Sunday, May 06, 2007

America's Government School Woes

Tibor R. Machan

The removal of banners in a high school, which had the words "God" and "Creator" on them, placed there by a school math teacher, have led to a lawsuit against the Poway Unified School District in San Diego. Mostpeople take this to be a confrontation between religion and secularism butit isn't. What it is, however, is a confrontation between government andprivate secondary education.

It is easy to understand that when parents send their children to school,they prefer to have those children exposed to some measure of valueeducation. For some parents this involves having their religion observedand respected at the school. For some it involves some ethicalinstruction. Some want to have a scientific approach to human life taughtto their kids. Among those who want religious teaching in schools,different particular religions are preferred. And even among those whoprefer a secular approach to values different positions may be chosen asthe best way to achieve this end.

All of this is as one would expect it in a pluralistic, diverse freesociety. Alas, that cannot be, despite its reasonableness. Why? Becausewhen governments administer children's education, funded from taxation, avirtual one-size-fits all approach is required, one that is likely toupset many parents who consider that approach wrongheaded. If a government-administered and tax-funded high school has teachers who will stress Christian or Muslim or Jewish values, those who do not share these will very likely object. (Some, of course, have no worry because they consider themselves quite capable of teaching their preferred values at home and thereby counter whatever indoctrination the school may be perpetrating.But not all consider this a good option.)

In a relatively free society, especially one that has a national policy ofnot having government side with any particular form of value-education,religious or otherwise, citizen involvement in religion will be highlydiverse. One need only travel around America a bit to notice the many different types of churches that exist throughout the country's various communities. The last I checked there were 4200 plus different religions in the country, most of them with worshippers who embrace distinct beliefs guiding them and ready to teach their children what they believe. There are, also, quite a few different non-religious organizations that have value-teaching as part of what their membership is being offered from their leadership.

Or take another area of American life where government is largelyforbidden to enter the fray, namely, magazine and newspaper publishing.Here, too, enormous diversity is evident, even if some publicationsdominate while others have small circulations. The principle is the same:where separation between government and a vibrant social or cultural areaexists, the rule is pluralism and diversity as well as considerable peaceand harmony.

Although most Americans take it for granted that education must beprovided by the government, this is by no means proof that it must be so.When decoupling education from government is proposed to them they oftenfind it difficult to think of an alternative but that doesn't mean noalternative exists. Just as some other very important aspects of ourlives, such as religion and journalism, are separated from government,education could be as well. Those who claim that the poor would go withoutschooling fail to consider that schooling can be provided from a greatvariety of sources. Among these could be--and sometimes alreadyare--churches, business firms, research centers, museums, and so forth, a lot of which would emerge only once the government leaves the field.

Of course, radical ideas take time to catch on, even when they makeperfectly good sense. Just consider how tough it is to sell much of theworld on the idea of a constitutional democracy, free trade, and theequality for women. The governmental habit, as I noted many times before,is terribly deeply ingrained in the minds of millions, even in Americawhere the idea of limited government was first embraced officially (thoughnot fully).

Until the idea of the separation of education and government is finallyembraced around the country, there will continue to be such controversiesas we now witness in San Diego where some people want a certain religionin the schools while others do not. So long as schools are part ofgovernment, they will continue to face such basically irresolvableproblems.

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