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date: 17 February 2020

(p. xi) Foreword

(p. xi) Foreword

Astonishment would likely characterize the response of Americans who are casual about religion if they come across a book as weighty as is this one, especially when they note that “religion and education” is the focus. Most of them are at least dimly aware that most local congregations of Protestants support Sunday Schools or other part-time educational institutions. If they are Catholics or know Catholicism, they will be aware of parochial schools as the main instrument for teaching children the essentials of Christian faith and practice through the high school years. Every Jewish center will employ a counterpart to these Christian institutions for education on the Sabbath. If readers should browse in a handbook like this, that astonishment would no doubt deepen. “Religion and Education” is a major and complex enterprise.

Awe would likely characterize the response of educators, teachers, tutors, and mentors among the less-casual participants in religious activities. They would read on after browsing to be directed at the end of each chapter to “future directions” and, more, to be referred to “references” that support the authors of chapters. They would also allow those in their acquaintance, especially those in professions responsible for such education, to become more aware, involved, informed, and inspired about the situations and resources, but also to take part in the enterprises of religious education.

Astonished and awed as we picture them becoming, we can also picture that several stereotypical or caricatured forms and expressions of religious education will have been challenged and replaced. For example, they will find full attention given to advanced academic endeavors. Among these are graduate schools of religion that are peers of those devoted to professions like law and medicine or to the liberal arts. To know that education on this level goes on is one thing, but knowing how to pursue such teaching, research, and learning in general demands specialized approaches, many of which are outlined on the pages that follow.

As awareness grows about opportunities and challenges at such levels, there will also be reason for the no-longer-casual observer or participant in religion-and-education to make new sense out of secondary education when it makes headlines or at least causes confusion and acrimony in immediate local communities. Citizens who place a high premium on religion and education bring intensity to the extremes of “pro” and “con” sides on the subject. Whoever doubts this is invited to visit school board meetings (p. xii) where holidays, greetings, and customs appeal to some elements of a community but are opposed by others. The records of the US Supreme Court decisions on “school prayer,” “religious expressions in school ceremonies,” and the presence of symbols such as the Christian cross give evidence of the need for light and the presence of heat in local controversies relating to any and all of these.

Controversy and bewilderment on the higher levels of education raise complex issues relating to the youngest students, because parents of various religious faiths or non-faiths care greatly about what is taught and practiced beginning at the kindergarten level. Here alternatives to public education or private religious education in complex communities abound, typically in homeschooling movements and expressions. This does not mean that religious education is something about which only parents disagree: religious professionals are puzzled, faith factions of diverse sorts differ from each other, and educators in public schools face problems related to personal identity.

Whether informed or not, sophisticated or otherwise, adult Americans find good reason to use the schools, public and religious alike, as arenas where valuable experiments will and should occur. This is true in no small measure because of the presence of pluralism with its many faces. The particularities of American life are infusers of the religious and spiritual elements in much education as well as the agents of religious indifference, hostility, or calculated passivity. Many ask, why not let public and charter and religious schools go about their business without interference by religious voices? Why not let the civic officials and the courts monitor what goes on in public and private schools alike?

Even in such situations, educators need assistance of the sort this handbook seeks to provide. Back up, some might say: let the often-invoked “Founding Fathers” of this nation and the major educators have the final word, and we will depend on their counsel. Not so fast, the veterans and experts will say. They will note that the attitudes people bring to religion in civil spheres are based in profound commitments to the teachings and practices of diverse, often competing, and sometimes warring sectors of the public. Rereading the writings of those Founders who tried to set the terms for living in a republic, not only in its religious dimensions, does not solve everything, as, again, the record of conflict in and during and over US Supreme Court records makes clear. One historian finally threw in the figurative towel with a judgment: the Founding Fathers solved the religious problem in the United States by not solving the religious problem.

Differences over education are complicated because beliefs and policies, as this book demonstrates, have many different sources and colorations. Regional differences count for much. The public understandings of and about religion find expression in, say, Utah, with its significant Latter-Day Saints populations, but vastly different ones in Boston or the Bronx, in Deep South Mobile, or counties in the Northeast where Jews are strongly represented. This handbook is written by educational veterans and experts who are aware of all this, but in most cases greet the situation as one of opportunity, not disaster.

From the first chapter on, one word or concept colors much of what follows: choice. In the previous centuries, where almost universally one religion was established by law, as it was in most countries that fed populations into the United States, the opportunity to (p. xiii) choose approaches and concepts was both a luxury and a necessity. Fundamental to the issue of religious choice, as Jonathon Kahn makes clear, is the light or shadow thrown on religious education by the secular, secularization, and kin form of that verbal construct. Philosophers, politicians, and parents experience secularization in its many forms, all of which color choices about religious education. Recognizing the power of “the secular” or secularization is one thing; defining it is another, as many chapters in this book evidence.

The attempt to render education as being simply (simply?) a secular venture does not solve pedagogical policies or do justice to the presence and power of religious forces, which, the courts and citizenries agree, cannot be the only or even the main determiners of what goes on in the schools. Some of the authors here discuss the problem of providing moral bases in a republic if the secular voice is given the microphone and the secular approach given the yardstick. Sometimes the chapter authors put energy into the issue of character formation, which necessarily goes on in every school. How is this executed if religion, traditionally a major agent in character building, is absent?

Not only character is at issue. The student often has a question to deal with before speaking or acting, and not just “what shall I do?” but “who am I, and to what and whom do I belong?” For that reason, one of the key concepts that has to be addressed (and is, in this handbook) is identity. Benjamin Marcus treats this with a “Three Bs” framework: belief, behavior, and belonging. Religion and religions have much to say about all three, and they demand and deserve treatment of the sort they receive in this book.

As this foreword calls attention to pluralism and its dimensions in six “frameworks” chapters that we have regarded as providers of structure for many of the inquiries, the editors also remind us that many matters of “religion and American education” are not contained only in civic contexts. There is a larger and even more complex “out there” that deserves and, in this book, receives helpful treatment. The editors chose Sharon Daloz Parks to “begin at the beginning,” by speaking of religious faith and, specifically, of “faith development,” which has not been the assigned topic to the first six “frameworks” authors but inevitably grows as children grow in learning.

If the discussion of faith moves us readers beyond civic and structural issues, so it is with morals and moral education, which is needed but is always problematic, as Larry Nucci and Robyn Ilten-Gee regard it as they focus on the very young learners. They may be young, but much that belongs to religious education is very old and exists coded as “tradition.” Mark A. Hicks reaches back into the traditions that haunt or inspire religious education. These traditions of faith and moral teaching are not confined to isolated religious communities. Eboo Patel and Noah J. Silverman carry the topic further by referring to “interfaith education,” watching how this developed and how it faces change and provides innovative forms for reducing conflict and promoting understanding.

Most intimate among educational institutions, of course, are homes. “Homeschooling” has its historical roots in “oppositional” agencies whose leaders are often suspicious of inherited outside-the-home educational agencies. Another invention by and among those critical of conventional public school policies, particularly in funding, is the “charter school.” Charter schools are not necessarily “oppositional,” but they definitely (p. xiv) are “alternative,” and they raise issues of “church-and-state” combinations, which were explored in an earlier chapter. How did charter schools make their case, since they are not simply “public,” though much of their funding is? All the chapters in this section illustrate how educational invention produces forms that challenge and, one hopes, may improve public education.

After visiting that intimate scene, the authors deal with the larger environment again, focusing on the legal-debate background to public funding of private religious schools by tracing the history and implications of a “no-funding rule,” which is anything but settled and static. Public school issues, in this case as in others, come down to the debates over the law. John Witte, Jr. is the recognized expert on what all this means for law, which informs, is arbiter among, and polices mainly public school life. He and Brian Kaufman launch a sequence of historically detailed instances and problems.

The space given to introductions and forewords in books like this has to be limited, but they can also inspire readers and users of such a reference work to project directions. So our object from this point on is to point to what is ahead for them. “Religious Expression in Public Schools” by Kevin R. Pregent and Nathan C. Walker is another chapter whose subject produces debate about boundaries. What is ruled out and encouraged in here are issues with which, again, school boards must deal while unofficial individuals and groups want to, and do, express themselves, often creatively and sometimes obstructively. While much expression in public schools is ceremonial and symbolic, controversies over what to treat in respect to religion, and how to treat it, is most complex when a curriculum has to be developed. For instance, Walter Feinberg concentrates on the place of the Bible, given its role in American public and individual cases, but he also recognizes that “world religions” deserve and demand treatment. So powerful has the Bible been in American life that it cannot be avoided when educators aspire to help prepare students for experiences after they are awarded diplomas.

When I read these chapters for the first time my first impulse, in my “astonishment” and “awed” stages of response, was to say that the editors “thought of everything.” That reaction was the response from someone whose personal religion-in-education can be a distant memory. One asks: “Now we’ve covered the subject?”

Then I turn the page and confront, in Charles J. Russo’s chapter, what we picture most readers are highly aware of, coded as “extracurricular” activities and facilities. That topic only opens the door to other “worlds” in American education, a door that beckons not only educators but citizens of all sorts. It is not my assignment to present digests of these or argue with them. Who could resist arguing, as so many points of view are given a hearing or a reading?

But I began introducing this volume by speaking of being “astonished” and “awed,” so I hope readers will also be astonished and awed as they are putting this handbook to work, and keeping it in play.


Martin E. Marty, Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service

Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago