Monday, January 24, 2005

The Secularity Gradient

Does maintaining a strict separation of church and state presuppose the existence of a sharp distinction between religious and secular matters? For a long time, I have (implicitly) assumed such a distinction to exist. Now I’m not so sure.

The question came to mind when I heard about school choirs that perform Christmas celebrations composed of only the secular Christmas carols (“Jingle Bells” – OK, “Away in a Manger” – not OK). Now, as an atheist who celebrates Christmas, this doesn’t bother me much, although I admit that some of my favorite Christmas songs are the religious ones. The notion that Christmas has a secular component makes perfect sense to me. Halloween provides an even clearer example of how an essentially religious event can become almost entirely secularized.

Yet Christmas and Halloween both lie on a spectrum. The only difference between the two is the number of people who still regard them as primarily religious events. Note that Halloween’s secularity is questioned by two different groups – the modern-day pagans who still treat it as a holy day, and the fundamentalist Christians who decry it as a form of Satanism. We do not have a sharp line between the religious and the secular, but a gradient. If enough people adopted my attitude toward Christmas, then Christmas might move down the gradient into the “mostly secular” zone occupied by Halloween.

So how should these holidays be treated by the state? Ought teacher-led celebrations of both events be banned from public schools, on grounds that celebrating either violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment? Or should both be allowed, on grounds that both have secular components that all students can enjoy? Or should the courts adopt a wishy-washy balancing rule, putting judges in the position of deciding whether the secular component of any given event is great enough to overcome church-state concerns?

I don’t have an answer to the question, so I pose it to my readers. I will just add that I see one relatively simple way to finesse problems like these: implement a voucher system, so that parents can choose the degree of secularity to which their children will be exposed.


Whymrhymer said...


Great questions!

The way I read the “establishment clause” celebrating established religious holidays in public schools could not be construed as establishing a religion but NOT allowing these celebrations could easily be construed as “prohibiting the free exercise” of a religion.

I like your voucher suggestion, that would work if the government would get off it's ass and implement the system but I think there's a bigger picture here.

Back in the day (LOL) school was a place where you went to learn reading, writing, math, social studies, history and etc. Somewhere along the line the schools took over the jobs of parents, relatives, churches and community organizations. That's what needs to change -- lets get the schools back to basics.

As far as music and arts education -- if they are to have any programs that stray into religious areas they need to open them up to ALL religions. Come one come all: Christians, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Athiests, Satan Worshippers, etc., etc.

Maybe the voucher system would be a more workable solution.

Anonymous said...

As an atheist and long-time choir singer, I (angrily) submit the following:

It is NONSENSE to refuse to sing Christmas carols if you belong to a choir.
It is RIDICULOUS to expect a child to be able to say "up yours" (however justified he may be) to a teacher who makes him sing Christmas carols if he doesn't want to.
It is TOTAL nonsense to give the child an A if he refuses to participate in class (choir is usually a graded class.)
It's STUPID to pretend to be a musician and to ignore a piece of competent music just because you don't agree with the politics, race, culture, religion, sex, or habits. Pomos can take a long walk straight down onto jagged glass if they disagree.

It's laughable to pretend that anyone in a choir can act individually, even if they're the soloist. A choir is a collective actor or it isn't anything. Same with an orchestra. There is no personal freedom, in a musical ensemble, to haul off and play anything you please. If you do, it's called WRONG NOTES, and you are a PRIMA DONNA.

Now the example of a choir cannot, of course, be generalized onto a free-market libertarian society. But when people start talking about individuality in the specific context of acting as little more than one key of a piano, I start to get upset.

andrea said...

Ahh, vouchers…

Let me give two disclaimers. First - I didn’t go in hating vouchers. I started my research desperately looking for anything that would help provide better education to more students – I even said first amendment be damned. Second – I am speaking specifically from the perspective of urban education. I have seen vouchers work effectively in rural communities (when done properly. Which is, albeit, rare), and honestly don’t care all that much about whether or not they work in middle class suburbs.

The problem with vouchers isn’t in the theory – it’s the practice. Once you universalize vouchers, you get rid of the self selection that creates the (very small) gains that are seen when vouchers are piloted. Unfortunately, improving education isn’t as easy as putting it in the hands of the parents (no duh – parents who are self motivated generally end up with successful students. Regardless of the school, honestly.). It does mean that some students will get improved opportunities. This population, however, is fairly small. The population of motivated-parents/bright-students generally already have economic resources or scholarship opportunities at their disposal, making this group likely to use the financial resources from a voucher program without it making an appreciable difference in the outcome (the resource suck of these kids is actually pretty substantial, when you calculate it – as is the added special education cost once the state has to pay for it – though if it worked, I would be the first to argue the cost is irrelevant). The bottom students also won’t see much of a difference – they often get swept into remedial programs in the status quo, so the fact that they will end up in under-funded remedial schools that have a hard time with teacher retention and can’t afford the metal detectors they need won’t be that much worse. It’s the kids in the middle who will be stuck, however – the ones for whom teacher influence can have the most profound impact, yet often don’t have the parents/grades to make them candidates for college preparatory programs. These are the kids who will end up at the newly opened Random Private School X that doesn’t have the infrastructure to sustain itself and ends up collapsing mid-year.

I’m sorry to say there is no silver bullet. If there were, my dream of actually leaving no child behind would be so much easier. If you are arguing simply from the perspective of “more freedom is always better than less” – well, fine. But just know that this argument is more mental masturbation than a productive policy.

as for secular schools... the rule really exists so that it can be enforced when a teacher goes too far. Teachers talk about christmas - we all know that. The rule is just there and so explicit because we want to be sure that if a teacher DOES go so far as to make a student uncomfortable, there is a legal recourse available. It's simply an exaggerated response to create a comfortable equilibrium.

andrea said...

I keep checking back hoping for a fight! What good are libertarians when they don't argue with you?!

Glen Whitman said...

Andrea -- sorry to disappoint! I've been oddly unmotivated lately, as evidenced by the paucity of new posts.

My intention in this post wasn't to give a full-on defense of vouchers. I was simply noting one advantage of vouchers, which is that they would allow us to escape the one-size-fits-all problem of the status quo. Parents could choose the school that best fits their educational preferences, without having to impose their preferences on everyone else. This applies to the secularity issue, but also to many others: bilingual education versus immersion, uniforms versus more liberal dress codes, etc. These are only political issues because of the one-size-fits-all character of the public schools.

As for your other arguments against vouchers, it's unclear to me whether you're making predictions or relying on actual studies of the existing (very limited) voucher programs. If the latter, I'd like to know what studies you're referring to, because most evidence I've seen on vouchers has been moderately positive.

In any case, I think many advantages of a voucher system would not emerge until vouchers became widespread, instead of the narrow pilot programs currently in place. Only widespread vouchers will create sufficient incentive for the founding of *new* private schools, rather than just pushing up the enrollment (and likely the prices) of existing private schools.

Also, I think it's a mistake to look for the success (or failure) of vouchers along just one dimension, such as performance on standardized tests. There are other potential advantages, such as (1) encouraging greater diversity in teaching methods, administration methods, course offerings, etc., and (2) depoliticizing issues like those I mentioned earlier.

Finally, I don't have any serious constitutional concerns -- indeed, as indicated in this post, I think vouchers would allow us to *avoid* some constitutional problems inherent in the status quo. As long as the voucher program does not discriminate against any religion or lack thereof, I see no church-state issue. Think of it this way: What if the government offered to pave the driveways of all residences, businesses, and non-profit institutions -- with the *sole exception* of religious institutions, which would have to pay to pave their own driveways. Far from that exception being required by the First Amendment, I think the exception would be a *violation* of the First Amendment because it discriminates against religion relative to all other fields of human activity. Likewise, I think a voucher program that applied only to secular schools would violate First Amendment principles -- just as would a voucher program that applied only to parochial schools while excluding secular ones.

andrea said...

I'll comment again tomorrow when not suffering the consequences of weeklong procrastination, and give you some recent studies/articles on the dubious outcomes seen in voucher programs recently. But you are right – the current programs are limited, and so we can't really generalize.

You and I fundamentally disagree on the direction that this "freedom" would take education. If you want immersion/bilingual, uniform/any clothes, secular/"moral code" (I won't go as far as saying "religious", cause that ain't happenin') - you CAN do that under the current system. The push towards smaller schools with more individualized programs and rules is huge in urban education - and the results are very positive so far (though, I will admit a similar problem to the voucher one - it's hard to see the true benefits when the program is still small enough to be profiting from a considerable self selection bias.) Your benefits, I’m thrilled to say, are not mutually exclusive (and I think you actually get more innovation when a school knows they have a little wiggle room and don’t have to worry about shutting their doors in a matter of months because of one unpopular choice or bad decision).

But let’s look at what we DO know about the free market. Well, we know that new businesses often fail. Freedom may encourage innovation, but the lack of a “bureaucratic” safety net means that the harms are very different in education than most other industries. This is a problem that is already being realized in areas where they are trying vouchers or “privatized public schools”. Even some charter schools. Infrastructure can be difficult to develop for any new company or business, and even more so in an field that relies so heavily on the personal culture it develops to peddle its product (just like a coffee shop needs ambiance, schools need an atmosphere of control and a culture of success in order to get and retain teachers and students). The one harm of large numbers of schools having to close their doors mid-year is enough to make vouchers entirely out of the question to me. But, your coefficients may differ - that's a personal preference/utility issue that I don't think can be resolved.

But let’s assume you don’t mind if Suzie or Jamiqua get an extended Christmas break (sorry, “winter holiday”). That’s just the cost of doing business, right? Well, then we still have the problem of mis-allocation. The reality is that it doesn’t cost very much to educate an emotionally healthy and well-adjusted child. It costs even less to educate an honors one. Teachers are willing to be paid less, materials last longer, fewer resources go to “student support” (police, counselors, metal detectors), and so the rest of the budget is put into extra programs, smaller class sizes, materials and newer resources. The average students get something a few rungs below this, and the “troubled” kids end up in schools that are glorified lock-ups, because the school can’t afford to keep order and still do anything else. There are ways to set up a funding structure that takes into consideration what “type” of student a child is, but I have yet to see one that didn’t set up a perverse incentive for a parent or a school. Besides, now that all school aged children will be looking to their school districts to pay for their education, the same pot is being shared by many more people – do you think the people with the political advantage are going to allow an allocation system that has their children receiving even less of that pot? Without solving this problem, and while acknowledging the unfavorable yet unfortunate truth that the bottom schools would be almost entirely black and latino while the top schools would be heavily white and asian, we also find ourselves back at a separate and don’t-you-dare-call-it-equal problem.

I don’t really care about the constitutional stuff – it’s fun to argue, but I care more about what would actually happen to the kids. I know how painful it can be to debate when you’re just not in the mood, so feel free to ignore me. I’m just “amped” :-)

andrea said...

sorry late posting this:

there are more, but these are the only ones I have handy at the moment.