For Goodness Sake
reviewed by R. Murray Thomas - June 05, 2006
In writing this book, Walter Feinberg stepped out of his role as a professor of philosophy of education at the University of Illinois in order to serve as a tour guide. His self-assigned task was to lead readers on visits to religious-education classrooms in a variety of American private schools, mainly Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Lutheran. He approached his visits from a secular perspectivethat of liberal democracyrather than from the viewpoint of any religious denomination. Thus, during the months that he sat in classrooms, interviewing teachers and their students, his quest was driven by a concern for how religious instruction in parochial schools affects the fate of democracy in a multiculturalparticularly multi-faithAmerica. His motive can be cast as a pair of questions:
The idealWhat kind of religious/moral education in parochial schools best prepares youths to participate constructively in a multi-faith American democracy?
The realTo what extent do students in religious schools experience such an ideal kind of instruction?
For Goodness Sake is divided into three major parts, with the authors answer to the real question in Parts I and II and his response to the ideal question explained in Part III. Thus, what readers first encounter is the real portion of the authors project, wherein he offers a fascinating analysis of what he witnessed in classrooms, observing both teachers and students.
For instance, at a Jewish middle school, class sessions bordered on chaos as teenagers argued with each other and their teacher over interpretations of Judaic doctrine. The teacher encouraged noisy debate, for he wanted his charges to encourage his students to base their convictions on a critical examination of their religions history and not simply on what their elders told them to believe. In contrast, the mode of instruction in a fifth-grade class of a fundamentalist Lutheran school involved students remaining politely at their desks as they memorized passages from the Bible (the literal word of God) and Luthers Small Catechism.
Through portraits of teaching in four Roman Catholic schools, Feinberg illustrates the extent of pedagogical variation found within a single denomination. He applies the label traditionalist to a class in which the instructor taught students the fixed nature of doctrine as defined by the authorities in Rome (p. 47). He calls two other classes modernist, because the teachers presented traditional doctrine but modified its application as they tried to protect the self-esteem of individual students, such as homosexuals and children of divorced parents. Feinberg dubs a fourth class postmodernist because its teacher (a nun in an all-girls school) subscribed to feminism and liberation theology. She used historical analysis to show how church doctrine changed over the centuries from what she viewed as a gender-equality position in Jesus time to a present-day male paternalism that she believed could be reversed in the future. Thus, in Catholic schools, teachers will differ from one another in their view of the moral authority of the Church hierarchy and the emphasis they place on critical thinking (p. 47).
To sustain the health of American democracy, Feinberg believes it is important to have diverse religious schools so that individuals are not forced into a single moral-values mold but can instead, from an array of belief systems, select one suited to their needs. Furthermore, belonging to a religious body can enable persons to share the same set of convictions and thereby enjoy the security of belonging to a community of fellows that extends across the world and over the centuries. In addition, being well versed in a particular moral doctrine furnishes a person an intellectual perch from which to judge other peoples belief systems.
However, in Feinbergs opinion, religious instruction in parochial schools threatens the welfare of multicultural democracy if that instruction produces chauvinistic bigots. It is difficult to maintain a sense of unity and mutual respect among members of a pluralistic society if adherents of each faith are taught that members of other faiths are wicked, stupid, or badly misled. Thus, for Feinberg, a key aim of religious education should be to foster tolerance of beliefs other than ones own, although promoting such tolerance did not seem to be a goal of many of the classes he observed.
Now then, compared to the real state of religious instruction in parochial schools, what should be the ideal form of religious education? Feinberg believes the ideal program would be built on such principles as tolerance, self-esteem, critical reflection, and public surveillance.
Self-esteem. A central goal of schooling should be to promote learners sense of worth so they will confidently confront lifes challenges. Feinberg writes: Assault on the self-esteem of children can be crippling. It can lead them to give up on a task because they feel themselves inadequate; it can lead to unreasonable caution and fear of risk and novelty (p. 191).
In Feinbergs opinion, religious schools damage students self-esteem whenever instruction in church doctrine burdens learners with guilt and fear of eternal damnation because their own lives do not meet the faiths traditional standards. A sense of worthlessness can result from students being labeled sinners for violating the churchs ban on masturbation, birth-control devices, pre-marital sex, abortion, marriage outside the faith, divorce, or doubt of the churchs authority. Thus, flexibility in applying traditional standards to individual students is required if youths self-esteem is to be fostered.
Critical reflection. If students are to be more than robots repeating what they have been told, teachers should engage them in critical reflection, which entails distancing ones self from certain practices and meanings, entertaining doubt about certain beliefs, and being willing to consider evidence and arguments that might counter those beliefs. (p. 103)
Public surveillance. A feature of Feinbergs plan that will be difficult to sell to most Americans is his proposal that a system of public monitoring of the content of religious education in faith-based schools should be adopted to help ensureor at least to encouragethat tolerance and critical reflection are included in religious instruction.
In summary, Feinberg views religious schools as desirable in a democracy. However, he fears they breed hatred and divide the society if they fail to teach tolerance and critical reflection. Because of a tendency for religious schools to teach their own doctrine as the only acceptable truth, Feinberg suggests that public schools, rather than those operated by churches, must serve as the principal training ground for the majority of citizens in a pluralistic American democracy:
Religious schools can teach their students to cherish their own specific conception of the good, but they must be able to count on the public schools to reproduce the understandings and dispositions needed to secure the political climate where all deeply held religious ideals can be expressed. Public schools, when working as they should, can provide the trust and understanding that can allow single-tradition religious schools at the educational margins. (p. 214)