The role of religion and language in public education

I would argue that religion and language are two of the aspects of our identity that defines us the most. Further, it would not be wrong to say that education should provide a safe and nurturing environment for children to develop a sense of self and finding their place in society. Does it not follow that religion and languages should have a central part of public education?

Ultimately, we must determine how much of a child’s education should take place in schools (the public sphere), and how much should be left up to parents and/or religious institutions (the private sphere). Is it necessary for the state to provide culturally relevant education to all citizens, or is it enough simply to facilitate this by for example cutting down the time students have to spend in school? At a school I taught at, students were off Wednesday and Friday afternoons, at which time most of them attend classes in subjects like Islam, foreign languages, or other subjects not provided by the school. The school was so multicultural (both in terms of religious beliefs and languages), that the administration could not possibly meet the needs of all students. Is this practice nurturing diversity and multiculturalism, or is it strengthening the divisions between ethnic groups in society?

Ultimately, we must determine how much of a child’s education should take place in schools (the public sphere), and how much should be left up to parents and/or religious institutions (the private sphere)

Milligan (2006) observes that by separating Islamic education and public schools, the Philippines government is producing citizens who are “virtual foreigners in their own country” (p. 416); they are Muslim Filipinos who see their nationality as being completely separate from their religion and language (Arabic). Would decentralization of the educational system remedy this situation? Could we have certain school districts with “Islamic” schools, and others with “Christian” schools? Or how about introducing Arabic as language of instruction (LOI) as an option for Muslim students? Would such arrangements lead to a healthy flourishing of cultures, or would we see closed-off religious ghettos, each with its own educational system? My worry is that through decentralization and less nation-state control we are building boxes that only fit certain stereotypes. I mean, what happens to the Christian minority in a Muslim area? Or what of the children from mixed families?

My worry is that through decentralization and less nation-state control we are building boxes that only fit certain stereotypes.

I’m asking a lot of questions in this post, and it’s not for the rhetorical effect, but because I really do have trouble making up my mind on this one. As I mentioned above, I think it is crucial to have a clear understanding of the difference between education and schooling, and of what we want our schools to provide. Michael W. Apple (2001) states that, “[c]urriculum reflects what is considered by an education system as valid and legitimate knowledge” (as cited in Gross, 2006, p. 607), but by this definition most nation-states today would come off as rather neglectful. In Rwanda, for example, the national language is at best allotted a couple of hours each week, while imported languages like English and French have taken over as language of instruction. What signal does this send to the children about their origins and culture? Which values are transmitted through the national curriculum?

Perhaps it is a (wrongful) essentialist assumption to think that Muslim students require Arabic classes to be “whole”, or that Jewish students should be entitled to Hebrew classes because their language is what makes them Jewish. From my own experience, though, I would claim that there is a lot of identity tied up in language. Like May (2008), I feel that “[c]hanging the language preference of the state and civil society, or at least broadening then, would better reflect the cultural and linguistic demographics of most of today’s multinational (and polyethnic) states” (p. 164).

References:

Gross, Z. (2006). Power, Identity, and Organizational Structure as Reflected in Schools for Minority Groups: A Case Study of Jewish Schools in Paris, Brussels, and Geneva. Comparative Education Review 50(4): 603-624.

May, S. (2008). Language and minority rights: Ethnicity, nationalism, and the politics of language. Routledge: New York.

Milligan, J. A. (2006). Reclaiming an Ideal: The Islamization of Education in the Southern Philippines. Comparative Education Review, 50(3): 410-430.

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Human Capital Economy in the US: What Would Dewey Say?

Any intelligent debate on contemporary issues requires a thorough understanding of history. When reforming the educational system, are we looking to the past for understanding and inspiration? When updating the national curriculum are we sufficiently analyzing the history of the nation’s education, or are we rushing into a quick-fix mentality spurred on by the demands of the global economy?

Joel Spring (2012) notes that, “[h]uman capital economics is now the driving force in public school policies” (p. 99). Coupled with the panic in the wake of the 1983 A Nation At Risk report, the human capital theory has triggered the creation of policies led by a ‘back to basics’ approach to education. Despite previous ideals of educating ‘the whole child’, we now see that “[l]iteracy, science, and math have a higher priority in education for the global economy than other subjects such as history, social studies, and arts education” (Spring, 2012, p. 85). In watching the video on America’s educational history, I am led to ask what John Dewey— the progressive educationalist behind the idea of American child-centered education— would have to say to the current makeup of the public school system.

as high school enrollment in the US grew rapidly in the 1920s, the idea of tracking and ability grouping appeared. Students received different education depending on their future prospect: house wife, bank clerk, factory worker, farmer, and so on…

There is a conflict between the practical necessity of preparing youths for future jobs and the commitment to create good citizens and moral human beings. At the heart of this conflict lays the ‘purpose of education’, and when defining this, I believe it is imperative to go back to the past. John Dewey was opposed to career tracking in schools, as well as the measurement of IQ to place students in appropriate groups. Still, as high school enrollment in the US grew rapidly in the 1920s, the idea of tracking and ability grouping appeared. Students received different education depending on their future prospect: house wife, bank clerk, factory worker, farmer, and so on. A progressive new idea emerged, introducing the concept that human beings are not equal in intelligence, capacity and ability. As Joel Spring remarks: “people began to think of going to school as a way of getting a job, not as going to school to become a wise person” (PBS, 2001).

According to Spring (2012), “A 1991 study found that the use of ability grouping in […] the United States was two-thirds higher than in other countries” (p. 75). Are we returning to the career tracking of the 1920s? Is the pressure of the global economy in fact transforming American public school into an efficient ‘worker factory’ where the main goal is to provide the global market with competent workers? If this is the case, what are the implications for the American democracy and its values of freedom, equality, and human rights?

Arguably, history has proven that allowing the public school system to be influenced by external factors can be greatly beneficial. For example, the great influx of immigrants in the early 1900s encouraged the creation of public schools and the fight to abolish child labor.

Today’s educational policies— and the human capital theories that underlie them— could be interpreted as a return to the past. Despite efforts of educationalists like John Dewey to educate the ‘whole child’, public education seem more tailored to the needs of the economy and the market place than to the upholding and progression of democratic values. Many are welcoming reforms labeled ‘Back to Basics’ and ‘No Child Left Behind’, convinced that for the nation to grow, we must allow the Free Market (which indisputably is the driving force in much of Western society) to shape our educational system. Arguably, history has proven that allowing the public school system to be influenced by external factors can be greatly beneficial. For example, the great influx of immigrants in the early 1900s encouraged the creation of public schools and the fight to abolish child labor. Is it constructive, however, to allow globalization to shape school policies? Would closer correspondence between curriculum design and the world of business strengthen America’s economic and political position? What would John Dewey say if faced with the American public schools of today?

References:

Spring, J. (2012). American Education, 15th Edition. New Yotk, NY: McGraw Hill. PBS (2001). “School: The Story of American Public Education” [Video file].