Education And Community
reviewed by James Scott Johnston - September 17, 2008
There is an abundance of educational literature on the relationship between the liberal and communitarian conceptions of the self, the state, and schools. Since Kenneth Strike introduced Rawlss political theory to educational theorists and practitioners almost 30 years ago, the amount of scholarship on the precise role and scope of the school as a liberal, political institution has taken on logarithmic proportions. Dianne Gereluks book contributes to this scholarship, but does so with a twist, if you will: here, a muscular vision of community is defended from a Rawlsian liberal perspective. This by itself may not seem strange were it not for the fact that most theorists producing this scholarship align themselves on one side or another of the debate. And while Gereluk clearly admits her liberal sympathies (and arguments) throughout, she is unabashed in her validation of a robust community in which schools play a central role.
To begin with, Gereluk advises us to return to theory (p. 6) and delineate more precisely the nature of community (p. 1). This, she says, will help us to foreground those aspects of community we wish to maintain. Indeed, Gereluks book is a primer for this delineation: it attempts to find and justify principles for a community along the lines of Rawlss well-ordered society. This society maintains itself in an equilibrium state, and the reason for this is the practice of Justice as Fairness. In a society where Justice as Fairness (Rawlss term) manifests itself, the principles of Equality of Liberty and Opportunity (Rawlss terms) operate.
Gereluk looks at several community minded programs, chiefly in Great Britain. She finds all of these lacking, to one degree or another, a principled stance on justice and thus failing to reach their intended aims. Norms and interests are ground-up as Dewey once said, and these programs either inhibit or stultify the emergence of justice. Only with interests and norms developed in the communities themselves can robust communities grow (p. 39). The challenge is to follow the principles of justice to ensure genuine community forms. This requires that communities have and respond to, principles of justice (p. 42). Gereluk dismisses libertarian notions of negative liberty, wherein the state takes the role of a spectator to issues of common concern (p. 43). In place of this, she argues for individual and social rights, which are primary and must be ensured for children to prosper in communities. These include familiar rights such as freedom of speech, but also include freedom from oppressive practices and silencing (p. 43).
Gereluk then looks at communities and school practices in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States and evaluates these on the criteria of Justice as Fairness. Examples include Quebec school systems, the Old-Order Amish, and Christian Fundamentalism. These stand or fall on how well they incorporate liberal principles into their communities. As Gereluk notes, one of the key features of a community is to promote[s] a shared sense of belonging or common ethos through individuals commitments or attachments to a group (p. 58), and this implies that individuals within communities have basic rights and liberties. The central problem is that in certain communities, individuals cannot pursue alternate ways of living, and/or cannot exit (p. 61). Alternatively, members of communities may be unable to choose new communities, or modify old ones. These tensions inhibit vibrant communities, and the purpose of Justice as Fairness is to remedy this.
Gereluk then provides a lengthy discussion of Rawls, particularly, his principles of justice and the requirements that society must meet in order for these to take root. Gereluks exegesis of Rawls is basically sound, however, the placement of the discussion of Rawls close to half-way through the book is a bit too late for the reader, who, understandably, will want a more coherent and in-depth understanding of Rawlss theory before an examination of the various communities and their shortcomings. The one claim I find problematic is Gereluks attribution of an a priori status to Rawlss claim that fundamental ideas [of justice] are implicit in the public, political culture of a democratic society. To be sure, there are well-founded and grounded ideals that have strengthened over time, and are a part of our liberal-democratic heritage. These, however, are not a priori in the sense that they are Kantian necessary conditions we abstract in a deductive manoeuvre. Indeed, Rawls rejects Kants noumenal self, and considers justice to ride on elementary facts about human beings. He also downplays any metaphysical commitments after writing A Theory of Justice.
Aside from this, Gereluk is on good ground when she claims that a cooperative society is necessary for social justice and that this can only occur in a community (p. 81). Indeed, this is the Reciprocity Condition. From here, Gereluk develops a loose strategy to rate community practices on their acceptance or rejection of Rawlss reasonable pluralism. Communities that
do not support dispositions of reciprocity and equal respect in their private sphere, and that grossly impede members in the public sphere in ways that are abhorrent to other members in the public sphere are negligent under the considerations of justice. (p. 88)
This strategy is applied further on, in discussions of various institutions, including an Anglo-European school, Muslim faith communities and practices, and a Christian fundamentalist school (pp. 101-119). Her claim is that Justice as Fairness would accept the Anglo-European school, and accept most Muslim faith communities (except extremist sects), and practices, including the wearing of headscarves. The principles of Justice as Fairness would not support the practices of the Christian Fundamentalist School, however, and the state is therefore justified in interfering to protect the principles of Liberty and Equality (p. 114).
Here, Gereluk makes a troubling claim. She charges the Christian Fundamentalist School with violating liberal principles of justice. The schools aims for children include learning the Word of God, keeping separate from the world, proselytizing, and becoming full-time Christians -- ideally, clergy (p. 116). Gereluks response to this is as follows:
While the intent of state schooling is to prepare students to live in a pluralist society, the Christian fundamentalist school explicitly challenges those assumptions and the premises underlying autonomy It is clear that this school has no intention of providing opportunities to the child that is not part of the Christian way of life (as is defined within the parameters of Christian fundamentalism). The child is shaped for a particular way of life to which there is little other option. Exposure to other ways of thinking or living is unacceptable and shunned by the school. Students are made to feel shame or guilt should they veer from the path of righteousness. Exiting the community is emotionally and physically difficult. (p. 117)
Gereluk believes that, if parents are allowed the exclusive rights in educating their children, society abdicates its responsibility to provide for childrens autonomy, freedom, and equality (p. 117).
I dont believe this is correct. I dont think it stands on its own, or on a reading of Rawls. To begin with, it is not at all clear that the school is in violation of a principle of justice. While there is certainly a state responsibility to ensure that justice entails, it does not mandate that parents surrender responsibility of their childrens education to the state. This, too, would be unjust. There are hundreds if not thousands of schools operating, particularly in Southern and Mid-Western United States, that have the same or similar, missions. To privately place God and the Word above (secular) justice is not condemnable under constitutional law unless there is demonstrated action against the state, or harm against a child. On Rawlss understanding also, Gereluks claim seems dubious. Certainly, Rawls famously placed Right Justice as Fairness) over good (conceptions of the good life, including religion). However, no examples beyond an exhortation to teach children to understand the civil-political mechanisms of the state abound in his writings. More trenchantly, it is doubtful that Rawlss other important considerationthe Overlapping Consensusis breached. A set of comprehensive beliefs that run counter to Justice as Fairness are not excluded by Justice as Fairness, provided harm to the children is not in evidence. The education of children in obedience of God, so long as violence, malice, intimidation, humiliation, abuse, or neglect are not intended or undertaken, is allowable. Justice as Fairness may not agree with this viewbut it is bound to protect it as a comprehensive notion of good.
I dont think that my disagreement detracts from the overall worth of the book. This is an excellent resource for anyone that is interested in blending theory and practice on the topic of community and particularly, ways to breach the liberal-communitarian divide. Gereluks liberalism is strong and consistent throughout; and her commitment to communities, and particularly, the welfare of the least advantaged, shines brightly. This is a brave and successful attempt to show educators how liberalism can contribute positively to build stronger communities, most importantly, our schools.