Education & Belief: Cultural Change

The structure of American public education, and its laws and culture, are now so familiar that it is hard to imagine how it might be otherwise. Yet as we have seen, American public education as it exists today is historically contingent, the product of distinctive ideas (about the person, society, pedagogy, law and religion), as well as of social movements that gave these ideas institutional expression.  The question, then, is whether the structures and mythologies that comprise public education are amenable to transformation. What are the conditions under which this might be possible?

Historians and sociologists are always trying to explain social change, accounts of which range from idealism (“Great ideas change history”) to individualism (“Powerful men and women change history”) to material structuralism (“Economic relationships and industrial developments change history”). I think the best analysis of cultural change is offered by the prominent sociologist James Davison Hunter, whose thesis incorporates all three into a sophisticated account. Cultural change requires 1) overlapping networks of individuals with access to financial, political, intellectual and social capital, who 2) articulate a common goal over a long period of time, and 3) create new institutions that embody those ideals. For the change to enter the cultural mainstream, a sufficient number of people must be convinced that it is 4) sufficiently plausible and 5) morally compelling.

Read more

No Establishment of Religion: The Novelty of the Establishment Clause

This year, Oxford University Press will publish No Establishment of Religion: America’s Original Contribution to Religious Liberty, edited by T. Jeremy Gunn, director, Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, ACLU, and John Witte, Jr., director, Center for the Study of Law and Religion, Emory University.  The volume collects works detailing, first, how the Establishment Clause was a novel product in its time.  Then, its essays discuss the questions of Establishment Clause interpretation that have occupied courts since the adoption of the Bill of Rights—for example, favoring some religions as against others, the constitutionality of blue laws, and the question of whether the Clause binds only the federal or also state governments.  Other contributors to the volume include Professor Emeritus of Practice in Religion, Ethnicity, and International Conflict David Little, of Harvard Divinity School; Professor Steven K. Green, director of the Center for Religion, Law, and Democracy at Willamette University; and Professor of Justice, Law, and Society Daniel L. Dreisbach at American University.

Please see the publisher’s description after the jump. Read more

The Capacity to Hold Thoughts in Tension

My colleague, Mark, once described a psychological study that he had heard about indicating that people often have difficulty keeping two thoughts which are deeply in tension in their minds simultaneously.  Here are two such thoughts which I have been trying to reconcile.

The first thought is that we ought to debate and argue with one another about which vision of the good life and morality is the best, and that these debates ought to generate rules about how to live.  We certainly disagree with one another about many things on this score.  And government is permitted to engage in that debate.  It participates in it all the time.  One tacit assumption lying behind this first thought is that thinking rightly about the good life, and acting accordingly, is very important — perhaps even the most important thing we can do.

The second thought is that there ought to be some limits to the first thought.  Though we may reach an impasse, the second thought counsels that we abstain from pressing further — and certainly that we refrain from pressing to the point of official compulsion.  The second thought is in deep tension with the first because its tacit assumption is that thinking and acting according to the best understanding of the good may actually not be the most important thing that we can do.

I have thought for a while that the most likely place for these two thoughts to co-exist is in the court system, in part because training people to hold two thoughts which are in tension together at the same time is part of what it means to be a lawyer.  But I recognize that others disagree.  It will be interesting to see, as various debates develop, whether people — lawyers and non-lawyers — are capable of living within the tension generated by these two thoughts.