“A high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society and to the fostering of a common culture, especially in a country that prides itself on pluralism and individual freedom.” (A Nation at Risk, 1983)

One of the main justifications for a uniform system of schooling, first articulated by Horace Mann and others in the 1830s and ‘40s, is that a common educational experience is necessary to make one people out of a nation of immigrants with different languages, religions and cultures.

Forming democratic citizens capable of self-rule had been a goal of education since Revolutionary times. Nearly all of the Revolutionary leaders wrote about the important role of a liberal arts education in encouraging attachment to republican principles and in energizing social mobility. Many of them opened schools and designed curricula for this purpose, resulting in high rates of literacy in the former colonies, particularly in New England (Pangle & Pangle in The Learning of Liberty). Mann’s contribution was to argue that state-enforced uniformity could do this more efficiently than the ad hoc network of schools that prevailed in his day.

The drive for uniform, state-sponsored schooling initially was resisted on political and religious grounds. However, as the 19th century progressed, the United States experienced large-scale immigration of European Catholics. Nativist sentiment ran high, and fear of social fragmentation and divided loyalties conspired to popularize the newer notion of uniform common schools. At first, this resulted in very little change, since the state schools were heavily influenced by the prevailing Protestant ethos and sensibility. Eventually, it resulted in denying religious particularity a place in common schools. By the close of the 19th century, the “myth of the common school” was virtually entrenched in the American imagination. As Charles Glenn has remarked, “the common school was intended…above all as the instrumentality by which the particularities of localism and religious tradition and…of national origin would be integrated into a single sustaining identity.  It is central to the ‘myth’ of the common school that…educators and policy makers have been convinced that it worked.”

But has it worked? Has American public education fulfilled the Founders’ hopes for a citizenry that is historically literate; discerning in matters of public policy and debate; articulate in the defense of liberty; practiced in virtue and industry; and attached to American ideals?

By almost every conceivable metric, American students fall alarmingly short of the Founders hopes. The Brookings Institution’s political theorist William Galston summarized recent data: “For many (though not all) categories of political knowledge, today’s high school graduates are roughly equivalent to the high school dropouts of the late 1940s, and today’s college graduates are roughly equivalent to the high school graduates of that earlier epoch.” Other studies of school populations show that the formation of “citizen identities” is so thin as to be meaningless (Conover & Searing in Rediscovering the Democratic Purposes of Education).

There are many reasons for the state of affairs, not least the documented trends within American culture itself that reinforce individual autonomy and discourage the habits of commitment (see Bellah et. al in Habits of the Heart; Hunter in Death of Character; Smith & Denison in Soul Searching).

Larger cultural trends notwithstanding, public education has played a central role in at least three areas of decline in citizenship behavior: the capacity to be involved in the political process (civic skills); an understanding of the nation’s political system (political knowledge); and commitment to community (attachment). A major factor is public schools’ failure to impart reading comprehension, clear writing, and analytical rigor, especially in comparison with other nations.

This is a direct result of progressive education, which consistently rejected a traditional curriculum that would have required not only literacy and numeracy but also the in-depth knowledge of history, philosophy and culture that is required for clear thinking and civic engagement. As E.D. Hirsch wrote in The Making of Americans: Democracy and our Schools: “The apparently benign idea of natural, child-centered education that took hold at the beginning of the twentieth century came by gradual degrees to vitiate our public education, weaken our country’s competence and competitiveness, diminish our solidarity, and destroy equality of opportunity.”

Commitment to community, the third area of citizenship formation in which public schools fall short, requires the habit of attachment to something greater than the self. But how is such attachment formed? At its best, it occurs when students’ overlapping worlds of home, school and community articulate and reinforce coherent moral ideals and virtues.  Hunter wrote in The Death of Character, “These are environments where intellectual and moral virtues are not only naturally interwoven in a distinctive moral ethos but embedded within the structure of communities.” An educational philosophy that celebrates self-expression at the expense of clarity of mind is ill equipped to answer the question of why honesty, or tolerance, or kindness should be preferred to perceived self-interest. Likewise, an emphasis upon discreet skills apart from an ongoing pursuit of truth leaves open the question of why one should care about anything at all.

Another contributing factor in the failure of American public schools to develop citizens is our philosophical commitment to the myth of ideological neutrality, which causes teachers to shy away from discussions of religion or controversial ethical dilemmas, lest they trespass on the separation of church and state. The situation has become so extreme that, as Robert Kunzman describes in Grappling with the Good, many public school teachers hesitate even to converse about religion or philosophy. Of course, since education cannot be neutral, the omission of such subjects instructs children that they are not important.

In striking contrast are the notionally more secular countries of Europe which encourage and financially support schools with a distinctive religious or moral ethos. As Glenn noted, “Research in France, England, Belgium and the Netherlands supports the evidence from US research that schools with a distinctive identity – often but not always religious – offer educational advantages deriving from their clarity of focus.”

These results are also borne out in studies in the United States, which show that religious schools do a better job than traditional public schools in closing the achievement gap and forming civic virtues. William Jeynes’ meta-analysis showed that religious schools raised academic attainment across the board  – even after factoring out the social and family effects – and substantially closed the achievement gap.  David Campbell’s 2008 comparison of public and private school outcomes concluded that independent schools, particularly Catholic institutions, were superior in nurturing four key measures of citizenship behavior  (civic skills, community service, political knowledge and political tolerance), with only Protestant schools showing slightly diminished political tolerance. The authors attribute these strong outcomes to the schools’ clarity of vision and high academic expectations as well as to the increased social capital that parents enjoyed when their children enrolled. A recent study of graduates of American Christian schools by Cardus, a Canadian think tank, also concluded that they were active participants in their communities, not siloed separatists. It is particularly striking that Catholic schools seem to do a better job of forming citizens, given the anti-Catholic bias that pervaded educational policy in the 19th and early 20th century.

Traditional public schools and charters, of course, do not have the option of adopting a religious framework. However, when they do create school cultures that are more academically rigorous and morally demanding, they are more likely to develop citizenship behavior in their graduates.  And, of course, they are not barred from teaching religion from a literary, historical and cultural perspective, which would lead students to a greater understanding of contemporary politics and culture and inculcate the ability to discuss contentious issues in civil terms.

The point is not that religious schools are for everyone, but that our fear of religious and other “intentional” schools is misplaced. The evidence suggests that graduates of intentional schools have a better academic and civic education. It might well be, then, that it is time to let the “myth of the common school” expire and look for fresh ways to inspire and train the next generation – which is exactly what educational pluralism is all about.

One thought on “Education & Belief: Citizenship

  1. Excellent analysis! The common education paradigm not only presents a questionable worldview of its own, but it lacks the philosophic resources to nurture the human qualities of good citizens. Our nation would be better off disbanding the current system and moving to a plural public education system made up of both secular schools and privately run religious/worldview schools. I appreciate your thoughts. Craig Engelhardt

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