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Leadership and Religious Schools: International Perspectives and Challenges

reviewed by Brett Bertucio - August 24, 2015

coverTitle: Leadership and Religious Schools: International Perspectives and Challenges
Author(s): Michael T. Buchanan (Ed.)
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic, London
ISBN: 1628923229, Pages: 224, Year: 2014
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In an age marked by globalization, mass migration, and anxiety regarding the health of liberal democracies, religious institutions present challenges for the devout and areligious alike. Educational policy makers must navigate the tension between facilitating civic socialization and protecting spaces, where religious families may provide for the education of their children. Leaders of religious schools must simultaneously retain confessional integrity, while preparing students for life in a pluralistic—and in many ways—secular, society.

Editor Michael T. Buchanan’s Leadership and Religious Schools: International Perspectives and Challenges brings together scholars from a variety of nations and religious backgrounds, in an attempt to examine the particular demands of religious school leadership. In his foreword to the volume, Richard Rymarz notes that the religious school is not simply a normal school with an ancillary “religious flavor” (p. ix). Rather, common educational outcomes—academic achievement, civic responsibility, workforce preparation, and the like—must emerge organically from the particular mission of the school. Buchanan, a professor of education at the Australian Catholic University, seeks primarily to provide principals and administrators with insights with which to approach this challenge. Interestingly, Leadership and Religious Schools is, at its best, not when giving direct guidance to school leaders, but when its contributors—intentionally or unintentionally—provide apologetics for the value of religious schools in liberal democracies.  

In the second chapter, Responding to the Challenges of Globalization through an Education Anchored in Christian Anthropology, Maltese scholar Adrian-Mario Gellel suggests that principles of Catholic education might serve as a corrective to the malaise of modernity (p. 21). In his account, globalization has led to an economic, individualistic, and ironically homogenous, educational ethos. While many religious schools proceed with suspicion because of their transformative capacity, it is precisely this quality that makes these schools invaluable in the current cultural situation. Gellel argues that a theological conception of the person as mysterious, inimitable image of God generates an educational atmosphere, honoring individual uniqueness, resisting instrumentalizing learning.

Similarly, Mario D’Souza’s contribution regarding the Miniaturization of Human Identity, employs principles from the Thomistic philosophical and theological tradition to call for a reconception of the basis of democratic consensus. Rather than looking to common goods that necessarily truncate the human person, D’Souza argues for authentic subjectivity, as the proper foundation for pluralist unity. Drawing on the thought of Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan, he encourages leaders of faith-based and non-religious schools to develop more reflective students, necessarily involving promoting a level of spiritual reflection.

Likewise, Yaccov Yablon’s study of peace-building programs involving Jewish and Muslim students in Israel, demonstrates that contrary to prevailing narratives, religious beliefs, and confessional education can be a powerful resource for creating unity and understanding. Yablon suggests that programs involve civic or human rights, in part, because religious commitments draw on powerful internal dynamics, rather than abstract or external obligations. On the other hand, Pauline Kollantai’s chapter, Adopting a Peace-Education Approach in Religious Schools: Perspectives from Bosnia-Herzegovina, serves to temper Yablon’s enthusiasm. Following the fall of communism and subsequent war in the region, a decentralized educational landscape meant that religious identity served as a divisive determinant of school curricula and structure. Kollantai’s research demonstrates the relative effectiveness of a Swiss peace-education program, emphasizing peace as a part of students’ world-view compared to an alternative program encouraging religious literacy and understanding. Her chapter draws helpful distinctions between strong and moderate confessional schools, and urges religious school leaders to consider ways to make curricula—both formal and hidden—inclusive without sacrificing religious identity.

Like Kollantai’s contribution, other chapters do provide valuable insights for religious school leaders. Buchanan’s own piece examines dimensions of leadership particular to religious schools. His distinctions between religious, faith, spiritual, and ministerial leadership will be especially helpful for administrators in Catholic schools. Those involved in higher education may find Shane Lavery’s study of a service learning course in an Australian teacher-preparation program a fruitful source of best-practice. Kath Engebretson’s chapter, titled Religious Schools Engaging with a Secular Age, offers perhaps the most incisive and germane analysis of the volume.

She draws on the work of Charles Taylor (2007) in framing the central challenge of confessional schools—socializing students who have consciously or unconsciously inherited a secular world-view into a religious tradition. Engebretson proposes two solutions taken from the Christian tradition. The first, inspired by the 16th century Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, calls for an inculturation approach to the secular milieu. Educators should seek to recognize what is authentically good in contemporary culture, and accommodate these elements into the culture of their schools. A second approach involves theologian James Davidson Hunter’s (2012) notion of faithful presence within a foreign culture. Drawing on the experience of the Babylonian Exile and the early Christian experience in Rome, Hunter argues for Christian communities to be concerned with the welfare of the broader society, in which they find themselves. In the context of school leadership, Engebretson calls for an engagement with contemporary difficulties rather than self-preserving isolation.

While, on the whole, the contributions in Leadership and Religious Schools provide interesting analyses and proposals, to a limited degree the volume suffers from lack of coherence and diversity of perspective.  A few selections (notably the fourth chapter regarding human rights curricula and the seventh chapter on loneliness and leadership) give the appearance of previous research intended for general readership superficially adapted to the issue of religious schools. Similarly, while the final chapter aims to offer the Gulen movement in Turkish Islam as a focus for educational leadership knowledge, it reads as a simple description of the movement’s activities, and its founder’s particular philosophy.

The volume certainly merits its International Perspectives appellation. Contributors hail from Australia, Canada, Malta, Israel, South Africa, and the UK. A large portion hold faculty positions at the Australian Catholic University, and a majority of the perspectives here originate in the Catholic intellectual tradition. Further, while their situation may be an exception to the norm, American and French readers—whose nations embrace a decidedly separationist approach to religion and education—might appreciate contributions examining the unique challenges this phenomenon brings.

Regardless, leaders of religious schools will no doubt find the volume to be a source of insight. The philosophically inclined will appreciate D’Souza’s and Engebretson’s pieces, while the specialist studies regarding Israel and Bosnia-Herzegovina provide ground for important reflection in areas where religion is viewed as a source of contention. More interestingly, the volume may be of greatest profit to those involved in educational policy, as it offers several novel perspectives on the potential value of religious schools in contemporary democracies.


Hunter, J. (2010). To change the world: The irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity today. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, C. (2007). A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 24, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18075, Date Accessed: 9/29/2020 7:23:18 PM

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About the Author
  • Brett Bertucio
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
    E-mail Author
    BRETT BERTUCIO is a doctoral student in education policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on historical and philosophical approaches to curriculum and policy analysis, especially as regards the intersection of religion and education. His most recent work, a philosophical treatment of Benedictine monastic reading as a potential literacy model, will be published in Philosophy of Education. He is currently researching Talmud study, havruta methodology, and the tensions between Orthodox Jewish schools and liberal democracies.
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