I just finished reading a New York Times article titled “School is for Everyone.” It promoted the argument that public education is essential to American life. The article’s author, Anya Kamenetz, began with a historical statement relating to Horace Mann—often (and justly) called the father of American public education.
The Purpose of Public Education
Mrs. Kamenetz described Mr. Mann’s goals.
“An essential part of Mann’s vision was that public schools should be for everyone, and that children of different backgrounds should learn together. He pushed to draw wealthier students away from private schools, establish “normal schools” to train teachers (primarily women), have the state take over charitable schools and increase taxes to pay for it all.”
As Mrs. Kamenetz sees it, these were laudable goals, and the schools largely achieved them. Much good came out of public education. Within a generation, a nation that took in many impoverished and illiterate immigrants became one of the most literate nations in the world. Free education opened up many opportunities, making the country and its inhabitants more prosperous.
However, this is not the whole story. Many writers, including myself, have described the disaster zone that much of modern American education has become. Egalitarian ideologies have entered the classrooms and destroyed the climate for learning. Mrs. Kamenetz acknowledges that problems exist. Unfortunately, she blames the wrong people.
Indeed, she blames conservatives. She writes: “All of this emboldened a movement on the right that has for more than half a century sought to dismantle public education and the idea that Americans from diverse backgrounds should learn alongside one another.”
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This explanation inadvertently describes one reason that many Americans are abandoning public education. It is simple. Conservatives do not like being branded as a band of raving racists, and we resent the implication. Many of them possess diplomas and degrees from public schools and colleges. Conservatives do not like seeing public schools destroy many of the values they hold dear.
The Road Back to Public Favor
If Mrs. Kamenetz is really interested in making public schools stronger, I would like to offer her nine strategies to help make that happen.
First, restore order. The primary reason schools exist is to educate—and teachers cannot do that amid chaos. All students must know that their actions have consequences, which administrators will swiftly impose on those who disrupt others when trying to learn.
Second, listen to parents with respect. Parents come from all walks of life, but the vast majority love and want the best for their children and our country. Films of parents who speak at school board meetings, only to have their concerns ignored, are not good advertisements for public education.
Third, stop implying that parents are oppressing their children. If teachers and administrators disagree with a parent’s politics, religion, values, morals and so on, they should not use the school as a platform to suggest that these views are oppressive. Telling or implying to students that their parents are stupid, uncaring or repressive should remain out of bounds.
Fourth, acknowledge that the schools are reflections of their communities, not “agents of change.” The focus should be on expanding children’s knowledge and opportunities, not on creating a generation of social activists.
Fifth, don’t teach theories as if they were facts. Any competent scientist will admit that very few established facts exist in any branch of natural science. Everything else is theory.
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Sixth, keep controversial ideologies out of schools. The fifth point above is doubly true in psychology and sociology. Aside from basic biology, a child’s sexual maturity is none of the school’s business. The school plays a minimal role in emotional development. “Gender theory” and “critical race theory” are, as the names imply, theories. Not only are they not proven, but they are also unprovable.
Seventh, re-embrace color blindness. The more one talks about race, the more poisoned the discussion becomes. If left alone, children will choose playmates without regard to race. Creating racial hatred or inspiring uneasiness between groups of students helps no one.
Eighth, medical care is a parental prerogative. Yes, there is a place for the school nurse who cleans and bandages wounds sustained on the playground. That place does not extend to the diagnosis of physical or mental diseases. If school officials think something might be wrong, they should tell the parent. If the family cannot afford medical care, suggest a free or low-cost clinic that is not affiliated with the school. Do not initiate treatments without parental consent.
Last but still crucial, acknowledge Christianity’s role in the culture’s development. The prohibition against teaching religion does not extend to historical fact. If you teach about the scientific discoveries of Gregor Mendel or Roger Bacon, you can briefly mention that they did their scientific work in monasteries. You can cite Moses and Jesus Christ among those who inspired our legal system. You can use the title “Father” when discussing Junipero Serra’s role in the settlement of California. Leaving that information out is a sign of intolerance and prejudice.
Rising to the Challenge
Christians and conservatives are not obsessed with the idea of taking over American public education. If public schools want to set themselves up as the educators of all of America’s children, then two words need to enter the education establishment’s vocabulary—respect and humility.
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Unfortunately, the above strategies will not be implemented. Protestations about teaching all of the children only camouflage a desire to make them all into an army of “social justice warriors.”
We must not allow this to happen.
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