Principled Pluralism in Education - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Principled Pluralism in Education


The ineffectiveness of the American K-12 public-education system is one of the steadiest and dreariest facts of our last half-century. It has undermined the competence and the moral character of our citizens and damaged American economic, social, and political life.

Our educational outcomes continue to be dismal despite frequently increased per-pupil expenditures and diminished class sizes, except for a few states with vigorous reform programs, such as the bipartisan effort in Massachusetts since the mid-1990s. Charles L. Glenn Jr. has written about that effort and helped to guide it. His work is deserving of a fresh appraisal.

Since 2010 Glenn has published six major books to add to a body of publications going back forty years, including his ground-breaking 1988 book The Myth of the Common School, republished in paperback by the California-based Institute for Contemporary Studies in 2002 and in Italian and French translations in 2004 and 2006. Reading and speaking several languages, Glenn is the most highly-esteemed American educational-policy specialist in Europe and probably in the world at large. He has been a consultant to many American states and cities and to education authorities in Russia, China, Israel, Ukraine, and Italy.

Like his fellow reformer E. D. Hirsch, Glenn sees the so-called Progressive education movement emanating from John Dewey (1859-1952) as the source of what has undermined the promise of schooling in our modern democratic republic, but Hirsch and Glenn come at the disastrous Dewey legacy from different angles. For Hirsch, Dewey and his legion of disciples over several generations fatally weakened literacy instruction and dumbed down the K-12 school curriculum through the free-association, soft-utopian “project method.”

Glenn’s critique of Dewey is based on Dewey’s evangelization for what Glenn calls “the myth of the common school,” Dewey’s hostility to traditional families and parental rights, his anti-religious animus, his scientism, and his statism. Through long and varied educational and political experience, Glenn came to see that the homogenization and vulgarization of education brought about by Dewey’s movement was a defeat for the promises of America’s democratic-republican polity and culture. Elementary educational competence, respect for parents’ rights, liberty, and a variety of perspectives should be possible in organized public schooling, Glenn believes. The U.S. Supreme Court announced in its unanimous decision against educational statism in 1925 in “Pierce vs. Society of Sisters” that the child is not merely or mainly a creature of the state. Yet as Glenn has pointed out in a recent First Things essay, “Oppression by Indifference: An Argument for Educational Pluralism,” the U.S. has failed to put this principle into practice.


Charles L. Glenn Jr., is the son of a prominent American Protestant clergyman and a mother who eventually became a major figure in the Los Angeles, California, public-school system. He graduated Magna Cum Laude in English and Comparative Literature from Harvard College in 1959, studied theology at Berkeley and in Germany, was ordained as an inner-city Episcopal minister, and became an activist in the civil rights movement in Boston and the South.

He was jailed in North Carolina in 1963 and walked across the bridge in Selma, Alabama, with Martin Luther King Jr., in 1965. He eventually became a major figure in the desegregation of the Boston public schools (as written about by J. Anthony Lukas in his award-winning 1985 study Common Ground) and served inner-city churches as a non-stipendiary minister.

In 1972 he took his first doctorate, an Ed.D., from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a bastion of Deweyite Progressivism. He started working in the Massachusetts Department of Education in 1970, and from 1981 to 1991 he was the executive director of Educational Equity for the Commonwealth, as well as director of Equal Educational Opportunity. In 1987 he took his second doctorate, a Ph.D. in Sociology, at Boston University, under the guidance of the great Austrian-American philosophical sociologist Peter L. Berger (1929-2017), to whom he remained close for the rest of Berger’s life.

From 1991 to 2016 Glenn was professor of Education at the Boston University School of Education, serving as Department Chairman for over 15 years and as Interim Dean from 2006 to 2008. In the period 1989-1991 he was the Executive Director of the Boston/Chelsea Urban Team. The Chelsea-Boston University partnership was a pioneering program conceived by long-time Boston University President John Silber (1926-2012), pairing a major private university with the state’s poorest community—across the river from Boston—to promote educational improvement. 

Glenn’s career, with unique virtuosity, has spanned the worlds of politics and public administration, education, religion, and scholarship. As a true life-long learner, he mastered Dutch in order to study in detail the development of educational liberty in the Netherlands and Belgium in the late 19th and early 20th century, a story that he was to tell in The Myth of the Common School and that led to the deepening of his own neo-Calvinist Evangelical religious and political-social views.

His studies into Dutch and Belgian battles against centralizing, pro-French statism in education introduced him to heroic figures in the Dutch campaign that eventuated in the increase of principled pluralism in the Netherlands and Belgium: the historian-politician Groen van Prinsterer (1801-1876) and the theologian-politician Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), the latter serving as prime minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905.

In the late 19th century, it was partly the extension of suffrage to the lower classes of the Netherlands and Belgium—people for whose largely traditional Protestant and Catholic views the liberal, statist, pro-French elites had nothing but contempt—that enabled the statesman-theologian-educator Kuyper to win, democratically, the great battles in Dutch and Belgian legislation against centralizing statism and for educational autonomy and parental choice.

As opposed to the myth of the American public school as an effective “melting pot” and instrument of tolerance, civic virtue, and pluralism, Glenn’s body of work and advocacy has shown in detail how authoritarian, reductive, and ineffectual the current American public-school establishment is. He and his Belgian colleague Jan De Groof have edited over the last two decades a vast, exemplary survey work covering 65 countries, with over 100 contributors, published in four volumes as Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in Education (available online through the Johns Hopkins University School of Education).

Briefly put, Glenn and De Groof and their allies in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and elsewhere argue for a “principled pluralism” that balances the rights of parents to make choices for the education of their children, the desirability of educational autonomy (different kinds of schools, with different assumptions and approaches, secular and religious), and the obligation of the state to assure certain high common minimum requirements for all schools: securing the rights of students, the inculcation of elementary civic literacy, and the achievement of fixed standards and outcomes of instruction and learning in each of the main subject areas.

Glenn has long served as vice president of the Geneva-based international-educational organization OIDEL (L’Organisation internationale pour le développement de la liberté d’enseignement), promoting educational freedom and parental choice. Principled pluralism as a current of thought, in its Catholic “subsidiarity” form and its neo-Calvinist “sphere-sovereignty” form, has been fundamental in inculcating among the best educational reformers a Burkean-Tocquevillean respect for plural social groups, intermediate bodies between the naked individual and the overpowering state (and large, impersonal corporations).

As Glenn has argued, pluralism need not—should not—lead to relativism and social disintegration, and its fundamental principles must be consensual: a recognition that truly different worldviews are available to persons and that respect is due to those who can conform to at least minimal intellectual, social, ethical, and legal standards within a given state. The ultimate differences between such views must be “bracketed” and operationally set aside by persons of good will who wish both to retain their own worldviews (and convey them to their children) and to live at peace with neighbors and fellow-citizens, respecting shared laws in the state in which they reside. The monolithic Dewey-Progressive K-12 school project of homogeneous indoctrination, dumbing down, and moral debasement—abject surrender to the domination of a hedonistic pop culture of unprecedented vulgarity—has manifestly failed on its own original  terms, not to mention those of critics such as Hirsch or Glenn.

A heroic veteran of the civil rights movement, the orthodox Protestant Glenn has recently written about the rights of historically disfavored religious groups in America—Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, and Muslims (see, for example, his Muslim Educators in American Communities, 2018). Aware of the ironies of history, and particularly “the ironies of American history” about which Reinhold Niebuhr, one of his heroes, wrote, Glenn has argued that in the years after World War II,

as official racial discrimination was being challenged with increasing success, religious discrimination was broadened beyond Catholics by a series of Supreme Court decisions removing the residual Protestant aspects of public schools, including prayers and Bible reading. Education at public expense would now be on the basis of a completely secularistic and materialistic understanding of the world, with no regard for what parents wanted for their children. 

This was the worry of philosopher and educational expert Philip Phenix back in 1955, and one that the great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) had about the emergent anti-metaphysical “progressive” naïveté he encountered on his trip to the U.S. a hundred years ago. As Abraham Kuyper himself put it in 1874: “The State”—and thus statist schoolsp—“cannot teach morality because morality involves principles of anthropology and psychology of which the State is incompetent to judge.” The supposed neutrality of the public school is an illusion, as Phenix pointed out in 1955.

Modern naturalism and its twin illusion, the belief in collective, cumulative, inevitable, irreversible human progress through “the scientific method,” have proved the grossest of illusions since 1914. Communist “scientific socialism” and Darwinian-Nazi “racial science” adapted the great prestige of science to truly satanic ends. Yet the progressive scientism of Dewey has also led to the dead-end demoralization and ineffectuality of the American public school. As Henry M. Cowles concludes in his recent book The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey, “The rise of ‘the scientific method’ was less a success than a tragedy.”

By contrast, the large body of detailed, eloquent, clearly argued publications, and the record of noble public engagement, of Charles L. Glenn Jr. give substance to the hope that we might indeed learn from the philosophical, political, and educational mistakes (as well as successes) of the last 150 years and actually realize the promise of modern education, in a principled pluralism of educational approaches and institutions that would reverse our noisy, dreary descent into homogeneous vulgarity, demoralization, disorientation, and incompetence.

M.D. Aeschliman is professor emeritus of Education at Boston University and the author of The Restoration of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Continuing Case Against Scientism.


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