The Pedagogically Powerful Means To 'Equal Access' in Public Schools

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School prayer is not the issue. "Equal access" to school buildings for student-initiated Bible-study clubs and prayer sessions is not the issue. While these make the headlines and provide fodder for politicians' attempts to curry favor with conservative religious groups, they are merely the window-dressing that sometimes highlights, but just as often hides, the real issue.

What all students--not just those with religious orientations--need is equal access to ideas competing in that marketplace of ideas, the school. Access to a moment of meditation in class or a half-hour-before-class chance to congregate with the like-minded are beside the point. As a microcosm of our society, school should be the forum in which--during the school day--the young are presented with options of lifestyle, belief, and moral and political ideas. This is the equal-access issue that underlies religionists' quarrel with the way public education treats religion. Politicians and some religious leaders misread their constituencies when they think that token times for rituals or after-school activities are the pedagogically powerful means to equal access that will satisfy critics of public schools.

More than 20 years ago, in The Scholars Look at the Schools, Philip Phenix described the three qualities of religion that have relevance for schools: 1. cultic activity, 2. cultural pattern, and 3. commitment. The first quality refers to a set of ritual practices, such as prayer, Bible reading, and hymn singing. This meaning has received, and continues to receive, the lion's share of attention, in both recent legislation and litigation. But the focus on the proper place of cultic activity in the schools diverts attention from the other two more powerful points of relevance.

Cultural pattern, the second quality of Phenix's taxonomy, refers to how the curriculum, especially the textbook, treats views on human issues and religious institutions, leaders, and ideas. Cultural patterns arise implicitly and explicitly in literature, science, and social-studies classes. Conventional wisdom says that the goal in the classroom shall be the "objective" treatment of religion, whether a reference is made in a poem, a historical episode, or a science-class treatment of the origin and development of the human species. When seriously applied, the inclusion of religious references, and their "objective" discussion, give students "access" to a part of our culture, but what remains to be seen is whether this constitutes equal access. Recent research on textbooks provides evidence that the religious dimension of life and the ideas and values derived from it are not objectively, but pejoratively, presented.

Over the last 15 years, we have come to see that textbooks presumed to be neutral and objective were actually biased and slanted. Racism and sexism, for example, have been shown to be pervasive in school materials. Those groups who felt themselves misrepresented--principally women, blacks, American Indians, and Hispanics--vociferously exposed what was hidden to the eyes of others. Today, as a result, we are more open to the possibility that texts may be biased in other subtle but profound ways that may aid and abet some value systems and discriminate against others. Religious Americans now sense that their views and contributions may also be either neglected or demeaned.

Both lay people and scholars have sensed that the presumed objective treatment of religion may be less than fair and unbiased. The Kanawha County, W.Va., controversy in 1974 (a situation involving violent confrontations over textbook-banning between fundamentalist clergy and parents on one side and school officials on the other) was but a sign of things to come, and is instructive as an example where the second quality of religion (as cultural pattern) was at stake. Those opposed to the textbooks perceived that their viewpoints on life were either underrepresented or disparaged.Their opinions have been supported by independent scholarly analysis.

George Hillocks, associate professor of education and English at the University of Chicago, analyzed the disputed Kanawha County readers and literary anthologies, and concluded in one case that only six of 38 prose selections mentioned Christians or Christian beliefs. Moreover, in a finding much more indicative of the editorial bias, he noted in the August 1978 School Review that all six were "pejorative of Christianity, either directly, in adverse comments about the shortcomings of Christianity, or indirectly, by showing Christians as hypocrites or fools." Surely, while these texts gave students access to the religious dimension of life as portrayed in some literature, they did not provide equal access to other values and views.

The ecclesiastical historian Robert Bryan found similar problems with 20 history books used by the Montgomery County, Md., schools (see Education Week, May 2, 1984). "There is a remarkable consensus to the effect that, after 1700, Christianity has no historical presence in America," Mr. Bryan noted, and " ... almost every reference to Puritanism is negative."

Professional educators must see that these matters, more than moments of meditation, are at the heart of the religionists' dissatisfaction with public schools' treatment of religion. The National Institute of Education, in funding a project on equity in values education (see Education Week, Sept. 15, 1982), pointed to textbook content as playing a more pivotal role in a student's right to "equal access" to our religious heritage than the politicians currently perceive. That study, due to be completed this academic year and in which I am a participant, will reveal how extensively textbooks in public schools underrepresent or represent negatively the contributions to our culture of religious beliefs and values.

The third Phenix category, "commitment," cuts to the heart of the religionists' deepest concerns. Mr. Phenix defined "commitment" in the words of Paul Tillich as the area of "ultimate concern" and what Erich Fromm called "life's orientation." At this level, religion represents those ultimate sanctions beyond which there is no appeal, which give meaning and direction to life, and give birth to the cultic and cultural-pattern aspects of religion.

Considerable hue and cry has arisen from the religious community that public schools are promoters of secular humanism. Little scholarly attention has been given to analysis of textbooks to determine their "life-orientation." In the 1981 preliminary study, Society, State, and Schools, I, along with my joint authors, turned to the Humanist Manifestos I(1933) and II(1973), to discover the degree of congruence between secular humanism and the "life-orientation" of a sampling of texts in biology, history, social studies, and civics. We selected texts that had a high degree of governmental funding--the "Biological Sciences Curriculum Study," prepared with the aid of National Science Foundation grants, and "Man: A Course of Study"--as well as those that appeared most frequently on the approved lists of state textbook-adoption agencies. We concluded that in each of the four subject areas at least several "doctrines" of the Humanist Manifestos appeared in the student texts and also in the stated objectives or editorial comment of the companion teachers' guides.

Thus, the last two of the Phenix taxonomy, cultural pattern and commitment, constitute the real issues in the continuing debate over how public schools handle religion. Now that the dust has settled on the politically inflammatory rhetoric of an election year, perhaps educators and politicians will turn to what the religious community really sees at stake: It's not the minutes for prayer or after-school activities--it's the treatment of religion during the remaining hours of the day.

Vol. 04, Issue 11, Page 28

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