Lessons from History, Advice for Today: an exclusive interview with Charles L. Glenn Jr.

Published May 1, 2003

“What then is the American, this new man?… He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He has become an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all races are melted into a new race of man, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur
Letters From An American Farmer (1782)

De Crevecoeur marveled at the cultural melting pot that transformed eighteenth century immigrants into citizens of the New World.

But, as education historian Charles L. Glenn Jr. discovered in researching his 1988 book, The Myth of the Common School, Horace Mann and other social reformers had no faith that this spontaneous naturalization process would be effective in converting the Irish Catholic immigrants of the 1840s into what they regarded as “true Americans.”

Mann deemed necessary a new state institution, one that would shape the loyalties and values of immigrant children and detatch them from the prejudices of uneducated parents and an alien religion. That institution was the Common School.

Glenn, currently professor of Administration, Training and Policy Studies and Fellow of the University Professors Program at Boston University, has written extensively on education history and policy, with particular emphasis on the conflict between the rights of parents and the interests of the state. His two most recent books are The Ambiguous Embrace: Government and Faith-based Schools and Social Agencies (2000), and, together with Professor Jan De Groof of Ghent, a 26-nation study of Finding the Right Balance: Freedom, Autonomy and Accountability in Education.

As well as teaching and writing, Glenn is active in educational policy debates in the United States and Europe. He is vice president of OIDEL, a Geneva-based international organization that promotes educational freedom; he has served as a consultant to the Russian and Chinese education authorities, and to states and major cities in the U.S.; and he has been called as an expert witness in federal court cases on school finance, desegregation, and bilingual education.

From 1970 to 1991, Glenn was director of urban education and equity efforts for the Massachusetts Department of Education. He received his B.A. and Ed.D. from Harvard and his Ph.D. from Boston University. Since 1963, he has been an ordained minister serving inner-city Boston churches. Glenn recently spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: How was education provided in the U.S. before the advent of Horace Mann’s common school?

Glenn: As of 1800, almost every town in New England had a school that was supported by local taxes with a teacher appointed by the local school committee, which usually included the minister of the town. The state–that is, first the provincial legislature, then the colonial legislature, and finally the state–required that. That was the New England model.

In the middle-Atlantic states, most of the schools were actually founded and supported by church groups because the population was ethnically very mixed due to immigration. The Dutch had their schools, the Germans had theirs, and so on. In the South, of course, schooling was very scanty.

New England already had close to universal literacy before the coming of the common school. Horace Mann’s concerns were not with providing schooling but with making schooling an effective instrument for social reform. He saw education as a way of achieving more uniformity in the society. He argued that if we just had schools that followed his model, it would be possible to close all the prisons within a generation and solve all the social problems of the day.

It was fear of the growing Catholic immigrant population that led to the closing of ranks behind the idea of the common school in the 1840s. Many Americans felt that Catholic immigrants would not assimilate and share American values. This is why we had all these laws passed that forbid providing money to non-public schools, which at that time were the immigrant schools. People like Harris Bushnell said, “Unless we compel the children of immigrants to attend our common, public schools, they will not really become Americans.”

Clowes: So that was the basic idea behind the public schools?

Glenn: Not behind the public schools–they already had public schools. The issue with Horace Mann wasn’t having public schools, it was having the state control public schools. It’s a fundamental difference. We had a system, and, indeed, to a large extent, we still have a system in which local towns control their own schools.

What Horace Mann and his allies were opposed to was what they saw as the harmful forces of localism and religious traditionalism. Horace Mann was a very active Unitarian who was very much against orthodox Protestantism. In effect, the idea was that the common school would teach a new set of progressive values, which gradually everyone would be educated into, and thereby the progress of the nation would be assured.

That’s what Horace Mann believed and what John Dewey believed. Dewey uses the word “democracy” thousands upon thousands of times in his writing but he never mentions “elections” or “parents” or “family.” He talks about “democracy,” but by “democracy” he doesn’t mean people voting and deciding what they want. He means people like him deciding what new model of humanity ought to be created.

The communist regimes in Eastern Europe also tried to use schooling to reshape attitudes and loyalties. As we see now in Russia, the atheistic education was not able to really create a new Soviet man, as they claimed it would, but it did manage pretty successfully to root out all the traditional values, which is one reason why Russia has been having such an enormously difficult time creating anything like a healthy civil society based on mutual trust. Attempting to make the state the source of moral authority and of life orientation does immense harm, even if it doesn’t succeed.

Clowes: What, then, is the purpose of education?

Glenn: There’s always been an implicit distinction between instruction and education, often provided by different entities. “Instruction” is learning how to do things, learning how to read and write, learning how to be a carpenter, learning higher mathematics, and so on.

“Education” is what the Germans call bildung, the shaping of the entire person, a process that arguably goes on throughout life. In French, the two words are quite distinct–instruction and education have those different meanings. In English, we tend to use them kind of interchangeably, but the distinction is an important one.

One trend has been a succession of thinkers, including Plato and Horace Mann and John Dewey, who have been insistent that the state ought to use schooling for the purposes of education in the sense of forming citizens upon a particular model, and believing certain things. But the Catholic church has usually insisted on going its own way, and so there’s very often been conflict between the Catholic church and the state agenda of schooling.

Another trend is associated with names like John Stuart Mill in England, Orestes Brownson in New England, and Wilhelm von Humboldt in Germany, who said that for the state to engage in education is inherently dangerous. They said the state should make sure everybody can receive instruction by making it free but not to use instruction for shaping the way children think and believe. In other words, the state ought to be neutral and support schooling that reflects any number of perspectives on the world, and is chosen by parents.

If the state tries to define what’s going to be orthodoxy in school, it’s going to be treading on people’s convictions. The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1925 in the Pierce decision that the child is not the creature of the state. It held in the Barnett decision during World War II that the state must not impose any orthodoxy, and in last year’s Zelman decision the court upheld the right of parents to make a choice of schools.

Clowes: How can private schools maintain their independence once parents begin to use publicly funded vouchers?

Glenn: States can regulate private schools even without vouchers and so, whether or not you have vouchers, you have to ask: What sorts of constraints are you willing to accept that you feel would not injure your distinctiveness? In fact, that’s really what The Ambiguous Embrace is all about.

There’s a growing recognition that private schools simply cannot go on saying, “We’re accountable to parents, so the government ought not to worry about us.” That’s not going to fly any more because increasingly the state is trying to get into regulating schooling. Private school organizations need to be prepared to come to the table with a well-thought-out strategy of what they will accept, rather than constantly trying to react in a negative way.

In fact, I was in Washington recently discussing this issue with the board of the Council for American Private Education. Here’s what I told them, in order of ascending acceptability.

The one area where private schools must not accept government regulation is determining who they can hire as staff. For example, schools can decide that they will hire only members of their own faith. The courts have upheld this in country after country and in the United States. That’s just fundamental. If you can’t decide on the religious commitment of your staff, there’s no way you can go on being a religious school.

Then another issue arises: Can you use lifestyle issues in hiring decisions? For example, if someone is divorced and remarried, can a Catholic school refuse to hire that person? Here again, the courts have said, “Yes.”

What about gay individuals? Can schools refuse to hire them? Under present American law, a school could refuse to hire gays if the school belonged to a church which had a clearly enunciated position that homosexual activity is against its religious beliefs. Without a clear position, a school would not have a basis for refusing to hire a gay individual.

The second area is admissions criteria for the pupils. In most countries, and in the United States, Catholic, Evangelical, and other religious schools admit pupils who are not members of their faith community. Indeed, they’re eager to have them. They need the students, and usually the schools are what I call “hotbeds of tolerance.” However, the schools do have a right to use religious criteria in admitting pupils if they want to.

The schools also have a right, when a pupil is admitted, to require that he or she take part in the whole school program. In other words, you have to take part in the religion class and you have to attend the chapel services if they are a part of the regular program of the school. You do not have to join in the prayers. You do not have to pretend that you believe in the faith the school believes. There’s a clear protection of a right of conscience of children, but you can’t simply say, “I’m going to opt out of geometry because I don’t believe in geometry.” Similarly, you can’t say, “I’m going to opt out of the religion class because I don’t believe in it,” if that’s a part of the curriculum.

Gender may be used as an admission criteria, too, so you can have an all-boys or an all-girls school. Ability also may be used if it’s related to the school’s mission. A college preparatory high school, for example, can decide to admit only pupils who reasonably can be expected to be able to follow the curriculum.

Clowes: If a school focused on raising the achievement of low-performing students, could it deny admission to high-performing students?

Glenn: It could. If you’re an arts high school, the pupils would have to try out. If you’re a two-way bilingual school, only students fluent in both languages would be admitted. However, one factor on which you could not make a choice is that of race. That’s very clear.

The third area is what I call school autonomy. Schools need to maintain complete freedom of the way they organize their instruction and the world view on which their instruction is based. That could cover a specific teaching style, or how many periods in a day you’re going to have.

The last area is whether private schools–regardless of whether they get government money–need to be subject to government oversight regarding accountability for results, i.e., not for the way they do things, but for the outcomes of what they do.

The way this is handled in a number of countries is that the non-public school either administers the same test as the public schools do, or they can propose an alternative way for being held accountable. This alternative is reviewed by a government board, and if the board concludes that it is generally equivalent, then the school is allowed to follow that alternative. I think we ought to be moving toward that approach.

For example, the Waldorf Schools–the Steiner Schools–in Germany and elsewhere have received approval to use an alternative way of assessing their results. If you were doing the International Baccalaureate curriculum, you would go in and explain that it would require your students to take a different exam. In the IB case, it’s an external exam, but it could be your own exam, too.

One last point is that the assessment ought to be value-added. In other words, the assessment ought to take into account the fact that it’s an easy matter to achieve high academic results in an affluent suburb but it’s not so easy in the inner city.

Clowes: What would be an effective strategy for preventing the government from secularizing the mission of religious schools?

Glenn: What I concluded in The Ambiguous Embrace was the real danger is a loss of nerve on the part of the religious schools and social agencies themselves. For example, nobody has required Harvard to lose its religious character–they did it on their own, as did Yale. And that’s true of many Catholic, Episcopalian, and other schools in the United States–they basically drifted away from any distinctiveness. So I think a greater danger is what I would call “preemptive capitulation,” or surrendering even before government asks you to.

I think schools that are very clear about what it is they stand for have a very good chance of maintaining their distinctive identity. That’s been the case in the Netherlands, where 70 percent of children attend private schools and where private schools are regulated in exactly the same way as the public schools. Some of those private schools are indistinguishable from public schools, but many of them are very distinctive. It really depends on what the school does, not on what the government does.