Every school, whether intentionally or not, teaches more than academic subjects. Simply participating in the daily life of a school, its routines and how it justifies and enforces them, its norms for relationships among pupils (of the same age and of different ages) and between youth and adults, the ways in which adults relate to one another (closely observed by their pupils), and a thousand other aspects of schooling teach lessons for life. Those lessons may be very positive, may be life-transforming for youth who come to school from difficult backgrounds, or they may be negative, teaching cynicism, manipulation, even cruelty.
Good schools in every country, it is fair to say, are characterized by a sense of mission and a well-defined understanding of the nature of human flourishing which in turn shapes a distinctive culture, a caractère propre, affecting not only the overt curriculum and teaching methods but also those habits and mores which teach so much. One of the best books about American schools, “The Shopping Mall High School,” points out that
students of all kinds usually thrive by participation in institutions with distinctive purposes and common expectations. Magnet schools, examination schools, and schools-within-schools are expressions of the desire for communities of focused educational and often moral purpose. Because they are special places to begin with, teachers and students feel more special in them. Both are more likely to be committed to a purpose and the expectations that flow from it if they choose — and are chosen by — schools or sub-schools than if they are simply assigned to them. The existence of a common purpose has an educational force of its own, quite independent of the skills of individual teachers. It also helps good teachers do a better job and may soften the impact of less able teachers.
Paradoxically, the ability of school staff to form coherent communities expressing a shared understanding of education for life may be limited by efforts of government to require that they take on such agendas. It remains to be seen whether education officials can resist the temptation to set standards in such a form that they inhibit the distinctiveness which is a natural result of collaboration to shape the life of an individual school. Clear but limited outcome standards are what is needed.
Most countries prescribe some form of education for citizenship, whether conceived in political or in behavioral terms, or both, and most also make provisions for education in particular religious traditions. Education about religious beliefs and customs is also often included in the curriculum in history and social studies. There are good reasons to question whether curriculum content in either of these areas has a major effect upon beliefs and practices, though certainly such knowledge is an essential part of an adequate education. More significant are the actual practices of schools.
Children and youth learn to be responsible citizens (as Aristotle pointed out), not so much through the content of what they are taught as through the example of those they admire. Teachers who exemplify a dynamic balance of principled autonomy and loyalty to shared norms and purposes help their pupils to develop the same qualities. Nothing could be more important for educational policy than to encourage schools that allow their staff to exercise their professional judgment while aligning their efforts with those of their colleagues in service to a common mission, a mission based upon a shared understanding of the requirements of human flourishing. Whether this understanding has a secular or a religious basis is perhaps less important than that it be able to gain the trust of the families whose children are shaped by the school. Schools, and teachers, subjected to the prescriptions of bureaucratic management are not free to develop these qualities, and thus are less capable of forming citizens.
What is essential is that youth acquire the habits of citizenship, among which we might include a respect for the rule of law, a willingness to respect procedures and to compromise in the resolution of differences, and an acceptance that others – even if believed to be completely misguided – have a right both to express and to live by their own perspectives, provided that they, too, exhibit these habits of citizenship and avoid violating the rights of others. This pluralistic position accepts that individuals may choose to orient their lives and their thinking to communities of conviction. It is, in William Galston’s terms,
an understanding of social life that comprises multiple sources of authority – individuals, parents, civil associations, faith-based institutions, and the state, among others – no one of which is dominant in all spheres, for all purposes, on all occasions. . . . In a liberal pluralist regime, a key end is the creation of social space within which individuals and groups can freely pursue their distinctive visions of what gives meaning and worth to human existence.
The effort to impose government-defined beliefs and values upon all schools and thus an entire rising generation is therefore a matter to be approached with great caution in any free society. Government unquestionably possesses an oversight role to ensure that children are not harmed. If there is clear evidence that a school is failing to provide its students with the capacity to assume adult roles as citizens, that is a case for government intervention. But government has no right to insist that there is only one form of education that can achieve that goal, or one set of convictions about human nature and its nourishing that should guide the educational process.
Who should decide? Staff and boards of individual schools should be free to create and implement a coherent education. Families should be free to choose the school that has earned their trust.