(submitted for doctoral study – Fall 2004)
Sociologist and Philosopher, Emile Durkheim came of age in Franceduring the Industrial Revolution, and was thrust into a period fraught with angst over a perceived moral decay. As a scholar, he added his name to a growing list of secular intellectuals who pondered the role of religion in “an age without religion”. (Coser, 1977) Not unlike late-twentieth century America, which WT Anderson (1990) describes in Reality Isn’t What it Used to Be as sporting “more things to believe in; not more of what we once called belief”, nineteenth-century Europe, and in fact much of the industrialized world, was struggling with the concept of the existence of God and the challenge of morality in a changing world. This angst is evidenced in writings such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”, where Dostoyevsky’s characters wrestle with the legitimacy of religion, and the reality of an omnipotent God. The unease around questions of religious absolutism versus a human condition without religion is unmistakable throughout the dialogue. In one such exchange, Ivan suggests a dark alternative reality to his (monastic) younger brother: “…there was an old sinner in the eighteenth century who declared that, if there were no God, he would have to be invented. And man has actually invented God. And what’s strange, what would be marvelous is not that God should really exist; the marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God, could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man.” (Garnett, 1859/1996)
Clearly, religion, or the lack thereof, and the implications of either for mankind, lay heavy on the minds of nineteenth century thinkers, and to the degree that Durkheim’s position on the role of religion shifted from one that viewed religion as the “cement of society” (Coser, 1977) to a view that “religion was not divinely or supernaturally inspired [but] was in fact a product of society” (Dunham, 1999). Consider a textbook Sociology definition of religion: provides social cohesion (through group identification), social control, and a means for emotional support in difficult times. (Tischler, Whitten, Hunter, 1986) During a period of societal upheaval where the means for controlling the masses appears to be crumbling, it is little wonder that academics and others pondered the outcome for a society pulling away from long standing moral anchors. Interestingly, a number of years before Dostoyevsky wrote and Durkheim theorized, governments on both sides of theAtlantic Ocean had begun campaigns to address the issue of social control, not through religion, but by instituting compulsory public education.
Historian David Tyack (1976) references three global examples of compulsory schooling as a means for social control in his piece, “Ways of Seeing”, describing the perpetuation of “militant nationalism” in nineteenth century Prussia, as well as the use by more liberal countries (namely France and the United States), who used education as “an instrument … to … turn people with diverse loyalties into citizens of a new entity…”. The deliberate nature in the intentions behind public schooling is evident almost immediately after the American Revolution, when in 1783, Noah Webster published his ‘Blueback Speller’. In addition to its value as a textbook, Webster’s speller served to ‘Americanize’ colonial children, co-opting any remnants of British influence, and propagating a distinctly American version of the English language. (Kaestle, 2001)
By the time Horace Mann set about reforming American schools in the mid-nineteenth century, the democracy was intact, but tensions were on overload as churches competed for members and political parties vied for votes. In the introduction to “Schools: The Story of American Public Education”, David Tyack (2001) foreshadows the parallels between a supposed secular public education system, and religion in the United States as he describes Mann’s contention that religious fighting could cease “at the door of the common school”. Mann and like-minded reformers believed that the primary purpose of public education was character development. At that time, character was presumed to be was based on religion, which relied heavily on the Bible for guidance; therefore, these mainstream Protestant reformers reasoned, “moral education” should be biblically-based, but without “sectarian comment”. (Tyack) Not surprisingly, this perspective, though held by a majority of citizens at that time in the United States, did not sit well with Catholics, Jews, and others who felt that the ‘non-sectarian’ curriculum aligned itself too closely with mainstream Protestant thought.
Infusion of political thought continued to be disseminated via curricula of the public school, but met with less protest due to the fact that citizenship in nineteenth centuryAmerica, cut across many cultural, religious and ethnic lines, and while Catholics and Methodists almost never agreed on the Bible, they shared a love of country and citizenship. (Tyack) There exists little doubt that education played a major role in creating a nation where once stood thirteen disparate colonies, but intellectually, where did co-opting British influence end and character education begin? What is religion’s role in society and is it related to the role that education plays, and more importantly to a postmodern perspective, can America education’s current issues be addressed without acknowledging its ecclesiastical roots, as well as the continued parallel roles that religion and education play in maintaining order within society?
From a sociological perspective, religion and education bestow similar functions to society. Religion is defined as a mechanism for providing social cohesion (through group affiliation and identification), social control and emotional support. Likewise, education’s definition as a system for the transmission of roles and norms which ensure the passing of knowledge from generation to generation hints strongly at social control. (Thomas, 1995) Functionalist Sociologists regard education as a means to maintain stability, providing the best framework for the perpetuation of a smoothly-operating society. In fact, it is widely believed that aside from the family unit, the school is the most important (and obvious) means for teaching a society’s children. (Thomas) Conflict Sociologists agree with the premise that schools perpetuate roles and norms, but decry the social control condoned by the public school system as a tool of the majority, ‘manufacturing’ citizens who accept society’s inequalities without question. Sociologists in this camp further charge that a hidden curriculum exists, whereby the transmission of cultural goals is covertly undertaken, teaching conservative values and obedience to authority, to the benefit of the dominant group. In other words, the schools construct a reality that suits the majority, and embed it into the curriculum so that it effortlessly becomes reality for all. (Tischler, et al., 1986) Regardless of the perspective, it is clear that religion and education – both social constructs of humankind – serve in a capacity to mold society.
Fast forward to the late twentieth century, and writer W.T. Anderson (1990) describes exoteric religion as having a heavy reliance on doctrine, symbols rules and organization, with an eye toward maintaining order. Anderson recognizes the sociological role of religion, specifically doctrinal (exoteric) religion in shaping a social order that is logical and disciplined, and maintains that the doctrinal nature of exoteric religion embodies “society’s construction of reality…and makes [it] available (understandable) to all”. From primitive to modern societies, the maintenance of order has been essential for survival. In earlier periods, from before the age of the Greeks, to Medieval Europe and beyond, religious practices effectively provided a reality, and a psychological order within individuals to control potentially destructive impulses. (Anderson, 1990) For example, it is not hard to imagine that sexual relations outside of an established family unit, adultery, theft and violence against community members can all create chaos and can threaten the survival of the group. According to Abraham Maslow (1999), humans have certain basic needs for survival, and he outlined these needs in a hierarchical format known as ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’. Centuries prior to Maslow’s identification of these needs, religion provided a framework for society to meet at least the first three levels of need: basic physiological needs (protection of life and survival); safety and security needs (do not steal / do not kill / do not THINK about stealing (lust); and the need for loving and belonging, where religion has its stock in trade, not only in reinforcing the need for family integrity, but in consideration by groups as children of God, or chosen people. In the twenty-first century, however; survival of infants born out of wedlock is not as great an issue as in previous periods, and while adultery is still distasteful, the resultant chaos is likely to be limited to immediate players and not the entire community. Theft and murder are still taboo, as well, but society has established mechanisms (organized law enforcement, punishment) for dealing with perpetrators of such crimes, so that again – the community remains intact. In these areas and over time, religion has lost a lot of its relevance, and Anderson (1990) would suggest that this is due to religion being a construct of the human mind, subject to change as humans are; but have the power of these religious admonishments faded due to a complex societal arrangement, or have these duties been subsumed by our educational system?
Historians often describe public education as a shaper of citizens, as does Tyack (2001) in an introduction to the book, “School: The Story of American Public Education”. Likewise, sociologists document that the teaching of Mathematics,Reading, History and Geography are combined with lessons of patriotism, loyalty to the nation and guidelines for socially acceptable behavior for the citizenry. Some examples that seem almost too obvious to list include, be punctual, obey rules, and respect authority, and are based on a simple system of rewards and punishment. This framework is not unlike religion’s centuries old stock in hellfire and damnation. Believers ‘knew’ that if they went to church, tithed appropriately, loved their neighbors, and read the Bible, they could be spared from the fiery depths of Hell, and live eternally in Heaven, where ‘all good boys and girls live when they die’: rewards and punishment. In postmodern societies, does this system of rewards and punishment continue to prove effective?Anderson(1990) contends that as far as religion goes, no. According toAnderson, no one but a handful of Fundamentalists (Christians) believes in the existence of Hell, and even the Roman Catholic church has refrained from the mention of Hell in documents published as far back as the 1960s. But education is different; the rewards of participating in and realizing the benefits of a formal education, unlike the misty realm of a supernatural belief system are concrete and indisputable,…or are they?
Consider the implied rewards for successful participation in formal public schooling: if you do well, and stay out of trouble, you can advance to a good job or career (whether immediately after high school, in earlier years, or after a stint at college) The indisputable fact that keeping one’s nose clean, earning good grades and staying in school has gone to Hell – literally; this belief has evaporated just like the fear that stealing a candy bar will send you to Satan’s fiery chambers. Why and when did this happen? While there is no specific date or line of demarcation, the erosion of the rewards and punishment model in education began to fade on the heels of the fading of Hell from religious teachings in the 1970s. The 1970s, heralded as the period of the ‘me generation’, ushered in a new era of discontinued, school-sanctioned prayer (over the loudspeaker) in small towns acrossAmerica(Harmon, 1970) and the repeal of a dress code that required girls to wear skirts or dresses in public schools. The conflict inViet Namangered and confused Americans about their government’s integrity and in 1974, a stunned nation watched their President admit he had lied then resign the office of the Presidency.
Anderson(1990) characterizes the primary struggle of postmodern life as the “struggle for hearts and minds”, and a quick review of the turbulent decades leading up to the turn of the twenty-first century is rife with examples of this conflict. From a small-town American perspective, it seemed as though American history could be written as pre-VietNam; when you could still trust the government and the church, and post-VietNam, where all bets were off – no one, and no institution was above suspicion. A scholarly review of nineteenth century French thinkers quickly puts that narrow view to rest, but the symbolic breach of trust in the American psyche lives with society, and especially in our classrooms, today. In an ‘emperor-has-no-clothes’ moment,Anderson(1990) speaks to the fact that there is “too much evidence that it is possible to be, simultaneously, a holy man (or woman) of high repute and an irresponsible twit.” Sadly, this same fate has befallen our educational system, but somewhat in reverse. Gone are the days when success was found by working hard, keeping your nose clean, making the grades and getting a scholarship. Today, scroll through any number of cable channels and you will be invited into the luxurious surroundings of a professional athlete, rap star or mafia family, whose wealth and fame came, not through the traditional route of education, but through other means. Education as the only means to a successful end has suffered serious setbacks in recent years. Take the example of rapper, “50-cent”. Wildly popular as a rap artist, he was once a drug dealer, boasts being shot nine times and to this day wears bulletproof vests. He considers these aspects of his life to be as important to his status as an idol, as are his songs. (Russell, 2003) Professional athletes routinely misbehave and while they are penalized, their status generally does not diminish, nor their ability to earn a living. Consider the recent flap between the Pittsburgh Steeler’s Joey Porter and the Cleveland Brown’s William Green. According to the Associated Press, “They spit in each other’s faces, exchanged a few wild punches and several nasty, not-fit-for-print words during pregame warmups.” The punishment? Each player was ejected from Sunday’s Browns/Steelers game. Further research reveals that Green missed eight games last season after being suspended by the NFL for failing the league’s substance-abuse policy. (AP, 2004)
A recent post on the Core discussion board decried not only the upswing in cheating, but the nonchalance about the infraction when caught. Several K-12 Administrators bemoaned the fact that kids today have no sense of pride in their work, no work ethic, and little integrity when it comes to academic honesty. I was surprised more people did not recognize this as our inheritance! As a society, we are reaping what we have sown. Religion held itself up as the gold standard, and as more people recognized the double standards and the heroes’ clay feet, participation and absolutist belief began to dwindle. Similarly, in education we are trying to sell something that is quickly losing its value. Not only can thugs, athletes with no education and mobsters attain wealth, stature and fame, but the acquisition of a college education no longer guarantees the graduate a good job. Old formulas for success do not work the way they once did, and reform is crucial in the halls of education. In the same way that our reliance on religion for the solution to all evils is ill-fated, as Anderson (1990) suggests, “if we are going make it into the postmodern world at all, we are going to have to develop greater confidence in our ability to survive without the certainty that we have any cosmic prop for our values and beliefs.”, our reliance on old ways of educating society’s youth must be reevaluated in the context of a changing world environment. Some changes are predictable, usingAnderson’s model for religion’s reaction to postmodernism, which is that liberalism and increasing numbers of beliefs creates a knee-jerk reaction of some who resort to fundamentalism to “preserve the faith”. In education, we have the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) federal mandate, which in many ways, parallels a fundamentalist religious response to change. Families have changed, the age of innocence has not only changed, but is non-existent for some children, values, beliefs and roles have changed, but in education, we are trying to hold fast to the 3-Rs. Are we falling prey to the same mindset thatAndersoncautions his readers against?
No one knows what the fate of religion as we know it now will be into the vast reaches of the twenty-first century and beyond, but we know what religion has been – and we know where it is now. On understanding religion, W.T. Anderson (1990) quotes Bernard Loomer, a scholar of theology, who after spending years in the study of God and religion, said: “We are born in mystery, we live in mystery, and we die in mystery”. The presence of God, and the truth or fraud associated with the miracles of faith cannot be proved, nor disproved; so the postmodern religious thinker is left to ponder, and observe humankind’s reaction to religion. Education, on the other hand, is a bit more concrete. While we struggle to measure learning, we may find more success in measuring our progress in guiding students toward discovery. Described byAnderson as necessary for survival in the postmodern landscape, this learning centers on the process of continual reality construction, and requires frequent reevaluation – not only against old models, but as an entity entirely to itself. In suggesting a reason for why the American education system loses its way so often, David Tyack (2001) contends that reformers don’t want to look backwards. He accuses them of having amnesia about where they have been, and while stepping out of the box works well for discovery in a postmodern environment, Tyack’s point that we all use “some sense of the past in everyday life” rings true. Reinventing education, like reinventing religion is a senseless undertaking, but real progress may be made if we can evaluate today’s reality, with knowledge of the past, but with a focus on the reality of today.
((cannot locate reference page – will update when I resurrect the old computer!))