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Almost all Western democracies other than the United States provide public support to parents who wish to send their children to private schools with a distinctive religious character. In the Netherlands, this policy was ­formalized by the Pacificatie of 1917, which resolved seven decades of conflict ­between conservative Protestants and Catholics on the one hand, and the secular elite on the other. The elite had insisted on the unique role of public schools in forming citizens and the dangers posed by schools not under direct government control, especially when these had a ­religious character.

In Europe—with occasional exceptions, such as the popular resistance in 1974 to efforts in France and Spain to extend Socialist government control over non-public schools—such arrangements became largely uncontroversial. The accommodation of deeply rooted beliefs was called into question, however, as secularization intensified in Europe during the 1960s. This occurred even in the Netherlands, where religion-based sectors of society were strongly institutionalized.

Dutch sociologist (and later Minister of Education) Jos van Kemenade found in his 1968 study that doubt about the religious mission of Catholic schools was widespread among the schools’ staffs. A decade later, van Kemenade suggested that a “new school struggle” was likely, one that would challenge the prevalence of schools with a religious character. In 1984, leaders of the Association for Public Education published a book calling for just such a new schoolstrijd, arguing that, as a result of secularization, confessional education was no longer demanded by parents (despite survey evidence to the contrary) nor provided in a coherent way by Catholic and Protestant schools. Such schools were an impediment to the “constructive educational policy” that government should be free to pursue in the interest of its progressive social agenda.

As Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and secular identities became blurred, new distinctions emerged in European societies as a result of the heavy labor migration of the postwar decades. These distinctions were generally seen as cultural rather than religious, even though many of the newcomers were Muslim. Policy debates ensued about whether and how to accommodate the “langues et cultures d’origine” of the immigrants’ children. When, a quarter-century ago, I visited schools and talked with experts in a number of countries, no one mentioned religion as a pressing issue. Recently I reviewed the bibliography of my 1995 book on the education of immigrants in twelve countries and found that, out of more than one thousand sources in six languages, fewer than thirty mentioned religion in their titles.

The distinctive needs of the children of the newcomers were defined in cultural and linguistic, not religious, terms. “Culture” was commonly understood as a set of relatively superficial practices that might be accepted and celebrated in the name of multiculturalism, but would gradually be abandoned as the children of the immigrant generation accommodated themselves to the practices and behaviors of the host society. Apart from a few experiments with separate schools and programs using the heritage language of the newcomers for instruction, standard practice was to provide transitional education with integration into the majority population as soon as possible.

Many of the children of immigrants did make such a transition—to a debased version of Western culture as consumer fashion and rootless self-creation. Others sought a firm foundation from which they could resist—and found it in renewed commitment to Islam. This led to a growing demand for Islamic schools, often with public funding under the traditional arrangements. The emergence of these schools has evoked a decidedly mixed response.

Today, religion, specifically Islam, dominates the debate over diversity in Europe. There is no shortage of warnings that Islam as a system of beliefs and practices is irreconcilable with Western values. Most of the controversy over immigration in Europe stems from the identity of the immigrants themselves, that is, whether their beliefs make them so different from the population of the host society that they will burden it instead of contributing to its future.

Such concerns are not limited to populist groups. The sympathies of European political progressives have turned away from Muslim immigrants as the latter increasingly assert their claims in religious rather than cultural terms. As Olivier Roy observed, “The shift from the oppressed immigrant to the demanding Muslim has alienated the progressive Left.” So long as the religious practices of Muslim immigrants could be seen as fading cultural survivals, they were tolerated, but such practices “become unbearable when they take their place definitively on the stage of . . . society as the affirmation of a faith detached from any foreign culture.”

In 2016, the Minister of Education in France’s last Socialist government warned that the children of immigrants were being radicalized in Islamic schools, schools that promoted “confessional mobilization hostile to the values of the Republic.” This charge led to legislation adopted in April 2018, increasing the authority of local and national government to prevent such schools from opening. Similar oversight of the ideological character of schools is occurring in other countries as well.

Let us at once insist that government should strive to ensure that children are taught adequately and prepared to become useful citizens. But when progressives insist that religious schooling of whatever kind necessarily undermines that process, public education becomes indoctrination. If faith-based schools challenge prevailing cultural norms (without violating any laws), only anti-democratic authorities can regard it as a problem. Free societies accept the expression of a wide range of values, and governments should not insist that there is only one way to understand human flourishing. The accusation that the religious character of a school necessarily undermines the essential norms of citizenship has been familiar since the Jacobin program of the 1790s, and it is demonstrably false.

Nevertheless, schools that promote alternative perspectives often attract suspicion. As one might expect, most attention recently has been directed to the question of whether Islamic schools encourage a violent rejection of Western values. Controversies have surfaced in England, France, and the Netherlands, but there is little evidence that Muslim schools pose this danger. Muslim parents who choose (and often pay for) these schools are as concerned as any other parents that their children be successful in the host society. At present, the most persuasive examples of schooling that conflicts with prevalent norms in the wider society are not Islamic, but Haredi (strictly Orthodox Jewish) schools.

In England, the official school inspectorate, Ofsted, though it recognizes the strong academic quality of several Haredi schools, has concluded that they violate “British values” by failing to include discussions of homosexuality and transgender issues in the curricula. According to a 2017 article in the Daily Mail:

Vishnitz Girls School — where the teaching of Jewish and religious studies was singled out for praise by inspectors in its first Ofsted report of July 2013 — was presented with an ultimatum: teach your children about homosexuality and gender reassignment, or we will close you down.
In the space of four years, Ofsted inspectors have now graded it as a failing school, based on this sole issue.
. . . To the Haredi Jewish families who send their daughters — aged three to ten — to the school, it represents an impossible dilemma.

Soon after the controversy over the Vishnitz curriculum, The Telegraph reported that Yesodey ­Hatorah girls’ school in London had come to the attention of Ofsted after its textbooks were obtained by the organization Humanists UK. “In a section on the position of women in modern American society,” it noted, “references to women smoking, drinking and driving with men were redacted, as was the sentence: ‘They kissed in public.’” Academically, the school was superb—its examination results “put it in the top 2 per cent of the country for maths and the top 10 per cent for English”—but its cultural resistance troubled the state. Criticism of this school, whose name means, “The Laws which are the Foundation of the Torah,” had particular resonance, according to The Telegraph:

It was a great breakthrough when Yesodey ­Hatorah became voluntary-aided (ie, mainly state-funded) in 2005, because it represented a move, controversial among orthodox Jews, away from the very separate life they had until then lived. If they could co-operate with the state to produce what most would recognise as a good education, this meant that both sides were opening up. For a refugee people like the Jews, this sent out a cheering message that they were accepted in British ­public culture. If this message is reversed, fear replaces trust.

The government inspectors, according to The Telegraph, were not interested in the school’s high results and positive climate.

What they want to know about is sex. They worry that the pupils are not taught about sex. It is ­alleged — though also denied — that they stopped girls in the corridors and asked them intrusive questions about things like internet dating sites. They raided the library, and discovered that some of the books have passages about sex blacked out. They are angry that the girls are not taught about homosexuality.

Ofsted’s subsequent report rated the school as “inadequate,” although it had previously been rated “good.” The evaluation was cheered by the National Secular Society, whose spokesman called the details in the report “damning.”

Increased governmental scrutiny of faith-based schools will inevitably reach into domains of values and worldview that have been considered the responsibility of families and civil society institutions. This burden will not fall equally on schools operating on the basis of different perspectives. Dutch schools that offer “humanistic education” that teaches pupils to make decisions independent of family or tradition will pass muster. Their emphasis on personal autonomy is consistent with the norms of a society based on consumerism and self-definition.

Conservative Protestant educators, by contrast, regard “humanistic education” as wishful thinking that denies the human potential for evil. Encouraging young people to make their own decisions without reference to external authority leaves them vulnerable to the anti-conservative values abroad in ­society. During the stage in which they reject whatever their parents stand for, they are likely to adopt the values presented to them by the media and their peer groups. Thus, these Protestant (and Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim) educators seek to base education on a coherent tradition of moral intuitions and conduct. This course will put them at odds with ­government authorities.

The criticisms of Orthodox Jewish and Islamic schools echo those leveled at the Catholic schools that served immigrants to the United States during the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. A leading Protestant cleric, Horace Bushnell, warned in 1853 that “we have thrown upon us, to be our fellow-citizens, . . . multitudes of people, depressed for the most part, in character, instigated by prejudices so intense against our religion.” It was his hope that, through the common public school, “we may be gradually melted into one homogeneous people.” If, however, these immigrant children were allowed to attend Catholic schools, “they will be instructed mainly into the foreign prejudices and superstitions of their fathers.”

Opposition to Catholic schooling provided a political agenda for the next hundred years and led to the inclusion, in the constitutions of thirty-seven states, of language forbidding public funding of schools with a religious character. Efforts to overturn or work around these provisions dominate the current struggle for educational freedom in the United States.

The concern about Catholic schools proved misguided; social science evidence overwhelmingly shows that they did and do a good job of forming loyal American citizens with a full range of civic virtues, including more tolerance of diversity than their counterparts who attended public schools. Evangelical Protestant schools do a similarly good job.

Perhaps the most persuasive study is that sponsored by the Cardus Foundation. Cardus analyzed a large data set of Americans aged twenty-four to thirty-nine who had attended public, Catholic, Protestant, or independent high schools between six and twenty-one years earlier. The analysis controlled for more than thirty background variables, such as the closeness of relationship to parents, religious service attendance, and race, thus to isolate the effect of school type on the spiritual, sociocultural, and educational outcomes of the high school experience. The study found a strong effect of Catholic schooling on subsequent academic performance, and of Protestant schooling on civic engagement:

Protestant Christian school graduates have been found to be uniquely compliant, generous individuals who stabilize their communities by their uncommon and distinctive commitment to their families, their churches, and their communities, and by their unique hope and optimism about their lives and the future. In contrast to the popular idea that Protestant Christians are engaged in a “culture war,” on the offensive in their communities and against the government, Protestant Christian school graduates are committed to progress in their communities even while they feel outside the cultural mainstream. In many ways, the average Protestant Christian school graduate is a foundational member of society.

Similarly, on-site research that I directed in recent years asked how seven Islamic secondary schools across the United States develop character. We found no reason to fear that the graduates of these schools would be anything but exemplary citizens. Furthermore, the graduates were fortified by their schools and tradition against the banality of the prevailing culture, while remaining committed to engaging with American life in a positive manner.

Perhaps the most striking finding from our visits was the extent to which the students we talked with saw themselves as motivated through their classes—especially Islamic Studies—to think critically not only about American society, but also about the Islamic tradition, the cultural assumptions of their families, and how these apply to their lives in the United States.

We should welcome efforts by Muslim intel­lectuals who make clear that faithfulness to Islam does not require alienation from a society that includes many elements offensive to people—Muslims, but also Jews and Christians—loyal to the Abrahamic tradition of moral obligation. These voices interpret Islam in a manner consistent with full participation in political and cultural life in the West.

Nevertheless, circumstances matter. When a group feels itself under attack for its beliefs, some members will abandon those beliefs in order to fit in, whereas others will redefine them so as to justify responding to rejection with rejection. For some Muslims, this dynamic creates a determination to reclaim the militancy of the first decades of Islam, and to reject the richness of subsequent centuries of Islamic culture and its exchanges with other cultures and religious traditions.

Postmodern societies like those of Europe and North America are tolerant of individual self-­expression, but individualism is not the same thing as the democratic pluralism that allows communities to live out their convictions in free and open association. Consumerism, unrestrained self-definition (including sexual self-definition), and indifference to ultimate truths and loyalties can be as threatening to communities as open hostility, and harder to resist. They create what we might call oppression by indifference.

Many Muslims in Europe are finding in Islam a means to organize their lives and their loyalties, to attain a stable sense of self in a confusing cultural environment. The question is whether the stability they derive from Islam will be the basis for alliances with other rooted communities, or for withdrawal and opposition. Stable coexistence works only in a context of societal pluralism—which must not be confused with mere diversity, since it requires structural expression. Pluralism requires public policies that protect different religious groups, create conditions favorable to their flourishing, and recognize the institutional expression of these groups as an important component of civil society.

Totalitarian societies do not tolerate subordinate identities. Consumerist market societies do not, either, but these ­societies seduce rather than suppress, and are in some ways more difficult to resist. Only structural pluralism, which recognizes and supports the freedom and integrity of community and voluntary associations as well as of individuals, and assigns significant public functions (such as education) to civil society institutions, allows strongly held convictions to contribute to civic and cultural life. By showing respect for deeply held convictions, structural pluralism offers the best prospect for social harmony. Not only is it unnecessary for us all to share the same reasons for behaving responsibly as citizens, but the effort to compel such shared reasons may prevent trust and cooperation.

The alternative to pluralism, the late Peter Berger pointed out, is either fundamentalism, which “balkanizes a society, leading either to ongoing conflict or to totalitarian coercion,” or relativism, which “undermines the moral consensus without which no ­society can survive.” A flourishing society requires “the maintenance and legitimation of the middle ground between these two extremes.” European societies are experiencing the tension between secularist relativism and Islamic fundamentalism, and can escape the dilemma only through a renewed commitment to a pluralism that accepts the organizational expression of communal loyalties and deeply held convictions. Schools are a major locus of such loyalties and convictions.

Unquestionably, there are some qualities of character that any society will wish all of its citizens to possess, such as respect for peace and for the rights of others. But to what extent should a society seek to impose a common worldview by mandating an educational approach? Is such a policy practical and consistent with freedom?

What is important is a disposition on the part of citizens to behave in ways consistent with mutual respect and commitment to the common good. These qualities do not require agreement on the ultimate meaning of life. Indeed, the attempt to impose such meanings—as by the enforcement of secular ­orthodoxy—may undermine the development of civic virtues. Under such circumstances, religious minorities may see resistance to societal norms as essential to the protection of their beliefs.

By itself, the state is not competent to develop character in its citizens; character is developed within the “seedbeds of virtue,” where children are loved and disciplined and where they learn to imitate (as Aristotle pointed out) those they admire—within the family and within varied expressions of civil society: religious organizations, voluntary associations, and schools. “The institutions of civil society,” Mary Ann Glendon writes, “help to sustain a democratic order, by relativizing the power of both the market and the state, and by helping to counter both consumerist and totalitarian tendencies.”

But is it accurate to speak of all schools as ­civil-society institutions? Most schools are operated by the state. Systems of teacher assignment based on seniority, such as exist in most urban districts in the United States, or ranked national lists of eligible teachers, such as exist in France and Italy, make it almost impossible for state-run schools to convey a distinctive character.

Postmodern relativism has made public schools ever less confident about teaching any values other than universal tolerance. They engage instead in “defensive teaching,” which is incapable of forming character or civic virtue. Schools that operate ­outside of systems of public administration have the best chance of maintaining a distinctive character and thus of forming the character of their pupils. In such schools, children are asked neither to invent their own moral norms nor to reject—even as they rethink and adapt—those of their families and ­religious tradition.

What happens to the children of Muslim immigrants to Europe will show whether the host societies will nurture the pluralism that allows Muslims to develop their communal life in partnership with, rather than opposition to, other communities. Well-organized and academically effective schools that are free to promote deeply rooted convictions will inculcate the skills and virtues required for full participation as loyal citizens.

We must hold on to that hope, and labor to make it a reality. Only such generous policies, sensitively implemented, will justify a conviction among religious people that, while maintaining their deepest convictions, they can pledge full support to the liberal democratic values of the West. Yes, we still need educational freedom. For it is the expression of religious freedom and mutual respect that affects religious minorities at their most sensitive point: the nurturing of their children. 

Charles L. Glenn is professor emeritus of educational leadership and policy at Boston University.

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