Columnists > Voices

Sick tree, rotten fruit

Public schools face problems that they largely created

Issue: "Katie can't bar the door," July 15, 2006

When I took note here several weeks ago of a Time magazine cover story about the failure of America's public schools, I should have predicted the response. Time claimed that in many areas of the country, 30 percent of all the students who enroll in public schools fail to complete the 12th grade.

From several dozen of you readers came vigorous protests that I was trying to make private schools, Christian schools, and home schools look good by putting down state supported schools that face many big problems-and one problem that may be insuperable. That problem, you said, is that public schools are obliged, by their very nature, to accept all kinds of students. In the process, they inherit every weakness, every social ill, every sinful inclination of the population at large.

A number of you who responded are faithful and diligent teachers in public schools. Some of you detailed the character and habits of so many of the children you are assigned to work with. They come, you said, saturated with popular culture, foul-mouthed language, resentful attitudes toward anyone in authority, and arrogant disdain for learning. Their parents give them no support, you said. Is it really equitable, you asked, to expect even committed teachers to compensate for all the deficiencies so prevalent in the raw materials they are given to work with?

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Fair enough. I buy that argument-to a point.

Except that it is also appropriate to ask: Who has done more than anyone else to shape that very society? For most of the last century, America's public schools have enjoyed a near monopoly in the task of educating the youth of our nation. Even after the growth of the Christian school, the home school, and the charter school movements over the last generation, the U.S. Department of Education says that something like 90 percent of all students are still enrolled in conventional public schools.

So were 90 percent of their moms and dads. So were 90 percent of their grandmoms and granddads. So were 90 percent of their aunts and uncles.

For year after year, from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m., on almost every weekday from Labor Day until Memorial Day, the very public schools that now face such an impossible task have had the opportunity to shape a society that would value civility, that would put a premium on kindness, that would enhance gentle behavior, that would be known for a refined use of language, that would treasure a love of learning and the values good teachers want to see developed in their students. If there is a failure to create such a society, isn't it fair to take a close look at the primary engine responsible for building what already is here?

Let's be positive for a moment; it might help make the point. If credit is due anywhere for overall better relations among various races in our society these days, that credit may belong to America's public schools. Certainly such "social engineering" has been resented by some-but who can deny that simply going to school together, and seeing each other as equals day after day, has done much to wipe out old patterns?

Yet if that has been one of the fairly rare positive results, the same system has-with the same pervasive influence-simultaneously produced all kinds of perniciously negative results. Secularism, naturalism, disdain for much of God's created order (especially in gender considerations), anti-authority inclinations, near reverence for popular culture-all these are part of a worldview systematically and self-consciously taught in our nation's public schools for almost as long as many Americans can remember.

So if the students greeting serious and committed teachers in those same public schools these days seem overly saturated with such value systems, it's not a problem that should surprise anyone. Jesus wasn't kidding when he said in Matthew 12:33, "Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit."

Nor is it a situation likely to get even a little bit better with the passing of time.

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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