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Chapter 13 Education and Religion

13.1 A Brief History of Education in the U.S.

In November 2021, a news headline read, “I Don’t Want to Die for it: School Board Members Facing Rising Threats” (Blank, 2021). When Sami Al-Abdrabbuh was re-elected to the Corvalis, Oregon school board, it was a matter of days before he began receiving threats: bullet holes in his campaign signs, a neighbor saying he planned to kill him. Across the country, school board members in 2021 have reported being harassed at home and having their property vandalized. At school board meetings, angry parents with signs disrupt proceedings; one group in San Diego went so far as to attempt to install themselves as the new board (unsuccessfully). Since school boards sit at the crossroads between parenting and policy, they have always generated heated discussions. The combination of mask and vaccination restrictions, incorporating the topic of racial inequality into the curriculum, and addressing the needs of transgender students has propelled these meetings into territory where school board members literally feel unsafe. Efforts to recall school board members who advocate for policies parents disagree with are on the rise. While Mr. Al-Abdrabbuh says he loves serving on his school board and his only motivation is to do what is best for all of the students, news that fellow board members are installing security cameras at their homes is profoundly disturbing (Blank, 2021).

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Think Like A Sociologist

Photo of a shelf of banned books, with caution tape blocking access to the shelf.

DerryPublicLibrary – CC BY 2.0 – Flickr

The last week of September is dedicated to an annual event called “Banned Book Week.” During that week, people across the US celebrate the freedom to read. Since the early 1980s, readers of all ages, educators, librarians, as well as others involved in publishing, selling and disseminating books, make a unified effort to bring attention to the fact that every year more books are being censored (or banned) by politicians, school officials and others (American Library Association, 2021). For example, a Texas state representative published a list of 850 school library books he considered discomforting to a student because of racial or sexual content (Sarappo, 2021). This was followed by the governor of the state calling for criminal investigations of school districts that provide students with what he alleged to be pornography. As a response to the pressure from lawmakers, as well as a group of very vocal parents, the San Antonio, TX school district eliminated over 400 books from its libraries, most of which centered on racial-ethnic, gender and LGBTQ+ issues.

What are the arguments for and against banning books?

Which group(s) should be allowed to make these decisions?

How does this demonstrate the impact that other social institutions have on the education institution?

Interested in this topic? Check out this site: Banned Book Week History.

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Education is one of our most important social institutions. Youngsters and adolescents spend most of their weekday waking hours in school, doing homework, or participating in extracurricular activities, and many then go on to college. People everywhere care deeply about what happens in our nation’s schools, and issues about the schools ignite passions across the political spectrum. Yet, as the stories about rising tensions over policy decisions illustrate, there is far less agreement about what and how to teach the nation’s children. At a time when many schools are in poor repair with no funds to rebuild – much less update – their facilities, they find themselves ill equipped to prepare their students for the complex needs of today’s world.

This chapter’s discussion of education and religion begins with the development of schooling in the United States, sociological perspectives on education and education in today’s society. This discussion highlights education as a source and consequence of various social inequalities and examines several key issues affecting the nation’s schools and the schooling of its children. The chapter then presents a sociological understanding of religion by examining religion as a social institution and by sketching its history and practice throughout the world today. We then turn to the several types of religious organizations before concluding with a discussion of various aspects of religion in the United States.

Forms of Education

is the social institution through which a society teaches its members the skills, knowledge, norms, and values they need to learn to become good, productive members of their society. As this definition makes clear, education is an important part of socialization. Education is both formal and informal. is often referred to as schooling, and as this term implies, it occurs in schools under teachers, principals, and other specially trained professionals. may occur almost anywhere, but for young children it has traditionally occurred primarily in the home, with their parents as their instructors. Day care has become an increasingly popular venue in industrial societies for young children’s instruction, and education from the early years of life is thus more formal than it used to be.

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Using Your Sociological Imagination

Photo of Mark Twain and his quote, "I have never let schooling interfere with my education."

Sigurdur Jonsson – CC BY 2.0 – Flickr

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, was, among other things, a great American writer, humorist and what some called the American conscience during the time leading up to the Civil War and reconstruction. He was witness to the early stages of our national efforts to create a standard and compulsory system of schooling to help bring our society into the industrial age. He famously once said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

Take a few minutes to think about that statement and then use your sociological imagination to explain what he meant.

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Education in early America was hardly formal. During the colonial period, the Puritans in what is now Massachusetts required parents to teach their children to read and also required larger towns to have an elementary school, where children learned reading, writing and religion. In general, though, schooling was not required in the colonies, and only about 10% of colonial children, usually just the wealthiest, went to school (Urban, Jennings, & Wagoner, 2008).

To help unify the nation after the Revolutionary War, textbooks were written to standardize spelling and pronunciation and to instill patriotism and religious beliefs in students. At the same time, these textbooks included negative stereotypes of Native Americans and certain immigrant groups. The children going to school continued primarily to be those from wealthy families. By the mid-1800s, a call for free, compulsory education had begun, and compulsory education became widespread by the end of the century. This was an important development, as children from all social classes could now receive a free, formal education. Compulsory education was seen as a way to solve society’s problems. It furthered national unity by teaching the tenets of democracy. It worked to assimilate immigrants by teaching them “American” values. It created an educated workforce necessary for an industrial economy, which demanded the reading, writing and math skills not required in an agricultural society.

Even though compulsory education was mandated by state and federal governments, American schools were funded and run by local communities. This uniquely American approach appealed to a people who were not far removed from seeing the state as pre-eminent, and reflected an ethos of individualism. Local control of the schools allowed members of the community to decide on matters of curriculum and facilities. Schools came to represent their towns and were points of pride for the residents.

Free, compulsory education, of course, applied only to primary and secondary schools. Until the mid-1900s, very few people went to college, and those who did typically came from wealthy families. After World War II, due in large part to the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (also known as the G.I. Bill), which offered stipends to military veterans to cover expenses related to college, enrollments soared, and today more people are attending college than ever before.

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Watch and Reflect

photo of John Dewey with his quote, "Give pupils something to do, not something to learn, and when the doing is such a nature as to demand thinking, learning naturally results...."

Vampire285 – CC BY-SA 4.0 – Wikimedia Commons

John Dewey was one of the most influential scholars on educational reform in the first half of the twentieth century. His work is often read and cited in teacher training programs in the U.S. still today. Watch the following video which describes John Dewey’s four principles of education, then consider then answer the questions below:

Dewey’s main thesis is that students learn best through experience. Outline the 4 principles that Dewey promoted as foundational for student learning and development.

Consider your own educational experience – did your experience incorporate these principles? If so, did these experiences feel more natural, deeper and connected than less experiential educational methods?

Why can’t all schools employ the methods that Dewey recommends?

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At least three themes emerge from this brief history. One is that until very recently, formal schooling was restricted to wealthy males. This means that males who were not white and rich were excluded from formal schooling, as were virtually all females, whose education took place informally at home. Today, as we will see, race, ethnicity, social class, and gender continue to affect both educational achievement and the amount of learning occurring in schools.

Drawing of a woman spinning yard next to a hearth, with a child sitting by her side.

In colonial America, only about 10% of children went to school, and these children tended to come from wealthy families. After the Revolutionary War, new textbooks helped standardize spelling and pronunciation and promote patriotism and religious beliefs, but these textbooks also included negative stereotypes of Native Americans. Wikimedia Commons – public domain

Second, although the rise of free, compulsory education was an important development, the reasons for this development trouble some critics (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Cole, 2008). Because compulsory schooling began in part to prevent immigrants’ values from corrupting “American” values, they see its origins as smacking of ethnocentrism. They also criticize its intention to teach workers the skills they needed for the new industrial economy. Because most workers were very poor in this economy, these critics say, compulsory education served the interests of the upper class much more than it served the interests of workers. Whose interests are served by education remains an important question addressed by sociological perspectives on education, to which we now turn. Having a mindset that schools could serve many purposes continued, however, as schools were tasked with solving social ills from drug abuse to bullying to racism.

Third, allowing local control of the schools resulted in an unequal and uneven educational landscape. School funding generated by local taxes means that students in wealthy communities tend to see better teachers, a greater variety of courses, more educational opportunities, higher quality facilities and even better school lunches as compared to students from poorer communities (Allen, 2020).

Test Yourself

 



Section 13.1 References

Admin. (2021, April 9). Banned books week (September 26-October 2, 2021). Advocacy, Legislation & Issues. Retrieved from https://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/banned.

American Library Association. (2021). Celebrate Banned Books Week 2021 with Resources, Events. Retrieved from https://www.ala.org/news/member-news/2021/09/celebrate-banned-books-week-2021-resources-events.

Allen, M. (2020, November 14). The failed promise of education. Axios. Retrieved from https://www.axios.com/newsletters/axios-am-hard-truths-13dce1b1-7ed9-47ae-99a6-ce074354105d.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axiosam-hard-truths&stream=top

Bowles, S. and H. Gintis. (1976). Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reforms and the contradictions of economic life. New York, NY: Basic Books. 

Cole, M. (2008). Marxism and educational theory: Origins and issues. New York, NY: Routledge. 

Feuer, A. (2021, November 5). ‘I don’t want to die for it’: School Board Members face rising threats. The New York Times. Retrieved  from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/05/us/politics/school-board-threats.html. 

John Dewey’s 4 principles of education. (2021, January 30). YouTube.Retrieved from https://youtu.be/y3fm6wNzK70.

Sarappo, E. (2021, December 9). This is a shakedown. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2021/12/texas-book-ban-between-the-world-and-me/620938/

Urban, W. J., L. Jennings  and J. Wagoner. (2008). American education: A history (4th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

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