This post reviews Steven L. Jones, Religious Schooling in America: Private Education and Public Life (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008).
Jones, Associate Professor of Sociology at Grove City College, here offers a fascinating book about the history of private religious education in America. It’s not a straightforward chronological history but rather a thematic look, showing in chapter after chapter how common themes have animated the Catholic school movement of the 19th century, the Jewish day school movement of the mid 20th century, and the Protestant day school and homeschool movements of the more recent past.
Chapter one sets the table by describing in broad contours the Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant movements. Jones sees the Christian homeschooling movement as a “second wave” of conservative Protestant exodus from public schools, following the Christian day school movement of the 1970s. He offers a competent if cursory history of homeschooling that mentions most of the major figures and ends with a discussion of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). His thesis in this chapter is that in every case, from 19th century Catholics, to mid 20th century Jews, to late 20th century Protestants, national organizations and leaders have played a crucial role in mobilizing their constituencies and promoting the alternative educational option. Families would not have the option of choosing alternatives if these alternatives had not been theorized and constructed by bigger organizations.
Chapter two finds two common philosophical assumptions to undergird all religious private education, be it Catholic, Jewish, or Protestant. First, all groups have argued that their faith traditions give them unique access to truth, for truth comes from God. Jones notes that Monotheism is the common bond shared by 19th century Catholics, mid 20th century Jews, and contemporary Protestants. All believe that “all truth is God’s truth.” Second, all of these religious traditions believe that God has charged parents, not the State, with the task of educating their young. All groups have opposed the efforts of “the State” to usurp this authority, though definitions of the State have changed over time. For 19th century Catholics, the State was establishment Protestantism. For mid 20th century Jews it was Christian America. For conservative Protestants it was (and is) secular humanism. Jones stresses here one of the great ironies of American educational history–that while conservative Protestants used to be the most outspoken advocates against private religious education when it was being done by Catholics and Jews as a means of escaping Protestantized public schools, they now use the exact same arguments for their own separation that Catholics and Jews used in the past.
Chapter three looks at the continuity over time of arguments made against private religious education. There are two basic arguments. First, it has consistently been argued that private schooling (and homeschooling) poses a threat to public education by taking away both fiscal resources and social support from public schools. School districts who lose students to private schools see their per-pupil allocations drop, and they experience a decline in community support as parental energies that ought be going to enhance the public schools are instead spent on private education. Second, sectarian religious education poses a threat to the nation by isolating and segregating young Americans by creed even as it prepares these divided children to hate and fear people who disagree with them, and possibly to try to take over the country. These arguments were made against 19th century Catholics, against mid 20th century Jews, and against late 20th century conservative Protestant day and homeschoolers.
Chapter four shows that the various religious groups have responded to the arguments summarized in chapter three in remarkably similar ways over time. Catholics, Jews, and Protestants have all made the case that their efforts in no way drain resources from public schools. Quite to the contrary. These Americans pay taxes to support public education even though they do not use the benefit. And their lack of support for public education is in fact a civic good, for federally run public education is inefficient and ineffective. Jones shows how anti-statist rhetoric has been an abiding feature of private religious education from the 19th century to the present. As for the charge that religious education threatens to balkanize and radicalize the country, private advocates have typically responded in two ways. They first point out that public schools are by no means models of diversity themselves–they are often just as segregated by race and class as are private schools. Moreover, it could be argued that public education itself is the source of social disorder (a point made with great power in James Fraser’s excellent Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America.) Advocates for private religious education go on to argue that in fact it is they who are safeguarding the heritage of American democracy by “providing competition to the government monopoly,” thereby “protecting and ensuring” diversity and freedom. (pp.101-102)
Chapter five again shows just how much in common the various religious traditions have had, this time looking at how representative textbooks from each tradition deal with American history. The abiding theme is that, far from seeking to sabotage the United States, all groups have embraced the celebratory national narrative and sought to heighten their own particular tradition’s contribution to it. Thus Catholic textbooks of the 19th century stressed the Catholic piety of Columbus and his circle, emphasized positive interactions between the founding fathers and Catholic citizens in early America, and stressed how Catholic doctrine and social teaching undergird the very nature of modern law and governance. Similarly, Jewish textbooks stressed how the Puritans and Deists derived so much of their social thought from the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”), how key Jewish leaders provided financial assistance to George Washington, and how Jews demonstrated that American democracy works by thriving as a minority even amidst a people who for the most part hostile to their religious commitments. When dealing with Protestant day and homeschools, Jones looks carefully at the historical texts of the A Beka and Bob Jones curriculua, probably the two most commonly used curricula both in the Christian day schools of the 70s and 80s and among conservative Protestant homeschoolers. Here as well, these books stress the influence of Christianity on the founders, emphasize the Christian basis of American law and government, and stress overall the guiding hand of Providence in American history. Jones concludes this fascinating chapter by noting that these textbooks showcase “the efforts of religious schoolers to link their histories to America’s own history” and in so doing “to participate in the civil religion while simultaneously celebrating their community’s distinctiveness.” Though they have “opted out of the primary institutional means that confers upon citizens their legitimate place in American public life” their historical self-understanding convinces them that they were “an integral part of American life all along…every bit as American as the public school counterparts.” (p.131)
A final chapter on Islamic schooling closes out the book. Given what he had been saying all along, I was expecting Jones to say that we are seeing in the emerging Islamic school movement yet another manifestation of the same debates we have seen before. But that is not what he does. Instead he offers a far more ambiguous assessment of Muslim schools, noting particularly how so many of them have close ties to Saudi Arabian Wahabbism. This chapter is more journalistic and descriptive than his others and it doesn’t seem to intergrate very well with the rest of the book. It is, however, very interesting in its own right and brings together in just a few pages what little research there is on Muslim schooling.
Jones concludes by offering advice to both public school proponents and advocates of private religious education. He basically tells public school people to calm down and remember that multiple religious traditions have always been a key aspect of American identity–they don’t threaten the social fabric. Privatization folks should likewise curtail the shrill “public school as agent of Satan” rhetoric and help their graduates “meaningfully participate” in shared public life “with those outside their own religious community.” Both sides should recognize that the debate itself is good for democracy, good for the country, and helps us learn more about one another.
I enjoyed this book very much. Historians these days typically stress the discontinuities between movements and time periods. This comparative approach, while not the whole story, is refreshing. I’m reminded of the famous line attributed to Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
As this is a blog on homeschooling research, I have to say that apart from his detailed discussion of the A Beka and Bob Jones history textbooks, everything Jones has to say about homeschooling is derivative. Don’t read the book looking for new information about homeschooling history or current practice. But Jones’ comparative lens does show that the familiar rhetoric of homeschooling leaders like Gregg Harris, Michael Farris, and Chris Klicka has historical precedents in Catholic figures like Bishop John Hughes and Jewish figures like Alexander Dushkin. Similarly, critics of homeschooling like Rob Reich and Michael Apple are often rehashing arguments made by Protestant founding fathers like Benjamin Rush and Noah Webster, by Horace Mann and other common school reformers, and by Protestant nativists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Much of the specificity and integrity of each of these voices is surely lost by making such sweeping generalizations, but even so, Jones’ 160 pages of examples offers pretty convincing testimony that when it comes to rhetoric about the pros and cons of private religious education, there’s not much new under the sun.