People often speak of places of sanctuary, where they feel most free and where they can “breathe.” One such place for me—a former high school teacher—is within the walls of a school. There is something invigorating and God-inspired in having people of different ages, backgrounds, and experiences exercise their minds around common subjects and principles, learn the facets of the world, and seek answers about their place in it. Whether in the context of a public or private educational institution, this wide-open breath of a school community has always provided me a true sense of freedom.
Presently, however, the air seems to be thickening within our schools.
Its suffocating effect might come under seemingly friendly labels such as “Teaching Tolerance,” “Welcoming Schools,” or “Anti-Bias Education,” and because it uses these carefully chosen words, Christian parents may not even take notice. Because these programs supposedly advocate for social justice or inclusion of all students, parents might take these labels at face value and make a few generous presumptions.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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For instance, they could presume that any welcoming, tolerant, and unbiased school would simply echo the Christian principle to love one’s neighbor as oneself. They might also presume that because schools were originally created, in part, to instill children with moral values derived from a Judeo-Christian tradition, these programs would at a minimum respect the Christian perspective—which finds it possible to uphold the dignity of all human people without encouraging sin along the way. Or they might presume that any so-called anti-bias education would work primarily to minimize destructive biases or discriminatory practices that result in emotional and physical harm to children.
Unfortunately, these presumptions would be misplaced because many of these modern programs actually adopt a secularist philosophy that, in effect, inhibits the formation of a traditional Christian conscience.
To understand the impact these programs have on children, it’s important to remember a child’s conscience doesn’t just develop without direction and moral instruction. Instead, it must be properly formed so that it learns how to recognize which judgments are directed toward God and which are directed toward the world. As Section 6 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, a well-formed conscience “formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator.” The Catechism further recognizes that the education of the conscience is a lifelong journey:
From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.
While the entire Christian community plays a role in helping to form a child’s conscience, Pope Paul VI’s decree Apostolicam Actuositatem affirms that parents play the preeminent role, stating:
It has always been the duty of Christian married partners but today it is the greatest part of their apostolate to manifest and prove by their own way of life the indissolubility and sacredness of the marriage bond, strenuously to affirm the right and duty of parents and guardians to educate children in a Christian manner, and to defend the dignity and lawful autonomy of the family.
Since their beginning, both public and private schools have instilled universal morals that leave room for parents to help form their child’s Christian conscience. Encouraging such virtues as forgiveness, love, respect, honesty, and self-control has allowed schools to provide students with the discipline they need to respect each other without interfering with parents’ rights to direct their children’s specific beliefs.
Modern tolerance programs, however, detour from this universal virtue-based framework in favor of one that philosophically rejects Judeo-Christian beliefs as a whole.
Such programs encourage impressionable students (starting as early as kindergarten) to receive specific lessons that not only explore as plausible all family makeups and all gender tendencies, but to affirmatively celebrate such—even if such celebration runs counter to a family’s particular religious beliefs or the child’s natural instincts. And in doing so, they cross a serious line to advance what English philosopher Dr. Roger Scruton calls a secularized “freedom delusion.”
Scruton writes in his 2009 article entitled “Connecting Catholic Anthropology to a Secular Culture”:
The secular culture of toleration involves a naïve idea of freedom. It does not see freedom as something you acquire through discipline, something that defines the position of the responsible adult, and which is governed by moral constraints. It sees freedom simply as liberation, and its opposite as coercion or constraint.
According to Scruton, these same notions of tolerance delude children into believing they can choose their own values, identify, sexuality and that anything that tells them otherwise (such as their family or their religion) would be considered an “oppressive burden.”
Scruton further points out that, in spite of claims from these programs that they fight wrongful biases, it is their own anti-family and anti-religion biases that cause traumatic psychological consequences, including “undermining the legitimacy of family life, and so making the family ever less of a home and a refuge, ever less of a place of peace and settlement.”
And yet, these philosophies appear to be gaining momentum with educators. Elementary and secondary schools are increasingly embracing the kind of gender theory emerging across college campuses that explicitly rejects Judeo-Christian teaching on sex. Not only did Nebraska’s school district recently embrace a policy to allow students to choose their gender preference when enlisting in sports in complete defiance of the Nebraska Catholic bishops’ recommendation otherwise, but even Bible belt states like Alabama seem to be slowly embracing the position.
In 2015—had it not been for the vocal opposition from diligent board members and concerned parents—the Alabama State Board of Education would have likely adopted a revised counseling model that attempted to change a school counselor’s ethical obligation to use “multicultural skills” when dealing with diverse family dynamics to one requiring counselors to engage in “social justice advocacy and leadership” to remove oppressive biases (defined to include heterosexism, familyism, and religionism) within school communities.
With or without a state’s legal authority behind them, however, these programs still infiltrate schools through teacher training and professional development from well-funded sponsors. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, has teamed up with Perspectives for a Diverse America in designing a Common-Core aligned k-12 curriculum guide entitled “Critical Practices for Anti-Bias Education” to help local schools create more “tolerant” communities. While SPLC claims on its website that part of its mission in promoting tolerance is to “combat … prejudice among our nation’s youth while promoting equality, inclusiveness and equitable learning environments in the classroom,” it’s decision to list Dr. Ben Carson and the 2015 World Meeting of the Family on its “Hatewatch” for their pro-traditional family messages demonstrates how its view of inclusiveness explicitly excludes the traditional Christian perspective.
What should be obvious is that any one-sided and secularist tolerance program simply has no place in any educational system that is supposed to serve all students. Christian parents must just be willing to openly reject their delusional philosophy and embrace one that, at a minimum, leaves room for the formation of a Christian conscience. Freedom—truly inclusive freedom—requires as much.