In our last post, we observed that there is a deception hidden behind the distinction made between “faith-based education” and “public education.” That deception is the notion that there is such a thing as an education that is not faith-based. However, we explored how nearly a hundred years of cultural anthropological research has demonstrated that all societies are in fact grounded in “faith.” For anthropologists, religion is not a private personalized belief; rather, religion is constituted by the rules, understandings, and goals considered absolute and unquestionable and thereby order and govern social and cultural life.

There is simply no such thing as education that is faith-based and education that is not.

Now, this observation raises an obvious question: Is it not the case that our current public schools make it a point neither to favor nor discriminate against any particular religion? As a public space, people of all faiths are by definition welcome to our schools. Your faith is special to you and we respect that; but, what our public education has done is it has carved out neutral space so as to allow people of all religions to come together and learn facts and data common to everyone.

This certainly suggests that not all education is faith-based. In fact it makes it sound like the publicly neutral space of our schools established by a secular state is quite a noble and civic endeavor: no religion is favored or discriminated against in our state-sponsored schools. This certainly sounds reasonable.

But what if it turns out that it was in fact the secular state that redefined religion this way? What if our understanding of faith and religion as that which belongs in one’s private life rather than in the public square is itself the social invention of the secular state? What if religion has been redefined by the very institution that claims to ‘protect’ it?

We have to remember that prior to the philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment, religion was simply considered as fulfilling one’s social obligations. The Latin term religare means to “re-tie” or “re-bind,” referring to the satisfaction of one’s public duties which, in the ancient world, involved the obligation of honoring the gods along with wider social obligations to one’s family, kin, and guild.

Classical education sought to instill within students just such a religion. By teaching students how to fulfill rightly their social obligations, the student was initiated into a social order in such a way that enabled the student to fulfill his or her divine purpose and thereby become truly human. And this vision of education remained normative for 2,200 years, beginning with Plato, flourishing under the Romans and then into Byzantium and Christendom, and all the way up to the mid-nineteenth century.

However, with the break-up of Christendom in the 17th century and the advent of the philosophical and scientific movement known as the Enlightenment, it became increasingly plausible to view knowledge as limited solely to that which could be verified by a method, namely, the application of science and reason. It was argued that only those things that could be verified by the empirical method were those things that could be known in a way that was completely detached from the preconceptions of the observer. Anything that was not subjected to or failed this method was reduced to the state of person-relativity and excluded from the arena of what can be known. Thus knowledge was now open to man: all he had to do, in any area of life, was to apply the method.

But there was a toll that had to be paid for such promise. Because divine meaning and purpose is impervious to the scientific method it cannot be known, and so it became increasingly plausible to see the world as comprised solely of cause and effect processes that have no meaning apart from that which people chose to give to it.

As a result of this new view of knowledge, you have a whole new definition of religion: religion is no longer a civilizational expression of social obligation; instead, religion is simply something that you personally believe but cannot know, it is that by which one cultivates a sense of private meaning and existential satisfaction, but religion has no public, that is objective, value at all. And if religion cannot be known, then, from the vantage point of the pubic square, it never leaves the realm of doubt, and thus doubt is the proper orientation toward religious claims.

So now we are in a position to return to our original question: Is it not the case that our current public schools make it a point neither to favor nor discriminate against any particular religion? As a public space, are not people of all faiths by definition welcome to our schools?

Well, if we redefine religion to include everything from Christianity to Wicca, from manger scenes to Ouija boards, then yes, that it is true.

But that it is only true to the extent that modern education is successful in redefining religion in such a way that excludes itself from that definition.

And modern public education excludes itself from the definition of religion by perpetuating a dichotomy between science and religion, fact and faith, knowledge and belief, public and private.

And here’s the irony:

This dichotomy, this consignment of science and religion into two different social domains – the public and the private – is not itself based on a scientific experiment and it is not itself intrinsic to any logical formula; the dichotomy between science and religion, public knowledge and private belief, is nothing less than a Creed; it is a Confession of Faith, a Dogma, what anthropologists call an ‘ultimate sacred postulate.’ And it is into this Creed – the Creed of a secular social order – that students across the nation are initiated every day in state-monopolized schools.

I simply do not believe that there will be any real solution to our current educational crisis if there is anything less than a unified rejection of this religion/science, faith/fact dichotomy that is at the heart of the secular state’s monopoly over public education.

What I am really arguing for here is nothing less than a paradigm shift – one that recognizes that all of our assumptions about civic and social order rest upon and are governed by communally shared rules, understandings, and goals that are considered absolutely true and unquestionable and thereby provide the foundation for a collective sense of the common good.

Therefore I am not arguing against public schools and for parochial schools per se; indeed, parochial schools by virtue of their private status in many ways perpetuate inadvertently this very public/private dichotomy. Instead, I am arguing against the secular monopolization by the state over the public square from which our dichotomy between public and parochial schools is an extension.

And so, is there any hope? And how does school choice fit into all of this? This will be the subject of our next post.

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