"Have To" History: A Wall Of Education

H2H Wall of Education CoverIt's dangerous to start pushing a book when I haven't seen the physical final product yet. I learned last time that no matter how many weird formatting issues, overlooked typos, and random nude shots you're POSITIVE you've resolved, there are always a few more waiting to be discovered once you've started promoting the thing and your entire sense of self-worth is on the line. 

And yet, I'm pretty happy this one is finally "live," no matter what minor edits may be necessary down the road. I'm sharing the Author's Intro with you here by way of a teaser so you'll get SO intrigued and engaged that you simply have to know more, whatever the cost or personal risk involved. Besides, haul around a volume like this for a few days and everyone will assume you are a DEEP, DEEP THINKER. It's THAT good. 

“Have To” History: A Wall Of Education - What the Supreme Court Really Says (and What It Really Doesn’t) About the Separation of Church and State in Education

When I published “Have To” History: Landmark Supreme Court Cases a few years ago, I added a brief “Afterword” explaining how I came to find myself so fascinated with the decisions of the nation’s highest court over the years and what I hoped to accomplish by doing my own overview of 45 or so of the most important cases one should know as a student, citizen, or wanna-be intellectual elitist. What I didn’t add is that the book I initially set out to write was this one. It was simply too big of a task at the time, besides which I couldn’t actually figure out if anyone would want to read it or not. (That’s not the only reason to write, of course, but it’s certainly a consideration – at least for me.)

So, I chose to instead focus on something that would easily serve a wide variety of readers wanting or needing to know more about multiple cases but lacking the time or motivation to get too academic about the whole thing. Presumably there are folks out there relieved to let me boil things down for them so they can get on with their lives.

This book is far less general. I’ve tried to summarize and contextualize the most important and interesting cases in the history of the Supreme Court related to church-state issues in education. It’s an endlessly complex and fascinating topic, and I’ve done my best to present each case fairly while retaining some of the passion I feel along the way. I won’t claim this is an entirely “balanced” treatment, but I’ve made every effort to be historically and intellectually honest within the limits of my own convictions (which will no doubt be easily discernible to attentive readers).

There are so many ways to approach almost any topic related to the Supreme Court or its cases. I’ve tried to avoid getting bogged down in procedural matters or terminology unless essential to a specific case. Similarly, I’ve shied away from extended explorations of originalism vs. the “living constitution” approach, judicial activism vs. judicial restraint, etc., although each will pop up in relation to specific cases or written opinions here and there. As a long-time history teacher, I’m a bit more susceptible to contextual rabbit holes, but I’ve tried to keep the focus narrow enough to remain useful for the average reader. Maybe even engaging.

The tricky thing about that, of course, is that the historical roots of the First Amendment and the twin religion clauses with which it begins are undeniably relevant to how they have been and should be understood and applied. As I once told students, there are two things we must always remember about the study of history. First, people throughout time and across the globe were in almost every important way just like us. Let’s not overly idealize, demonize, or otherwise mythologize them. Second, the lives and perceptions of people in other times and places throughout history were nothing like ours (in many important ways, at least). There’s no point claiming we can ever fully understand how they felt or why, or what they thought their words and actions truly meant.

Yes, these are essentially opposites. That doesn’t mean either one is incorrect.

Did our Founders and Framers believe in absolute separation of church and state? Not in the modern sense of the phrase, no – not most of them, anyway. For a full generation after the ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the original states wrestled with how to best delineate an ideal relationship between church and state. Those pushing for less establishment (as understood at the time) largely did so out of the conviction that greater separation was best for true religion to flourish, and that only faith untainted by politics could provide the foundational morality essential for the republic to survive. Those favoring freer exercise of religion, or even various mechanisms allowing some state support of select institutions, wanted very much the same thing and for very similar reasons.

What most agreed on during debates over the Bill of Rights and throughout that first critical generation of new Americans was that religious division and strife were to be avoided – if not at all costs, then at something pretty close. Many recognized that they lived in an age of not only massive political revolution but of a potentially new approach to faith and humanity in general, and while it may not be clear what things should look like, they had plenty of examples of what hadn’t worked or wasn’t working. The age-old debate about original intent vs. changing circumstances is thus particularly problematic when it comes to church-state relations since it’s not at all clear the folks signing off on the original rhetoric were all that clear what it meant in practice even at the time – let alone a century or two later.

Did most of our Founders and Framers speak and write from a nominally Christian paradigm? It certainly seems so, yes. Before we get too excited about emulating this in the 21st century, however, we should keep in mind that it even the most tolerant among them were seriously uncomfortable with Catholics and largely excluded Jews and Muslims from the mix when speaking lofty thoughts about the role of religion in American life. Atheists simply weren’t included in the conversation as real Americans, and the only reason the Baptists were tolerated at all was that at least they weren’t Atheists.

In other words, it’s one thing to explore the context and expressed intentions behind our founding documents; it’s another to embrace their specific implementation and interpretation on the day they were first committed to parchment. Like Socrates, Hippocrates, or Hendrix, sometimes it’s the spirit of the thing more than the details of the moment that matter most.

There’s one other issue I figure I should at least address up front in hopes it will make me sound profound and thoughtful...

How does a nation of diverse backgrounds, races, religions, languages, political ideologies, and lifestyles hold together? If the U.S. was to some extent built on a rejection of “the old ways” – the biases and bondages considered normal across most of the civilized world for many centuries – what do we embrace in their place?

We love talking about America’s “great melting pot,” but implicit in this analogy is the idea that ingredients are intended to become more or less indistinguishable – to end up tasting all the same. Most of us would defend individuality and cohesiveness (or “domestic tranquility,” if you prefer) in equal measure, but these two things actually pull against one another – sometimes dramatically. Like freedom and security they may both be worth defending, but doing so requires we first recognize that neither naturally compliments the other.

Such has been the nature of society since its beginnings. Most political scientists and historians will tell you that the foundation of civilization is the “social contract.” While definitions vary, the basic idea is that at some point people with absolute freedom (think running naked in the woods with a pointy stick in one hand and a dead squirrel in the other) came together and agreed that each would sacrifice a degree of personal freedom for the good of the whole. This is not done from altruism; each member is part of that whole that shares in the benefit. The birth of agriculture allowed specialization and diversification so that while some people still grew food or hunted game, others could focus on arts, crafts, warfare, architecture, philosophy, or entertainment.

In modern times this means we can all have different jobs and simply buy the stuff we need to live – food, shelter, streaming services, etc. It also means that I’ll sit at a red light for what feels like hours even when no one else is at the intersection because I expect you to do the same – and both of us consequently feel safer going through that intersection once the light is green. Freedom and society are not natural allies. It makes sense that trying to maintain both of them in such a large, diverse nation would prove problematic from time to time.

One institution with the potential to offer some sort of national bonding in the 21st century is public education. I’m not suggesting it’s the only answer or even the best at it in practice, but I will insist it should be pretty high on the priority list. Whatever else education can or should do for our national experiment to survive, it must help us do a better job of understanding each other and the issues confronting us as a people – whether scientific, cultural, ethical, political, economic, or anything else. It should offer us the tools necessary to succeed collectively as well as individually, and to embrace our differences without necessarily sacrificing our own sense of self or our collective understanding of right and wrong.

And yeah, it would be ideal if we all emerged a little better at reading, writing, math, science, and history while we’re at it.

The chapters can be read in order, straight through, which creates something of a natural narrative along the way. Or, if you prefer, you can refer to Appendix A for a general clumping by subject matter and hunt down the cases of most interest to you at the moment. The major chapters are numbered, and the “Worth A Look” cases inserted more or less chronologically among them. I’ve included edited excerpts of majority opinions, as well as a number of concurrences and dissents, which you can read, browse, or skip as you see fit. I respectfully suggest, however, that despite all the gravitas and history-shaping rhetoric, most make for a pretty good read. You were smart enough to buy this book; you can handle a little jurisprudential exfoliating. I’ve done my best to maintain intellectual and legal accuracy while at times taking liberties with the formatting and endless footnoting and internal citations and such in order to maintain flow and clarity. Appendix B has a list of some of my favorite books and resources in case you find yourself interested in learning a bit more or arguing with me about how badly I’ve misunderstood or distorted everything important about America.

Speaking of which, I’d love to hear your thoughts or opinions if you find yourself so inclined. You can find me at bluecerealeducation.com or email me anytime at BCE@BlueCerealEducation.com. Happy reading.

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