The Public Schools, Take II
A while ago I posted on the public schools, and it was revealed to me, gradually, that I didn't do it in a very loving manner. So I'm going to try again, hopefully better this time. I think it is important to speak out on a matter this important. I believe I speak truth (if I didn't, I'd change my mind!), and this is something I've studied for some time now.
At the same time, I recognize fully that this is not a matter of orthodoxy. No doubt I will welcome many people in heaven who think well of the public schools.
Finally, and in connection with the previous point, I am here speaking against the public schools as an idea, and by my definition not against those who hold this idea. Surely this is possible. In one of the Corinthians, Paul says that we demolish strongholds that set themselves up against Christ, and take every thought captive. We do not demolish people. Therefore, it is entirely possible to attack ideas without attacking the people who hold them. No doubt, also, I am wrong about many things. It is always easier to find the faults of your neighbor than to find them in yourself. Which is why we should exhort one another, though it may not always be pleasant, either to do or to hear.
First off, one really great resource is Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, by Douglas Wilson. That is a simply fantastic book. Yes, Mr. Wilson is not hot on the idea of public schools; but he is not just a critic. He has given us a solution to the problem that is now one of the major paradigm shifts in education.
I have some major issues with the public schools. They are on a number of fronts, so I'll list them in some orderly fashion.
1. Firstly, and by far the most important, God is left out of the classroom. I really don't think this is a matter for debate, the fact that this happens. Given the modern mantra of the separation of church and state, and the way that sentiment has been interpreted these days, the fact that this has happened is really beyond all reasonable doubt. R. L. Dabney once wrote in his pamphlet On Secular Education, "We have seen that their [public schools'] complete secularization is logically inevitable. Christians must prepare themselves then, for the following results: All prayers, catechisms, and Bibles will ultimately be driven out of the schools."
My response to that is several-fold. The first is to note that R. L. Dabney lived from 1820 - 1898. This was well before, obviously, prayer was banned from the public schools. So it seems Dabney had some prophetic insight.
The second is surprise: they had catechisms in the public schools?
So God is left out of the classroom. So what? Well, the so-what is that there is no neutrality. Period. If you are not with God you are against God. If you leave God out of the classroom, yes, even out of math class, then you are saying that God doesn't matter. God isn't really sovereign, because look, we can do all this on our own, without Him.
Following this thought to its logical conclusion: the public schools are therefore teaching secular humanism. Why should I, a Christian, pay taxes to support a system that is teaching something completely antithetical to my entire being? You might object, saying that education is what we need to keep the kids off the streets. You might say that an educated society is a better society. I see it differently. Wisdom is not measured in academic degrees and lots of letters after your name. Knowledge, understanding, and wisdom are not the same thing, though they are related. I know many people without Ph.D.'s who are wiser than I, who am, Lord willing, about to receive mine. Knowledge and even understanding are not enough to change a person's heart. Only the Holy Spirit, working with the Word of God can do that. In other words, education is not our savior, and it never will be. It is a very great good, there's no doubt about it. But it is not sufficient to save people, and it is not sufficient to prevent crime. If you educate a person's mind, but not his heart, you will only get very smart criminals.
2. The separation of church and state, as an idea, is not so far away from the current system as its proponents would have us believe. The modern US public school system was begun in the mid 1800's by the heretical Unitarians, who had recently taken over Harvard. Their goal? To oust the Calvinists. Regardless of your religious affiliation, that is hardly a noble goal of education. For confirmation of these claims, I recommend reading Is Public Education Necessary?, by Samuel Blumenfeld. He goes into a detailed history of the beginnings of the public school system, and has a very large number of footnotes of original sources: Horace Mann and Robert Owen in particular. It's well documented. What I've said is only a summary of what he said.
3. The academic standards of public schools are less than they might be. I will quote some figures from a study done in April of 1983 called A Nation at Risk. I know you might think this study is out-dated, but I tend to think otherwise. The study fits with my experience teaching calculus at Virginia Tech. This is a study done entirely from within the public schools system. In other words, this report is what the public schools are saying about themselves.
a. Some 23 million American adults are functionally illiterate by the simplest tests of everyday reading, writing, and comprehension.
b. About 13 percent of all 17-year-olds in the United States can be considered functionally illiterate. Functional illiteracy among minority youth may run as high as 40 percent.
c. The College Board's Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) demonstrate a virtually unbroken decline from 1963 to 1980. Average verbal scores fell over 50 points and average mathematics scores dropped nearly 40 points.
d. College Board achievement tests also reveal consistent declines in recent years in such subjects as physics and English.
e. Many 17-year-olds do not possess the "higher order" intellectual skills we should expect of them. Nearly 40 percent cannot draw inferences from written material; only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay; and only one-third can solve a mathematics problem requiring several steps.
f. Business and military leaders complain that they are required to spend millions of dollars on costly remedial education and training programs in such basic skills as reading, writing, spelling, and computation. The Department of the Navy, for example, reported to the Commission that one-quarter of its recent recruits cannot read at the ninth grade level, the minimum needed simply to understand written safety instructions. Without remedial work they cannot even begin, much less complete, the sophisticated training essential in much of the modern military.
I have skipped several of these indicators that the study has produced. I'm going to assume that you have the idea.
4. We are spending too much money on the public school system, without the results we should justly expect to obtain. Here I will quote from Douglas Wilson's book that I mentioned earlier:
"The nation's largest and most powerful union, the National Education Association (NEA), fully backs this assertion that the problem can largely be understood as a lack of funds. Michael Kirst, a past president of the California Board of Education, writing in an NEA publication, says, 'Excellence costs. No other assertion in the entire debate on education reform is more on target, further beyond dispute. And yet many people . . . do dispute this claim . . . . The deplorable condition of many of today's schools - the scarce resources, the underpaid staffs, the sparse curriculums, the unsafe facilities - proves again that excellence costs and that the states cannot adequately meet those costs.'
Fortunately, money being the quantifiable thing that it is, this is one suggestion that can easily be checked. Lack of money does not appear to be a factor in the decline of academic achievement. For example, in the school year 1959/60, the total expenditure per pupil in the United States was $1,699, while in 1985/86, the figure had risen to $3,937 (and these amounts are in constant 1985/86 dollars). And what was happening to test scores over a portion of the same period? In 1966/67, the SAT average for college-bound seniors was 958. By 1985/86, the scores had fallen to 906. In other words, test scores are falling, money is being spent furiously, and the lack of results is beginning to look like a permament fixture.
Nevertheless, groups like the NEA are adamant that more money is needed. Those who suggest this as a serious reform fail to realize that one of the reasons people are so dissatisfied with our schools in the first place is the fact that so much money is spent on them. If an average private school were given the same amount of money per pupil as an average public school gets, they wouldn't know what to do with it all. If excellence costs so much, then how is it possible for so many shoe-string private academies to turn out students that do so well academically?"
So what is the solution to all these problems? Well, I ask you one question: are the difficulties I have outlined above real, and if they are, are they an inherent problem of the public schools system? Is it possible that the very idea of a public school will inevitably lead to all the problems I've listed (not exhaustively, I might add)? If so, then public schools should not exist. No doubt you, the reader, already know what I think, based on the very posing of the question. I will not force you to the same conclusion.
What would be a better alternative? I think the classical Christian school movement is the best thing out there. Again, see Wilson's book for a much more complete explanation than I can give.
But I'm not so sure that Wilson's book is the end-all. For those of you who know me, that might shock you. ;-)] What I mean is this: I think we need to use the classical Christian school model for several generations in order to recover our lost tools of learning. But then, once the majority of people have them, we should revert to homeschooling. I do think homeschooling, done in the classical manner, is the best thing out there. It definitely requires the most work, by far. After all, in order for 20 separate children from separate families to learn chemistry, 20 parents need to know chemistry! You can't teach what you don't know. See John Milton Gregory's book The Seven Laws of Teaching, for an explanation of that fact. Education courses will not make up for your lack of knowledge in some subject.
Finally, I should emphasize something: I am advocating classical Christian education. Education is not neutral, in my belief. The Trinity is absolutely central to all knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. It is not enough to have grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, the tools of learning. You must have, in all things, Christ pre-eminent, or you will have no unified view of the world. You must be philosophically Trinitarian in order to make sense of our unified, yet diverse world.
These are my beliefs and opinions. If you think my views are harsh, please do me a favor: think about the following. First of all, is what I said true? I've mostly quoted others' ideas here. There's hardly an original idea in this whole post. Therefore, you would really need to take it up with the authors, respectively, of the quotes. Dabney is dead, to be sure, but probably most of the others are not. Douglas Wilson is alive and kicking, to be sure. You can read his blog here. I am not up on the others. Second of all, if what I've said is true, I ask you, please, to overlook any harshness in my phraseology. Do me the favor, please, as I would certainly do to you, of giving me the benefit of the doubt. I intend harm to no man whatsoever. I fully believe my intentions to be upright. There certainly is rebuke in my words here. The book of Proverbs says that "If you rebuke a wise man, he will love you." As I've said before, that doesn't mean that if you rebuke a man, and he loves you for it, that he is necessarily wise. But it does mean that if you rebuke a man, and he does not love you for it, then he is not wise. We should love rebuke. We should see the loving nature of the man behind it, the man who wants us to grow closer to God. We should put aside our pride and love of being right in our own eyes.
To do these things is impossible without the grace of God. I pray God will give us all that grace, in His good time.