Columnists > From the Publisher

Freedom rings

The process isn't complete, but a start is a start

Issue: "School-to-Work debate," Sept. 5, 1998

Score another big one for educational freedom in the state of Wisconsin! Voters in the Badger state may send liberal senators to Washington-but when it comes down to the nitty gritty of loosening the shackles of the humanistic educational establishment, other influential elements in Wisconsin have been setting the pace.

Wisconsin's Supreme Court got the summer off to a good start, you may remember, by stating emphatically last June that a tuition voucher program in Milwaukee that included private and parochial schools was altogether constitutional. That decision rang a freedom bell for thousands of boys and girls who until then were virtual slaves of a statist educational system.

Last week, freedom bells rang also at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. On one of the most traditionally liberal campuses in North America, three students had appealed for the right not to have any of their student fees go for the support of liberal student groups at the university. The students-all known as evangelical Christians-didn't want their fees going for the support of abortion rights and homosexual groups on campus. "We were told," said Scott Southworth, "'If you don't pay your fees you're not going to graduate.'"

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On Aug. 10, however, the 7th U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago upheld the core of the students' complaint. "Forcing objecting students to fund private organizations which engage in political ideological activities violates the First Amendment," said the panel of judges.

To be sure, the court was cautious-even in a bold ruling. It stressed that the decision does not affect "non-political" or "non-ideological" groups such as health centers or a student union. To which we can only say, every thing in its time. Even the Berlin Wall didn't fall in a day.

For, of course, everything in life is "ideological." And especially everything that you put on the agenda, or in the curriculum, of a school is "ideological."

It has been clever, but terribly naive, for the educational establishment in our nation to pretend so glibly for a generation or two that it could remove "religious" side dishes from the table, yet keep on serving everything else. The problem is that sooner or later you discover that everything on the table-indeed, every single item on the educational menu-comes by its very character from the same kitchen and is cooked up from the same ingredients.

So you can spend your whole life calling some subjects "non-religious" or "non-ideological." But in the end, you're just pretending. For in the end, everything in life is "religious" and everything worth discussing is "ideological."

The Chicago judges last week, without going all the way consistent logic should have taken them, conceded a huge part of that point. It said that if freedom means anything at all for the three University of Wisconsin students, it means that they shouldn't have to pay for the propagation of ideas they don't believe. Never mind whether it's the Christian starting point of those students that makes the ideas repugnant. It's the simple fact that the ideas, whatever they are, are repugnant; if they're repugnant, the students shouldn't have to pay to have those ideas propagated.

But that, of course, is the essence of what happens all the time in every school in America-at every level from pre-kindergarten through graduate school. In absolutely every context, every day of every week, in every corner of the country, teachers are promoting values that are repugnant to someone who is helping pay the bill for that educational enterprise.

To make the point absolutely clear, let me stress that this kind of thing will happen this very week in every Christian day school across America. Teachers will promote ideas and values that are repugnant to a few of the parents of students-parents who have paid tuition so that their children could sit under those very teachers. As a result, the parents will withdraw their children and enroll them elsewhere.

It will happen also at every Christian and other private college across America through the fall months just ahead. For better or for worse, professors will profess ideas and values that are repugnant to some students, some parents, some alumni, some churches, some foundations, and some other donors. A few of them, for better or for worse, will withdraw their enrollment and/or their support.

Such is the freedom of those who find particular ideas distasteful or repugnant as they are propagated in the private sector.

But it is not a freedom I enjoy right now with the government elementary and secondary schools right here in Asheville, with the government junior colleges in this region, or the vaunted university system of the state of North Carolina. If I say that I will not pay taxes to support the host of repugnant ideas being propagated in all those places, I will ultimately be hustled off to jail.


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