Worldview Education
in Public Schools

 ( Is it balanced and neutral? ) 

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.

The first half of this page is the main paper, the rest is an appendix.

      A Simple Goal, In Principle
      The following discussion assumes that public education should include a fair, balanced treatment of religious worldviews.  Most educators, including myself, agree that extreme situations — such as a teacher actively evangelizing for any worldview (theistic, atheistic, new age,...) — are not desirable.  So let's assume our goal is a moderate balance, and we're thinking about how to achieve this goal.

      Asymmetry and Balance
      asymmetry:  In trying to achieve balance, a major problem is the inherent asymmetry between expressions of theistic and nontheistic views.  An event cannot be described theistically unless this is done explicitly, but "not theism" is communicated implicitly yet strongly when the possibility of theistic action is omitted from every description of every historical event.
      balance:  If a curriculum always assumes — in science education and in other areas — that "there is no theistically active God," is this neutral?  Is an assumption that God has been absent from the history of the universe neutral?  Imagine a classroom that totally ignores women, giving them no role in history (past, present, or future) and no possibility of importance in life.  Would this be a fair treatment?  Now consider a common situation, analogous in some ways, in which there is a total absence of theistic concepts.  Does the absence of a perspective produce a balanced treatment of this perspective?  Or will an absence of God in all discussions of the world encourage students to live as if God is absent from the world?

      A Challenging Goal, In Practice
      Due to asymmetry, trying to ignore religious questions produces an implicit hidden curriculum that teaches more than just subject-area content.  But deciding what to do instead is difficult because my optimistic statement that "our goal is a moderate balance" is a simple summary of a complex situation.  Definitions of desirable balance vary widely, and instruction that is satisfactory for some will be unacceptable for others.  In a pluralistic society there will be vigorous debates about an important function of education, the selective transmission of culture, when we are deciding which cultural concepts and values to include, and how these should be taught.  For example, if theistic ideas are discussed, does this require that every other religious idea must also be included, or should a teacher focus on the religions (theistic and/or nontheistic) that are most prevalent in a local community?  And do theists really want theistic concepts to be explained by a teacher who might distort these ideas due to a lack of knowledge and skill, or by a skeptical nontheist who might try to persuade students against theistic beliefs?
      In addition, during discussions of educational policies there is a tendency to mix religion and education with broader political concerns, which contributes to unproductive "more heat than light" attitudes and an uncomfortable climate of controversy for teachers.  A confrontational approach, with a debating mentality, is especially common in some areas.  In education about origins, for example, the situation is often made more volatile by polarized attitudes, with zero-sum battles fought by combatants who acknowledge only two possibilities (young-earth creation and naturalistic evolution), who ignore all other positions.  This unfortunate approach, encouraged by those with extreme positions, tends to produce mutual hostility and disagreement about everything except that "there is no middle ground so we have to fight it out."

      Wisdom in Teaching

      Most teachers want to avoid an either-or situation.  They want to aim for a middle ground, a constructive way to smoothly integrate religious perspectives into teaching methods, to move toward a better balance.  But doing this isn't easy.
      Teachers face tough choices and a dilemma.  If a teacher ignores theistic perspectives, asymmetry and implications will produce a result that is not neutral.  But if a teacher does try to introduce balance by discussing religion — even if this is done rationally with good taste and wisdom, with an intention to educate rather than persuade — there is a fear, which unfortunately is often justified, that this is inviting trouble in the form of complaints by parents, criticism by fellow teachers, and pressure by administrators, plus lawsuits by "separation of church and state" zealots. *
      The extreme "total separation" zealots are wrong, because (according to most interpretations of the U.S. Constitution) in public schools a teacher can teach about religion — in a neutral way, without trying to persuade students either for or against it — although they should not teach religion.  But most teachers don't understand the constitutional principles, and what constitutional law says they can and cannot do, so they are cautiously "obeying laws that don't exist."
      In some cases, however, citizens should be concerned, if a teacher who is too enthusiastic in explaining religious concepts moves "over the line" into persuasion, either for or against these concepts.  In the United States, a widely accepted principle is that teachers should not take advantage of their opportunity to impose personal religious beliefs (theistic, atheistic, pantheistic, agnostic,...) on impressionable students who often cannot defend themselves intellectually against a well-prepared adult in a position of authority.  Because most young students are intellectually vulnerable, teachers are expected to seek a balance between two conflicting demands:  a teacher should provide strong intellectual guidance, yet while doing this should not exert "too much influence" on students.  { Critical Thinking and Worldview Education in Public Schools }
      The attitudes and activities of teachers are important factors influencing what students learn.  Effective teaching in all areas, including science education, depends on the integrity and skill of individual teachers who think carefully, with wisdom and courage, about desirable goals, who build a solid foundation by adequate preparation and planning, and who carry out their plans with sensitivity and respect.

* The paragraph above was written before I discovered the widespread efforts, beginning in the late 1980s, to improve the religion/nonreligion balance in public schools and to seek agreement in communities — among teachers, administrators, school boards, parents, and other citizens, across a wide range of religious and political beliefs — about what should be taught and how.  These efforts are described throughout Worldviews and Religion in Public Education — especially in the resource-pages written by Charles Haynes.  Although I could change the paragraph now, unfortunately the fears of teachers still seem to be "often justified" so I'll leave it as-it-was.


      Do good guys always win?
      In one "character education" activity, the lesson to be learned, the claim being made by the teacher, is that "The game is rigged so the good guys always win.  The moral of our game is, if you're a good citizen, you always come out on top." {source}
      Is this claim true — in the short run, or even in the long run — if there is no God?  Many students will find this claim less credible, and the arguments for it less persuasive, if teachers are not allowed to talk about the possibility that God does exist and will judge our actions, if the school's foundational assumption is that God does not exist, if the implicitly assumed worldview is atheistic.

      Conflicting Constitutional Clauses

      In the past few decades in the United States, legal and political efforts to eliminate religion from public education have been influential and controversial.  The Bill of Rights, the initial set of amendments to the U.S. Constitution, begins: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  This broad, ambiguous statement has led to many arguments, in and out of the courtroom, about how to interpret "establishment" and "free exercise," and what to do when they seem to be in conflict.  For example, does non-establishment require an absence of religious concepts in public schools, or would this restraint of expression violate the free exercise clause?
      Some recent court decisions and educational policies, motivated by a desire to produce a "separation of church and state" (a phrase not found in the constitution) have generated a widespread concern that, in many public schools, education has become unfriendly toward theistic religion.  Instead of offering an in-depth analysis, I'll just make a few brief comments about two areas: historical and legal analysis.
      historical:  Would the writers of the First Amendment, whose main goal in the "religion clauses" was to insure freedom of religion — without domination by an established Church, as had occurred in many European countries of their time — be pleased with recent political interpretations that often seem to be aimed at achieving freedom from religion?
      legal:  Recent court rulings that limit what teachers can be required to do in the classroom place far fewer restrictions on what a teacher is allowed to do. ...[part of the original content has been cut *]  If teaching is done skillfully — with wisdom and sensitivity (as described above), with an intent to educate rather than persuade, to teach about religion but not to teach religion — it should not run into legal trouble with the "establishment clause" of the U.S. Constitution or with recent court rulings.  /  * Since writing the original version of this page, I've discovered valuable resources about constitutional legalities, such as The Supreme Court, Religious Liberty, and Public Education.

      Questions about Charters and Vouchers
      As background knowledge, this section assumes that you've read the brief description of charter schools and the brief introduction (in the first two paragraphs) for School Choice: Charters and Vouchers in the homepage for Religion in Public Schools.
      Imagine two charter schools — available to be chosen by parents — that are identical in every way except their worldview: one is nonreligious and the other is religious.  When they submit their charter school application to the government, one request is granted but the other is rejected.  Is this fair?
      Can a charter school adopt a religious worldview (which usually is forbidden) instead of a non-religious worldview (which usually is required)?  Would a faith-based charter school be legal and acceptable?  For example, if an inner-city black church wanted to start a charter school — with curriculum, instruction, and environment based on its religious perspectives — many parents would choose this school for their children, but would it be allowed?  If not, with the result that (despite the desires of many members of the public) a nonreligious worldview was mandated by the government, would this be unfair discrimination against a religious worldview?  Would it be "establishing a nonreligious worldview" in the government schools?
      Is there an alternative to worldview monopoly in public education?  Looking at the experience of another country, Charles Glenn describes a problem (re: the free exercise of religion) and a possible solution: "[Many Americans] came from countries where suspicion and bitterness between Catholics and Protestants had long been stoked, not by the existence of faith-based schools, but by efforts to require all children to attend a single, state-controlled system.  The great Dutch immigration of the nineteenth century... was in part a reaction of orthodox Protestant parents to what was then a monopolistic system in the Netherlands that had forced their children to attend schools that taught a version of Christianity from which sin and salvation had been surgically removed.  In the Netherlands, 75 years of struggle over the schools came to an end in 1920.  The well-named "Pacification," to which all Dutch political parties agreed, established the constitutional principle of equal funding for the schools chosen by parents, whether public, or Protestant, or Catholic.  Today there are more than 20 forms of schooling in the Netherlands, including Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Humanist schools, all fully-funded by the government, and none of the contemporary political parties is suggesting that this successful arrangement be abandoned or that it has resulted in a splintered and dysfunctional society."

I.O.U. — Eventually, maybe by the end of 2010, there will be links to pages with more information about faith-based schools in other countries.

This website for Whole-Person Education has TWO KINDS OF LINKS:
an ITALICIZED LINK keeps you inside a page, moving you to another part of it, and
 a NON-ITALICIZED LINK opens another page.  Both keep everything inside this window, 
so your browser's BACK-button will always take you back to where you were.

Here are other related pages:

This page is the first in a three-part series:
1. Worldview Balance (and asymmetry) in Public Education
2. Potential Dangers of Worldview Education in Public Schools
 3. Public Education about Origins: Evolution and Intelligent Design 

School Options — public, charter, private, home — has a
links-page about Worldviews and Religion in Public Schools

Worldview Education for Christian Living (with love, ethics,...)

This page is

Copyright © 2003 by Craig Rusbult, all rights reserved