a journal of analysis and comment
advancing public understanding of religion and education
Spring 2002, Vol. 29 No. 1
Review of Raymond R. Roberts' Whose Kids Are They Anyway?: Religion and Morality in America's Public Schools. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, May 2002.
Charles R. Kniker
The author is a Presbyterian pastor who became interested in the topic of moral education in public schools when he worked on a committee developing community guidelines for values education for the Philadelphia public schools. His increased involvement in the realm of affective education in public education culminated in a doctoral dissertation that is the basis of this book.
A frequent assertion of the author is that American public schools face a crisis of confidence, far greater than any past confrontations and criticisms. They are in danger of losing sufficient public support to remain viable. Roberts does not blame the local schools for this troubling projection, because he believes the schools reflect the fears and values of the wider society. The public schools cannot be expected to be total panaceas solving community and national problems. New pluralisms of ethnic and religious perspectives are making the goals, curriculum, and achievements of the schools more difficult.
For him, a major point of contention about public education is whether or not schools need to include moral instruction in the curriculum. If they should, as Robert contends, how are values and ethical subjects to be treated, considering the pluralism of the nation. To probe multiple facets of the issue, and potential solutions, Roberts examines the writings of five prominent voices in the debate. Two of them are advocates for public schools who assert teachers can carry out effective moral education. Leland Howe, for example, contends that teaching students a valuing process (values clarification) is the best approach. Tom Lickona, a well-known proponent of character education, argues that there specific traits that can be transmitted. Some critics of public education, such as Charles Glenn and Pat Robertson, opt for school choice (vouchers), alternative schools, or at-home instruction. David Purpel, identified as a representative of the "academic left," has criticized current models of moral education as spineless (i.e., taking no positions). Purpel proposes that teachers advocate positions condemning unjust actions by individuals and nations (sometimes called a morality of outrage) and supporting specific strategies(such as environmental education).
To his credit, Roberts very clearly informs the reader where he is going, chapter by chapter. Following a brief (and too simplistic) history of moral education in American public schools, he has chapters on "religion and human nature," "pluralism," "making good people" (ethical actions), "religion and democratic conversations"(teaching methodologies), and "education among the spheres." In each chapter, he details the position of each of the five experts.
Throughout the book, he consistently lets the five men speak for themselves, and then shares his own assessment of whether they were on target and his agreements and disagreements with them. As expected, he ultimately finds each approach lacking, so that he, Roberts, offers a new paradigm. His terminology is not widely used in the field of moral education. He claims that each expert can be described in terms of a theory of religion, which in turn is based upon "spheres." In the final chapter, he cites others in extending this academic engineering exercise into further subcategories: "principalities" and "authorities."
The final pages of the book bring his arguments together moral education is based upon "theories of religion" and "spheres," children ultimately belong to God; therefore, moral education must take place in schools. He contends that moral education based on spheres can be done without loss of respect for diverse faith traditions and still remain consistent with Supreme Court guidelines and good instructional practices.
Briefly, the criticisms of the book are these:
Inadequate sources there are many assertions of fact and trends without supporting data (thanks, however, for the footnotes which are included and located at the bottom of the pages).
Overuse of "crisis" granted the seriousness of the current situation, there is inadequate recognition of previous challenges to public education.
Absence of descriptions and critiques of current moral education/character programs This reviewer is aware of a number of programs in place in schools today (Character Counts, Character Education Project, to name just two). That, plus no significant mention of the work of Lawrence Kohlberg (just schools), is hard to ignore.
Because he mentions "religion" so frequently, there should have been some attention to the growing emphasis in schools on religion studies, sometimes called "teaching about religions." The work of Warren Nord and Charles Haynes, curriculum on Bible as Literature (Indiana University), and the National Council on Religion and Public Education are not discussed.
Finally, the title. The catchy title may snare some readers who will expect an equally breezy writing style. Who is the audience? The title implies a down to earth, no-nonsense, "just the facts" style. That is not what the reader will see. Lets face it, even an excellent rewritten dissertation is more likely to appeal to a limited audience of pastors, members of congregations who serve on school board, and professors teaching philosophy of education courses. The amount of text that spoke directly to "Whose kids are they anyway?" was sparse. When I saw that line, I immediately thought of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Pierce vs. Society of Sisters, with its classic words, "The child is not the mere creature of the State." That decision, in the 1920s, is often cited as the Magna Carta of private, religious schools, because it said parents have the right to make decisions on where they children go to school.