The Myth of Value-Neutral Schooling

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Over the past two decades, the struggle for intellectual and spiritual freedom in the nation's schools has produced significant victories for families and students. Without these advances in civil liberties, we would today be much weaker in the face of persistent attempts to resurrect theocracy, trivialize religion, and impose orthodoxy in our schools. But an unintended side effect of the libertarian strategy--the rise of the myth of value-neutral schooling--now threatens to erode progress in the courts and to undermine public understanding of the First Amendment.

Schooling is a form of communication between student and culture that inevitably contains moral implications, assumptions about the nature of reality, and beliefs about the most enduring questions of civilization and human nature. The effort to remove value judgments from school content deprives this communication of all but its most superficial meaning. The frustration some families feel at the attempt to neutralize values in education has been energetically exploited by the predatory politicians and electronic preachers of the New Right. Yet this same myth of value neutrality has been all but ignored by civil libertarians. The message of 1984 is clear: Unless it is recognized that value-neutral education is a misleading, unattainable, and unworthy goal, we will increasingly see the forces of intolerance march under the banner of freedom and proclaim their program in the language of liberty.

Value-neutral schooling has, by a circuitous route, come to substitute for another form of neutrality that is crucial to educational freedom--the neutrality of government toward the content of school curricula. The substitution was slow to take hold. The idea that schools could communicate knowledge without transmitting belief has an honorable beginning in the successful effort to remove religious teaching and observance from government-operated schools. In applying the separation of church and state to education, the U.S. Supreme Court declared--and the public largely accepted--that if religion could be part of government schools then the battle as to whose theology would receive public aid would be never ending. But in pursuing this separationist goal central to First Amendment freedoms, a crucial misconception began to form in the legal mind. It was assumed by many courts, scholars, and lawyers that once the threat of religious establishment was removed, the remaining secular value assumptions that lay buried in school texts and curricula would not be a threat to liberty.

This blindness in one eye became worse in the early 1970's when several state legislatures attempted to provide aid to private religious schools by enacting state subsidies for the teaching of "secular" subjects. The laws proceeded on the assumption that "secular means neutral" for First Amendment purposes. Although the Supreme Court struck the subsidies down, it raised no significant question about the neutrality of secular education. Seeing that the Court could only perceive indoctrination and establishment if it were labeled "religion," the right wing began to claim that the schools actually indoctrinate a religion called "secular humanism," and that therefore secular as well as sectarian values ought to be removed from government-sponsored schools. In reaction to this claim, the idea that secular means neutral took firmer hold in the public mind.

By limiting the censorship of school libraries, as in the 1982 case Board of Education of Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, the Court has been willing to find that the most blatant attempts to indoctrinate students in secular values constitute a violation of First Amendment freedoms. But the vast majority of instances of secular-value bias in the schools went unquestioned as the Court continued to assume that secular meant neutral.

The net result of these developments was to remove religious purpose and effect from government schools, and to assume either that the result was neutral toward all beliefs or could be made so by removing a few obvious secular-value biases. But beneath the falsely soothing surface of these legal pronouncements, many citizens, school officials, and teachers wary of religious- or secular-value conflict began to avoid any value commitment that might breed trouble. Rather than looking to family choice of schools as a means of preserving both values and First Amendment freedoms, most found it was easier to avoid values altogether. It wasn't long before the absence of beliefs, commitments, and passionately held values became a goal in itself.

As the idea took hold in public and professional minds that the government neutrality so vital to freedom of spirit and intellect could be achieved by leaching meaning and controversy from schools, the schools themselves became bland, homogenized, ethically numb, and assertively mediocre. As a result of pursuing value-neutral education, the orthodoxy of schools today cannot be called secular humanism or socialism, not capitalism, Protestantism, or militarism, but a characterless and bureaucratized order bent on denying values and overly tolerant of emptiness. In this marketplace of ideas, the shelves are stocked mostly with pablum.

With the myth of value-neutral education as its guideline, government schools have created a confused and confusing consensus in which teachers, confined by their need to appear neutral, convey the intellectually and spiritually debilitating message that there are neither values nor meanings, neither faith nor critical thinking worthy of human commitment. The great task of the student today is to learn the institutional rules well enough to win by playing them or to survive by taking advantage of them. Set against the formidable array of rewards and punishments of the bureaucratized school, the pursuit of meaning, of useful knowledge, of excitement, curiosity, unknown facts, and unanswerable questions all become second-class citizens taking a back seat to a managerial mentality. This pursuit of value-neutral schooling has rendered schooling and learning boring to the creative and inquiring mind; insulting to the cultural and spiritual heritages of a pluralistic society; and superficial, mindless, alienating, and anti-intellectual in the extreme.

That is probably a sufficient indictment of the myth of value-neutral schooling. But it is important to recognize as well that this myth is impossible to achieve and unworthy as a goal--impossible to achieve because no communication outside of George Orwell's 1984 can be shorn of its content, and unworthy as a goal because the attempt to achieve value-neutral schooling robs teaching and learning of their essence. The message of the commitment to meaningless schooling is that one ought neither to think nor to feel.

The myth of value-neutral schooling has had a devastating effect on politics as well as on the quality of schooling. Many families offended by blandness have sought to reassert values in the schools, and to impose them through majoritarian politics. The resistance they meet from professionals and from families with differing values has led to the ongoing struggles over curricula, textbook adoption, library content, and teacher attitudes that have been plaguing an increasing number of schools. In effect, the absence of school choice has created a repeating, polarizing cycle in which value conflict breeds blandness and blandness breeds a return to value conflict.

With religious values the problem is worse still. Some politicians, not above exploiting the dismay that religious families feel about the erosion of meaning in schools, have sought to transform the desire to reinvigorate the value content of schools into a call for prayer in the classroom or religious dogma in the curriculum. The result has been the attempt to reunite church and state in education. In both their secular and religious forms, these political battles over school content constitute the fulfillment of a grim prophecy offered by Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson 41 years ago: "Probably no deeper division of our people could proceed from any provocation than from finding it necessary to choose what doctrine and whose program public-education officials shall compel youth to unite in embracing."

Thus was the pursuit of government neutrality toward the belief content of education transformed first into the myth that value-neutral schooling should and could be achieved, then into schooling devoid of meaning and passion, and finally into an irresistible invitation to a bitter struggle over public orthodoxy, which threatens the same intellectual and spiritual freedom that government neutrality was meant to secure. By insisting that school content should be neutral instead of that the government should be neutral toward family choice of content, those defending the cause of civil liberty in schools fueled intolerance and approached the brink of self-defeat.

The civil-liberties initiative is now in the hands of those who recognize that the fundamental human freedoms of expression, belief, and conscience are inextricably linked to freedom of choice in schooling. The irony of this new phase in the struggle for educational liberty is this: Just as value-neutral schooling is a myth that sidetracked the effort to secure educational freedom, so too are many of the current schemes for securing family choice in education myths and misrepresentations. The lesson to be drawn from the rise of the myth of value-neutral schooling is that we are always at risk of grasping the shadow instead of the substance of freedom. We must therefore beware, especially in 1984, of politicians bearing gifts. We must cast the skeptic's eye upon the current tuition tax-credit proposals, looking for their effects instead of their intentions. We must put the supporters of these plans to the test of proving that they will provide complete economic and racial equality in school choice to every family. There is no trickle-down theory of liberty.

Vol. 04, Issue 10, Page 24, 19

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