Just as rivers cut through different terrains, beliefs cut through different parts of our lives. How do religious, political, and educational beliefs influence different areas of life?
Religious beliefs are like deep, powerful rivers because they emerge from deep, powerful experiences: (1) modeling and teaching of parents, (2) ceremonies and sacraments, (3) sermons, and (4) religious art, to name a few. To confront issues about life and death we need deep, powerful beliefs. History tells us religious beliefs are fundamental in all societies.
They are also like winding rivers that cut through mysterious terrain. Religion addresses life’s mysteries by soothing the fears we have about what is around the bend. They teach that traveling this mysterious terrain on a deep, winding river brings peace, instead of the torment we would experience if we were non-believers.
On the other hand, political beliefs are like broad, shallow rivers that cut through open, contested terrain.
Broad rivers symbolize the ideological distance American politicians go to compromise with the other side. Democrats inhabit one riverbank and Republicans the other. As they look across the river, they see the same situation from opposite vantage points, representing their opposite beliefs about how to improve American life. They draw opposite conclusions about what to do, not because they have weighed and balanced different solutions, but because they see the river from their bank, or from the standpoint of their beliefs.
The shallowness of the river represents the “sound-bites” and “talking points” of American political discourse. Members of both parties state their beliefs as if they were truths, correctly assuming the American public does not know the difference.
Political beliefs affect all parts of American life. Politics and government are everywhere–courts, schools, parks, bridges, roads, health care, retirement, etc. National, state and local public agencies build and maintain an infrastructure that enables private citizens and businesses to engage in the commerce that brings economic prosperity.
But this vast terrain is also contested. Politics is the battle for scarce resources. Modern political battles emerge from three competing ideas about the kind of society we want:
(1) Scarce resources should go to those whose talents enable them to win resource battles. Society should be governed by principles of capitalism–supply and demand, competition, innovation, investing, and risk taking.
(2) Cooperation and pooling resources can produce a surplus that should be distributed on the basis of citizens’ needs. This is the socialist ideal.
(3) We want a society that is a combination of 1 and 2.
We are #3. Taxes are collected to build an infrastructure that enables the manufacture of goods and the selling of goods and services. And the private sector engages in the risk-taking and creative thinking that make selling goods and services profitable.
Points of contention are always in (1) balancing public and private, and (2) regulating public and private. We continually debate these, with scarce resources going to winners. Whether or not the debate is fair concerns some; but most simply believe the strong should prevail. Many reason that life is not fair–reasoning that comes from winners, for whom this is easy to say.
Finally, education beliefs are like either political or religious ones. Believers in public education hold politics-like beliefs. Believers in private schools hold religion-like ones.
Public education is driven by the belief that American-style democracy is the most desirable form of government. The legacy of the Cold War adds that we should build a capitalist society (#1 above). Therefore public schools teach that students who get high test scores and work hard achieve financial success.
Whenever and wherever that is not true, policy makers blame students and teachers because they can’t admit they don’t provide equal educational opportunities. That would open them to lawsuits by admitting they have failed in their regulating responsibilities.
For example, the North Carolina state constitution says the legislature must provide, as much as possible, equal educational opportunities for all NC children. Although a three-judge panel found the state in violation of this principle, a more equitable formula for funding NC school districts has never been debated. Instead, since this ruling has come down, the legislature has ignored the judgment and made policy about: (1) a state-wide school calendar that ensures cheap, high school student labor for the tourism industry, (2) applying for Race to the Top funds, (3) promoting a common core curriculum, and (4) holding teachers accountable for student test scores. While these may be good ideas (some obviously are not) none of them come close to the importance of equitably funding public education in a state that has notoriously unequal funding.
Some states equalize funding, but many do not. Those that don’t say they believe in equal opportunity, and they say they believe in the democratic governance of public education, but democratic processes have yet to provide equal educational opportunity for those children most in need of public education.
On the other hand, private schools are driven by a broad range of religion-like beliefs. Parochial schools are driven by the beliefs of religious denominations. Their curriculum starts with religious doctrine, and goes on to cover the humanities, arts and sciences. Parochial schools focus on a rich life and afterlife, instead of financial success.
Independent schools are driven by all kinds of other, religion-like beliefs. Some are driven by the beliefs of an inspirational founder or the generosity of a benefactor. Others might be driven by the belief in a military-style education that values cooperation, loyalty, following orders, etc. The foundational beliefs of independent schools cover a broad range.
Because we have a free, public school system that is required to provide equal educational opportunities, one belief common to private schools is that “some families want their children’s education to go beyond that offered in public schools.” The ways private schools go beyond public schools are as varied as the schools.
In summary, different kinds of beliefs affect different parts of our lives. Religious (spiritual) beliefs are foundational because they address questions about life and death. Political beliefs are wielded in the battle over the kind of society we should build. And educational beliefs are like either our political beliefs or religious ones.