The Problem of Public Education

I recently began reading Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach (2006) by Vern S. Poythress. The first few chapters are what you might call foundational for the discussion in the rest of the book. Some of it is good, some I find dry or not sure I totally agree or understand. But, that’s OK. I suspect the rest of the book will make it worth my while.

The third chapter, titled “Knowledge from Whose Authority?”, discusses issues of secularism in the U.S. and Europe and how that affects scientific inquiry, etc. The following in an excursus on public education from the end of that chapter, which I found thought-provoking and sufficiently brief to share. You might be a bit surprised at what he has to say, too.

“Earlier in this chapter I raised a problem about public, state-controlled education. State-controlled education in its present form in the United States tends to impose secularism. Secularism is a whole worldview, and in its approach to the nature of scientific law, it is intrinsically religious, in that it exchanges God for an idolatrous view of scientific law. Moreover, as we have seen, it excludes minority views like animism and Shankara’s interpretation of Vedantic Hinduism. It is oppressive toward those who radically disagree with its worldview.

cover to Redeeming ScienceBut is this unique to secularism? Does not everyone have the same problem when it comes to state-controlled education? Parents naturally want their children to be taught in conformity with their own beliefs. But state-controlled education cannot possibly please all parents at the same time. It cannot please both those who believe in absolute moral standards and those who believe that morality is merely the product of personal choices and opinions. It cannot please both those who believe that scientific law is impersonal and those who believe that it is the personal word of God. It cannot please those who believe that the universe is a product of chance and mindless evolution and those who believe that it is the creation of God. In political science courses, it cannot please both political conservatives and political liberals.

At an earlier point in the history of the United States, state-controlled education tended to draw on a broad Protestant consensus as its main religious background. In Europe, education was influenced by state churches. These approaches oppressed all kinds of religious minorities, as well as atheists and agnostics. Nowadays, in the United States and to some extent in Europe, state-controlled education is controlled by secularist ideology and opposes religious ‘interference’ and minority views that would take a different approach to issues like scientific law and moral standards. The victims of oppression have shifted, but the general problem has not disappeared.

I cannot pursue the issue here, but it seems to me the morally proper remedy is not, as many Christians might wish, the reintroduction of less hostility toward the Bible and Christianity in state-controlled schools, but the introduction of real parental control and choice in education. As it is now, because of the tax system for supporting education, only the very rich can afford to send their children to schools of their choice. [Poythress’ footnote: Or the very determined can undertake to homeschool their children. I am grateful that homeschooling is allowed in the United States. But it is a great injustice that homeschoolers still see their tax money go to support public schools, while they pay out of their own pockets in time and money for their homeschooling activities.] School vouchers — or better, tax credits for education of the parents’ choice — can provide relief that gives the average parent real choice. And with choice comes control of what kind of worldview and educational approach the child receives. But there is a political price: we must then give up the hope of using state power to impose out own views on others’ children.”

I would differ at least somewhat with Poythress on the following three points:

1) I’m not sure I am entirely comfortable with Poythress’ use of the word “oppression” and its variants, since I usually associate that with something much harsher than one would see in school. But, I understand how he is using it.

2) I would disagree with Poythress’ claim that, aside from homeschooling, “only the very rich can afford to send their children to schools of their choice.” Of course, it partially depends on where you live. But, there are plenty of middle-class families that send their children to private schools. Maybe not the elite, but there are more modestly-priced schools, mostly run by Catholic or Protestant churches. There are Jewish private schools, too. Some families may have to sacrifice in other areas to afford sending one or more children to such a school, but they manage. This was true back in the ’70s & ’80s when I went, and it’s true now, as some of my friends can attest.

3) I think the author presents, or assumes, a false dichotomy. It seems to me to be entirely reasonable to “[reintroduce] less hostility toward the Bible and Christianity in state-controlled schools” in addition to giving more parents real control and choice over how their children are educated. “Less hostility” does not mean religious domination, of course, and it would help alleviate the concerns of those non-secularist parents who, for whatever reasons, cannot or would rather not pull their kids out of public school.

Other than these points, I pretty much agree with Poythress. Of course, the broader discussion about public education, its shortcomings, and alternatives, covers a lot more territory than this brief excursus. I’ll probably tackle it again down the road….

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