Public Schools and Common Values

There used to be a less litigious time when public schools could more directly reflect local values and ideals of their community. Those times ended about the same time that Leave It To Beaver was canceled. Fifty years ago, there existed a narrower set of commonly held values and the few outliers outside the norms were certainly uncomfortable, perhaps even angry, but less prone seek court relief. People were conspicuously Christian and most at least outwardly comfortable with the Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best conventional morality where: children respected their parents; most people went to church on Sunday, the ideal family consisting of a father, mother, and a few freshly scrubbed children; and the “birds and the bees” was something you were supposed to learn about from your parents. Though these ideals many times often remained only aspirations, schools could leaven reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic with the yeast of consensus values. If a teacher made a Biblical reference in a classroom, the American Civil Liberties judicial commando team was rarely sent in.

While direct religious instruction should not be subsidized by the state, the removal of Christian orthodoxy from public school curriculum has carried along with it a reluctance to teach mainstream values and predisposition to bow to the wishes of even the smallest minority. The only permitted value is tolerance of all beliefs except Christian ones. Of course, tolerance has no meaning if one has no strong beliefs against which the beliefs of others might clash.

Nonetheless, there is a natural drive among parents to their impart values to their children. Given the fact that modern life has atomized families as the father and mother run off to work and the children head off to sometimes different schools, many families, for better or worse, rely on the local public schools to act as parental surrogates. When the values of parents and schools diverge frustration sets in, both from Conservatives and Liberals.

This frustration manifests itself on battles over school curriculum. The Kansas State School Board is now listening to testimony from advocates of “Intelligent Design” on how schools ought present the Theory of Evolution in classrooms. In 2002, the Ohio State School Board amid much controversy instituted a policy to include Intelligent Design and other critiques of evolution in instruction.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, Liberals tried to introduce a sex education curriculum that mimics the values of “progressives” in the county. The curriculum went so far in pushing its agenda that even the reliably Liberal Federal District Judge, Alexander Williams Jr. could not swallow it. He issued an injunction temporarily halting, the imposition of the curriculum. He was uncomfortable with the conflict between the First Amendment and a curriculum that specifically criticized denominations that did not look favorably upon homosexual acts. The curriculum in effect was choosing preferred religions, when it “juxtaposes … [a] portrait of an intolerant and Biblically misguided Baptist Church against other, preferred Churches, which are more friendly towards the homosexual lifestyle.”

The point here is not to argue the merits of Intelligent Design or the new sex education curriculum, but rather to recognize that people with strongly held views will try to drive school systems to teach them or to at least be sympathetic to them. One should not expect less. Parents want their values reflected in the instruction of their children. At the very least, they do not want schools to be at war with their values. Pulls from all ends will force schools to avoid all controversy, always stepping gingerly lest one group or another rushes to court. The result is that children receive a blander and less demanding curriculum.

The most straightforward solution is to remove these decisions from school boards and empower parents directly. If school districts provided vouchers to pay for education rather than provide one monolithic school system, parents would be able to select the education and moral environment they want to raise their children in. Parents can choose those schools that reinforce rather than undermine what is taught at home.

Sure, some may find it uncomfortable when the children of others are instructed with different values, but such would be the cost of living in a pluralistic society. In truth, we would probably find that there is more consensus in child raising than might be apparent at first. If parents could choose schools via a voucher system we would likely find most parents gravitating to schools teaching a fairly broad set of Leave It To Beaver values taught with a true cultural tolerance. The extremes would tend to isolate themselves. Without vouchers or something akin to them, we are likely to see a lot more conflicts that enrich lawyers while polarizing neighbors.

Frank Monaldo — Please e-mail comments to frank@monaldo.

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