Commentary

Compelling Belief Is Compelling

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Three years ago, when Stephen Arons was beginning the book just now published as Compelling Belief, and excerpted in last week's Education Week (Nov. 17, 1982), he and I had a talk about the home-schooling movement. I was then in the middle of a term on the school board of my town (where my four children were all in the public schools), and I commented that it was just such separatist and splintering activity that made it so hard to find a central purpose for the public school.

Besides, I said, home schooling deprived children of professional teaching and the chance to learn to be social creatures. In spite of my position as a chief spokesman for private education, I was reflecting a blind faith in public education and expressing the need for public orthodoxy in the governance of public schools.

A year or so later when I next ran into Mr. Arons, he had been studying textbook censorship and state suppression of the right of several private schools to choose their own teachers, textbooks, and curricula in support of the values on which the schools were founded. He allowed that I was probably right--home schooling had its own aspects of deprivation--but that he was increasingly alarmed at the evidence that public orthodoxy was stifling private dissent.

He was also discouraged by the limited capacity of school governing structures to adjudicate the many conflicts he saw developing among groups of dissenting parents over what should be taught in the public schools. He has documented this inability in numerous textbook-censorship struggles where competing ideologies tried to wrest control of majority school-board power--and ended up tearing the school system apart.

This dim view coincided with my own discouragement over a local public-school issue. A group of minority parents had asked our school board to look into the various public reminders of Christmas in the schools, which made their children feel excluded. With a certain measure of wisdom, the board created a citizens' committee of teachers, parents, and townspeople to propose a solution.

The solution was ingenious, almost brilliant: Instead of suppressing the Christian trappings at Christmas (state law forbids only religious ritual and worship, not fes-tivity or study), the schools would study and celebrate modestly 10 other holidays during the year, including a Native American harvest festival, Passover, Easter, and Martin Luther King's birthday.

Then pressure built up on the school board to reject the proposal because it de-emphasized our majority Christian heritage. The final vote was no, and I have no doubt that another batch of sensitive parents sent their children to private schools the next year.

Now Stephen Arons's book is finished (and so is my term on the school board!), and unfortunately last week's excerpts do not do justice to a very important view of what is happening to American public education, or rather to American intellectual and political life. It's much better to read the whole (short) book--his excerpts are too assertive without the rich findings and case studies that support them--but let me try a simpler way to summarize his thoughts:

Public education, presumably the engine of American democracy, is instead its chief vehicle for stifling dissent.

The assumptions of American culture--a 200-year consensus over what our society should be--no longer support or explain the complexities of the present world; public orthodoxy means collapsed values, bewilderment, and a search for clean, simple answers.

The compulsory nature of public education contains the seeds of an arrogant, bureaucratically shortsighted majority view that cannot allow choice or freedom.

The recourse to law to protect dissent or freedom in the arena of education has led only to more conflict and to an impasse in the ability of the law to incorporate the reality of family life and choice into its decisions.

Now, lest Mr. Arons--or I, for that matter--sound like Jerry Falwell, it should be pointed out that he--Arons--is part of the cabal that has challenged conventional funding of public education in the past. Culminating in the Serrano v. Priest decision, this California-based brand of thinking has contended that accident of birth should not dictate whether a young person's schooling is supported by a local tax rate of $1,000 per student, as in Salinas County, or $3,000 per student, as in Marin County. The primary concern of this line of thought has been the unequal distribution of opportunity (educational choice) among the poor, the working class, and racial minorities.

This, of course, is the only argument for such private uses of public funds as educational vouchers and tuition tax credits. It is a snake-pit of venomous contention that for too long has occupied the attention of protagonists and legislators at the expense of the real issue--the monolithic inability of public education to recapture its once central role as the guarantor of democracy.

In his call for a restructuring of schooling in America, which he currently sees as unconstitutional because it is unequally effective, Mr. Arons has two targets: this unequal educational opportunity, based on economic or birth advantage; and the failure of the law to protect dissent in the family's choice of schooling for its children.

At the end of his book, Mr. Arons suggests some criteria for judging various forms of public policy--public aid--to redress the inequality. I am sorry he looks in this direction because I believe that in the long run such public aid will enable public orthodoxy to co-opt--and therefore control--private dissent.

One needs no more evidence than the research of Donald Erickson on British Columbia's private schools. For five years, a substantial number of the Canadian province's private schools have received public aid in the form of family tuition vouchers. Studying what happens in private schools aided in this way, compared with those that retained a measure of un-aided independence, Mr. Erickson found that the un-aided schools sustained a greater degree of teacher and parent commitment--two vital ingredients of good schooling. Whether this provides a clue to strengthening public schools or not, it certainly suggests the danger in resorting to public aid to equalize opportunity and choice in private schools.

The one means of equalizing choice that doesn't threaten private schools with a heavy public embrace, or even require their suppression, is an urgent, massive effort to improve public education. The effort should promote a wide latitude of choice of career patterns, teachers, and tracks within a given school, as well as a much less timid approach to the ethical context of education.

But finally, the most significant part of Compelling Belief, is the farseeing vision that a system that cannot stand dissent and difference contains the seeds of its own destruction and cuts off the sources of its own renewal. I have read the Accelerated Christian Education textbooks referred to by Mr. Arons as enabling instant, dissenting alternatives to public schools to spring up in church basements and living rooms. They will produce a modest number of clean-living, narrow-minded good citizens who march to their own drummer and who will probably be poorly prepared to cope with late 20th-century social complexities and ambiguities.

But the cure--the heavy-handed imposition of bureaucratically developed minimal standards purveyed by well-meaning teachers selected by inferential standards of preparation rather than by actual performance--may well produce a majority of citizens too poorly educated to cope with the late 20th century at all.

Vol. 02, Issue 12, Page 15

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