Education Review, an open-access online journal, reviews the recently published Public Education, America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (Teachers College Press, 2009) by Carl Bankston III and Stephen Caldas. While critical of some aspects of the argument laid out in the book, the reviewer is intrigued by the authors’ account of the development of schooling in the United States through the concept of “civil religion” and their skeptical perspective on Americans’ belief in education as a means to building an equitable society.
Expanding on Robert Bellah’s description of American civil religion, Carl L. Bankston III and Stephen J. Caldas delve into the underlying beliefs that make up the American civic faith. In Public Schools American Civil Religion: A Social History [sic.], Bankston and Caldas, like Bellah, have drawn the idea of the sacrilization of the nation’s dominant values and political life into a specifically American setting, tracing its stages through American history. However, unlike Bellah, they argue that belief in education developed as a central part of the belief in the American nation. As schools became the focal point of national belief and commitment throughout the decades, Americans placed tremendous faith in education to solve its social, economic, and political problems. Bankston and Caldas argue that the best way to understand the American devotion to education as the primary means to solving the concerns of society is to examine schools as the temple of a civil religion. They identify the main characteristics of civil religion in America and examine how our unfaltering faith in the power of schools to change society may lead us to exaggerate what schools can actually accomplish. The authors do not seek to discredit this national faith so much as to call readers to examine it with skepticism and to consider its contradictions and limitations.
Read the full review here (PDF).