The following blog was originally published on the The Edmund Burke Institute in the Reflections column (in 2011) and has been reposted on Sky View a few times. The picture to the right is from the documentary Waiting for Superman. Although my blog does not make reference to the documentary, it nevertheless advances similar arguments.
America's Founding Father, Noah Webster, once said, "Information is fatal to despotism." No one knows this better than President Barak Obama and his entourage of progressive politicians.
In a speech given to Hampton University in May, 2010, Mr. Obama indicated that the influx of too much information can be a burden to the individual and a threat to the nation. He said, "You're coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don't always rank all that high on the truth meter." "Information," he continued, "becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation." And as far as America is concerned, the bombardment of information is "putting new pressures on our country and on our democracy..." Evidently, the Obama administration would like to relieve us of this "pressure." Federal Communications Commission Commissioner, Michael Copps, in a speech to Columbia University on December 2, 2010 proposed that a "public values test" be administered as part of a license renewal process for radio and TV broadcasters. In the name of diversity and serving local interests, Fox News and conservative talk radio would be subject to new federal criteria.
An unprecedented challenge to the right of free speech by the federal government is looming. Understandably, the conservative media instinctively knows that this is a battle worth fighting. After all, it does have a direct bearing on its service to the public. However, if the right of free speech—and free enterprise and religious liberty for that matter—is to be long secured, then conservatism must also take a serious look at public education where information is most effectively communicated to our youth. Indeed, the classroom is where the war for freedom will be won. Statists are well aware that the control of information, especially with regard to a nation's education, is but the necessary groundwork for the control of the nation itself. The Democratic Party has capitalized on this principle with great success in the latter part of the twentieth century. History tells us that the end to which state-run education is ordained is the state itself.
"Whoever wishes to know the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times." Perhaps, this is why the English historian, Hilaire Belloc, accurately envisaged what a universal state-run education would portend for Western Civilization. As early as 1929, before a monopoly on education by the state had fully taken effect in England and in the United States, he wrote in his book, "Survivals and New Arrivals," "that if compulsory elementary universal instruction be captured and used to a certain end, it can completely transform the character of all society."
Belloc went on to say that compulsory universal instruction, or public education as we know it today, is but the strongest political instrument of the state. He warned that "the universal machine imposed upon all in the years when the character is formed, will imprint its own philosophy, both directly and still more by indirect influence."
Belloc further elaborates on how this liberal enterprise would operate: "A universal and compulsory system of instruction has for its first and main effect uniformity.” He goes on to say that this uniformity will produce a rigid pattern of learning among students; this, at an age when their mind is being developed. With the backing of the state, this system will create a universal character and will have the power to promote one set of ideas to the exclusion of others. As for teachers, they will be imbued with a corporate spirit. A body of national teachers will emerge from this only to be trained under the shadow of a vast bureaucracy. To be sure, they will march to the beat of the same drum; that is, to the drum of an army of government officials.
According to Mona Charen, author of “Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help,” (Sentinel, 2004) the U.S. Department of Education had a budget of $14 billion in 1979. Of course, like any government program, the department went from big to bloated. It started off with 450 administrators and by 2001 its workforce increased to 4,800 with a budget of $43 billion. She further adds that, "from 1960 to 1984, student enrollment increased by 9 percent while the number of teachers employed increased by 57 percent." Moreover, this well-funded, universal machine grew considerably in the 1960s. The percentage of students attending public schools increased from 59 percent to 73 percent. Today, approximately 90 percent of America's children are being educated in public schools. With this expansion of federal control over education, can there be any doubt that the authority of parents and local communities over their children's education have diminished in proportion?
The threat state-run education poses for the American republic is not simply one of bureaucracy. What also must be considered is its power to shape minds and influence beliefs. It's not just the raw content of the national curriculum we should fear; but even more so the hierarchy of values, the sequence of topics and the emphasis given to certain ideas. "Truth lies in proportion," said Belloc. "It is proportion which differentiates a caress from a blow, a sneer from a smile. It is the sequence and the relative weight of doctrines, not the bald statement, which makes the contrast between what damns and what saves. Let a child experience through the working day and through most days of the year that this or that is emphasized in its teaching, and what is so emphasized becomes, for it, and for all its life, the essential." And the essential in public education today is not primarily academic development; nor is it inspiring a sense of patriotism or the training in virtue which is so necessary in a democracy. Rather, the essential thing has become the promotion of environmentalism, animal rights activism, gay rights and eating healthy—all of which invoke state regulation and political solutions. From this new "essential" a politicized world view is communicated to the child and the transformation of a society follows.
In the last 50 years, a low priority in public education has been the instruction on the Founding principles of this nation. In “Render Unto Caesar,” Archbishop Charles Chaput stated that, "In 2003, only three major colleges in the United States required students to take a course on the U.S. Constitution to graduate-the three armed service academies. Only 11 percent of U.S. high school seniors test as proficient in their own national history." Even fewer students understand the contribution Christianity has made to the cause of liberty and progress. Indeed, education has transitioned from an indifference towards the Christian religion to one of hostility. Step by step, from 1948 to the present day, the U.S. and state governments forbade religious instruction (1948), prayer (1962), reading from the Bible (1963), the posting of the Ten Commandments (1980), observing a moment of silence (1985), and even prayer at high school football games (1989). The Democrat Party has traditionally been the guarantor of this continued discrimination. In 1994, for instance, U.S. Massachusetts Senators John Kerry and the late Ted Kennedy both voted to keep prayer out of public schools. And it is fair to say that their votes are representative of the official position of the Democratic national platform.
The discarding of sound civic and religious instruction from the public schools has not only yielded poor academic results but higher crime rates. Over 100 years ago, Pope Leo XIII cautioned European governments who wished to dispense with religious principles by saying that, "Every form of intellectual culture will be injurious; for young people not accustomed to respect God, will be unable to bear the restraint of a virtuous life, and never having learned to deny themselves anything, they will easily be incited to disturb the public order." Without the respect for divine authority, respect for human authority falters. And when human authority—i.e.parents, teachers, and school administrators, loses its binding force—it is virtually impossible to maintain discipline and order. This, of course, makes for a poor learning environment. To understand this is to understand human nature.
Yet, if there is one thing liberals do not understand, it is human nature; so they concentrate on those variables that are within their control. For instance, the quantity of education is easier to manipulate than its quality. Instead of focusing on what would work in our schools they promote more of what is already being used, regardless of the results. Democratic politicians are notorious for this. Their approach to education can be summed up as follows: Proposing to invest more money, recruiting more teachers, reducing class size and to have children start school at an earlier age; as if getting more of the same will benefit our nation's children. Al Gore, for instance, in his bid for the presidency in 2000, promised to invest $176 billion dollars over 10 years in our nation's school system. With that investment he pledged to recruit 100,000 new teachers and reduce class size. Along similar lines Nancy Pelosi said, "Investing in our children is the best investment we can make. And Head Start is an extraordinarily effective instrument."
Restoring the greatness of the American republic requires that we return to those principles which brought it about. Historically, a nation's educational system is the instrument by which these principles are transmitted. Having carefully studied political history, the Founding Fathers knew that in order for democracy and liberty to endure, the education of America's youth required that the provider come from local communities; not some bureaucratic agency hundreds of miles away from the school. With equal weight, the Founders stressed the importance of patriotism, virtue and religion. In his famous farewell address, George Washington said that we ought not "indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion." John Adams went even further by saying, "Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." And finally, Samuel Adams gave this sobering reminder: "We may look to armies for our defense, but virtue is our best security. It is not possible that any State should long remain free, where virtue is not supremely honored."
These principles enumerated by America's Founding Fathers have not only gone unheeded, but they have become an object of derision in many of our state-run schools. Easy access to information on the Internet and freedom of speech over the airwaves is unsustainable in the long-term if the state monopoly on education does not come to an end soon. If truth be told, America's public schools have been and continue to be the strongest political instrument of the left. One of the greatest contributions Christians and conservatives can make towards the renewal of America is to reclaim this instrument.