Public-school god

Christians shouldn't stake their futures to such a deity

Issue: "The new school year," Sept. 11, 1999

Even though an uppity judge in Cleveland ruled the city's voucher program illegal and suspended the program, then 72 hours later reversed himself and let some of the voucher kids go to school, it was bad news. But it wasn't the worst news last week on the education front.

And the bad news about terrible teacher shortages as New Jersey's public schools tried to open late in August also wasn't the worst news you could find about education.

Nor was word about a short teachers' strike in Detroit the worst.

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And the bad news that hundreds of schools were having to add expensive X-ray scanning devices to their already beleaguered budgets-that too was not the worst news you could have imagined.

The really bad news in education was that something like 45 million American youngsters headed back peacefully, and without a whimper of protest from them or their families, to public-school classrooms to be indoctrinated by their government. For 35 hours every week for the coming school year, those children's beliefs and value systems will be shaped by a government-imposed agenda.

American public education, to be sure, is either broken or approaching it on several other fronts. Academically, fiscally, behaviorally, in terms of its facilities, in terms of personnel shortages, in terms of moral shortages-in all these ways, even the schools that win awards for outstanding achievement are just getting by. By now, everybody knows it.

But the fundamental breakdown that both precedes and overshadows all these other disasters is this: If it is wrong for government to run the railroads, the telephone companies, and the banks-and it is-how is it possibly right for government to take on the much more delicate and sensitive task of telling our children what they are to think and believe on a whole host of issues? And if we are concluding, as we seem to be, that the government should reduce its role in welfare, mail delivery, and perhaps even retirement programs, what on earth prompts us to think the one task government might still be good at is passing on our value system to the next generation?

It was Thomas Jefferson, of course, who wrote early on in our nation's history that "To compel any citizen to provide in taxes for the propagation of that which he disbelieves is both cruel and tyrannical." But if ever there were a monstrous machine designed to do on a massive scale exactly what Mr. Jefferson said should never be done, it is the public-school system.

As such, the public-school movement is a false god. (I take care to distinguish here between the system itself and the many good people who remain in that system, whether as teachers, administrators, board members, or supportive families.)

Many folks believe, I know, that the rapid advent of public schooling in the United States a century ago was one of our main tickets to much that has been good in the 20th century. It is commonly accepted that the remarkable progress we've enjoyed as a modern people is somehow rooted in the educational thinking of men like Horace Mann and John Dewey.

But what everyone should keep in mind is that from its earliest days, the public-school idea was much more a social experiment than it ever was an educational experiment. You do not have to read much of the thinking of the pioneers in public schooling to know that their great distress was not that Americans were uneducated (our forbears could in fact, on average, read better than Americans can today), but rather that Americans were so fragmented. Geographically, ethnically, racially, religiously, socially, and economically, we were too diverse a people to satisfy the early social engineers. They wanted all of us singing from the same sheet of music. And the music was theirs.

To be sure, not all of that was bad. The effort almost certainly produced a kind of national unity we might otherwise have lacked. But it was unity at great cost-and especially so for Christians. For it was a unity focused increasingly through the years on the assertion that the God of the Bible was just one among many options in life. When you preach that long enough, the God with a capital "G" becomes a god with a lowercase "g," and then no god at all. Taking His position you will often find the one who challenged Him in the first place.

So how much more audacious can you get than to set up a system of schools where first you try to deny God His place, then you step in with a full curriculum of what you think constitutes truth about life, while always through the whole process you control the court system that decides what can and cannot be taught in those schools-and whether citizens can spend any of their educational tax money for any alternatives?

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