Respecting Good Fences

Diversity in the curriculum and in the faculty improves the quality of education. So does lack of diversity.

Contradictory as this may sound, many people actually hold both positions. For example, liberals often both advocate a demographically representative faculty and defend the worth and necessity of all-female and all-Black colleges. Despite their commitment to diversity, they recognize that a certain amount of homogeneity fosters solidarity. Such a strengthened identity, they feel, is necessary for a group that risks assimilation into the wider society.

Yet few are willing to tolerate this dynamic tension between pluralism and unanimity when it comes to religion in education. Private schools with a religious focus are under pressure to abolish rules concerning the religious beliefs of the faculty they hire and the doctrinal content of their curricula.

In Atlanta, the Westminster School--an elite college prep school with a historically Christian focus--has succumbed after a year of pressure to do away with its policy of only hiring Christian faculty. Several prestigious colleges, such as Georgetown University, had stopped sending recruiters to the school, and had suggested that Westminster's "exclusionary" policy would jeopardize the college admissions chances of its students.

The purpose of Westminster's original policy was to affirm and perpetuate the unity of the school's educational mission with its spiritual mission. For Westminster officials, Christianity was not, as it is at secular schools like Harvard, an extracurricular activity, a separate department, or an object of merely sociological interest.

They considered it essential to present a unified intellectual world-view, the unifying force being the Christian faith. Administrators believed, with some justification, that this was best accomplished by Christian teachers.

It would be disingenuous to argue that no prejudice ever entered into the making and enforcing of this rule. After all, the school was founded in the pre-Civil Rights era in the South. Nonetheless, that people may espouse it for illegitimate reasons is no reflection on the legitimacy of a position.

Those who opposed Westminster's policy contended that a teacher's religious beliefs should not be considered relevant to his or her qualifications. Such dismissal of an entire group as unqualified would be mere sectarian prejudice.

These critics fail to realize that the value-free model of education, which separates "objective" knowledge from "personal" beliefs, is an artifact of the self-same secular/pluralist society which religious schools are founded to counteract.

Moreover, even in ostensibly neutral teaching environments such as public schools, an ideology is transmitted (if only by default) through a teacher's methodology and personal opinions. Why is religion alone an illegitimate criterion for distinguishing desirable from undesirable learning environments, when other factors such as ethnic identity and political ideology enter into hiring decisions even at schools with no openly avowed philosophy?

The college admissions officials are the ones who are guilty of discrimination, in fact, since they are imposing a high penalty on students who choose to learn in a securely and homogeneously Christian environment. While most of us might not choose to study in such a school, the very hostility of society to this option inspires those who wholeheartedly espouse the Christian perspective to seek schools where their beliefs will receive institutional support. Because of this principled choice, they are being denied admission to good universities.

If college administrators were really concerned about Westminster students' exposure to educational diversity, they would accept these students to college in order to broaden their perspective. Instead, admissions officials force Westminster students to choose between completely religious or completely secular intellectual worlds throughout their whole educational careers.

The Westminster School's capitulation sends a discouraging message to other religious schools. It is up to the secular intellectual community to expand its definition of "tolerance" and "inclusiveness" to include toleration for the rights and needs of those who believe, in the words of Robert Frost, that good fences make good neighbors.