Curriculum in the Public Schools: Can Compromise Be Reached?

by Charles L. Glenn

When this article was written, Charles L. Glenn was director of the Bureau of Equal Educational Opportunity for the Massachusetts Department of Education. He is an ordained Episcopal priest.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 6, l987, pp. 441-443. Copyrighted by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at www.christiancentury. org. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


The author argues that the public schools ought not teach a value system and a world view contrary to the beliefs and values of the children’s parents.

Do strongly held religious convictions inevitably conflict with our system of public education? A visitor from another planet might well conclude that they do, given the heated attacks on public schools from the "religious right," and the equally heated warnings by "strict separationists" that there is a plot by "zealots" to impose religious uniformity on the nation's schoolchildren.

A very grave situation indeed . . . if true. In particular, those of us committed to public education should feel that our backs are against the wall if the commentators are reading the signs of the times correctly. And those of us who believe in respect for religious conviction in its diverse forms have further grounds for deep concern if the choices are truly "all or nothing" between an imposed orthodoxy and an education from which all religious reference has been purged.

However, I am convinced that the polemicists in both camps -- the "strict separationists" and the "religious right" -- read the signs of the times incorrectly.

A democratic polity has ample room for many shades of opinion; what it cannot well tolerate is attempts to excommunicate the opposition, to set it outside the range of permissible dialogue. The ugly aspect of the current debates is that some are attempting just such excommunication. After all, if the nation (that is, all of us) is "besieged by religious zealots" or "controlled by secular humanists, " the image suggests that we shut fast the gates and unite to repel their attacks.

What seems to be excluded by the nature of the current debate is the possibility of trying to understand the intentions (however clumsily implemented) of public educators on the one hand, or the concerns of religiously conservative parents (however clumsily expressed) on the other. As a public education official and an evangelical, I have become deeply concerned about this mutual incomprehension, and am convinced that beyond the alienating rhetoric about "humanist conspiracies" there are some legitimate grievances that should, for the sake of justice and the rights of conscience, be addressed.

In the name of religious liberty and of tolerance, I have found, the radical separationists are profoundly intolerant and illiberal toward religious conservatives. Such conservatives, estimated by pollster Daniel Yankelovich as one American in five, are actually somewhat marginal to the mainstream of national life, have few polished spokespersons, and are given to unsophisticated and vehement expression of their resentment about assaults on their convictions and values. This makes them an easy target, but it does not make throwing mud at them an exercise in religious liberalism.

Those who see any intrusion of religious concerns into public life as a profound threat to American democracy are having a field day with the recent federal court rulings in Tennessee and Alabama, upholding suits brought by concerned parents. The evangelical Alabama parents, unlike the fundamentalist Tennessee parents, have no desire to remove their children from the public schools; they wish consistently to have a cultureshaping role -- not to keep themselves from the world, as fundamentalists do in many ways. The evangelicals simply want to exert an influence over their children's education.

The Tennessee judge (in Mozert v. Hawkins County) ordered in November 1986 that public schools honor a request by a group of parents that their children be excused from using certain readers offensive to their religious convictions. This stands in a long tradition of court rulings that public education should accommodate religiously based objections, often raised by Jewish or Jehovah's Witness parents. As a result, Jewish groups, though usually nervous about evangelicals' intentions regarding public schools, have pointedly distanced themselves from the position of People for the American Way -- one of the active liberal advocacy groups -- that parents with religious concerns should enroll their children in private schools. "No one, " one Jewish writer noted, "should be forced to violate their faith in order to avail themselves of public benefits" (Washington Jewish Week, November 13, 1986).

The litigation in Alabama (Smith v. Board of School Commissioners), resulting in an early March ruling that "secular humanism" represents an unconstitutional "establishment of religion," has been the occasion for a new round of public anguish on the part of the separationists. For once, I am in partial agreement with them. As a public education official, I am appalled at the prospect of combing through the curriculum one more time to remove potentially offensive elements. As a parent, I want my children to be exposed to strong convictions in school, including those that I do not share -- not to be bored into a kind of moral indifference. The Alabama case threatens the little flavor that remains in our textbooks and reading materials.

In fairness to those who brought the suit, however, this is a case of the worm turning, of the dog biting after repeated provocation. For 30 years separationists, including Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, have filed many lawsuits and threatened many more to remove any vestige of Christian practice, even voluntary, from public schools. Church and State, the journal of Americans United, has year after year recorded a succession of triumphs for a totally secular (not "neutral") school; it was in its pages a decade ago that Leo Pfeffer, perhaps the most distinguished of the separationist attorneys, announced "the triumph of secular humanism."

Who, then, is the aggressor? Is it "religious zealots" who are besieging the ramparts of our common life as a nation? Or do conservative Christians (and other religious groups) have some right to feel backed into a corner by the relentlessly secularizing message of the mainstream media, of the public school curriculum, of those who seek to remove every acknowledgment of religion from the public square?

The claim that religious conservatives are about to seize control of the nation and impose their religious beliefs is either cynical or paranoid; it takes seriously the fantasies of the "theonomists" and other tiny groups among the millions of evangelicals and traditional Roman Catholics who are fully committed to playing by the rules of a pluralist democracy.

What most religious conservatives (who may, like me, be political liberals) ask is that our convictions be treated with respect and accommodated, not that they be imposed on anyone. The American political system has in fact shown a remarkable ability, for two centuries, to find such accommodations and to allow room for minority beliefs and opinions to flourish.

Although sympathizing with the parents in Tennessee and Alabama, I deplore the increasing tendency to turn to the courts to resolve such issues. It is a bad way to achieve compromise and accomodation. By casting the issues in the absolute terms of constitutionally protected rights, such litigation encourages a hardening of positions on both sides. Courts tend to rule on the basis of underlying principles that, once applied, may go far beyond the original intentions of the parties, and in ways that are contrary to the interests of all (see Luke 12:58). Certainly there are many instances in which action is necessary to guarantee basic freedoms and equal protection under the law, but litigation should be the last resort, not -- as too often today -- the first.

The teaching of values and attitudes, of loyalties and aversions is not, it seems to me, a promising area for litigation. Inevitably it involves many fine adjustments, subtle judgments based upon the mature convictions of teachers and of parents, and their sense of responsibility for children-each of whom is unique. Such matters can neither be legislated nor ordered by a court. School life, like family life, does not flourish in an atmosphere of continual assertion of rights and grievances.

For several decades the strict separationists have had it all their way with the public schools; both the Alabama case and the Tennessee case are signs of a counteroffensive by parents for whom religion is a central part of that experience to which schools claim to do justice. The aim of these recent suits (contrary to the claims of outraged separationists) is not to restore traditional religious teaching and practices, but to purge away a "counterreligion," an alternative system of belief that the plaintiffs claim public schools are inculcating.

With extensive expert testimony, the plaintiffs made the case that secular humanism functions in many respects for its adherents as a religion (with ministers, fellowship, ceremonies marking the milestones of life, and a missionary program), and that it has many of the substantive characteristics of a religion as well, including a coherent interpretation of all of reality. I find their arguments convincing, I am less convinced by their contention that echoes of secular humanism's world view in certain. courses in the curriculum -- especially the saturation of home economics courses with pop humanistic psychology -- constitute the "establishment of religion" forbidden by the Constitution's First Amendment. But then I am similarly unconvinced that posting the Ten Commandments on a classroom wall constitutes such an establishment. The separationists have succeeded in convincing the courts that an action like this does constitute such an establishment, and what's sauce for the goose . .

Do we really want our public schools to be pushed further and further toward the blandness of a value-free curriculum? There is overwhelming evidence, from surveys both nationally and in a number of states, that parents do not, that they seek schools for their children in which clear standards come to expression. The present competition between ideological opponents to exclude anything offensive to their religious or secularist views is a strategy of "mutual assured destruction" of values and convictions. When all the strong colors are removed from the teacher's palette we will be left with shades of gray -- moral indifferentism. The parents who brought the Alabama and Tennessee suits are convinced that this process has already gone too far, yet ironically the litigation could drive it further. The effect would be devastating for public schools and for teachers and children,

It was an illusion of Horace Mann and the other reformers who shaped our educational system in conscious opposition to "sectarian" schools that a coherent "common" education could be provided by stressing only those convictions on which "men of good will" agreed. They had some excuse for their view; theirs was the age of the "evangelical united front" for social reform, and the stubborn resistance of Catholics could be seen as a short-term result of their foreignness Unfortunately, the common beliefs and values on which the "common school" rested have been dissolved away by the acids of modernity. Humpty-Dumpty is not to be put back together, and it is inappropriate to seek to do so by using mandatory school attendance to inculcate values in children that their parents find offensive.

The January appeal filed in the Tennessee case on behalf, of.. the school system could not be more clear in its assertion of a right to teach such values

The schools seek to teach students to be autonomous individuals, who can make their own judgments about moral questions. The schools believe that students should be able to evaluate and make judgments on their own, based on their experience and beliefs, not those of their teachers.... many of the plaintiffs' objections are directly inconsistent with the objectives of public education.

We take so much for granted the language of individual autonomy that it requires an effort to remember that there is another way of seeing the task of education, one involving exposure to a tradition representing accumulated (even divinely revealed) truth. In this view, pre-teenaged children should not be confronted with moral dilemmas in their elementary readers and encouraged to find their "own" solutions; they should be taught right from wrong by adults confident that these are absolutes.

It is not my purpose to argue for the correctness of one or the other view of education, only to note that these are issues over which reasonable people may differ, and to question whether the State has a right to impose the first approach in the face of opposition from parents. Indeed, by allowing parents to meet the compulsory school attendance requirement by sending their children to private institutions that espouse the second approach, the State tacitly acknowledges that its "compelling interest" in education is adequately served in such schools.

Is there a solution to the perennial conflict over the values presented in public schools? I believe there is. It starts with the recognition that public schools do not need to be identical, that they can offer a variety of pedagogically legitimate approaches to common educational goals. To take the example always used by those arguing for the "common school," religious tolerance can be taught without necessarily giving the message that all religious views are of equal validity. A good argument can be made, in fact, that the person who is solidly grounded in a religious identity is more free to be tolerant than another for whom differing beliefs are a threat. Catholics who graduate from Catholic schools, for example, may be more tolerant than Catholics who attended public schools.

This is not to argue that we should divide publicly supported education along denominational lines, as is the case in most Western democracies. Surveys indicate that while parents would like more choice in education, the number for whom explicitly religious instruction is a primary consideration is relatively small; most seem content to leave that to their churches and synagogues. A much greater concern, however, is the moral flavor of the school, the values by which it lives as well as those which it explicitly teaches. In this respect schools can differ greatly without going beyond what is appropriate for public education.

It is important to remember that the parents in Tennessee and in Alabama were not asking that their own religious beliefs be taught in the schools, much less seeking to "control religious impulses and reshape spiritual sensibilities" for the children of other parents. They sought, and successfully, at least pending appeal, for the schools to desist from teaching their children the elements of a view of the world contrary to their beliefs and sense of moral obligation. They were standing up for religious liberty, not for spiritual despotism.

If only all parents were equally concerned and involved! Public educators constantly lament the lack of involvement of parents. Is there any good reason why our educational policies should not respect their desire to guide the development of their children.