Stars and stripes in their eyes

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
Who are We?: America's great debate By Samuel P Huntington Free Press pound;18.99

The Fourth R: conflicts over religion in America's public schools By Joan DelFattore Yale University Press pound;16.50 Beyond Diversity Day: a Q and A on gay and lesbian issues in schools By Arthur Lipkin Rowman and Littlefield pound;18.95

The rise and rise of nationalism is a phenomenon of our times. Modernisation, urbanisation and globalisation create insecurities and tensions; faced with perceived new threats, people rethink their loyalties and their identities.

Hence the questions Harvard's Samuel Huntington poses in his book, raising issues that are increasingly relevant in Britain and its schools.

His key question is straightforward. What sort of society do we want to be? His answer is uncompromising: one honouring the principles of what he calls America's creed u respect for American culture, American values and American rights. All of these, he says, rest on the American Protestant tradition, and on the English language. Anything that weakens them weakens America.

He has no truck with positive discrimination, multiculturalism and (especially) bilingualism in schools. All, he suggests, are part of a conspiracy of "government officials, judges, intellectuals and liberals" and "teachers, unions, immigrant rights activists and community groups" against the wishes of the American public. Above all, he says, America is Christian. Its political creed - liberty, democracy, and individualism - is a reflection of the dissenting Protestantism of the founding fathers. Not for nothing did Chesterton call it "a nation with the soul of a Church". To diminish the force of this religion is to let loose the forces of immorality and decay: to diminish America.

The book is closely argued, highly readable, and hugely controversial, not least because the basis of his theory is that we are at the start of a clash of civilisations (read "the West" and "Islam") that the United States has to win. Though it oversimplifies the US's view of its history, particularly with regard to interpretations of the Civil War and reconstruction periods, it is interesting on the long campaign to get religion into US public schools. As a powerful expression of national conservatism post 911, it demands attention.

So, for different reasons, does The Fourth R. This is a detailed account of the longrunning conflicts over religion in the US's public schools - conflicts serious enough, in several states, to earn the appellation "The Great School Wars". They start in the 19th century, when the objections of New York's growing Catholic population to compulsory prayer and Bible reading in public schools first stirred up "nativism" - the claim that immigrant Catholicism was a threat to American democracy. In several cities there were serious riots and loss of life but, gradually, state by state, an accommodation was reached: no religious instruction in public schools, and no prayer.

Supreme Court decisions in the 1950s and 60s wrote this into the Constitution and federal law, but the issue was far from settled.

For many Americans, the words "In God we Trust", written on every dollar bill, were literally true. Religion was seen as the essential bulwark against godless communism and moral decay, and prayer in schools was a battleground.

What constituted prayer? Was prayer not a fundamental, individual right?

Could a pupil bring his Bible to a silent reading class? Hundreds of cases were brought to the courts, fought (and resisted by) organised pressure groups.

And then, of course, came the Columbine school massacre (April 20, 1999) and 911: irresistible ammunition, inside and outside the country, for the religious lobby. Simultaneously, the structure of public education began to change, and education vouchers opened the way for groups of all persuasions to set up their own publicly-funded faith schools. Is this going to be a solution to the problem, or (as Huntington half believes) a dangerous extension of it? It's an intractable but important story, and DelFattore tells it impartially, briskly and well.

And what about all the related issues? How does a society that longs to be coherent deal with diversity? How, for example, (to select a random sample of currently contentious issues) should publicly-funded schools deal with abortion, animal rights, creationism, or homosexuality? Beyond Diversity Day focuses on the last of these.

Its unapologetic questions-and-answers format is targeted at a US (and still latently homophobic) market, but invaluable, too, for teachers here. It deals with the nature of homosexuality and with a range of issues relating to counselling, the curriculum, school management and school ethos, and the gay teacher. It also has a full section of resources, for families and individuals as well as for schools, many of which are available on the web. It's well worth looking at.

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