Reclaiming education

Both of us have been teachers in public schools. We have great respect for the many teachers who have devoted their lives to public education. Also, each of our three children has spent substantial time in public schools. We were not always thrilled with the results, but we weren’t always happy with the education that they received in Catholic and private schools. But that was then. This is now.

In the same way that the television shows our children watched then, “The Brady Bunch” and “The Wonder Years,” projected a wholesome family and school life, so did the environments of their public school. The traditional values of parental responsibility for their children and of children’s respect for parents and adults were embedded in the fabric of those shows and they were reinforced in the schools. Today’s students, however, watch “My Name is Earl” and “Desperate Housewives,” learning too often that adults are hardly worthy of respect and that life is all about getting as much stuff as you can. Sadly, these values are too often reflected and reinforced in our public schools.

There is little doubt that two or three decades ago, our public schools unselfconsciously taught virtues such as love of country and tried to instill Judeo-Christian values. While school discipline has always been a bedeviling problem in high schools, by and large, our schools were orderly places. Now there is little support for attempting to promote patriotism, and Judeo-Christian values have been replaced by an aggressive palette of secularist values from anti-business environmentalism to tolerance for all “life-styles,” living arrangements and sexual practices. To be opposed to such an educational agenda is to be tarred with that worst of all epithets: intolerant.

In a recent conversation with a friend, who is an enthusiastic public school supporter, she asserted that the public schools should not attempt to instill character or virtues. They should teach tolerance.

It has taken the two of us a long time to fully appreciate what others have been saying for some time. The very idea of the state being in charge of the education of the young is undemocratic and wrong. The state, like a family or a business or a club is in the business of perpetuating itself. All states, whether ours or China’s or Iran’s, work hard to keep their power and stay in existence by enhancing it. However, for the state to have the power to shape the minds and emotions of children, to control their lives from 4 to 17 or 18, may be a wonderful mechanism to perverse and to extend its influence, but is it right? Is it just? Is it in the best interest of those it claims to be “educating?” Ultimately, is it in the best interests of the state itself?

Case in point: a few years ago a Lexington couple objected to their public school’s diversity instruction because it presented homosexual attraction and same-sex marriage as unobjectionable. Claiming that these views contradicted their deeply held religious beliefs that sexual relations between men and same-sex marriage was disordered and sinful, they tried to have their child removed from the class. The school refused and the parents went to court. Finally, the case reached the U.S. District court of Judge Mark Wolf, who sided strongly with the state. The essence of his ruling read, “The constitutional right of parents to raise their children does not include the right to restrict what a public school may teach their children.” Clear, but chilling.

As Americans split more and more on ethical and religious views, our public schools will increasingly become social battlegrounds. Christians and religious Jews have a different world view than secularists. We have different answers to bedrock fundamental questions, such as “What are we here for?” and “What is a worthy life?” We have different answers to issues, such as euthanasia, abortion and genetic manipulation. While religious people may submit to the will of the state’s majority on certain of these issues, we should not abandon our rights and our responsibilities to educate our children in these most ultimate matters.

In his ruling against the Lexington parents, Judge Wolf threw them a familiar bone. “Plaintiffs may attempt to persuade others to join them in electing a Lexington School Committee that will implement a curriculum...more compatible with their beliefs.” Fat chance. By the time they are able to change the intellectual and political composition of their school board, their children will be having children. For Catholic parents dissatisfied with government controlled education there are alternatives to going head-to-head with the public school behemoth, the National Education Association and its entrenched support in our legislature.

First, lobby for the growth of Catholic schools. Once, 12 percent of all U.S. children attended parochial schools. Now approximately 6 percent attend Catholic schools and many of these schools are serving as an alternative to the failing urban public schools for non-Catholic families. It is heroic social service, but not meeting the needs of Catholic children. Support the Catholic schools we currently have, but also push for the establishment of new Catholic schools. (And cheers for the Campaign for Catholic Schools’ 2010 Initiative.)

Second, homeschool your children. Currently, over 2 million children are being educated at home in the fastest growing movement within education. Outstanding curricular materials and teaching resources are available. Homeschoolers’ scores on national achievement tests outstrip those of public school children and now colleges are aggressively recruiting them. Fueling the homeschooling movement is the satisfaction many parents are experiencing in this new relationship with their children.

Third, become an advocate for parental choice. Americans have choice in everything from the food we put on our tables to the clothes we put on our backs. However, we do not have choice about the ideas that are putting into the heads of our children. Other democratic nations have found ways to put the choice of schooling in the hands of the people who care most deeply about their children’s education. This is a political question that Catholics need to support.

It is a cliche to point out that our children are our nation’s most valuable natural resource. However, first and foremost they “belong” to their parents and they are their parents’ primary responsibility. Their education, that is, what fills their heads and hearts, is the crucial part of that responsibility. It is somewhat ironic that as citizens begin to grapple with that core economic question, “Should the state own the means of production?”, we continue to ignore a far more important question, “Should we turn over the education of our children to the state, a state that is straying further and further from its Christian roots?”

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.