The recent Supreme Court decision striking down a Silent Prayer Law in Alabama came as a shock to many people. What harm could be done by a moment of silence that the students were free to dedicate—or not dedicate—to a Supreme Being? Religion, it now seems, is to be treated like the daughter who disgraces herself: it’s not enough to kick her out of the house; it is forbidden even to mention her name.
The Court’s ruling is in accord with a long tradition of judicial fiats on the separation of church and state. If only one nonbeliever is offended by the public manifestation of religiosity, the justices are ready to go into action. On the other hand, the feelings of the church-going majority in Alabama rarely concern them at all. It is interesting to consider how the Court might respond if religious people refused to pay any taxes (Federal, state, local) to support a public educational system that makes war upon their deepest convictions.
To put the question squarely: it is not that the justices object to the teaching of values—of principles not subject to demonstration or open to argument; what bothers them are only certain religious “values,” which happen to be held by the Christian majority in the United States. Such notions as freedom, equality, and democracy are inculcated every day in schools with no apparent signs of protest, and the religious atheism, which holds that all things in the universe have a material explanation, has become the official, tax-supported doctrine of the schools with scarcely a yelp or a whimper from the sensitive Federal judiciary. Some day we may, of course, discover scientific proof that democracy is the only workable form of government or that God does not exist, but until then these principles must remain prejudices, religious values of a sort, the one held by the majority, the other by only a fairly small minority.
Supporters of our Court-ordered separation of church and school argue quite correctly that this is not a Christian nation. Other sects abound: not just Judaism and Islam, whose common traditions with Christianity might make some accommodation possible, but also significant numbers of Buddhists, Unitarians, Rastafarians, atheists, and agnostics. Even the Christian majority consists, in large part, of believers who attend services with as much regularity and enthusiasm as the Occasional Conformists in the 17th-century Church of England. In such a society, with so many competing visions of what we are all here for, is it possible for a school (or a court) to decide which values are to be inculcated at the taxpayers’ expense?
In simpler times, this problem of which (or whose) values did not really arise. Oh, there have always been controversies about religion, politics, and education, but until the instruction of children became the concern of state bureaucracy, few people were overly concerned with the ethics and metaphysics taught in schools. Education simply continued the instructions a child received at home. “Education,” as Francis Bacon observed “is, in effect, but early custom.” Most schooling was either private or religious, and when the state did intervene, it was to suppress minority sects—Catholicism in England, Protestantism in France—which seemed to threaten the settled order of society. Even when education became “public” in the U.S., there was a consensus on the values to be inculcated in the schools. They were the principles that most parents professed to believe: honesty, thrift, hard work, love of country, and—perhaps above all—love of God. Most McGuffey Readers (just one of many popular series) could have doubled as Sunday school texts. Today, you would have trouble smuggling them past most school librarians. (They don’t believe in censorship, but they’ve got to draw the line somewhere.)
The religious and ethical values promoted in American schools of long ago did not constitute a system of indoctrination. In its ordinary sense, indoctrination usually implies a sectarian process of instruction, a program that imbues disciples with the tenets and spirit of an ideology. In medieval Europe or 19th-century America, rearing children to hold Christian values was only normative education, an informed process by which (as Plato put it in The Laws) “virtue is first presented to the souls of children.” (The same Christian education, when given in 16th century Japan, was indoctrination.)
Christianity was gradually expelled from American schools not because it indoctrinated children or even because it conflicted with popular Constitutional theories of church and state. It was, rather, that a new educational ideology had sprung up among disciples of Locke, Rousseau, and Dewey. While the old education stressed continuity from generation to generation and from family to school, the new progressive education had a social and political agenda. They wanted to change the world, to transform society, to bring about a heaven. on earth. Of course, different theorists and educators had different vi sions, but they were all, every one of them, convinced of the need to change things. If child-rearing and moral education were left up to parents, America would be condemned to repeat the sad old story of human history-a tale on the themes of prejudice, bigotry, and ignorance.
Christianity was not kicked out of the schools overnight. But by a slow process of evolution that began after World War I, Christian doctrines were gradually replaced by the vague sentimentality of the new civil religion. Students began to hear relatively little about God and a great deal about democracy and equality. For their inspiration, textbook writers turned not to the New Testament, but to the speeches of Lincoln and the philosophy of John Dewey.
The new education was not unpatriotic or anti American, but the public school vision of America that many of us grew up with was a strange place symbolized by Ellis Island, the statue of Liberty, and a vague commitment to democracy. Whole episodes in our national history were rewritten. The Revolution became a radical struggle for liberal democracy, and the Mexican War—one of the most glorious episodes in the American saga—was inexorably perverted into a racist war of conquest against helpless victims. As for the real blood and bones of our history, the deeds and traditions of the European settlers who carved a republic out of the wilderness, most of that was forgotten. It was incompatible with the gentle humanitarianism being preached in the civil religion classes that were misnamed history and civics.
How many children yawned our way through the civil catechism of the 1950’s? The sharper ones saw through the haze and ceased to pay any attention to America’s genuine commitment to liberty and equality. A few worked out their own solutions; the rest embraced a genial skepticism about all things political. Others were unfortunate enough to listen, take notes, and believe. They were about as well-prepared for life in America as a Methodist Sunday school teacher at the Apollo Club. By the 1960’s there were enough True Believers to force a confrontation between the new American dream and the American reality. Whatever else “The Revolution” might have been about—sexual freedom, the War, or just the demographic horror of so many kids around—it was ex pressed in terms that should have made every civics teacher in America proud: here was a whole generation of Americans determined to make their country live up to its ideals.
Today, there are educationists like Morris Janowitz, who would like to bring back civics as a way of restoring American ideals—by which they usually mean democratic socialism. just when you thought it was safe to go back in the classroom, the patriotic liberals want to have another crack at indoctrinating a generation of deluded idealists, in love with abstractions and impatient with real life. On the other hand, these proposals seem positively attractive when they are compared with what is taught as “values” in many of our schools.
To get an idea of what values teachers might be pushing these days, you might consider reading through a few education journals. For the professional educators, it seems, the Revolution isn’t over: it’s just beginning. The English Journal, for example, explains how to ideologize the study of English by using sentences like “my father washes the dishes” to teach sentence structure or by giving essay assignments on “Why shouldn’t the mother’s last name be used for the children.” The National Education Association’s journal, NEA Today, meanwhile, praises the Sandinistas’ commitment to education: their only problem is that U.S.-backed contras are forcing them to divert their attention to defense. Herb London recently summarized a whole range of misinformation on politics, the environment, international relations in the title of his book Why Are They Lying to Our Children?
Feminism and Marxism are only two of many ideologies competing for class time. The sexology ideologues have been even busier, if we can believe testimony given before the U.S. Department of Education, when hearings were held on the “Hatch Amendment” on pupil rights. Parents from all parts of the country testified against the values clarification and guidance programs in which children are asked to recite the technical names of sex organs before going on to the slang terms, or to go through a list of sexual activities and make up their minds about which are OK for children under 14.
The evils of these programs are receiving a fair amount of attention. What is not always made clear, however, is the central issue: what gives public schools the right to take our money and use it to indoctrinate our children in values which an overwhelming number of Americans would find repugnant—if they happened to find out what was going on? (Students are routinely instructed not to tell their families what is going on.) Set aside the question of right or wrong. Maybe acting out homosexual coitus in front of the class might be good for adolescent boys. But even if it were, what power gives teachers the right to inflict their improving views upon other people’s children?
It cannot be on the basis of superior wisdom or learning. Even supposing for a minute that being smart and well-read gives you the right to interfere in someone else’s family, there is no evidence that schoolteachers as a class are either particularly intelligent or learned. Studies of college students majoring in education indicate that aspiring teachers are intellectually somewhere near the bottom 15 percent of college students. On the other hand, it cannot be a right they have earned as a result of the soaring excellence of public education. Not even the NEA would make that claim. But even if the experts were really experts, would they have any business enforcing their values on local schools?
William Jennings Bryan saw the matter clearly in the Scopes trial when the defense attempted to introduce expert testimony on the theory of evolution:
The people of this state . . . knew the dangers of the doctrine—that they did not want it taught to their Children . . . It isn’t proper to bring experts in here and try to defeat the purpose of the people.
Perhaps an embargo on all forms of values instruction is the solution to at least some of our problems. After all, America is—as we are told so often—a pluralistic society. How can we teach, for example, the virtues of faithful monogamy in a classroom which might have a Moslem or a member of a cult group devoted to group sex? It cannot be fair, either, to inculcate patriotic loyalty among certain immigrants who hold America responsible for all the evils in the world. Even honesty, which might be seen as an essential ingredient in academic success, might offend the worshipers—there must be thousands—of the fallen angel known as the Father of Lies.
Obviously, some values are, in fact, essential to carrying out schoolwork: punctuality, neatness, diligence, and—yes—honesty (the Satanists will just have to put up with discrimination). Others will emerge inevitably from the study of history, mathematics, and science. Literature is another matter, since the choice of what people read—Walter Scott or Norman Mailer-inevitably involves an ethical perspective. Either literature should not be taught (it’s not clear what good it does to teach most of what passes for juvenile literature) or should be restricted to books written at least a thousand years ago. We might compromise on a far-ranging book list from which parents, not students, would make their selection. On the great issues that divide us—sex, religion, the origin of the universe, life, and man—we might impose total silence until the students reach the age of 18. In the specific case of Darwin versus creation science, if biologists think their views on the origins of species are essential, then we can present them for what they are, as mechanical explanations that have nothing to do with ultimate causes. If we want to be more generous than the Supreme Court, we can allow a designated moment of silence in which to contemplate the awful mystery of natural selection.
The easiest solution would be to scrap public education entirely, but if we are stuck—as it seems we are stuck—with public schools, then at least we can make a concerted effort to check the unbridled arrogance of teachers and educationists. Even tuition tax credits Or a voucher system, so widely heralded as solutions to the problem of pluralism, would leave tax-supported schools in existence. We would still be faced with deciding whose values would be supported in schools officially designated as public. There is no way around it: the explicit teaching of values in our schools, no matter how it is set up, will be in the hands of bureaucrats and schools of education with their own peculiar agenda for the transformation of American society. John Stuart Mill was not, for a change, off-base when he Warned that government education was a “despotism over the mind” that would have far-reaching political consequences. It is a despotism that would take all authority for child-rearing—not just values—away from parents, communities, and local school boards and into the hands of government professionals. If this process of indoctrination is not halted, if authority for values is not returned to local communities, many old-fashioned parents may be surprised to find themselves singing along with the chorus of prole children in Pink Floyd’s The Wall:
We don’t need no educaytion
We don’t need no thought control. . . .
Hey! Leave the kids alone.
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