Pluralism and Education: Testing the Limits of Liberal Democracy

Paul Harvey

My apologies to blog readers for being relatively absent here. Finishing up two big writing projects here is keeping me busy 24/7, and will continue doing so until next week. Fortunately, no one to date has yet noticed my absence since Kelly and the other contributors have filled up the page with great posts. Following all of Kelly's gender history and historians series should keep you busy for a while anyway. We've got much on the plate coming up -- some new contributors, a blog interview with Darren Dochuk, and, but wait, there's much, much more!

I wasn't even able to post anything about the many sessions at the Organization of American Historians meeting in Houston two weeks ago, primarily because I was stuck nearly the entire time there in lengthy committee meetings. Fortunately, History News Network followed the conference. I want to recommend especially the Day 2 Report from the OAH, which features a lengthy description of a session entitled "Pluralism and Education: Testing the Limits of Liberal Democracy." The session featured blog friend Kevin Schultz and others exploring the topic. Here's an excerpt from the description at HNN:

Remalian Cocar, a PhD student at Emory University, presented a paper on “released time,” the first paper of its kind since Jonathan Zimmerman wrote a chapter on the subject (“I think maybe five people read it,” he joked). Released time refers to a once-common practice of releasing students from school into the care of local religious organizations. It was voluntary but there was a hidden element of coercion in the practice, especially in smaller and more homogenous communities. Released time started as a Protestant program at the beginning of the twentieth century, but Catholics and to a much lesser extent Jews participated. In fact, Catholics outnumbered Protestants in release time programs in public schools in Chicago by the 1920s and in New York by the 1940s.

In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled released time a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments in McCollum v. Board of Education, but the Court partially reversed itself in 1952 inZorach v. Clauson, which held that schools could release students for religious instruction provided that the sessions took place off of school property.

Corcar made emphasized that, at least initially, released time was a mainline Protestant practice, but one which was adopted by Catholics and later by evangelicals. For the former, it allowed an inroad into an overwhelmingly Protestant public school system (it was for this reason, Corcar reminded his audience, that Catholics wanted their own parochial schools). But both Catholic and mainline Protestant organizations mainly stuck to either religious or progressive social lesions, whereas by the 1980s evangelical groups were teaching biblical creationism, a matter foreseen by Felix Frankfurter, the author of the McCollum decision, when he predicted evangelicals would roast him over the fire.But how will evangelicals react, Corcar wondered, if and when other religions, specifically Muslims, requested their released time?

Kevin Schultz, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, then discussed the critique of secularism expounded by William F. Buckley, deeply rooted in Catholic critiques of Protestant domination of education but utilized by both Catholics and Protestants. Both groups argued (and continue to argue) that a secular education provides an incomplete education, as it omits the importance of God, religion, and tradition in a child’s upbringing.

Earlier remarks had been made by Claremont McKenna’s Diana Selig, who analyzed the successes and failures of the Springfield model of liberal education. Springfield, MA, hosted a comprehensive liberal education program, sparked by national interest in intercultural education and implemented by progressive Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders, along with faculty from Columbia’s Teachers College; ">It was not a unique program in its broad contours, but differed from others in its systemic, as opposed to superficial, prescriptions. Curriculum committees were set up with input from teachers, principals, the community, and students. This entailed interaction between entire black and white families, and, less remarkably, similar religious exchanges.

The program, however, was not a panacea—it was implemented in a city with a very small black population, and a few black teachers and students were unthreatening to white residents and the white power structure. As the town became increasingly diverse, the Springfield model began to fracture.

Jonathan Zimmerman made a few broad remarks at the end, raising questions about how much critical thinking, centered around the notion of critique, took place as a result of the Springfield project (were there some claims, like the inherent equality of the races, that progressive educators left uncontested?) and wondered if released time was at heart a pluralist impulse rooted in the needs of the various Protestant and Catholic religious communities. On the other hand, John Dewey was a fierce critic of released time because he felt it undermined democracy. One wonders, said Zimmerman, what he’d say about the heavy evangelical presence in released time today.


Phil Sinitiere said…
Speaking of the OAH, I attended an exciting panel on some of the latest in modern evangelical scholarship. Eileen Luhr discussed her fascinating insights into radicalism and Christian colleges of the 1960s, Patrick Jackson, a Ph.D. candidate at Vanderbilt with a bright future, made the case to place mid-century fundamentalists into the narrative of American religious history, and RIAH’s own Steven Miller showcased some of his cutting-edge work on 1970s evangelical culture/politics that involved evangelical sex manuals and anxieties about the apocalypse.

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