Public policy, religion, and John Dewey’s “Common Faith”

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Seventy years ago John Dewey wrote a remarkable book, A Common Faith. In it he rejected traditional religion as nonsense, proposing “emancipation” from all “encumbrances” having anything to do with the supernatural. Other features of religion, however, especially its ability to stimulate altruism and effort, remained so valuable that “religious” became one of Dewey’s favorite words.

His book describes and proposes a secular religion in which “God” denotes “the unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and action.” Government would be the people’s agent for attaining those ends. Public servants would be imbued with “devotion so intense as to be religious.” Public schools would be the shrines in which all would be sustained, supported and fulfilled. Dewey’s vision continues to invigorate many. Many, but not all.

For some, religion, not a “common faith”, remains the ultimate object of commitment and source of strength. This may have implications for public policy. Take schooling for example. There may be scores of millions of Americans, particularly many poor people, who find neither encouragement nor comfort nor even education or safety in public schools. And their family and neighborhood circumstances may be such that without the inspiration, structure, and protection of religious schools they simply will not thrive – which suggests a need to find ways for more children to attend religious schools.

The above might appear to put before a country devoted to its public schools an ideological quarrel impossible of resolution. However, perhaps resort to research evidence on how effective education can be accomplished and on possible deleterious effects of religious schools can contribute constructively to a national debate. In the talk I will survey the research.


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