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Public has a stake in what religious schools teach, professor says

Craig Chamberlain, Education Editor


Walter Feinberg
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Walter 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).

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — 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 schools?

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 themselves.”

“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 teachers.

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.”