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Notes on classroom schooling

The dominant model of religious education in my faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism, is the classroom method of schooling. In 1999, while I was writing an essay for a colloquium on religious education (link to the essay), I looked into the theoretical and historical basis for this dominance. I concluded that the classroom method was not my preferred method for doing religious education.

These notes present some alternatives to the classroom model. The original notes date from February, 1999; I updated and expanded them in January, 2007. Today, I no longer quite agree with everything I say here, but this critique still seems worth keeping online.

Cremin's critique of progressive education

Lawrence Cremin points out how Dewey's "theory of education is ultimately a theory of school and society" (1976, 5). Whereas religious education "tends to deal more limitedly with classroom instruction under church or synagogue auspices (1976, 22 n.).

Of course, religious education is in origin a progressivist educational movement, which took much inspiration from Dewey's work.

Rasor's critique of liberal theology

Paul Rasor points out how liberal theology must sustain critique from the left — do liberals, can liberals, really want to change a society they benefit so much from? —and critique from the right — are liberals willing to be countercultural, in some sense separate from society?

The same applies to liberal religious education as well as theology — do we liberals really want to change a system of schooling that benefits us and privileges our children? Are we ready to withdraw from the concept of schooling and try new models? Consider, e.g., Unitarian Universalist attitudes to home schooling: many Unitarian Universalists home school their children, and yet many remain committed to public schools — public schools which are still in large part projects of the Protestant power structure of which Unitarians (and to a lesser extent Universalists) were/are a part.

Tensions in liberal religion

There's a fundamental tension for liberal religious educators: so much of our history and present identity is based on Dewey's thinking about school (most notably through Sophia Fahs's legacy), so many of our assumptions are based on the schooling model that is central to Dewey and his followers — can we ever go beyond schooling and the classroom model of education as our fundamental models for liberal religious education, even if it no longer reflects our religious and social reality?

Well ... I have my doubts.

Why I dislike classrooms in liberal religious education

I believe that our current religious and social reality has changed radically since the heyday of Deweyan theorizing about schooling a hundred years ago. A hundred years ago, the Protestant establishment (which was white, of European descent, and middle or upper class) saw religious education as an extension of the public schools which they dominated. Some of the basics of Protestantism were taught in the public schools: memorizing the Lord's Prayer, Bible readings, etc. — Sunday schools could focus on denominationally specific content. Schooling was the modality chosen for both public school, and Sunday school; since the latter was but an extension of the former.

Today, most of that Protestant religious content has been removed from the public schools; in addition, liberal Protestants no longer dominate the political power structure of society. Yet we persist in using the schooling model, as if religious liberals were still a dominant force in society. But I dislike classrooms for a number of reasons:

Alternate models of learning/instruction from Western culture

Alternate models of learning/instruction for religious education

These models have been used, or are being used, in liberal religious congregations.

If we're serious about institutionalizing some or all of these alternate methods, one of the barriers we face is this expectation: Religious education shall take place for one hour on Sunday morning. Another barrier we face is this expectation: Religious education shall take place in age-segregated groups of between five and thirty children (i.e., religious education takes place in closely-graded classrooms and is for children). To get beyond these barriers, we will have to do the following:


Cremin, Lawrence. Public Education. Basic Books, 1976.

Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind.

Rasor, Paul. References to Rasor's work are to his research for his dissertation, which later led to the book Faith without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century (Skinner House, 2005).

Copyright © 2007 Daniel Harper. All rights reserved.