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Values, Orthodoxies, And Public Schools

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Values and beliefs are the real issue in Yucaipa. More specifically, the question raised is: What are the roles of the home and the school in teaching them?

In recent years, schools and teachers have been roundly criticized for no longer teaching values. "Dumbed-down'' textbooks, watered-down curricula, and value-neutral teaching are blamed for producing young people who lack moral moorings and are culturally illiterate. Yucaipa is one of many districts that have sought to end the inane reign of Dick and Jane (and Spot) and bring back to the classroom real stories, poems, myths, and fables. Some parents in the community view this as an effort by teachers to impart values to their children that the parents find offensive.

Parents have a right--indeed an obligation--to concern themselves with their children's schooling. And they have a right to express their views at the polls, as Yucaipa parents will do in November's school board election. What they do not have a right to do is to foist their own values on the school system. In Hawkins County, Tenn., a few years ago, a group of parents chose the judicial route to press their case. They, too, objected to a newly adopted reading series and insisted that their children not be exposed to it. They charged that the books offended their religious beliefs by systematically advocating feminism, pacifism, witchcraft, vegetarianism, and situational ethics. One example of feminism in the series was the depiction of boys doing kitchen chores.

The parents lost. A federal district judge ruled in their favor, but a federal appeals court overturned that decision. And the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the appeals-court decision to stand.

David Remes, a lawyer and First Amendment specialist in Washington, D.C., made this cogent observation about the case, and it applies equally well to Yucaipa:

"Public education is not 'public' just because it is free. It is 'public' because it is a kind of education--an education that instructs children, as Justice William J. Brennan has put it, in 'a heritage common to all American groups and religions.' That heritage is one that includes The Diary of Anne Frank and Huckleberry Finn. It is a heritage of tolerance and diversity. Public education is not and cannot be an education that instructs children in the orthodoxies of their parents.''

Nor can public education expose children to "real literature'' without exposing them to values, controversy, and ideas. Great literature by definition deals with profound human issues--with good and evil, war and peace, love and hate, patriotism and cowardice, sin and redemption. The point--often missed by some parents--is that value systems that work for individuals must be fashioned by them through thoughtful questioning and experience. Value systems that are imposed on children by someone else will more likely than not fail them when the children face harsh tests and temptations.

By providing their students with texts that have substance and ideas, Yucaipa's teachers are not attempting to impose a system of values or morals on them. Their objective is to get their students to think, to question, to experience the struggle between good and evil vicariously, in the safer world of the classroom, before they experience it firsthand in real life. Their goal is to encourage students to forge their own values, their own moral code, by sharing with them--on "the friendlier terrain of childhood''--the valuable lessons of history and literature.

Ronald A. Wolk

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