Bridging the Divide

World Religion SymbolsThe recent results of a Pew Research Survey on what Americans believe that all schools should be teaching give us some compelling evidence of the common concerns as well as some intense divides in our culture today. The survey, “Teaching the Children: Sharp Ideological Differences, Some Common Ground,” released in September 2014, is unique among educational surveys in that it also takes into account differences in political views, age, gender, and education level. Once one begins to delve into the findings, in the words of Joseph McTighe, Executive Director of the Council for American Private Education, “It gets interesting very quickly.”

As a whole, adults surveyed believe that such attributes as being responsible (93%), working hard (89%), being well-mannered (84%), and helping others (84%) are “especially important” to be teaching our children in schools. No surprise there, I would guess; it is gratifying to see that there is common ground over these hopes for what young will people learn and how they develop.

However, when viewed through the lens of political leanings, the differences are striking. Those who identified themselves as politically conservative felt that religious faith was an especially important trait to be teaching children (81%). In contrast, among those who described themselves as being politically liberal, only 26% identified religious faith as being especially important.

Tolerance, on the other hand, was the trait most identified by liberals as especially important (88%), while obedience was viewed as especially important among only 35% of the same group.  In contrast, 67% of conservatives felt that obedience was an especially important trait to be teaching, while only 41% regarded tolerance as especially important.

The findings of the Pew survey mesh with previous studies of the “value divides” between conservatives and liberals, including the religious differences outlined in Putnam and Campbell’s book, American Grace. The divide is echoed as well in terms of age: 66% of Americans surveyed over the age of 65 believe that religious faith is an especially important trait, while only 40% of those surveyed under the age of 30 felt it to be especially important.  There were similar divides related to age over the importance of obedience as an especially important trait to be teaching.

Despite the commonalities, the sharp distinctions found in how liberals and conservatives view the values of religious faith and tolerance accentuate just how divided as a country we seem to be. Differences in political viewpoints go beyond the question of how our country should be run to matters of what we should be teaching children, an area that can generate just as much depth of feeling – in some cases, even more feeling – than contrasting viewpoints on how to govern and be governed.

The results help to underscore a couple of the observations I have heard over the years from those in Episcopal schools. The first has to do with the group of people most commonly identified as having the toughest time with an Episcopal school’s understanding of itself and its religious mission, namely, conservative Christian parents in that school community. In part, their concern about how we “be Episcopal” stems from a deeply held value for the place of religious faith in education.  Likewise, I have often heard the concern that in matters of tolerance and diversity, religious difference is not as often addressed or emphasized as much as other expressions of difference. When it comes to tolerance and religious faith, a lot of people do not seem to see the connection.

What does all of this mean, one may ask, for Episcopal schools, and how they communicate the mission of their respective institutions? What does it tell us about how we connect the core values of our schools with what parents are seeking for their children? How does one go about marketing a school to different groups in such a deeply divided culture?

A natural, almost reflex response might be, “Hands off the hot button items,” and many schools, for example, have indeed sought to sidestep describing how religious faith as an attribute is taught simply because of its potential for controversy.  In this case one might appreciate the concern of some conservative parents: is this a religious school or not?

At the same time, schools might seek to soothe over differences, emphasizing that in essence we are one big, happy family. In response, one can easily hear the concern of liberal parents: there are significant differences among us in our culture and sidestepping those differences robs us of an important opportunity to be teaching children about the value of inclusion.

Episcopal schools are not going to be able to solve the great value divide on their own. They do, I believe, occupy a unique position in terms of weaving our way through the divides, and perhaps helping in some small way to bridge them.

First, we occupy a unique position regarding the relationship between religious faith and obedience. Based on the results of the survey, it would be easy to assume that there is an automatic connection between religious faith and the virtue of obedience. Many who want little or no part in the religious realm do so because of their assumption that religious belief is, in fact, simply about obedience, perhaps even blind obedience.

Whether or not most of those who identified themselves as conservative in the survey see a strong link between religious faith and obedience, or view the two in some way stemming from the same impulse, our tradition is one in which the place of obedience is more nimble. Make no mistake, obedience is a crucial dimension of faith; because we are encouraged to think critically about our faith, however, the place where obedience enters in is different. Obedience emerges as a result of, not in spite of, serious reflection on and thoughtful consideration about our faith.

Of course, we do not hear a lot about obedience in the Episcopal tradition—it is hardly a fashionable concept, these days. It is, however, a natural outgrowth of our serious thinking about our faith and the process of figuring out what dimensions of faith should elicit our obedience.

Secondly, teaching tolerance needs to embrace the realm of religious difference. At least in my mind, the survey results remind me of the importance of including religious differences in our discussions of inclusion. For too long diversity issues in schools have not taken notice of one of the deepest ways in which we differ from each other: in our religious beliefs. Perhaps, once again, we have sidestepped religious diversity because it is simply too hot an issue to handle; in other cases, those leading discussions on diversity may well see or come out of experiences in which religious faith was a barrier to diversity and inclusion. It is high time that religious differences, in all of their forms, take their place among the many manifestations of diversity we seek to address in schools.

Finally, religious belief and practice issue in the valuing of difference, not the negating of it. Here, I believe, is where Episcopal schools have the strongest advantage helping to bridge the divides implicit in the Pew survey. It is because we believe and value what we do, in our faith and practice, that difference is honored in our schools, not in spite of it. We have the advantage of a theological underpinning to inclusion, in that we are inclusive by virtue of what we believe and value in Episcopal schools. It is because we are Episcopal schools—and all that this entails—that we can be more inclusive, welcoming, and diverse communities. Discussions about how we can be a more inclusive community do not stop at the door of the Episcopal tradition; rather, the tradition opens up that door.

As Episcopal schools, one of the most important contributions we can make to discussions of difference is to offer an alternative to the notion of tolerance. On its own, tolerance is not strong enough—it implies merely putting up with other people—and, from our tradition, we have ample words and images that can serve to deepen and enrich what tolerance seeks to do and be.

In these and other ways, I believe Episcopal schools not only offer a middle ground, they offer new ways of approaching, framing, and addressing the divides over what is most important for our children to learn. We can offer a divided culture what good education does best: to help people look at divisive issues in different ways.