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Separation of School and State

By Stephen Arons — November 17, 1982 5 min read
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With parents, political groups, and censors of all imaginable persuasions trying to gain control of public schools on behalf of their own conceptions of truth and right living, the message of these struggles might be heard as just another depressing note in a cacophony of cultural conflict. As expected, the values expressed and fought for by dissident families are, more often than not, unattractive, wrong-headed, and contrary to the accepted wisdom of the majority.

Dissent, by definition, is unpopular. Yet the dissidents have acted on conscience, have shown clear commitment to their children, and have expressed fears common to many of us. Far from being depressed or destructive, in fact, many dissenting families embody a positive and upbeat approach to family and school life. They have transformed anger and alienation into a renewed sense of engagement with life and have exchanged passivity for participation in the schooling process.

The proliferating conflicts over schooling are rich in implications about the condition of American culture, the nature of dissent, and the relationship of schooling to intellectual and political freedom. One conclusion drawn from these school wars is that conflicts over matters as personal as the formation of conscience and the transmission of belief to children cannot be resolved politically. The analogy with battles over state religion and freedom of belief is instructive.

By the last quarter of the 18th century, the political experiences of European and American societies had indicated the importance of a complete separation of church and state. Unless religion and government were confined to separate realms, the political process would be hopelessly factionalized by the irreconcilable conflict over spiritual matters, and the freedom of religion of individual citizens would be destroyed by the attempt to substitute religious orthodoxy for legitimate political consensus.

By the last quarter of the 20th century, nearly 200 years after the adoption of this principle of separation in the United States Constitution, experience again indicates the cost of building into government a continuing conflict between individual conscience and a state-supported orthodoxy. Without a complete separation of school and state, the governing process of American schooling has been increasingly undermined by unresolvable value conflicts, and individual freedom of belief, expression, and political participation has been hobbled. Schooling has become a major means of transmitting culture. When government imposes the content of schooling, it becomes the same deadening agent of repression from which the framers of the Constitution sought to free themselves.

Public schooling has so often been regarded as the bulwark of democracy and the nation’s chief source of social cohesion and equal opportunity that it may seem subversive to suggest that America’s school system has become a suppressor of dissent and a manipulator of political consciousness. Moreover, it may be of little comfort to argue that the concept of schooling can be reconceived without endangering the principle of universal, compulsory, public education and without sacrificing the right of equal education opportunity.

The difficulty in seeing the present structure of schooling for what it is lies in widely held assumptions about education that cloud public perceptions. It will be difficult to see the effect of the structure of schooling upon culture and politics if these assumptions are not re-examined and if we are ideologically unwilling to acknowledge the testimony of struggle and resistance given by families whose private beliefs have become public issues.

In most ways, dissenting families are like the majority. Most parents see the rearing of children as an expression of belief--belief in children, belief in their own lives, and belief in the future; they feel free to engage in this intimate form of communication as a way of passing along to their children all that is necessary for survival, happiness, and success, however they define them. Dissenting families, however, must pay a heavy price to pursue such natural parental functions and aspirations.

To do what the rest of us do with relative ease--perhaps even too much ease--dissenting families have had to seek the approval of state and local school authorities; defend or file costly, time-consuming, and cumbersome lawsuits; risk the loss of jobs, child custody, and family stability; suffer the uncertainty, emotional stress, and personal anxiety of exposing family privacy to official and public scrutiny.

Whatever the differences of values among these families, they have in common the sense that the assumptions of the majority culture have lost their power of explanation and prediction and that that culture is confused, self-contradicting, or collapsing. But more important, the family that asserts beliefs, values, world view, or its own peculiar ethics in any of these struggles is a dissenting family, not only because it rejects the dominant ethic of majority culture or has been attacked by the bureaucratized agents of that culture, but because it seeks to create meaning where only pervasive alienation and voracious skepticism are offered.

The institutional educational process to which parents are urged to hand over their children may be perceived as advocating secular humanism, classism, sexism, materialism, or some other easily labeled attitude. But it is just as likely to be viewed as devoid of any values--as superficial, mindless, and dominated by a commitment to order without ethics. In this context, the family that asserts the right to pursue its own beliefs, whether radical or reactionary, asks for meaning in schools where none is wanted.

Of the many personal, political, and cultural themes that emerge from the efforts of families to control their children’s education, two stand out: That the present structure of American schooling undermines the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of intellect and belief; and that unless liberty in education is made equally available to all families, regardless of race, religion, or economic status, public education may be an early casualty of the school wars.

A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 1982 edition of Education Week as Separation of School and State

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