Reimagining Sunday school

I finally finished writing a short essay titled “Reimagining Sunday school” for my curriculum website. This essay has been in the works for a while, both as a response to the “death of Sunday school” movement, and as a response to the de-funding of religious education programs that we’ve been seeing denomination-wide. I’m copying the entire essay in below the fold, or you can read it on my curriculum website.

Continue reading “Reimagining Sunday school”

Creolizing schooling

In the Black Issues in Philosophy series on the blog of the American Philosophical Association, Josue Ricardo Lopez, assistant professor at the Univ. of Pittsburgh, writes about creolizing schooling:

“The project of creolizing schooling underscores political education as the central project of schooling. It is based on what Jane Anna Gordon in Creolizing Political Theory [Reading Rousseau through Fanon (Fordham Univ. Press, 2014)] argues are at least three principles of creolization: building from the commonalities across our differences, respecting the most salient of our differences, and recognizing that the political is always open to contestation and negotiation.”

I hear echoes of Paolo Friere, John Dewey, and Maxine Greene in what Lopez is saying. Lopez goes beyond Dewey’s concept of educating for democracy, by framing the issue in terms of decolonizing, by considering who American democracy was designed for. As for Friere, he addressed a specific kind of adult education, whereas Lopez is specifically looking at schooling for children and teens.

Also of importance: creolizing is different from multiculturalism. In multiculturalism, cultures exist side by side; creolizing means that cultures change through their interaction with one another. Multiculturalism in education can have the tendency to make non Euro-American cultures invisible; by contrast, creolization

I do have a minor quibble with Lopez’s essay. Lopez rightly points out that “distinct projects will call for different knowledges.” However, the vision of what different knowledges might offer is too narrow. As someone trained in the visual arts, I rolled my eyes when the best Lopez could come up with for the visual arts was “artistic knowledge becomes important for turning brick walls into a canvas for murals that reflects the beauty of the community.” Yet the essay incorporates two infographics that I’ve seen too many times and that actually distract from the main arguments of the essay; if Lopez had cooperated with someone with visual training, there could have been graphics that amplified, rather than distracted from, the essay. Of course, Lopez reflects the bias of the academy: the written word is always considered superior, and the arts are poorly understood and relegated to a minor supporting role. In today’s political struggles, we need digital photographs, videos, animations, infographics, memes, video game design, user interfaces — site-specific murals and other site-specific artworks can be important for local communities, but online media is where young people can make a much bigger impact. (Parenthetical note: when it comes to the arts and education, Maxine Greene’s legacy is worth remembering: she engaged seriously with hip hop and other musicians, artists, etc., and through this engagement acknowledged that music and the arts have something unique to offer in education.)

In spite of this minor quibble, Lopez’s essay is well worth reading. This passage really struck me:

“I worked in Connecticut with Caribbean and Latin American high school students who recently arrived in the United States. There were multiple cultures, languages, religions, and perspectives students brought with them. However, their unique insights, needs, and interests were considered secondary if at all by the school….”

How can the unique insights, needs, and interests become matters of primary importance? How can the school use those unique insights and interests to address real world political issues? John Dewey said, “I believe that education … is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” And Lopez is expanding that notion for a globalized and multicultural society to include the project of decolonizing.

Now I’m waiting for the book on creolizing schooling….


“We are always in media res, there are no absolute beginnings or finalities. We are always in the process of being shaped and shaping our history and our traditions. We are eminently fallible. We never escape from the precariousness and contingency of existence. We become fools of history if we believe that we can achieve total control by expert knowledge, or if we think we can collectively impose our wills and completely determine our destinies.”

Richard J. Bernstein, “John Dewey on Democracy” (Philosophical Profiles, Univ. of Penna. Press, 1986, pp. 266-7).

Maxine Greene

Educator and philosopher Maxine Greene died on May 29. Associated with Teachers College, she was a towering figure in the philosophy of education. I would place her firmly within the educational tradition of John Dewey: someone who cared deeply about democracy, someone who cared deeply about children. She pushed back against dehumanizing models of education — she was critical of factory models of education; she did not approve of mindless standardized testing; she did not believe education could be reduced to information theory.

Greene was an ardent feminist. She thought women and girls were just as good as men and boys; of course we all pay lip service to that, these days. But Greene went further than that, and engaged in sophisticated critical analysis to show the ways in which our thinking remains dominated by perceptions that men are somehow better than women, and the ways that social structures reinforce those perceptions. She was also a staunch defender of multiculturalism in education; she took on such prominent writers as Allan Bloom, and exposed the intellectual weakness of their attacks on multiculturalism.

In the area of religion, Greene was an existentialist and a humanist, and she was one of the original signers of the 1973 Humanist Manifesto II. She also spoke out strongly against religious intolerance, especially anti-Semitism.

As a religious educator, I have found myself drawn to Maxine Green’s writing in the past couple of years — not because she is a humanist (I don’t consider myself a humanist), but because she is an existentialist. I have come to think that Greene offers an existentialist philosophy of education that provides a needed corrective to the educational philosophies used in contemporary Unitarian Universalist (UU) religious education.

UU religious education today is dominated by essentialist philosophies of education:— there are essential things we want children to know, and that is what we will teach them. The Tapestry of Faith curriculum series produced by the UUA is typical example of UU curriculum permeated by an essentialist philosophy: we want children to learn certain moral values, we want them to learn certain facts about religion. This essentialist philosophy goes beyond the printed curriculum guides; for one obvious example, we consider doing social justice projects to be an essential item on our educational checklist, and so we ensure that children do social justice projects as part of their religious education.

I have long been quite comfortable with essentialist philosophies of education. But Maxine Greene has helped me see that perhaps an essentialist philosophy of education is not the best match with UU religious education. Greene emphasizes the importance of the arts and imagination in education; these are things that cannot be reduced to essential educational components that get checked off a list. In my teaching praxis with UU kids over the past few years, imagination and the arts have come to seem more and more central to what we do in UU religious education.

And so Green’s existentialist educational philosophy has come to seem more and more relevant to my work in UU religious education. Not that her thinking is going to solve all of UU religious education’s problems — but her existentialist thinking can serve as a useful corrective to some of the essentialist excesses we face today. I can only hope that her death will prompt some of us to delve more deeply into her thought.

New York Times obituary

The Maxine Greene Center for Aesthetic Education and Social Imagination, with links to some of Greene’s articles

“Diversity and Inclusion: Toward a Curriculum for Human Beings,” an essay by Greene with applications for UU religious education

“Full Week Faith” or “Will There Be Faith?”

I’ve just been checking out Karen Bellavance-Grace’s white paper “Full Week Faith: Rethinking Religious Education and Faith Formation Ministries for Twenty-First Century Unitarian Universalists.” If you read it, I think you’ll find that this paper is a pretty good summary of the debates that have been going on within Unitarian Universalism regarding the role of religious education. And that’s both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength because Bellavance-Grace summarizes the debates nicely, and offers a positive way forward. It’s a weakness because the Unitarian Universalist conversation on religious education has gotten pretty narrow, and has not paid attention to a wider international, interfaith conversation about the role of religious education.

While reading Bellavance-Grace’s paper, I’ve also been reading Thomas Groome’s latest book, Will There Be Faith? and it’s worth making a brief comparison of the two.

Both writers are committed to religious education that is grounded in the experience of learners. But Groome goes further than Bellavance-Grace, and he says that it’s not enough talk about “experience,” because that doesn’t do full justice to the ability of learners to take charge of their own learning. Drawing on Paolo Friere’s work, Groome says he prefers the word “praxis,” by which he means real-world practical action that is more than social service or band-aid charity. As a left-wing Catholic, Groome stands to the left of Bellavance-Grace, particularly in his insistence that children should be active participants in their own learning, and in his insistence that doing education with children can (and should) effect real change in the wider society. So it’s great that Bellavance-Grace continues to be committed to the tradition of experience in education, as set forth by John Dewey a century ago, and it’s great that she updates it for the postmodern era. But Groome is in that same tradition, and he elaborates on Dewey using the insights of Paolo Friere, and then he takes it even further using his own shared praxis model. I find Bellavance-Grace to be a little too conservative for my tastes; Groome’s insistence of the preferential option for the poor, his insistence on the need to seriously challenge the world around us — I find these more in line with what my religious convictions demand of me.

Both writers are committed to educating children into a faith tradition. Groome explicitly acknowledges the insights of John Westerhof, who, at the first rumblings of postmodernism in the 1970s, was one of the first religious educators to point out the new need to explicitly teach children how to be a part of a faith tradition. Bellavance-Grace does not explicitly acknowledge Westerhof, but his influence is clear on her work. Both Bellavance-Grace and Groome come up with similar pedagogical approaches to educating children in faith — Bellavance-Grace calls her approach “experilearn,” and Groome calls his “life to Faith to life.” — and both these approaches emphasize the connection between the life of faith and the rest of the world. But Groome’s pedagogy is much more fully developed, and has a more practical orientation. Also, because his pedagogy is grounded in Friere, there’s a much stronger sense of how reflection and praxis are intertwined; you don’t just learn something then move on, you engage in the world, reflect on your engagement, then engage again, reflect again, and so on for a lifetime. Since I’m a working religious educator, I find Groome’s practical and more fully developed pedagogy to be far more useful.

So Bellavance-Grace and Groome are pretty close in terms of their educational philosophy, and either or both would be useful to Unitarian Universalist parents and religious educators. Unfortunately, many Unitarian Universalists will be turned off by Groome simply because he is a Christian and a Catholic; so many Unitarian Universalists still wear the blinders of anti-Christian and/or anti-Catholic prejudice (and I’ve never quite understood why John Roberto gets a pass from Unitarian Universalists when other Christian religious educators don’t). But while Bellavance-Grace’s paper is quite useful, I think she just doesn’t go far enough; and in the end she advocates a kind of top-down approach driven more by religious professionals than by parents and kids. Groome’s shared praxis approach takes us beyond John Dewey; I think he has a better grasp of the postmodern context; he offers lots more sound practical advice, advice for the grass-roots which will work for religious professionals, parents, and even for kids.

Yes, Bellavance-Grace represents state-of-the-art Unitarian Universalist religious education; she has nicely distilled current cutting-edge Unitarian Universalist religious education practice. The problem is that Unitarian Universalist religious educators are behind the times, and if we want to catch up, we’re going to have to look beyond our narrow borders.

A letter about learning and experience

Dear Mark,

In my last letter, I outlined a possible theology that might relate to religious education, and religious experience more broadly. In this letter, I’m going to start with a description of some real-life religious education, and then get into some thoughts about education and experience.


A couple of Sundays ago, I was helping out with our summer Sunday school program. We had a dozen kids ranging in age from not-quite-five to thirteen, as well as four adults. Our plan was to walk over to Mitchell Park, a city park right behind our congregation’s campus, play on the play structures, have snack, and return. This was in service of the first of our four big educational goals: we want children to have fun and feel they are part of a community.

On the walk to the park, Edie, our lead teacher, set off in front and the rest of us followed. We got to the nearest set of play structures in the park, and some children went to the swing set, while others climbed on the oddly shaped climbing structure, and a couple of children stayed next to a large tree. Mitsuru, who is about 8, climbed up the tree a few feet, and when he was close to my height, we chatted for a while until he got bored and climbed back down. (1) Pretty soon all the children were bored, and we all decided to go over to the farther play area, which has many more things to play on and is much more fun.

As we walked over, I fell into conversation with Rose, who is thirteen. Some of the little kids were talking about sports so I asked Rose if she was involved in any sport. She said, “Only if you count horseback riding as a sport.” I said that I did, and that my older sister was an avid horsewoman. She told me how she gets to ride when she visits a cousin who lives far away, but has no place to ride nearby. I told her about a college that has horses, and lets you take horseback riding for physical education credit. And by this time we were at the farther play area.

(By now you might be saying: What a long description of seemingly trivial conversations! But it is experiences of these seemingly trivial conversations that build networks of relationships between people, that help us fulfill our first big educational goal — to have fun and build community. In order to reach this goal, we are not using root-tree model of learning here, we’re using a rhizome model — we’re not trying to nurture one deep tap root, we’re trying to nurture lots on interconnections.) Continue reading “A letter about learning and experience”

Cornel West and us

I’ve just been reading historian Gary Dorrien’s essay “Pragmatic Postmodern Prophecy,” which discusses Cornel West as an intellectual and as a religious leader. (This essay, from Dorrien’s 2010 book Economy, Difference, Empire: Social Ethics for Social Justice, is an updated version of a chapter from his 2008 book Social Ethics in the Making.)

Dorrien tells the story of West’s intellectual evolution, and his evolution as a public intellectual. Dorrien also gives succinct reviews of major critiques of West. Towards the end of the essay, Dorrien summarizes West, casting him as primarily a religious thinker:

He [West] never really changed, notwithstanding the Left critics who liked his early writings and claimed that he sold out later. From the beginning West was committed to a Christian liberationist vision of social justice and reconciliation, though some readers wrongly took his early writings to be Marxism dressed up as Christian though. West was not “really” a Marxist who used Christianity; it was more the other way around. He began as a liberationist social critic committed to building progressive multiracial coalitions, and he remained one. (p. 334)

I’ve never quite understood why Unitarian Universalists (and other religious liberals, for that matter) don’t spend much time thinking about West, but Dorrien’s summary helps me understand why so few of us seem to bother with West. It’s not his forthright Christianity; for although some Unitarian Universalists might be uncomfortable with West’s trinitarian Christianity, our own humanist theologian William R. Jones showed us back in 1974 how liberal “humanocentric” theists and liberal humanists have plenty in common, or at least enough to build alliances to fight oppression together.

Instead, I think it’s because West is firmly aligned with liberationist Christian theology, while we Unitarian Universalists mostly remain aligned with the old Social Gospel. West is a Christian socialist who’s not afraid of revolutionary ideas, not afraid of taking risks that don’t always work out, and he’s committed to rapid change. The Social Gospel, as it exists today, still uses liberal but not revolutionary ideas, plays down risk, and works towards slower evolutionary change. Unitarian Universalism (and many other liberal religious groups) are not going to be comfortable with West because his theology is further to the left than we are comfortable with. Unfortunately, this means we have cut ourselves off to some extent from one of the few religious progressives who is a public intellectual, someone who has engaged both the academics and the broader public in conversations about progressive religion.

I’ve long been interested in West because in my view he’s the most prominent intellectual still working in the long tradition of American pragmatism that stretches back to Emerson, Peirce, and Dewey. All of us who are American religious liberals really should have some understanding of the pragmatist tradition, since it has been so influential for our religious tradition. So I wonder if we could think about West as a sort of successor to Emerson: a public intellectual who writes essays that are both popular and deeply thoughtful — and on that basis, we might think of taking his theology seriously, even if we don’t quite agree with it.