The School Question

Document Type

Book Review

Publication Title

The New Republic

Publication Date




The problem of the place of religion in the American public school—the “school question”—has never had a settled answer. It was a question which the framers of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution had no occasion to address and, together with many other church-state matters, left unresolved. Beginning in 1947, the Supreme Court began to answer the school question for the nation, and the rate and certitude of its answers increased in the 1960s and thereafter. Regrettably, discussion of the legal significance of the school question often begins and ends with these decisions, as if no conversation of substance had preceded them.

In his fine book, Steven Green does his part to rectify this misapprehension by exploring what have long seemed the dark ages of American church-state scholarship: the nineteenth century. In measured tones, Green shows that many of the disagreements about the school question which we believe are contemporary culture-war phenomena had antecedents in nineteenth-century debates and exchanges. Our own controversies about religion and education may not be mere duplications of the past, but they are surely part of the self-same conversation—one which, to the chagrin of some and the delight of others, remains stubbornly unfinished.