Summary of “Educational pluralism and vulnerable children” by Charles L. Glenn

Charles L. GLENN, EdD, PhD. Professor Emeritus. Boston University (


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The author seeks answers to several educational policy questions relevant to every free society:

– What are the appropriate scope and limit of any government’s role, in a free society, in the formation of its citizens? How have these changed in a time of growing cultural conflict?

– What arrangements for schooling are best suited to accommodating deeply-rooted cultural divisions while nurturing the qualities that citizens should possess?

– How can these arrangements serve as a vehicle for both freedom and justice, especially for those children who are most vulnerable?

He argues that it would be unwise to attempt to employ schools in the nation-building mode characteristic of the 19th century in order to address the cultural divisions that afflict our countries today. There is every reason to believe than an intensification of government’s role in seeking to impose a single set of cultural norms on society would serve only to exacerbate the present tensions.

Of course, governments have a clear interest in ensuring that all of its citizens possess the skills and information that will enable them to work productively and to function under the complex conditions of daily life. It can thus legitimately expect that whoever is providing instruction demonstrate that this produces the age-appropriate knowledge and skills.

But with respect to education in the broader sense, the formation of character and values, a wise policy recognizes that the State possesses neither a monopoly on truth about life’s deepest questions, nor a right to use its regulatory authority or its financial muscle to favor an official orthodoxy. While it may enforce reasonable expectations for behavior – obeying the laws, paying taxes, and so forth – it may not prescribe the worldview on which such behavior is based, and it should recognize that many of its citizens hold convictions about life that disagree profoundly with some societal norms, such as shifting standards for sexual behavior. This in turn will cause them to resist the teaching of those norms to their children as unquestionable “official” truth.

Structural pluralism, support for a variety of well-qualified alternative schools, is the policy most consistent with a liberal democracy committed to freedom of conscience.

In turn, such educational pluralism makes it possible to offer vulnerable children, including those with severe special needs, schools that are not focused exclusively on measurable academic outcomes but treat each pupil as persons with full human dignity. Such schools are often informed by a worldview that sees each child as created and in the care of a loving God, whatever his or her apparent imperfections.

This also true of children whose homes fail to provide the loving stability and models of adult character needed to develop essential qualities of character, including the ability to trust and to be trustworthy, the “autonomous moral self required for liberal democratic citizenship.” Such children, even more than those from more supportive homes, require immersion in “thick, dynamic ethical and religious traditions that offer concrete visions of what it means to be a good person and to live in a just society.” Educational policy should make room for and support such schools.

The common public school, serving pupils assigned on the basis of residence or some other formal criterion, rather than by a shared agreement on the part of school staff and parents about the perspectives upon which the life and mission of the school will be based, cannot provide such a nurturing educational culture. This is especially true since democratic governments no longer possess the confidence that they can or should impose a state orthodoxy.

Under these conditions, schools freely chosen by parents and (equally important) able to choose their staff on the basis of commitment to the school’s distinctive mission (whether religious or humanistic) have a distinct advantage in nurturing trust and the settled disposition to behave as responsible citizens.

A third vulnerable group are children of immigrants and other marginal groups. In North America as in Western Europe, although most immigrants place a high value upon the schooling of their children, some regard the form available to their children in public schools as a threat to their cultural and religious identities. What accommodations to make for religious convictions – a fundamental human right – in common public schools is a question that has troubled education policymakers. Schools may remove or grant excusals from practices that the devout find offensive and may modify the curriculum to give more recognition to the significance of religious belief, for example by teaching about world religions, but these accommodations are often unsatisfactory to all involved.

Concern is often expressed that Islamic schools, even those abiding by all the instructional requirements for other schools, will result in alienation of their pupils from the host society. Extensive studies in the Netherlands, where about fifty publicly-funded Islamic schools have operated for decades, have not found this to be a problem.

A study of seven Islamic secondary schools across the United States directed by the author found in the students interviewed none of the alienation so evident in accounts of youth who turn to terrorist acts. They saw themselves as engaged through their classes – especially Islamic Studies – in thinking critically about American society, but also about Islamic tradition and the cultural assumptions of their families, and how these would have to be re-thought for application to their lives in the United States. Contrary to the assumption that faith-based schools are less capable than schools informed by secularistic materialism of developing critical thinking, these young men and women are keenly aware of how much in their lives cannot be taken for granted.

When, by contrast, schools and other institutions that serve a bridging function between the immigrant community and the host society are not encouraged, or even actively suppressed, the children of immigrants often turn to radicalized sources of information about Islam. Studies of jihadists in Europe and North America have found that they are seldom solidly shaped by and anchored in well-established Islamic institutions, but typically became radicalized in prison or through the internet.

In summary, governments can and should ensure that youth come to understand their own rights and those of others, and the importance of protecting these rights. But it may not, in a free society, usurp the authority of families to shape the character and the deep convictions of their children.

Children with special needs and disabilities flourish in schools for whose staff and governance recognizing and nurturing their personhood is at least as important as measurable academic outcomes, and so develop confidence to contribute within their abilities to family and society.

Children from difficult and unsupportive homes can develop the ability to trust and the stability of character required for worthy citizenship in school where the staff share a common understanding of human flourishing and exhibit trustworthiness in their relationships with one another as well as with their pupils.

Children from marginalized social groups flourish in settings which provide an inter-active  bridge between their families and traditions and the wider society. Just as thousands of Catholic parochial schools, supported at great sacrifice by European immigrants to the United States, gave the children of those immigrants safe spaces within which to become American Catholics, so well-organized Islamic schools can serve a similar role. This means that they should be brought out of the shadows and expected to meet common expectations for instructional outcomes and civic engagement.

For each of these vulnerable groups of children, and for other children as well, a pluralistic system of education offers a range of positive options which provide supportive environments for their development into responsible citizens.

Please, cite this article as follows: Glenn, C. L. (2022). Pluralismo educativo y niños vulnerables | Educational pluralism and vulnerable children. Revista Española de
Pedagogía, 80 (281), 85-110.