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Public has a stake in what
religious schools teach, professor says
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by L. Brian Stauffer
Feinberg, the Charle Dunn Hardie Professor of Philosophy
of Education at Illinois, says the public has an interest
in what's taught in religious schools. He's the author
of a new book, “For Goodness Sake: Religious
Schools and Education for Democratic Citizenry”
(published by Routledge).
— Whether it’s prayer in schools, alternatives to evolution,
or courses on the Bible, the debate continues on the role of religion
in public schools.
But does the public have an interest in what’s taught in religious
The answer is yes, says Walter Feinberg, the Charles Dunn Hardie Professor
of Philosophy of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the author of
a new book, “For Goodness Sake: Religious Schools and Education
for Democratic Citizenry” (published by Routledge).
The public has an interest because “the education of children
in a democratic society is everybody’s business,” Feinberg
wrote in the introduction to his book. The public needs to know that
religious schools are instilling the attitudes, skills and beliefs that
are essential to democracy, and which cannot be assumed to “grow
“There is no doubt that religion has left us with a wealth of
moral understanding that helps to make human beings human,” Feinberg
wrote. It’s one reason some religious groups advocate for religion
to play a central role in the moral education of children in public
schools, he said.
“Nevertheless, modern, liberal democracies have their own sets
of requirements, from the need for autonomy and critical reflection
… to the requirement for tolerance, mutual recognition, and respect
for differences,” Feinberg wrote. Some aspects of some religions
can be in tension with those requirements.
And unlike public schools, “these schools are not answerable to
a public formed through a democratic process,” Feinberg wrote.
Their curriculum “is largely veiled from public scrutiny and shielded
from public debate.”
In his research for the book, supported by a grant from the Spencer
Foundation, Feinberg practiced a kind of philosophy in the field, or
“philosophical ethnography.” Over a three-year period, he
spent time in Catholic, Jewish, Protestant and Islamic schools. He observed
classrooms and interviewed teachers, administrators and former students,
probing their assumptions and values as part of the process.
Feinberg’s concern centers on potential tensions within the twin
platforms of democracy: liberalism, the political philosophy that emphasizes
the individual’s right to choose how to live his or her own life,
and pluralism, the view that society must embrace many different types
of beliefs and communities, even some that are not committed to the
autonomy that liberalism prizes.
Feinberg doesn’t believe that democracy is hostile to religion
or to religious education. To the contrary, he believes that every religion
has a “right of chauvinism,” but that that right must be
understood as universal. In other words, he said, “I have a right
to believe my religion is the best religion in the world, but I also
believe that you have the right to believe that your religion is the
best religion in the world.”
But in the intersection between religion and democratic ideals, tensions
can arise, for instance, when a religion claims absolute truth, emphasizes
exclusivity, or feels the need to control inquiry.
Feinberg explores the way a Jewish day school shapes a commitment to
Israel, the way Catholic schools deal with church doctrine about sex
and sexual identity in the presence of students who are sexually active
and gay, and how students in a conservative Christian school are inoculated
against inconvenient scientific ideas such as evolution.
Among the religious teachers Feinberg observed and interviewed, he found
that most were flexible and non-dogmatic, and demonstrated a practical
wisdom in balancing religious doctrine with the cultural climate and
a concern for their students. How they did that is a large part of the
story he tells in the book.
The best teachers “had creative ways of interrogating, without
confronting, religious doctrine,” he said. “It’s not
just a program to them, it’s a way of framing a life, and they
communicate that to these students, and I think it’s very powerful
when it’s done well,” he said.
In addressing the concerns Feinberg cites in his book, he argues against
excessive state intervention into the classroom or curriculum. Instead,
he suggests addressing the public interest through the training of religious
Ironically, rather than lessons on the foundations of democracy, Feinberg
suggests that one of the most beneficial subjects in training religious
teachers would be more about the history of the faith and religious
teaching. “They need to know that it is possible for religious
doctrine to change over time,” he said.
In the interest of pluralism, the state also might take a role in suggesting
or offering alternative experiences that increase students’ contact
with those of other faiths or backgrounds, Feinberg said.
For the same reason, public schools, with their diversity across religious
and cultural lines, need to remain strong and viable, Feinberg wrote.
“Public schools, when working as they should, can provide the
trust and understanding that can allow single-tradition religious schools
to flourish at the educational margins.”