find other people making the same point.) There is just no logically coherent, evidence-based way to claim that religious institutions have less academic freedom than secular ones. Every community of learning has limits, though different limits, articulated with different degrees of explicitness. Academic freedom is a concept relative to the norms of communities, institutions, and disciplines–and often of society as a whole. Academic freedom is therefore bounded freedom (as freedom always is), and when people don’t recognize that they make incoherent arguments.

Often the claim that religious institutions offer less freedom is based simply on personal feeling: the feeling that you would be constrained there, and therefore it is a place of greater constraint than your current institutional location, where you feel quite free to do and say what you want. But what if I would feel more constrained in your location than I do in my own? Moreover, the legal history of academia is littered with the remains of scholars, sometimes tenured scholars, who thought that their academic freedom was absolute, only to be “terminated for cause.”

In light of all this, I thought it might be a public service to offer some logically consistent and coherent arguments against religious education (some of which people make openly, some of which are only implicit views that people who hold them don’t know that they hold). So here goes:

  1. Education is properly a function of the state. All private educational institutions, including religious ones but others as well, should be abolished. If people want to get together to learn and teach, that’s fine, but they may not formally constitute or incorporate themselves as a school. If this requires a Constitutional amendment, so be it. (N.B.: Anyone who actually wanted this to happen would probably say that it doesn’t violate the Constitution, but quite clearly control of education is not one of the powers allocated to Congress in that document—though some think that it should be—so the only honest and coherent version of this argument would have to accept the necessity of amending the Constitution.)
  2. Private educational institutions may exist, but teachers and students at them should not be eligible for federal or state funding: no NIH or NEH or NSF grants for faculty, no federally guaranteed loans for students. Taxpayer support should go only to those institutions that are constituted and governed by the people.
  3. While the government of the United States may not discriminate against an institution on the grounds of religion, the educational establishment as a whole may—as long as the relevant accrediting agencies cease to seek and receive approval from the Secretary of Education. By cutting all ties to the government, accrediting agencies would free themselves to declare that religious schools violate the core principles of higher education and therefore may not be accredited. To de-accredit such institutions might not kill them, but could damage them seriously.
  4. Religion does more harm than good, and interferes with the state’s ability to care properly for its citizens, so the First Amendment should be repealed and the Constitution amended in order to prohibit—or at least place strict controls on—religious organizations. All Christian schools, at every level, will be abolished. Private but non-religious institutions may remain as they are.

Notice that anyone holding the first argument may not have anything against private education as such, but is willing to sacrifice non-religious private institutions in order to get rid of religious ones, without radically altering the Constitution. The same may be said of the rather milder plan embodied in the second argument. The fourth argument grasps the nettle that the first won’t grasp. The third one … well, something like that may actually happen.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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