Chapter 7. Reconciliation in Practice: Education.

I disagree with a good deal in Chapter 7 of Kevin’s book.  In fact, I am extremely sympathetic with the overall project of de-privatizing religious reasons: like Kevin I want a liberalism, and more importantly a polity, in which faith traditions engage and are engaged, in politics on a basis of mutual respect.  So the disagreement came as a relief, because there is nothing worse than being assigned commentary on something you agree with. Tthe kind of schooling system I would like to see is considerably different both from the one he rejects and the one he defends in very brief sketch form. This has the inconvenient consequence that engaging and explaining every disagreement would take many more pages than a blog post bears; the reader will be relieved that I am restricting myself to a couple of thousand words, and am willing to take the risk of being misunderstood (and to subject Kevin to that risk – so, if something I attribute to him seems in any way wrong, please assume the error is mine not his!!).
Summary:
American public schooling is currently arranged roughly as follows: every child is required to have some formal schooling up to age 16 or 18 (depending on the state), and common schools which purportedly promote a common civic identity are provided free at the point of delivery. [1] Parents can legally refrain from sending their children to such schools, and send them, instead, to private schools which are very lightly regulated, and are permitted to foster sectarian identities (in practice the vast majority of children in private schools attend religious schools); they can also provide homeschooling which is, in most states, even more lightly regulated than private schooling.

Something like this system is widely defended by the ‘consensus’ liberals that Kevin takes as his opponents. Liberalism should, as Macedo puts it, embrace “the positive constitutional project of shaping diversity to the end of a shared public life” and should use the schooling system to this end, actively sculpting citizens to have certain liberal values once they reach adulthood. For these liberals, this end overrides religious considerations; the schools must not invoke or teach religious doctrines, because to do so would conflict with the driving purpose of civic education; and they should foster a civic identity that, once instilled, will override religious reasons when citizens are engaged in public debate and political action. More importantly, it requires that children be exposed to a diversity of views about what is of value in the world and how to live their lives – views and approaches that some parents may wish to ensure that their children not be exposed to. Freedom must have its due, of course, so homeschooling and private schooling are permitted; indeed, by permitting them we relieve potential pressure on the public schools which sectarian religious parents would exert, and free them up to do their work relatively unfettered by sectarian lobbyists.
Kevin offers an alternative. The current structure of schooling (in the US) should be rejected, and replaced with some sort of privatized school choice system. He does not object to government funding of schools, but he does object to the government using schools to foster the kind of civic identity that consensus liberals seek, and thinks it is unfair that parents with private identities that are nicely congruent with the kind of civic identity consensus liberals promote get schooling for their children free at the point of delivery, whereas citizens with religious identities have to pay twice, as it were, once for the public schools their children don’t attend, and again for the private schools they do attend.
Why? First, the kind of convergence liberalism he endorses (the right kind of liberalism) does not require the kind of civic identity promoted by consensus liberals. Rather citizens are free to follow their private, including religious, reasons when contributing to public debate and political decision-making and, in fact, they have no obligation to engage in politics at all. Second, though, he reminds us that citizens find tremendous value in raising children: “If we recognize the obvious fact that citizens’ reasons of integrity often involve raising children, then it is easy to see how citizens could have defeaters for state intervention in child development. Consensus liberals emphasize the state’s interest in sculpting children in its image, but on the convergence view shared civic ends are more easily undermined by intelligible defeaters”.
Kevin looks at the debate over whether Intelligent Design should be taught in schools. Whereas, as he observes, it might be possible to forge some sort of compromise between proponents and opponents of ID so that ID and evolution both get taught, there are a host of other issues, such as sex education, and religious education over which there will be dispute; and once all these issues are added up, there will be no sensible in-school compromise with which most people can live; the sensible measure will be to implement a privatized (though maybe publicly funded) choice system.

 

Some comments.
It is strange reading a chapter about education in which children appear only occasionally, and then only in uncredited supporting roles. The focus is all on the grown ups. This is an artifice of the fact that Vallier is engaged in the debate over who gets to control the education of children – parents, or the State. But the first question in that debate should be – what division of labor will best serve the interests of children themselves? To answer this you need to know something about what their interests are, and neither Kevin nor the consensus liberals say a great deal about this. A second question, which the consensus liberals take seriously, is “what division of labor will properly serve the interests of those people with whom the children will interact in adulthood?” What consensus liberals are concerned with — the central motivation, I think, for the deliberative approach to democratic structures that Gutmann, Thompson, and Macedo adopt — is ensuring that citizens are inhibited from calling on the state to coerce other people without any attention to the interests of those people themselves. Kevin seems to think this is not a great danger; assuming so, the kind of education that the consensus liberals recommend may not be needed. But before we worry about parents, we should think about the children that they voluntarily chose to raise, and whom the state forces to live their entire childhoods with them. Parents’ interests do matter, but it is surprising that he neglects the essentially coercive nature of the family, and the fact that in modern societies what holds those coercive ties in place is the state itself. Children are vulnerable and dependent; the state decides on whom they are dependent. By and large, I think the current arrangements (allocating children to be reared by the adults who produced them and have expressed willingness to rear them, and interfering mainly only when things are visibly going pretty badly) are pretty sensible. But children are separate beings, whose interests should be paramount in deciding what the structure of schools and families should be.
In fact, I think that the current US schooling arrangements are not optimal for promoting the legitimate interests of the state, children, or parents. But this is for different reasons than Kevin’s. First, I think children themselves have an interest in encountering diverse religious and spiritual practices, and I believe that in the US, whereas if you are raised in a religious family you probably will get some real understanding of religious practice and tradition in your community if, like my children, you are raised in a secular family, school is your best chance of such encounter. And while some of that encounter should be in the form of openly religious teachers, sympathetic – but also, at the right age, critical – teaching about religion, it is probably most powerful and valuable when it is in the form of friendships with children from religious backgrounds, spending time in their homes, learning from them and their parents — people whom you care about – what religion really means to them. The current structure of schooling in the US is brilliantly designed to minimize the chances that this will happen – the public schools steer clear of religion as much as possible (except, in places like my own liberal town, for the occasional expressions of contempt that teachers allow themselves); and the seriously religious children are ghettoized into private schools. With the few exceptions of children whose parents are evangelical, confident in their own children’s faith, and public-spirited enough to offer their children as resources to children like mine in the public schools.
I also believe, with Vallier, that parents have some interests in shaping their children’s values, and should be given a good deal of latitude to do so (readers interested in why can look at my new book with Adam Swift, Family Values. But those interests are heavily constrained by their children’s interest in growing into adults who are capable of making and acting on judgments about how to live their lives which are truly their own. Nobody (except Jesus) has parents who are epistemically perfect when it comes to matters of value; and even if they did, life is complex, and doing well by yourself and other people requires a developed capacity for judgment, of a kind that, in modern societies, does require considerable exposure to other ways of thinking about the world and what is of value than those your parents provide.  It’s just one of the obligations of parenthood that parents foster this capacity for judgment in their children. A good schooling system will ideally cooperate with those parents who foster that capacity, and compensate for those who do not.
The existing school system in the US does not do this well; but I don’t think there is much reason to suppose that a privatized system of the kind Kevin thinks would be the outcome of  convergence liberalism would do it much better. What both system do, in fact, is cooperate with many parents who are not interested in fostering that capacity. If you are hostile to your children encountering diversity, in both systems you can send them to schools in which they will not encounter it. So in both systems we can expect that children of devoutly religious parents will, for the most part be attending schools where children of secular parents will not encounter them; all very well and good for those secular parents who are not interested in fostering their children’s independent judgment, but bad for their children, who need to encounter devout, seriously held, religious beliefs and practices embodied in their peers.  This is convenient for secular parents who want their children to be untainted by contact with religion (I know too many of those); but not good for anybody’s children.
I can’t describe an ideal in the abstract; the best design of the schooling system depends on all sorts of contingencies. But think of the system in England and Wales, and idealize that a bit. About 93% of children attend public schools (known as state schools), and about a third of that 93% attend religious schools – schools funded almost entirely by the government and governed in collaboration with faith organizations such as the Church of England and the Roman Catholic dioceses and local Mosques and Synagogues. These schools incorporate worship into the daily lived experience of the children and religious education in the curriculum, but most either do not discriminate on the basis of faith, or only discriminate to a very limited extent, in admissions (the main exceptions are Catholic diocesan schools) so include children from multiple faith backgrounds, and from secular homes. Because they are all state schools these schools interact with one another and with non-faith public schools – they typically (again with the exception of the Catholic schools, in my experience) see themselves not, as religious schools in the US tend to, as mechanisms for the isolation of members of some faith, but contributions from that faith to a public shared project. [2] While I can’t give good empirical evidence for this, my impression is that the inclusion of religious schools in the public education system has a beneficial effect on the system itself; it helps to moderate the materialist values that prevail in the US system and are, themselves, threats to the development in children of the capacity for independent judgment.
I realize this somewhat idealized version of the system in England and Wales is not available in the US because of the unfortunate ways that the US Supreme Court has interpreted the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. And even the system I have described has a considerable element of school choice. But public schools in the US are unduly timid about embracing a spiritual dimension in their ethos; the constitution permits schools to be less materialistic and more diverse than they typically seek to be. And, if I bought into Kevin’s convergence liberalism, I would wonder whether this would be enough to satisfy religious parents My suspicion is that the demands many religious parents place on schools would moderate considerably, and their willingness to embrace public schooling would increase considerably, if they believed (as many, currently, and with considerable reason, do not) that their faith was respected and welcomed within the school gates.

[1] I say ‘purportedly’ because I don’t think we have much evidence that they, actually, do this.
[2] My impression is that Catholic diocesan schools in the US are the exception to this, and see their missions as being much more like that of the faith schools in the UK – so, to be clear, Catholic schools in the UK act more like American religious schools, and Catholic schools in the US act more like British religious schools.

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