Religion and Education

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is

This is the first of three lectures delivered by Dr. Cobb for the Sinclair Thompson Lectures, Chiangmai, Thailand, June 26-28, 2002. The others are “Four Types of Universities,” and “Envisioning a Fifth Model.” Used by permission of the author. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The contribution that current participants in the great religious traditions can make is to give up the competitive spirit for that of mutuality. The more we work together and learn from one another, the more our shared concerns can affect the public generally and public schools in particular.

Lecture One

My topic in these lectures is primarily higher education. It is in that world that I have spent most of my life; so my knowledge of it is first hand. The earlier parts of the educational system I remember, of course, from first hand experience as a child, and experienced again, indirectly, through my children. But primarily my reflections about it come from secondary reading. Nevertheless, higher education is part and parcel of education in general; so it is appropriate to set it in the context of broad reflection about what education in general is and ought to be. This first lecture will treat this broad context and overview. In that context, in the following two lectures, I will say something about the history of higher education and offer proposals as to the particular responsibility of colleges and universities. I will be critical of education in general as it now operates, but I will be particularly critical of the direction that has been taken in higher education.

I. My Point of View

No approach to any topic is neutral and objective. Nevertheless, we should not give up the goal of being as fair and accurate as possible. We advance the goal best by being as open and explicit as possible about the perspective from which we view the topic. This can enable hearers to evaluate the biases that are expressed and to discount the positions taken, when they do not agree with the biases that underlie them.

My point of view has been shaped by my Christian faith. Of course, Christian faith itself takes many forms; so I need to be more particular. I was brought up as the child of Methodist missionaries in Japan. The only form of Christianity I have ever seriously considered for myself is historically known as Arminian. By that I mean that I have always understood that both God’s gracious initiative within us and a partially free human response are involved in what happens in the world. Instead of supposing that the more God is operative, the less humans are free, I believe that the more effective God’s action is, the freer and more responsible are we.

I have also always believed that, as a Christian, I should be as open as possible to knowledge and wisdom wherever they are to be found. I should learn whatever I can from historians, scientists, and philosophers. In particular I should learn whatever I can from persons who have been formed in other religious traditions. To close myself to any source of truth and wisdom would seem to me to express lack of faith in Christ.

This does not mean that I should uncritically accept what historians, scientists, philosophers and adherents of other religious traditions say. Quite the contrary. As a Christian I find biases and distortions and failures in all of them, just as I find such errors in the Christian tradition. Encountering others helps me discern the errors in the form of Christianity I have received. But my Christian perspective leads me to discern weaknesses and failures in other traditions as well. I have written and spoken extensively of the need for Christians to repent. But in these lectures I will be emphasizing, from my Christian point of view, what is wrong with contemporary education and the new form I would like to see higher education take.

Two influences on my Christian perspective have been particularly important. One is the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. His critique of Western, especially Enlightenment or modern thought, has been convincing to me since graduate school days. He provides an alternative metaphysics to the one underlying this modern thought, which opens up many new vistas. My formulation of the Christian faith owes much to his influence. In particular, his work gives me the courage to criticize established ideas and institutions from my Christian perspective.

The second influence is Buddhism. From the earliest days of Christian encounter with Buddhism, Christians have been fascinated by it. Many Westerners have been drawn to Buddhism over the past two centuries, a considerable number converting to it. My love of Japan has led to contacts with Japanese, many of whom are Buddhists. Hence, I do not need to give special explanation for the influence of Buddhism upon me.

Nevertheless, there was an additional factor. The philosophical influence of Whitehead opened me to the recognition that, at very basic levels, Buddhist teachings were more profound and accurate than Western formulations of Christianity. Whitehead himself recognized that his metaphysics was more congenial to Eastern than to Western philosophy. My own teacher, Charles Hartshorne, emphasized that his understanding of the self was much like the Buddhist one. And through discussion with Buddhists, I felt that I gained a clearer grasp of the meaning and implications of the philosophy I had adopted than its Western interpreters provided. It is hard for me now to sort out the influence of Whitehead and of Buddhism on my Christian thought. I believe that the Buddhized Christianity I now affirm is more faithful to the Christian scriptures than was the Hellenized Christianity of the tradition. There remain, in my view, great differences between Buddhism and a Buddhized Christianity, but they are complementary rather than contradictory.

I have probably told you more than you want to know about the point of view from which I discuss education. I hope that what I say from this point of view is fair and accurate, even that it is as neutral and objective as a human being can make it. But it will differ from what those who look to capitalism for salvation say about education, or those who look to contemporary science as the one reliable guide. It will differ also from what many Christians say, especially those whose ideas of sola scriptura lead them to exclude other sources of understanding and knowledge. I do not merely disagree with these ideas and other convictions held by many Christians, I also believe their influence on education is sometimes dangerous to the future of the world.

I should add what is, and will be, very obvious about my point of view. I am a citizen of the United States of America. We typically call ourselves "Americans" and our critics point out how arrogant that is. Latin Americans and Canadians are also inhabitants of North and South America. Our critics are correct, but I continue to use the term, since I have not found a convenient alternative. Hence, I will just say that I am an American.

I am much less clear as to how that shapes my biases. No doubt this will be clearer to others than to me. But I am very much aware that being an American determines my understanding of my topic. It is American education that will be the primary object of my examination. In particular, when I think of contemporary higher education, I will have American universities chiefly in mind.

Although the United States is in some ways quite remote from Thailand, there is some relevance of the American history of education to yours. First, American missionaries brought to Thailand forms of education that had developed in the United States out of a long background in Europe. Current forms of education in Thailand continue to show this influence. Second, there are parallels between the historical relation of Christianity to education in Europe and America and the historical relation of Buddhism to education in Thailand. Third, the current economic globalization imposes forms and pressures on education everywhere, so that one can find similarities in the responses in America and in Thailand.

II. What is Religion?

My title is "Religion and Education." Many people suppose they know what both of these words mean, but in fact both are elusive. For me, the word "religion" is an especially troublesome one, and in general I avoid it. However, I think the adjective "religious" is useful. If I am referring to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and so forth, I prefer to say religious traditions or religious communities. The noun "religion" was imposed on these by Westerners, and it leads to efforts to identify the essence of "religion" and then to treat this as a norm by which to judge the religious traditions. Historically, beginning with Schleiermacher, this has led to placing Christianity at the top as the purest embodiment of the highest form of "religion". Today some Buddhists employ the same method to show that Buddhism is the purest and finest embodiment of religion.

What does it mean to speak of something as "religious"? I use the term to refer to practices such as meditation, prayer, and worship. In all of this the interior, subjective aspect of human existence is accented. Further, these practices express a deep reverence for a reality or dimension of reality that one holds to be of supreme importance or value. The fully religious dimension of reverence is found when that which is revered is experienced as holy or sacred. This places it beyond the critical analysis appropriate to what is secular or profane.

The communities and traditions I listed are all religious, because these kinds of practices and experiences play an important role in them. Nevertheless, they all contain other elements as well. For some adherents, the religious aspects are the most important; for others, not. For example, in ancient Judaism the feasts and special ceremonies were of great importance, and many believed that the temple was a sacred place. Some even thought that Jerusalem was impregnable because God lived there. This emphasizes the religious character of Judaism. But there were also prophets who said that God hated the feasts and sacrifices and wanted justice. They proclaimed that there was nothing sacred about Jerusalem, and that it would fall to its enemies. For them, God remained holy, but everything else was secular. From them, Jews and Christians have learned to emphasize the priority of ethical life in quite worldly, or secular, ways.

I think one can find similar differences among Buddhists. For many, Buddhism is primarily a matter of meditation and reverence of the Buddhas. Even a Buddha stature takes on the character of a sacred object. But in Zen Buddhism there is a radical saying: "If you meet the Buddha, kill him." The meaning is that one’s task is to attain enlightenment, and that relying on any outside authority or model blocks the way to this end. In many ways, Zen is a very secular form of Buddhism.

My own view is that, all these traditions, especially in their original forms, are best thought of as total ways of life. Some word, such as "way", appears centrally in most of them. It is not clear that being a more or less "religious" way is either an advantage or a disadvantage in general. But in fact they are all "religious" ways in that, a comprehensive way of life contains religious elements.

When we move in this direction, and focus on comprehensive ways of life rather than on their specifically religious features, we can recognize that, alongside the traditional communities, there are new "ways" that have emerged in recent times. Some have identified Communism and scientific humanism as two such ways that compete with Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. The World Council of Churches wanted Christians to engage in dialogue with other faiths and ideologies, considering Communism and scientific humanism under the latter heading. Today, we should add nationalism and capitalism to this list.

Once we have recognized that the traditional "ways" have been more and less religious, we can also recognize that the new "ways," arising in modern times, have also been more or less religious. This has certainly been true of nationalism in many countries, and especially of the extreme forms it took in the twentieth century. Even in more moderate forms, the reverence demanded toward the flag or the ruler has much in common with that demanded by traditional religious communities toward their major symbols. Communism may have opposed "religion", but when it became the controlling ideology of a people, it adopted many religious characteristics. It emphasized its heroes, saints, and martyrs, held great rallies that were much like worship services, and absolutized its sacred texts. Even scientific humanism and capitalism take on religious elements when they exert large-scale influence.

My real interest, therefore, in this discussion of education and religion, is how basic commitments to a way of life inform education. There is then the question about how to deal with education when the larger community does not share a single commitment. The United States is grappling with this question today in an acute way. It has largely decided that it cannot impose a single set of values on its public schools. We will consider the problems that ensue from this decision. I gather that in Thailand it is still possible to have unity at this point. Of course, that also has its problems.

Although I want to discuss the role of comprehensive systems of value and ways of life in education, my perspective is that of one formed in a traditional religious community. My own conviction is that the historic religious traditions have greater wisdom and more capacity to deal with the deepest issues facing humankind than do the newer ways. To me it seems important for the human future that they reassert an important role in education. How they do so is equally important. In a society such as the United States, there can be no return to traditional educational systems that simply inculcated a single way in distinction from others. Also, to whatever extent one of the great traditional religious ways ignores what has been learned by the modern world, it is likely to be a source of great harm to those it educates and to the world as a whole.

III. Education and Schooling

For the most part, when we speak of education today we have schools in mind. Schools certainly play a very important role in education, and my focus will be on what goes on in them. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that there is education where there are no schools, and that even today much of the most important education takes place outside of schools.

No society can ever have survived without the education of its young. They must learn the ways of the society and how to function within it. Much of this learning may take place in the family or by simply participating in tribal or village life. But most societies also provided occasions when the stories that informed the community’s life were told and enacted. Since, in many places, the institutionalization of religious life preceded that of education, religious institutions contributed to the development of educational systems. In the West, the church spawned the early schools. In Thailand I understand that education was carried out in Buddhist monasteries.

Overall, schools played a minor role in education, globally speaking, prior to the nineteenth century. Of course, they were important, since they helped prepare an elite to play central roles in society. But in most parts of the world, literacy was not yet the norm, and education took place through the process of socialization and by learning trades from practitioners.

In the West, the idea that all should be literate had its roots chiefly in Judaism. For Jews it was desirable that all males study their sacred scriptures, the Torah. Once literate, they had access to other literature as well. They maintained this tradition in the Diaspora in Christian Europe, and their superior education made them useful to rulers, who often had few literate subjects. It gave them an advantage in business as well. No doubt, this contributed to the envy felt by many Christians toward the Jews, which often expressed itself in hatred. Rulers could exploit the talents of the Jews and then, with the support of their people, expropriate the wealth of the Jews and drive them away.

Of course, Christians also had schools during the Middle Ages. Most of these were attached to cathedrals and monasteries. Their purpose was primarily the education of the clergy, although recognition developed of the need for other professionals to be educated. Secular rulers also established schools for the sons of the nobility. There was, however, only sporadic concern for formal education for the artisans, trades people, laborers, and peasants, who made up the majority of the population.

In Thailand I understand that all males were encouraged to spend some time as monks. During this time they were encouraged to study Buddhist scriptures. This usually entailed learning to read. How many became truly literate I do not know, but because so many spent time as monks, literacy was probably more widely spread in Thailand than in Medieval Europe.

The Reformation introduced into Christianity an interest, similar to that of Judaism, that all males have access to the scriptures. The printing press made Bibles widely available. Learning to read and write did not depend entirely on formal schooling, but the aim to have literate heads of households led to the establishment of many schools. A major function of these schools was to inculcate Lutheran or Calvinist beliefs, but they usually introduced students to a wider range of liberal learning. The idea of schooling for all boys was thereby introduced into Protestant societies. In general, this schooling was closely tied to the church.

Accordingly, many Protestant churches established schools for the education of children belonging to those churches. This carried over to the American colonies. However, many, especially of the lower classes, did not participate in this education. In Great Britain and in the United States in the eighteenth century, as part of the evangelical revival, a Sunday School movement emerged that reached out to the youth who were not in school during the week. They were taught to read largely in order to study Christian doctrine.

Partly inspired by this effort to extend literacy to all the children, states began to create public schools. Most Protestant churches merged their parochial schools into these public schools, so that by the nineteenth century they became the dominant form of schooling. In the United States, and also increasingly around the world, the goal of universal schooling provided by the state has become the norm. I understand that similar developments took place in Thailand later in the century. The monastery schools became state schools, and basic education was encouraged by the state.

Despite the takeover of education by the state in the United States, its religious purpose was only partially obscured. The cultural ethos was evangelical Protestantism, and teachers were expected to instill the values associated with that culture. Roman Catholics, recognizing this, maintained their parochial schools. But most Protestants assumed that the values taught in the public schools were simply American ones. We understood our schools to be taking children of immigrants from many cultures and preparing them for participation in American democracy. Only in the late twentieth century were we forced to acknowledge that our values were not simply common sense and "American" but specifically British and Protestant. Since then, the schools have struggled to become culturally neutral.

My understanding is that in Thailand, also, the takeover of the schools by the government did not displace their emphasis on Buddhist values. Since Thailand remains overwhelmingly Buddhist to this day, this emphasis on Buddhism has been maintained. At this point our histories diverge markedly.

I have rehearsed this story to indicate how closely schooling has been connected with religious traditions and even with religious institutions. When, today, in the United States, we ask about the relation of religious communities and educational institutions as if these were two separate entities, we need to recognize how recent is the situation in which this mode of questioning is possible. If, instead, we ask about the relation of our schools to alternative ways of life and systems of value, we may realize that they cannot escape the necessity to be instruments of one, or another, or several, of these.

IV. Education and Religi.on

The preceding sentence is the thesis I want now to develop. Education broadly is the way children are socialized into the culture and prepared to play a constructive role within it. Culture cannot be separated from a pattern of values and a way of life. What we have called "religions" are traditions or "ways" that embody and transmit such values and cultural forms. New patterns of values and ways of life are often not thought of as religions, but they have the same functions, and I am considering them as alternative "ways". Every society must carry out these educational functions in some way. In the past two centuries, much of this task has been assigned to public schools.

Actually, the schools are sometimes assigned additional responsibilities. For example, they may be asked to work for individual betterment of their students. The Sunday Schools that in the United States influenced the establishment of public schools were intended in part to save the souls of their students who had no other religious instruction. In the minds of their founders, this otherworldly goal was closely related to concern for the personal development of the pupils here and now. Although the public schools did not make the otherworldly goal explicit, they continued the worldly one. To this day, many teachers care about their students as individuals and seek to support their personal development. In the United States, while it has become more problematic for teachers to interest themselves in the personal development of their students, we have broadened the responsibility of schools in other directions, using them to improve the physical and mental health of children. In this way the schools continue functions that historically belonged to the churches.

Preparing students to perform useful roles in society is a largely uncontroversial task of schools. Parents want their children to be able to do this, and society needs this to be done. Even so, the understanding of what is primarily at stake here is not universally self-evident.

In the United States in the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth, it was understood that students should be prepared to play their roles as citizens of the nation. Since the nation was a democracy, they needed the background knowledge that would enable them to act responsibly in the political sphere. This required that they learn English as the language of the American people, and something of the history and literature of Great Britain whose culture shaped the United States. This was set in a wider context of a Eurocentric world history. Students needed also to study American history and government. These were taught chiefly in a celebratory style, rather than a critical one, so as to instill pride in being American. Probably Thai education has been analogous, teaching students to read history from a Thai perspective so that they can function well as citizens of the Thai democracy.

Being an American and being a Protestant Christian were usually closely connected in this instruction, much, I suppose, as being Thai and being Buddhist are closely connected in instruction here. Since it was assumed, and indeed often stated, that the United States was a Protestant nation, it was difficult to say whether the culture into which students were socialized was more Protestant or more nationalistic. During some periods, pledging allegiance to the flag was a regular ritual, but it could also be declared that the nation was under God.

The histories studied were written from a nationalistic American perspective, but they were typically written from a Protestant perspective as well. The school celebrated both national and Christian holidays. At both, the ceremonies include Protestant prayer and readings of scripture. Protestant pastors were often involved. Prayer and scripture reading might occur in classrooms as well. On the other hand, it was assumed that the Protestant prayers would call for blessings on the nation and not stand in judgment upon it. Again, I suspect that by substituting "Thai" for "American" and "Buddhist" for "Protestant", you can recognize analogies here.

The schools encouraged an ecumenical Protestantism. It was important that they not favor one denomination over others. The churches themselves increasingly supported this ecumenical approach as the basis for the culture. We sometimes speak of a civil religion that, although clearly Protestant in ethos, merged this Protestantism with patriotism. American politicians appealed to this civil religion, and still do so. It was into this civil religion that the schools socialized their students.

Since World War II, and especially during the 1960s, the situation in the United States changed in ways that may have no parallels in Thailand. In Thailand the Muslim, Christian, and tribal minorities are sufficiently small that Buddhist culture can be considered normative for the nation as a whole. In the United States, more and more groups challenged the dominance of Protestant British culture in the nation. The shift in the Black movement from the aim of integration to the aim of taking pride in a distinct culture and history was of crucial importance. Once this idea caught on, Hispanics, as well as the various Asian communities, began to reclaim the values of their cultures. The Jewish opposition to the Christian character of public education became more effective. The centuries-long effort to destroy the separate Native American cultures and integrate these people into the American mainstream was recognized as destructive. Even the non-Anglo Europeans began to claim an equal voice with the Anglos. Atheists led the fight against the theistic language of civil religion.

The specific details I have mentioned have little significance outside the United States. The point, here, is that public schools were pressed to recognize cultural pluralism and to avoid favoring any one religious tradition over against others. In terms of what education has always been, and in its totality always must be, this was an enormous change. Education has always been socialization into a scheme of values, namely, that of the culture in which it takes place or of the culture that controls the system. The recognition of cultural pluralism meant that the schools could no longer fulfill this function, that they must be culturally neutral.

If you have understood what I have been saying thus far, you will know that I view cultural neutrality as an impossible goal for schools. Schooling cannot be abstracted from the communication of values. The question is only which set of values will be transmitted.

Cultural pluralism has focused on the great historic traditions. Protestants must recognize the equal claims of Catholics and Jews. All of these must acknowledge the equal claims of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucianists.

The dominant response has been to adopt the values of the modern Enlightenment in order to avoid the particularities of religious traditions. But the Enlightenment does not offer a neutral, objective stance. Conservative Christians have complained, rightly, in my view, that this educational approach leads to the establishment of scientific humanism or something of that sort.

Another possibility would be to give centrality to American nationalism. Certainly the schools continue to support this to some extent. But there are problems here, too. The African-American and Hispanic-American perspectives on American history are very different from the Anglo-American one that heretofore determined how this history was told. The Native American story is even more different. The world history that must now function as the context cannot be the Eurocentric one of the past. Hence, the older methods of socializing students into American patriotism cannot work, once cultural pluralism is acknowledged.

At the same time, another cultural trend was occurring in the North Atlantic countries. Nationalism itself was losing its power. In Europe, ultra-nationalism had plunged the continent, and indeed the world, into two terrible wars. After the second of these World Wars, Europe reorganized itself in such a way as to subordinate the nation state. This subordination has been so successful that it is now inconceivable that European countries would go to war with one another.

It is instructive to see what was appealed to as the unifying principle of this new Europe. French unity can be drawn forth by a common love of France and identity of its citizens as French. But there was no equally strong love of Europe or identity as European. The grounds for European unity, therefore, had to be found in an equally deep human desire.

The name of the original organization of Europe after World War II makes clear what this was. It was called the European Economic Community. Europe was in ruins, and people everywhere wanted a renewed prosperity. This could be achieved best by uniting in a single European community. Although the term "economic" has been dropped from the name of the European Community, economic motivations have not diminished. The eagerness of the nations of Eastern Europe to join the community expresses primarily economic motivations.

Nationalism has not been as deeply discredited in the United States as in Europe. Accordingly, I have shown other reasons that, in the United States, it could not fill the vacuum left in education by the rejection of Anglo-Protestant values. But the alternative to nationalism is similar. Parents would like for their children to adopt the whole range of their values, and for the schools to help this to happen. But when they recognize that the schools cannot do this in general, they still find that the schools can help with one of their values. This value is economic. In order that their children succeed in the American economy, they need first to learn what the economy requires for success. In the absence of other values, the public schools find their justification in preparing students to work. It is now because of the contribution of the schools to the training of workers that state legislators fund them. The legislators recognize that a well-trained work force is essential to prosperity.

I understand that there has been even less discrediting of nationalism in Thailand, just as the unity of nationalism and Buddhism has been able to continue. Nevertheless, the new orientation of schooling toward employment seems to have taken hold here as well. Apparently it is integrated more fully with religion and nationalism in Thailand than has been possible in the West.

The "way" that has succeeded civil religion as shaping American public schools today is, therefore, capitalism. Of course, it does not have unlimited control. Many teachers are still concerned with the personal development of students in ways that are not closely tied to success in the market. Nationalism is still important. Scientific humanism still influences the way many courses are taught. The ethos of civil religion continues to affect the overall climate of many schools. New values arising from cultural pluralism itself, such as the appreciation of otherness, are emerging. But all of these need to justify themselves, at least in part, by their contribution to the local and national economy.

The values that are transmitted in this way are too limited to constitute a full education. Some efforts are made to allow them to be supplemented with off-campus religious instruction. But this has only minimal effect, some of it negative. Obviously, parents remain important educators, and some are able to transmit their values in ways that supplement or even oppose those of the schools. Traditional religious institutions continue to have a role in supporting and supplementing what parents can do. But many young people are little affected by all this.

Television and contemporary popular music now play a major role in the education of American young people. They transmit common American values, including consumerism and the support of capitalism. But in catering to youth, they also help to create a rapidly shifting youth culture that is quite disconnected from that of adults. The pressures for conformity exercised on young people by this culture are often greater than those exercised by parents or schools.

A youth culture is not, of course, a new phenomenon. Nevertheless, its power in the United States, and as exported elsewhere, is, I think, new. When young people grow up in a more or less homogeneous society, where parents, religious leaders, and schools all confidently communicate traditional values, they may rebel to some extent, but they are also likely to assimilate much of the tradition. Their establishment of their own identity is more likely to be through new patterns of the same values, new emphases, and new modifications. A fully separate youth culture, to which they are pressured by one another to conform, rarely develops. It is my guess that, in Thailand, such a youth culture is held strongly in check.

The dominance of youth culture in American high schools caused by the weakness of traditional values is not favorable to the market economy of capitalism. This culture does not encourage the personal discipline, obedience, loyalty, and honesty that capitalists want in their employees. Even the acquisition of the needed skills in reading, writing and arithmetic is often hindered, because the youth culture does not encourage studiousness. Hence, the present educational system is not succeeding even for those leaders of the economic order whose values it embodies.

Indeed, capitalist ideas, when themselves effectively inculcated, are recognized by some economists as eroding the very values that are needed for the success of the market economy. Capitalism teaches that we are all self-seeking individuals. This works against the loyalty, community spirit, and honesty that business wants in its employees. For the market to work well, it needs the support of teachings that are alien to its own for the formation of the character of the people who serve it. In the past, the traditional religions have served this purpose. Perhaps in Thailand Buddhist teaching still functions in this way. In the United States, Christian teaching has been excluded from public education.

V. Christian Schools

When schools exist primarily to prepare people for jobs, what they offer is training rather than education. As long as we have work to be done, we need training. And as the work becomes more complex, we need a better-trained work force. Whether this should be paid for by the public or by prospective employers is another question. I tend to think that a fully consistent capitalism would recognize that those who benefit most directly from this training should bear the cost, rather than society as a whole. But our global market economy works against any such change. For our corporations to be competitive, they require all kinds of government support. Training their employees is one form of such support. I see no way to change that any time soon.

On the other hand, job training has in the past been only a small part of the work of the schools. Education, in distinction from training, is the transmission of values and preparation to play one’s role in society. Society is, or should be, much more than the market. Indeed, the values that need to be transmitted include those that relativize the contribution of the market and show how life is much more than economics. All of our religious traditions agree on this, and even scientific humanism and nationalism agree as well. They do not agree on what the wider pattern of values to be transmitted should be.

Although the plurality of religious traditions characteristic of the United States is not characteristic of most countries, and certainly not of Thailand, the issue of pluralism, more broadly conceived is widespread. Even if one of the traditional religious communities dominates the culture, it is now likely to be in competition with values stemming from the European Enlightenment -- what I called scientific humanism. The universalistic elements in this humanism are likely to be in tension with nationalist tendencies as well as with traditional religious teachings. And today, almost everywhere, there is pressure to relate education to the market. To suppose that this pluralism can be solved by neutrality is silly. Thailand appears to have attained a kind of synthesis of all these claims. I am skeptical that the true values of each can be fully articulated in this synthesis.

If the full values of religious communities cannot be transmitted through pluralistic schools, there is an important place for religious schools, paralleling the public schools, despite the valid questions that can be raised about them. In the United States these are of several types. The Roman Catholic parochial school system is still the largest segment of Christian schools. There have always been Protestant schools as well, many of them markedly sectarian. These grew in the South as a result of integration, partly out of segregationist sentiment and partly out of the desire for quality education. As the general quality of public education has declined, at least in public perception, and as the power of the youth culture in public schools has increased, many more parents seek private schools for their children, and many of these schools are connected with churches. Other religious groups, such as Muslims, also have their own schools.

The greatest limitation on private schools, religious and otherwise, is economic. Parents must pay taxes in support of public schools as well as tuition for private ones. Many cannot afford this. As a result, the poor are forced to send their children to public schools, many of which are failing, by any standard, to provide a useful education. This raises the question of whether public money should be used to allow parents to choose private schools for their children. This is the controversy about vouchers that plays an important role in American politics.

I describe this situation to make clear that the United States does not have a good model of religious schools to offer. Nevertheless, I am glad these schools exist. The best of the Christian schools in the United States provide a good education that transmits the values of the Christian faith in a positive and nonsectarian fashion. Since these values encourage discipline and industry, there is no conflict between them and good academic work. They teach much the same curriculum as that in the public schools, but they do not have to minimize the role of the Christian faith in history or disparage its contribution. They can integrate religious ceremonies into the educational experience.

Some Christian schools, no doubt, inculcate negative attitudes toward unbelievers. Others, as noted above, use religion as a cover for racism. Still others socialize their students to accept ideas that are intellectually unsupportable. All this is dangerous in a pluralistic society and damaging to the students involved. But the best Christian schools do none of this. They encourage students to understand and appreciate cultural and religious differences. I hope that Buddhist schools in Thailand are of this superior character.

These schools are not free from the economistic context in which they operate. Often parents select them because they believe their children get better academic preparation there to get into a prestige college and obtain a good job. The schools do not repudiate this motivation on the part of the parents. Nevertheless, teachers are free to share their concerns and commitments with their students. They are likely to take an unabashed interest in the personal development of their students in ways not closely connected to their academic, or future economic, success. They can work for a wider horizon of understanding that makes possible a more critical spirit. They often encourage a commitment to mutual cooperation and to service of others and of society as a whole. These commitments are in tension with capitalist ideology but actually have a beneficial effect in the capitalist economy. And these schools can also graduate students with an intelligent understanding of the Christian faith that is increasingly rare in our society.

Because of the strength of the shared values of the teachers and the close working relationship between teachers and parents, these schools are usually free of the more negative aspects of the youth culture. One may object that the youth are too protected, but I do not find this criticism significant. Adolescence is difficult to negotiate. To make it easier by providing a supportive context for good decisions seems to me an important gain. It is one that Christian schools can offer.

Even these best Christian schools must face the charge that they are elitist, attracting those with money and scholarly ability, thus giving them still another advantage over those who must attend the inferior public schools. Many schools counter this criticism to some extent. They admit some students on scholarship. They work for ethnic and cultural, even religious, diversity. But it remains true that they attract children from the most motivated families and advance them on their way. The question is whether forcing all these children to attend public schools would in fact be a benefit to the students there. It is a difficult question. Christians do not want to reduce the chances for students to get a good education in the public schools. But my own judgment is that the absence of some of the more highly motivated students is not the primary problem with the public schools; and in any case these students might lose much of that motivation if forced to attend those schools. If that makes Christian schools elitist, they should simply acknowledge the fact.

On the whole, what I am calling the best Christian schools are small. Size itself is an important factor in what they are able to accomplish. It is my belief that when Christian schools aim to become large, the possibility for community between faculty and students, and for the communication of values that takes place in such community, diminishes. The school is likely to be more like a public school and to compete with the public school according to standards and norms that are not distinctively Christian. At some point the justification for the existence of such schools, or at least the justification of their support by the churches, becomes questionable.

I have limited myself to Christian schools and have, in fact, had Protestant schools chiefly in view. I know, however, that Catholic parochial schools have also made a great contribution. They have sometimes provided the only good education available in inner cities. I omit a serious discussion of them chiefly out of ignorance.

I omit also any discussion of Islamic schools. It is my guess that Catholic and Islamic schools in the United States include some that have damaging tendencies and others that are analogous to what I have called the best among Protestant schools.

I have said nothing about Buddhist schools. I do not know of any that offer the first twelve years of work in the United States, though that certainly does not mean they do not exist. If they do exist, I would expect that what I have seen as the greatest dangers in sectarian education would be less likely to be exemplified, and the best possibilities more often realized. They would differ according to whether they were designed to preserve one of the dominantly Buddhist ethnic cultures or were led by Euro-American converts to Buddhism. If the former, the question would be whether they also prepare their students to enter the pluralistic society in which they will live. In the latter case, they are likely to express all the positive values I hope for in Christian schools.

a. The Christian and Buddhist Contribution to Public Schools

In a pluralistic context, neither Christians nor Buddhists should insist that public schools transmit their values. We may, of course, speak for these values in the public forum, and if we are able to persuade most people, then these values can also influence what goes on in public education. This has happened, for example, with the idea of human rights embodied in the United Nations declaration. These Enlightenment ideas have roots in Christianity, but they can function on their own merits and have proved widely acceptable. In most public school systems, they can be taught.

Nevertheless, the primary contribution of Christians and Buddhists to the discussion about what is to be taught in public schools will be initially critical. I have explained that in the United States, the public school now functions primarily in the service of the capitalist market. Christians and Buddhists have the right and duty to object. Although we no doubt want our children to be equipped to earn a living in the society where they live, we do not want them imbued with the values of capitalism. These are in deep tension with both Christianity and Buddhism. Modifying capitalist values with nationalist ones does not help. And even if the values of the Enlightenment are more acceptable, they do not provide the neutral orientation to which they lay claim. Unfortunately, however, we are often not sensitive to the conflict of values and remain all too silent. This seems to be true in Thailand as well as in the United States.

Of course, negative criticism alone does not help. If we are to have public schools at all, they will embody and express some values, and none are neutral. Capitalist, nationalist, and Enlightenment values are probably the most widely accepted in American society. Hence, it can be argued, they must shape the shared education of American youth.

Another possibility is already partly at work. Instead of avoiding the distinctive values nourished in our several religious traditions, our schools can introduce students to all of them. Thus far this has been limited to helping students to understand the various traditions appreciatively but objectively. This is quite compatible with the needs of the economic and political order for harmonious relations among cultural groups. It cannot satisfy the concerns of participants in the several traditions for transmitting their values.

Some of the values omitted from education today because they are particular to cultural groups may in fact be common to them. The German, Roman Catholic thinker and activist, Hans Kung, has formulated a statement of values that has been accepted by persons from many different cultural and religious backgrounds. Much more work needs to be done, and the document also needs to be viewed from the perspective of those who do not identify with any religious tradition. But it may be that we have given up too quickly on common values that can still ground public education.

There is another direction to explore. Traditions are not static. In addition to discovering agreements and overlaps in the teachings of the various traditions, we may work for the emergence of a new consensus as the traditions interact with one another in a context of mutual respect. This does not mean that they will become one, or that their differences would disappear. But as they learn from one another, the areas of agreement among them may grow. They may find that their own traditions can benefit from the stories of the heroes and saints of other traditions. For example, instead of experiencing the stories of Buddha as a threat to faith, Christians may rejoice that their children learn these and appropriate the message that they express.

In short, the contribution that current participants in the great religious traditions can make, I am using Buddhism and Christianity as my special examples, is to give up the competitive spirit for that of mutuality. The more we work together and learn from one another, the more our shared concerns can affect the public generally and public schools in particular. Only then can our shared critique of capitalism, nationalism, and the Western Enlightenment become effective.