A Gathering Storm

The public school establishment in this country has been under heavy fire in the last several months. There have been nine reports from various blueribbon commissions and prestigious sources which together have painted a rather disappointing picture of public education in the United States. The case is made that the schools are promoting a “culture of mediocrity.” Students are not being challenged. Difficult required courses have given way to a need of soft electives. The “best and the brightest,” if they become teachers, quickly flee our schools. These reports have all made the evening news, the morning papers, and have sometimes even been given the “in-depth” analyses of Ted Koppel’s late-night news and the MacNeil/Lehrer Report. At this point, the school superintendents, leaders of teachers’ unions, and deans of schools of education are all decked out in their flack jackets and are pretty well hunkered down for the assault. As they should be. They have been here before. Most are veterans of other wars. Many saw action in the late 50’s when James Conant, former president of Harvard and former ambassador to Germany, took the American High School to task. About the same time Professor James D. Koerner blamed the obvious failures of the school on bad ideas of the educational leadership. Ten years later, a highly reputed social scientist, Charles Silberman, hit the schoolmen broadside with Crisis in the Classroom, that told us that schools were dull, grim, joyless places. In between these highly publicized attacks, there have been plenty of less publicized skirmishes.

The results of all this combat is that the educational establishment knows how to handle itself. In the current lingo, they are “survivors.” The authors of these various commission reports will be invited to speak at their national conventions and, after lambasting the audience with searing indictment they will receive strong applause, possibly standing ovations. And then the speakers and the educators will go back to their work.

All of this is becoming something of a ritual of our culture. Indeed, the current siege on the public schools is already beginning to lift. A few weeks ago, Time magazine announced to us that the schools have responded to the call for excellence and a big change is being made.

Being in education is hazardous work. Trying to educate children and introduce them into the complex adulthood of American society is an enormously difficult task. It is also complicated by many things educators cannot effect, such as television and the other pop culture media, the quality of a child’s home life, and what is going on in his peer group. Most educators know they are involved in important work and, in some part of their being feel shabbily treated. After all, instead of giving their lives to children, they could have been captains of industry. At least, well paid lieutenants. That is why it hurts to have to undergo the attacks from high places. But they have learned to take it, because they respect names like Mortimer Adler, and those that comprise the panels appointed by prestigious foundations, such as Carnegie and Ford. Their response is something like, “Well, they are probably right, but they don’t know what it is really like in this trench warfare called, “public education.”

But, while public educators and the educational establishment will take criticisms from the Academy and the foundations, they have little patience with the criticisms of regular folks. In particular, they are not about to take seriously the criticisms of people who aren’t considered correctly educated. And it is for this reason that public-school educators are not responding to the troops that are gathering on their borders.

An increasing number of religious people are showing their dissatisfaction with public education. The clearest indication of discontent has been the burgeoning growth of private schools over the last fifteen years. Between 10-12,000 schools, typically with a religious orientation, have started in the United States. In 1980 alone, according to the New York Times, there were 1,100 private schools opened. More than 3 a day. The educators’ typical reaction to this news is that these schools have been started and are supported by bigots, people who want to keep their children from contact with black children. The other view, and the one advanced here, is that the real impetus behind this movement towards an increased defection from public schools, and a real and projective growth of private and religious schools, springs from a religious impulse. Increasingly, religious people have come to see the public schools as teaching what are, for them, alien values. This view that religious people are angry at the public schools has been easy to dismiss by public educators. Their answer is that they will not capitulate to the unfair pressures of the Moral Majority with their right-wing political agenda and old-time religion. In fact, the Moral Majority has been a handy doormat for a group that has been used to regular service in that role. In effect, the public schools have been so busy attending to the highly publicized criticisms coming from the academic community, that they are about to be blindsided by a group that they don’t take very seriously. The reason that these battle-scarred veterans of public education are unprepared for this new attack is that they are captured by four misconceptions.

Misconception 1. The first misconception is America has become a religiously neutral country. In this view, one generally has stirred the melting pot so that America is only nominally religious now. We have become the secular society. This is an understandable view if one’s data base is American television. However, sociological data, or even from personal experience if you are out and around on a Sunday morning, proves that Americans are religious, rather churchy people. Two years ago, the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company commissioned one of the largest studies of American values ever done. The researchers were themselves surprised by the intensity and the breadth of religious attitudes and behavior of Americans. Three out of four Americans (74%) described themselves as religious. One out of four (26%) defines himself as very religious. While only 44% go to church on a weekly basis, 91% believe God loves them. Again, contrary to the image of ourselves we get from television and the other media, we are a people very involved in religious questions and church affairs. And this is little different from the America that Alexis de Tocqueville found 150 years ago.

Misconception 2. The second misconception is “Public schools are theologically neutral.” This is a deeply held part of the public educators’ credo. The view is that because religion is not part of education, this lack has no real consequences. Further, leaving out religious questions and religious perspectives keeps the public schools from the charge of teaching a particular world view. So, while the public school student is exposed to the biological view of man, and the psychological view of man and several others, to the public school educator there is really no effect from students being denied exposure to the religious view of man, particularly the Judeao -Christian concept that is dominant in Western culture. The school men are perfectly content that other world views be a part of a child’s education, world views such as the biological view. In effect, this is anything but a God-centered view. It is something like the world’s view of man as a semi-dependent organic system with certain needs from the environment to maintain its longevity, or the psychological view of man as an autonomous being whose aim is to maximize its human potential and reach heights of self-actualization.

Misconception 3. The third misconception is, “Education has always been this way.” In effect, then, education has always been theologically neutral. This misconception is certainly historically wrong. It may even belie the faculty memories since many who are teachers are current spokesmen for education were students in schools where theological issues and questions were a major part of their curriculum. They may not have been specific courses in theology, but there were regular references to God, and to man’s relationship to God. Christian ethics were constantly appealed to and were the ground for the rules in social relations in the school. Teachers and students alike existed within a religious context, similar to that in today’s parochial schools. Public schools, by and large, support the dominant religious views of their communities. This is particularly true in Protestant communities. Indeed, the reason that Catholics built a separate school system in this country in the late 19th and early 20th century was not because they were afraid of their children becoming atheists, but becoming Protestants. Indeed, this current stance at “religious neutrality” is an educational innovation.

Misconception 4. The fourth misconception is, “And this, too, will pass.” While this is an admirable motto for many educational innovations, and works admirably on such cultural advances as discomania and spiked hair, it does not apply here. The growing antagonism of religious people to the public schools is not going to pass away. The public schools are not going to be allowed to present every world view of man they want, except the religious world view. They are not going to be able to claim to be transmitting the culture of Western society, and pretend that religion and religious questions have not been part of that history. They are not going to be able to raise tax money by claiming to pass on a local community’s better values, and ignore the fact of those religious values. It is not only the lack of religious perspective that many miss, but the values and attitudes that come from such world views, views that see sex as little more than recreation (the more, the earlier, the better). Views that see the purpose of life as developing and maintaining oneself in a hassle-free world of pleasure. Millions of Americans are outraged by the rising crime rate, by vandalism, by promiscuity, by the apparent inability of young people to engage in difficult tasks, and the continuing rise of escapist behavior from drugs to suicide. Many feel deeply let down by the public schools, the traditional ally of the family and the church in attempting to raise children to moral, if not religious, maturity.

Behind these four misconceptions there seems to be a larger misconception, one that is a product of the educators’ confidence in Americans’ love affair with public schools. This ultimate misconception is “Americans hold more dearly their public schools than they do their religious views and the future of their children.”


  • Kevin Ryan

    Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared on CBS's "This Morning", ABC's "Good Morning America", "The O

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