Faith in Schools? Autonomy, Citizenship, and Religious Education in the Liberal State

By Ian Macmullen | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
SECULAR PUBLIC SCHOOLS: CRITIQUES
AND RESPONSES

THE ARGUMENT of the previous part might seem to suggest that religious schools should not be supported, or perhaps even permitted, by the state unless they can be demonstrated to be effective instruments of education for autonomy. But we must be careful not to move too quickly. Before we can assess the implications of the autonomy goal for public policy toward religious schools, and certainly before we can mount any kind of autonomy-based argument against religious schooling, we need to ask whether the alternative, namely, secular schooling, can reasonably be expected to advance children's development of autonomy. Of course, as I discussed in chapter 2, some religious parents object to secular public schools precisely because they believe that such schools have the effect of promoting ethical autonomy. But perhaps this belief, on further examination and especially when seen in the light of the more nuanced conception of autonomy I developed in chapter 3, will turn out to be false.

It might be a mistake to characterize the ethical dimension of secular education as mere even-handed exposure to and critical engagement with a diverse range of doctrines. More fundamentally, it might be a mistake to think that these kinds of encounters with ethical diversity during one's formative years are likely to develop one's autonomy. Even if certain forms of religious education do little to advance the autonomy goal, it may be that secular education is typically no better. We must also consider the charge that any attempt by public authorities to regulate and control schools poses a threat to children's autonomy, ironically even if the intervention's stated purpose is precisely to promote education for autonomy. And, most radically, it may be that we are misguided in thinking that the school as an institutional form is capable of encouraging genuinely independent critical-thinking skills and inclinations in children. If some or all of these concerns turn out to be well-founded, then there would be no clear public policy implications of any finding that certain types of religious school fail to cultivate children's ethical autonomy.

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