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Public Education--America's Civil Religion: A Social History

reviewed by Sally J. Scholz - October 27, 2009

coverTitle: Public Education--America's Civil Religion: A Social History
Author(s): Carl L. Bankston III and Stephen J. Caldas
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807749478, Pages: 216, Year: 2009
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Bankston and Caldas offer an exciting look at the history of education—achieving that delicate balance of being scholarly and yet also widely accessible.  The book begins with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s call for a civil religion coupled with Robert Bellah’s use of the concept of civil religion to analyze the American context.  The authors use Rousseau and Bellah to create the foundation for the thesis of the book.  Bankston and Caldas aim to show that education is the heart of America’s civil religion.  The argument is really twofold, however.  They argue both that public education is the tool for fostering civil religion and that civil religion places its faith in public education.  As they describe it: “Part of the goal…[is] to describe how education and ideas about education have been produced by changes in American society.  Another part of the goal,…[is] to raise questions about just what we can and cannot do through schooling and about whether civic faith has led us to overlook these limitations” (p. 20).  The two branches—education as the primary instrument for promulgating civil religion and as one of the basic tenets of civil religion—interweave throughout the book (and are not always clearly distinguishable).  Indeed, as the authors suggest, national solidarity—for better or for worse—often relies on the conflation of the two.

Bankston and Caldas examine education in seven different eras in the history of the United States.  They start before the Civil War and end with the Bush administration’s highly contested “No Child Left Behind” policy.  In each era, readers get a glimpse into the major social changes and how those changes are reflected in education policy.  For instance, during the early part of the 19th century, when efforts to centralize the nation became more prominent, education policy imitated those efforts through the common school movement which sought to achieve some uniformity and control over local schools.  Similarly, during the post-World War II era, the more conservative side of education policy makers prevailed with their emphasis on the strength and sacredness of America against the communist opposition.  These cold war ideologies were, the authors argue, embedded in the “phonics versus whole-word controversy” (p. 94) insofar as the whole-word approach to reading was associated with social critics suspected of anti-Americanism.  

Education in every era, the authors suggest, is the primary instrument in fostering civil religion.  The Pledge of Allegiance is the most prominent statement of the creed.  When it was first written in the early 1890s, the Pledge commemorated Christopher Columbus’ landing 400 years earlier.  The Pledge soon became a “national rite” and a centerpiece of our civil religion.  Schools fostered national solidarity and although the growing sense of nation-pride may have started with the simple rite of the Pledge, Bankston and Caldas show how holidays celebrating American heroes like Washington and Lincoln took on the aura of holy days in the civil religion, uniting fellow countrymen and women in a collective expression of faith in the nation.  They offer a stirring summary of the development of these elements of ritual for our civil religion: “By the end of World War I, the nondenominational state cult of American civil religion entailed sacred objects and places (the flag and monuments), a set of rituals based on those objects and places, martyrs and holy ancestors (the dead of American wars and the Founding Fathers), sacred days of commemoration, a creed (the Pledge), and a strong sense of the transcendent nature of the nation” (67).  Schools taught the histories, practiced the rites, and celebrated the holidays that sustained and nurtured the faith in the nation.  

As previously mentioned, Bankston and Caldas argue that schools play another role in the civil religion.  Among the chief tenets of civil religion is an expansive faith in the possibilities of public education.  The social history is particularly revealing in this regard.  As our country came to grips with the evils of slavery after the Civil War and later the profound inequalities of racism during the 1960s and 1970s, our faith in public education to transform national consciousness and the material and social structures that informed it flourished.  Education was seen as the answer to our social ills—and it still holds that role today.  

Nevertheless, gender discrimination in education and the women’s movement—one of the most important social movements of the twentieth century in the United States—are not mentioned in the book.  Given that higher education has only recently been widely accessible to women and given the long history of women’s involvement in education at every level—as educators and reformers—it is surprising that a social history of this sort would fail to acknowledge the gendered dimensions of education as our civil religion.  This fact comes into sharp relief when the authors address the relation between education and the family in later chapters.  Girls and women were long educated to be homemakers, with family life as the motive and goal of their studies.  It would seem a logical extension of the argument to point out that women were charged as keepers of the faith—key instruments in the propagation of education as the civil religion under both of the guises presented in the book.

In the end, the authors caution against an inflated sense of the power of education.  In particular, they question the wisdom of pushing every child to achieve at equitable levels and the effects on the job market of doing so.  They also discuss the problem of “credential inflation,” offering a realistic assessment of the impact of ever higher educational expectations on social attitudes toward work and immigration.

Rousseau saw education—and civil religion—as not just fostering virtue but as means to ensure civic equality.  The authors implicitly call that premise into question by the end of the book noting that both Johnson’s Great Society and Bush’s No Child Left Behind “reflect the same underlying faith in public education as a means of building an equitable society” (p. 154).  Bankston and Caldas question both the possibility and the desirability of using education as a means to create equality.  They suggest that schools be seen in a more modest light as providing skills in literacy and math as well as access “to the rich cultural heritage of humanity” (p. 177).  

An eye-opening look at education in the United States, this book offers up a provocative thesis and carries it through the various time periods with compelling examples and stimulating discussion.  The alternative vision suggested in the final paragraph—a vision of public education presumably without connection to civil religion in either form—tantalizingly evokes a possible direction for the next contribution in the well-established Bankston and Caldas partnership.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 27, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15814, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 11:47:53 PM

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About the Author
  • Sally Scholz
    Villanova University
    E-mail Author
    SALLY J. SCHOLZ is Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University. Her research is in social and political philosophy and feminist theory. Her books include On de Beauvoir (Wadsworth 2000), On Rousseau (Wadsworth 2001), and Political Solidarity (Penn State Press 2008). She writes articles on oppression, liberation, solidarity as a moral concept, violence against women, and just war theory. Scholz is currently faculty-in-residence at the Center for Peace and Justice Studies at Villanova where she co-edits the Journal for Peace and Justice Studies.
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