Faith in Schools?: Autonomy, Citizenship, and Religious Education in the Liberal Stateby Ian MacMullen
Should a liberal democratic state permit religious schools? Should it fund them? What principles should govern these decisions in a society marked by religious and cultural pluralism? In Faith in Schools?, Ian MacMullen tackles these important questions through both political and educational theory, and he reaches some surprising and provocative conclusions./i>
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Should a liberal democratic state permit religious schools? Should it fund them? What principles should govern these decisions in a society marked by religious and cultural pluralism? In Faith in Schools?, Ian MacMullen tackles these important questions through both political and educational theory, and he reaches some surprising and provocative conclusions.
MacMullen argues that parents' desires to educate their children "in the faith" must not be allowed to deny children the opportunity for ongoing rational reflection about their values. Government should safeguard children's interests in developing as autonomous persons as well as society's interest in the education of an emerging generation of citizens. But, he writes, liberal theory does not support a strict separation of church and state in education policy.
MacMullen proposes criteria to distinguish religious schools that satisfy legitimate public interests from those that do not. And he argues forcefully that governments should fund every type of school that they permit, rather than favoring upper-income parents by allowing them to buy their way out of the requirements deemed suitable for children educated at public expense. Drawing on psychological research, he proposes public funding of a broad range of religious primary schools, because they can help lay the foundations for young children's future autonomy. In secondary education, by contrast, even private religious schools ought to be obliged to provide robust exposure to the ideas of other religions, to atheism, and to nonreligious approaches to ethics.
"MacMullen's book is an interesting read, with some significant policy implications. While the book does not necessarily win the case for adopting the author's approach, it succeeds admirably in advancing a more meaningful consideration of the goals of public education policy and whether religious instruction is incompatible with those goals."Valerie Stoker, Journal of the American Academy of Religion
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Read an ExcerptFaith in Schools? Autonomy, Citizenship, and Religious Education in the Liberal State
By Ian MacMullen Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2007 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Introduction HOW SHOULD a liberal democratic state respond to parents who want their children to attend a religious school, preferably at public expense? What principles should govern public regulation and funding of religious schools? One cannot adequately answer these questions without inquiring into the proper goals of liberal education policy and, more generally, into the principles that underlie liberal democracy: in other words, to settle these important practical policy questions we must first engage in normative political philosophy. When the state makes education policy, what are its responsibilities to parents, children, religious communities, and the citizenry at large? What values may reasonably be invoked to justify and guide public policy in a pluralist state where few if any values are universally accepted among citizens? What are the limits of the state's legitimate authority over children's education? In the p pages that follow, I seek both to identify the legitimate and proper goals of public education policy in liberal democratic states and to explore the implications of these goals for arguments about public funding and regulation of religious schools.
In most liberal democratic societies today, a significant minority of parents desire a religious schooleducation for their children. But different states respond in very different ways to these desires. In the Netherlands, the state undertakes to provide a publicly funded school affiliated with almost any religious tradition as long as local parents support the project in sufficient numbers to make it economically and educationally viable. Families in Great Britain are increasingly likely to be able to access free education with their preferred religious orientation as the government continues its controversial policy of expanding both the number and the range of faith schools funded by the public purse. Since the Islamia Primary School opened in London in 1998, several Muslim schools have joined the list of Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Jewish, and Sikh schools that are funded by the British state. In France, all publicly managed schools are secular, but nonetheless, large amounts of public money flow to privately managed religious, predominantly Catholic, schools. In the United States, the established principle has long been that children go to religious schools only if their family (or some other private body) is willing and able to pay, but there is a powerful movement in favor of "voucher" schemes that would enable parents to send their children to private religious schools at public expense. Trial voucher schemes have been implemented in Milwaukee and Cleveland; since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Cleveland program in 2002, proponents of "school choice" have stepped up the pressure for widespread adoption of such voucher schemes across the country. But, at the other extreme, some academic writers argue that even the option of a privately funded religious education should be legally curtailed or regulated virtually to the point of nonexistence. These differences and disagreements-in theory and in practice, within and between countries-suggest the need for careful consideration of the proper goals of public education policy and their implications for religious schools.
Why do I focus on religious schools to the exclusion of the many other types of schools that parents might desire for their children: military schools, schools for Democrats, etc.? Arguments about public policy toward religious schools are of special interest because all sides of the debate perceive the stakes to be so high: religious parents may believe that their deepest values and their children's souls are on the line; the state may worry that schools that are segregated along such fundamental lines of difference will undermine the foundations for mutual understanding, respect, and appropriate cooperation between citizens; liberals may fear that religious education is a form of indoctrination that leaves its victims unable to rationally endorse, revise, or reject the way of life they have been taught. Religious schools are central to the upbringing certain parents seek to give their children, but they may also pose a threat both to the civic health of the state and to the embryonic autonomy of children. If we are to find a just and principled solution to this controversy, rather than merely deferring in each country to the most powerful political lobby or to the uncertain authority of historical precedent, we shall need reasoned answers to some fundamental questions in political and educational theory.
Do liberal democratic states have any legitimate grounds for concern about religious schools, or are all such concerns ultimately rooted in an illiberal intolerance of and disrespect for citizens of faith? If the liberal state does have good reasons to worry about religious schools, what are those reasons and what public policies do they warrant? Is there sufficient justification for policies, such as we find in America, whereby rich parents are virtually unconstrained in choosing a religious school for their child while poor families are stuck with the state-funded secular schools? And how should the important differences between primary and secondary education be recognized in public policy toward religious schools?
I shall focus my attention on two educational goals that have often been thought to justify some degree of state opposition to religious schools: civic education (teaching students the virtues and capacities of the good citizen) and education for autonomy (teaching students to think critically and reflectively about their ethical commitments). We need to establish four things about each of these goals in turn. First, what the goal really amounts to: what it means to be a good citizen or an autonomous person. Second, whether and how the goal can justifiably be adopted as a universal goal of education policy in a liberal state that is committed to respecting the plurality of religious, cultural, and other ethical views held by its citizens. Third, what implications the goal would have for religious schools, assuming that we designed our schools to realize that single goal. Fourth, what degree of normative force the goal has and how it should be balanced against other educational goals and broader liberal values in cases of conflict.
As we work our way through this agenda of inquiry, we shall confront two of the most important questions in contemporary liberal political theory. Does the importance of reproducing and improving our liberal democratic political community take priority over the private interests of individuals and families? Can the liberal state legitimately appeal to the contested value of individual autonomy to justify its use of coercive power? In the process of identifying the principles that should govern liberal education policy toward religious schools, I shall propose and defend answers to both of these questions.
The first question arises when we ask whether a general refusal to provide public funding for certain types of religious school would be sufficiently justified if it could be shown that such schools do a poor job at preparing children for their role as citizens of a multicultural, multireligious state. Should the political goals of education enjoy primacy in the policy process or should they be weighed against the private values of parents and religious communities in cases of conflict? Evidently this is only a particular application of a much more general question for liberal politics. Laws that serve important liberal public purposes may nonetheless impose significant burdens on certain citizens' pursuit of the good life as they understand it: how should the liberal state respond to such conflicts? According to one influential view, advanced by so-called political liberals, the goals of the state take priority as long as they are suitably circumscribed to include no more than the preservation of the liberal democratic regime upon which all citizens depend for the protection of their rights and freedoms. In chapter 2, I argue that the case for this kind of political primacy collapses once we recognize that it is only the degree of flourishing and not the continued existence of the liberal democratic regime that is at stake in most conflicts between civic values and private interests.
The second question introduces a cross-cutting cleavage as we seek to decide which noncivic values are legitimate goals for the liberal state or parents to pursue through children's education. Can the liberal state legitimately claim that religious education is objectionable to the extent that it amounts to indoctrination, that religious schools do a disservice to children to the extent that they resemble cocoons? Or, conversely, are religious parents entitled to have their (sometimes deeply held) opposition to autonomy counted in the decisions that shape their child's schooling? In short, does the liberal state have to remain neutral in the controversy about the value for individual lives of reflecting autonomously on one's conception of the good, or does the value of autonomy necessarily underpin the principles of a liberal regime? Even if the concept of autonomy is coherent and plausibly attractive, which several skeptics have doubted, is it any more suitable than religious doctrine for adoption as a public value in the liberal state? In chapters 3 through 5, I aim to rehabilitate and defend the autonomy liberal position both by rejecting a number of influential caricatures of autonomy and by grounding public justification in the instrumental rather than the intrinsic value of autonomy to individuals seeking to live a good life. Although civic values are insufficient to settle disputed questions of public policy, it does not follow that the liberal state must permit citizens' opposition to autonomy to weigh against these civic values.
It should be clear, therefore, that although my primary focus is on one particularly contentious issue in education policy, I hope through my arguments to improve our understanding of liberal political philosophy more generally. This should come as no surprise: issues concerning children, especially those characterized by a conflict of authority between parents and the state, often serve both to illustrate and to illuminate broader controversies in liberal political theory. We cannot decide how liberal education policy should balance, protect, and promote the potentially conflicting freedoms of children, parents, and other citizens without developing a general account of the distinctive meaning and value of the liberal freedoms, but consideration of the policy dilemma may nonetheless guide our inquiry into the abstract principles. Similarly, the liberal state's proper response to religious parents' desires to transmit their values and beliefs to their children is bound up with the general question of how and why such states should respect ethical pluralism, but we may find it easier to answer the general question if we simultaneously interrogate its implications for education policy. In short, my argument oscillates between abstract questions in liberal political philosophy and more concrete questions in education policy because of my conviction that such an approach is the best way to answer both types of question: in the methodological spirit of Rawls (1971/1999, pp. 18-19), we should seek a kind of "reflective equilibrium" in our considered judgments about political principles at different levels of generality.
Besides addressing these general questions of liberal political philosophy, I also take aim at the particular shape of established American public policy toward religious schools. On pain of inconsistency and unfairness, governments cannot justify the general policy of permitting the operation of a wide range of private religious schools while refusing to fund a similar education in the faith for those who cannot afford it. There is simply no principled justification for privileging the wealthy in this fashion. Whether the goals of public education policy are mistakenly believed to be merely civic in nature or are acknowledged to include the cultivation of children's autonomy, the availability of religious schooling should be determined by the balance of legitimate educational values in each particular case, not by the size of the parents' bank balance: it is arbitrary and indefensible for religious schools to be available only and always to those who can afford private education. All too many liberal theorists of education believe that wealth brings with it the privilege to buy one's way out of the educational principles that are thought proper to govern children educated at the state's expense; I argue that there should be no such possibility of opting out from regulations designed to strike the appropriate balance between the legitimate interests of children, parents, and the state.
While the first two parts of this book engage respectively with the aforementioned two major issues in liberal political theory, the third part primarily addresses a central question in liberal educational theory: do religious schools pose a threat to children's future autonomy? In chapters 7 and 8, I argue that the extensive debate on this issue in the last twenty years has become unnecessarily polarized, in large part because of the tendency to overgeneralize about "religious schools" as if there were no important differences between the many institutions that belong to this broad category. The suitability of religious schools to cultivate children's autonomy is a more complex and nuanced matter than most liberal theorists of education have realized: progress on this question depends upon making a number of key distinctions, especially between primary and secondary education and between pedagogical and curricular features of religious schools. The autonomy goal does not warrant prohibition of or a general refusal to fund religious schools, but there should be an extensive scheme of public regulation, especially to ensure that religious secondary schools expose children to and encourage open-minded, rational engagement with significant ethical diversity. Primary schools, however, should be treated quite differently: the developmental needs and capacities of preadolescents suggest that primary schools most effectively lay the foundations for children's future autonomy not by exposing them to diversity but rather by consolidating their grasp of their primary culture and encouraging a limited form of ethical reasoning within that framework.
My argument proceeds mainly at the level of theory and philosophy. While this is obviously appropriate to address the normative issues of principle in chapters 2 through 5, some readers may feel that the questions I pose about the relative effectiveness of religious schools to achieve certain educational goals are empirical questions that should be answered using the methods of social science. As I shall explain, however, the prospects for successful empirical work in these fields look bleak because the "dependent variables" are exceptionally difficult to operationalize and quantify. Good citizenship cannot simply be measured by counting acts of political participation, and autonomy cannot be gauged by observing the rate at which children defect from the doctrine in which they were raised. Education for autonomy and citizenship aims to give a certain form and character to a person's ethical reflection and political participation, but these qualities are scarcely amenable to measurement by social scientists. Fortunately, and as I hope to show, we can make considerable progress in identifying the types of educational institutions that are likely to foster the virtues and capacities of citizens and autonomous persons via a careful and nuanced analysis of the concepts involved, with a little help along the way from developmental psychology and a few uncontroversial empirical observations about the social conditions of contemporary liberal democracies. It should also be emphasized that I do not address the specific constitutional issues that surround government policy toward religious schools in America. My purpose in parts 1 and 3 is to scrutinize the implications for policy toward religious schools of the state's adopting certain goals, assuming that the only constraints on public policy are those given by the correct normative theoretical account of liberal democratic politics.
Excerpted from Faith in Schools? by Ian MacMullen
Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this
Eamonn Callan, author of "Creating Citizens: Political Education and Liberal Democracy"
Lucas Swaine, author of "The Liberal Conscience: Politics and Principle in a World of Religious Pluralism"
Meet the Author
Ian MacMullen is assistant professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis.
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