A very bad deal

We're bad where we should be good-and vice versa

Issue: "Ideal schools," April 28, 2001

There are two big reasons the government, at all levels, should stay out of education. The first reason is that government-sponsored education is so ineffective. The second reason is that government-sponsored education is so effective.

Pragmatically, state schools should have been ditched a long time ago. Even their defenders admit regularly that they don't work. A couple of weeks ago, Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who has devoted his whole life to state-sponsored schools, called a news conference to bewail the continued failures of the colossal system his department symbolizes.

Mr. Paige was publicly more optimistic than that, of course, because even the Republicans' party line is to pretend that there is hope for the future. But by every measurement-educational, behavioral, moral, financial-the statist system of educating our young tends toward bankruptcy. Even the buildings in which such education takes place tend in many cities to be falling apart. Such buildings are symbols of the system itself.

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Hundreds of individual schools, of course, and thousands of individual teachers, stand as exceptions to that pattern. But those exceptions tend only to prove the rule. And the demonstrable truth is that the individual teachers who are such exceptions are retiring, dying of old age, or simply turning away in frustration from a task they no longer believe is achievable.

Advocates of such statist education are like the older people in the Soviet empire in the early 1990s. They're vaguely aware their system isn't working-but they've never known anything else. Even worse, statism has dulled their creative powers, as it always does, and they can't imagine anything other than what they've always known. Their only solution is to multiply their efforts. "Let's do more of the same-much more," they proclaim cheerlessly. "If only we had more money to buy more of what we've already got, maybe it would work." But it's like pushing boulders up the long slope of a mountain.

Such manifest ineffectiveness is the first reason the government should get out of education. Government's had a century and more to make its point-but the longer we wait, the farther test scores go down, the more unruly the students become, and the bigger the bills. It's time for everyone to concede that this educational emperor has no clothes.

Yet those same state schools that have been such miserable educational and pedagogical failures have at the same time philosophically been frighteningly effective. They have thoroughly secularized our society.

Such secularism, of course, is by no means as neutral as it sounds. It is a high-octane religion of its own, imposed on an unsuspecting public at their own expense. These high priests of ultimate American values, from kindergarten through the great graduate programs of the state universities, tell us what is politically correct. They tell us what to believe about our origins, about what is wrong with the human condition, and how to make it right again. Those are not merely educational concepts; they are the most profound of all religious issues.

In some facets of life, we can have good debates about whether government should be involved. Should government or private enterprise run the weather service? Should government or private enterprise supervise the air traffic controllers? Should government subsidize farmers? On all those and many more, I'll lean hard toward the free market-but I'll admit that there's an argument to be made for state involvement.

But on the issue of education, the very essence of the task is so "religious" in its character that the state has no business anywhere near the process. My father used to say: "The state, if I let them, will feed and clothe and house my children. The government will step in and do those things if I forfeit that responsibility-which I am not inclined to do. But reluctant as I might be, I'd far rather forfeit those responsibilities to the state than I would the responsibility to feed and clothe and house my children's minds."

Why should we be surprised that we have a secularist society, when for a whole century we have handed the equipping of our children's minds to the secularists? For three generations, or perhaps four, it has been so much the conventional wisdom that education is the government's prerogative that more than 90 percent of all Americans have had their hearts and souls shaped by such a worldview.

The end result is that collectively America's children don't read too well and lag behind most of the world in knowing how to add and subtract. Nor can they read the maps that show where the children live who can do all those things better than they can. But no children anywhere beat our kids at thinking secularly; at that, we are preeminent. It has been a very bad deal.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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