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Education Reform: Confronting the Secular Ideal

reviewed by Katherine K. Jo - November 20, 2014

coverTitle: Education Reform: Confronting the Secular Ideal
Author(s): Craig S. Engelhardt
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1623963222, Pages: 252, Year: 2013
Search for book at Amazon.com

Education reform is tackled from numerous angles and grapples with issues of equity and access, testing and accountability, teacher training and teachers’ unions, and funding and administrative authority. For Englehardt, the problems of American public education require that we look much deeper into its philosophical foundations; we must be willing to radically alter the model of public education that represents a pillar of the American democratic experiment: the common school. The common school, he argues, has failed to live up to its promise of fostering the virtues of democratic citizenship and a common identity around which a diverse citizenry can unite; furthermore, it is a myth that it ever did or could achieve these goals while also aiming to be inclusive, inoffensive, and secular. He proposes, instead, a plural public education system in which “publicly supportive religious schools” (p. xx), that is, religious schools supportive of democratic ideals, are funded through vouchers and regulated along with common schools. He argues that religious schools are better equipped to promote the civic virtues that public education has historically been charged with cultivating because religious schools can harness the power of deeply held, shared values to fulfill the mission of public education.

In today’s world of high-stakes testing and races to the top, the suggestion that public education’s mission is to instill moral and civic virtue sounds like a distant echo from a forgotten past. Engelhardt joins scholars such as Walter Feinberg, Amy Gutmann, Meira Levinson, and Rob Reich in trying to remind us that public education is not merely about providing education to the public, but sustaining a vital public sphere. His approach, however, is starkly different. He is aware that his proposal is ambitious and controversial, and challenges the conventional understanding of what public education should be. In proposing a model of school choice, he is likely to draw strong criticism for undermining public education and ceding greater control over public schools to private interests. Perhaps more controversially, he broaches one of the thorniest issues in public education and in liberalism today: the proper role and accommodation of religion in schools and the public sphere. He builds a case for the unviability of the common school and the public value of religious schools. He anticipates and addresses—to varying degrees of success—criticism of religious schools, including concerns about the autonomy and indoctrination of students. It is a thoughtful and admirable effort given the magnitude of the task. Moreover, the book is commendable for its straightforward, clear, and concise presentation of what is fundamentally at stake without being overly simplistic.

What the book offers in breadth, however, it inevitably lacks in depth and nuance—particularly in some of Engelhardt’s key rebuttals and arguments in support of his plural public education model. Some readers may automatically be turned off or at least be highly skeptical simply because of Engelhardt’s position as the Director of the Society for the Advancement of Christian Education, named plainly on the title page. Even the somewhat aggressive title evokes the strident discourse associated with the religious right on the morally corrosive effects of secularism in American society. Truth be told, he does sometimes echo the positions and polemical tone of right-wing groups, such as when he makes the reductive claim without any scholarly support that “educational failures stem largely from lack of internal student motivation” (p. 18), rather than external, structural issues related to socioeconomic class or teacher pay and training, or when he reveals at the end that his aim is to “capture the field of education from the governmentally supported hegemony of secularism” (p. 197). On the whole, Engelhardt’s empirical support for his claim that religious schools are more likely to be effective in teaching pro-social behaviors is weak, and he acknowledges that it is difficult to discern cause and effect relationships between the religious (or secular) orientation of a school and civic outcomes. These aspects of the book detract from what is an otherwise thoughtfully presented argument.

I begin by acknowledging some of the book’s salient weaknesses in order to clear the brush, for they can easily distract attention from the heart of Engelhardt’s argument. The driving questions underlying his arguments ask, what is good education, what are its purposes, and how might it be achieved? Despite their fundamental importance, these educational questions of aims and effective pedagogy often get drowned out in political discussions. Engelhardt rightly reminds us that any efforts at education reform must keep these questions at the fore if we are to provide our young people with a worthwhile education.

Questions of aims and means, however, are just as controversial and divisive, and this is one of Engelhardt’s main points as he attacks the viability of the secular common school and argues for the superior public value of religious schools. Such questions touch on profound philosophical or what he describes as fundamentally religious beliefs regarding the good for individuals and society and the nature of students and humanity in general, the answers to which are diverse. Here, Engelhardt draws on a functional, sociological definition of religion: “any set of ideas that act as a source of meaning, understanding, motivation, and order” (p. 20). Thus, he writes, “a school that integrates an atheistic worldview would be considered a religious school alongside the Baptist and Jewish day schools” (p. 20). Here, secular refers not to an anti-religious stance but one that attempts to be neutral and find common ground among diverse perspectives. The secular common school, however, must distance itself from particular ideological views in the name of being inoffensive and inclusive. The result, he argues, is an intellectually and morally shallow education that lacks the ideological depth necessary to develop students’ civic capacities or nurture any particular values, including democratic ones; secularity also offends the Americans who want their children’s education to be consistent with their beliefs and values. Engelhardt argues that religious schools are not constrained in this way.

Engelhardt’s argument rests primarily on two controversial philosophical claims, one regarding the nature of religion and its relation to the public sphere, and the other regarding the nature of autonomy and its development. With regard to the first, the functional usage of religious and secular may seem like a semantic ploy to serve Engelhardt’s religious agenda, but this reframing of the religious-secular distinction reflects a relatively recent development in scholarship across the humanities and social sciences, in which the notion of the secular as a neutral space is being challenged. Scholars have argued that the secular has its own ideological force that posits its own metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical values that determine the nature of public participation and impinge on the private beliefs of citizens.

With regard to children’s autonomy and the possibility of indoctrination, Engelhardt rightly recognizes that it will be the first and strongest objection raised by critics of religious schools. In response, he rejects the primacy of liberal autonomy as an educational aim, drawing on the work of several eminent scholars to argue that the healthy development of children into independent adults requires guidance within a stable primary culture in which the values and beliefs of their parents are nurtured. Moreover, he questions the principle that entrusts children to make decisions about their lives but denies parents the autonomy to raise their children in accordance with their beliefs. These are important criticisms of liberalism that should not be dismissed. Engelhardt does not, however, address the legitimate concern of how it is that children within an environment that deliberately inculcates certain beliefs and values will develop the critical capacities seen as necessary for democratic participation.

Certainly, Engelhardt’s vision presents its own challenges, some of which he readily admits. He acknowledges that some religious schools will never meet public standards because their values and teaching methods promote divisiveness and indoctrination. Other religious school proponents will be loath to submit to public regulation, but he calls upon them to prioritize the public good. Engelhardt’s comprehensive consideration of the questions raised by his proposal caution us against kneejerk reactions to all religious schools. He reminds us that religious schools can be intellectually rich (e.g., the Jesuit tradition), as well as racially and socioeconomically diverse. It is worth noting that other liberal democracies, such as Australia, Britain and Sweden, have adopted plural public education systems; this fact alone should keep us from dismissing the idea altogether.

I believe that Engelhardt overstates the potential that religious schools offer for the moral and civic health of our nation; if we follow his argument regarding the necessity of tapping into religious resources to provide worthwhile education to its logical end, this would mean that all schools should be religious schools, leaving the common school an intellectual and moral ghetto. There does not seem to be evidence to support such a blanket generalization. Moreover, I am reluctant to abandon the common school ideal altogether—not out of fear of the potential harmful effects of religious schools, but because I retain hope for a culture in which we can seek to understand and refine our deepest convictions in an exchange of diverse perspectives. This can only happen when the absolute submission to the market, the demand for recognition of one’s own rights, and fears of serious disagreement and discussion no longer trump the concerns of education and prevent it from being what it could and should be. Nevertheless, Engelhardt’s assessment of the fundamental instabilities and constraints placed on the common school indicates good reason to reconsider our public education model.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 20, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17762, Date Accessed: 12/7/2021 10:33:00 AM

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About the Author
  • Katherine Jo
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    E-mail Author
    KATHERINE K. JO is a doctoral student specializing in Philosophy of Education in the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on liberal learning and its relationship to moral, ethics, and civic education. She has presented on civic dialogue on religion and the value of the humanities for addressing the existential concerns of students.
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