Today, the ongoing battle between religion and public education is once again a burning issue in the United States. Prayer in the classroom, the teaching of creationism, the representation of sexuality in the classroom, and the teaching of morals are just a few of the subjects over which these institutions are skirmishing. James Fraser shows that though these battles have been going on for as long as there have been public schools, there has never been any consensus about the proper relationship between religion and public education. Looking at the most difficult question of how private issues of faith can be reconciled with the very public nature of schooling, Fraser paints a picture of our multicultural society that takes our relationship with God into account.
In a book that works better as history than as commentary (but attempts both), Fraser, a professor of history and education at Northeastern University, addresses the thorny relationship between religion and education in America. From Puritan times until recently, he demonstrates, Americans invited God into the classroom. But the terms of that invitation were never clear. Each colony organized its public schools around its own predominant faith, so nationhood brought a dilemma: Whose religion should be taught? The prominent Massachusetts educator Horace Mann offered a solution: use the Bible to inculcate a generic Unitarian faith. But this alienated other Protestants, not to mention freethinkers and Catholics. Later in the 19th century, the influx of Jews, Eastern European Catholics, African-Americans and Native Americans into public education made Mann's faith in a one-size-fits-all religiosity hopelessly na ve. Fraser goes to great lengths to show that even the simplest religious exercise, such as a start-of-the-schoolday prayer, could be unavoidably problematic for many faiths represented in America's classrooms. But while he acknowledges the "potential for cultural tyranny" by groups such as the Christian Coalition, he argues against the current style of purely secular public education and in favor of a "multicultural" approach in which all faiths would have a "place at the table." Fraser offers no specifics about the substance of such an approach, however. Nor does he explain how to avoid the divisiveness that nearly derailed religion-based public education in a less culturally diverse time, two centuries ago. (Aug.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.