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Depoliticize Schooling

The battles never end. Every year or two another one erupts, with combatants on both sides fearful that their opponents will force-feed their children heretical doctrines.

I’m talking about battles over the content of curricula in government schools. Mostly, these battles pit those who, for religious reasons, dislike Darwinian explanations against those who find even a whiff of supernaturalism to be unacceptable.

For the record, I haven’t a religious molecule within me. I believe in no deity and cannot imagine ever so believing. Therefore, I would indeed be most agitated if any state agency foisted on my family and me any religious doctrine. At the same time, I have no wish to foist my own atheism upon anyone. If the godly will let me live undisturbed, I’m perfectly content to let the godly live undisturbed.

But because government-school curricula are set on a state-wide basis, secular parents (understandably) are horrified at the prospect that their children will encounter in schools supernatural explanations passed off as science. Likewise, religious parents (understandably) are horrified at the prospect that their children will be taught that creation itself had nothing to do with a god.

So these different groups forever snarl at each other and frequently come to political blows.

There’s an easy solution: get government out of the school business. Totally.

With government removed from schooling, a wide array of different schools catering to different tastes and beliefs will emerge, each competing with the others. Parents whose bookshelves creak with the weight of tomes by Darwin, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett will send their children to schools that never mention creationism save as a silly superstition. Parents who read the Bible nightly and who attend church regularly will send their children to schools that teach that creationism has more explanatory power than the knee-jerk materialistic theory of natural selection.

No more forcing one group to suffer the impositions of the other group.


Yesterday I sent a letter, summarizing the above, to the Washington Post in a response to this story on the battle du jour, this time in Kansas. I ended the letter by suggesting that we’d all be more tolerant of each other if we no longer had to fight in the political arena for our own beliefs to dominate our children’s schooling. (Also for the record, Karol and I send our one child, Thomas, to a secular private school. The idea of turning over to the state the education of our son is intolerable.)

A friend – far to the left of me in politics (although sharing my disbelief in deities) – disagrees with me. He agrees that these politicized battles over school curricula are nasty. But he writes (and I quote with permission):

If children are taught radically different views of the world, the prospects for toleration will diminish. Imagine if half of American kids go to schools that teach only the Genesis version of creation and teach that Darwin was the devil, while the other half of kids go to schools that never mention the Bible, what will our society be like? We need public schools to instill in us a common set of beliefs that unite us as a people, as a nation.

My friend’s argument is not implausible. But I disagree with it.

If the bulk of children are to be taught only one ‘set’ of beliefs, then the struggle to determine which set is taught and which are rejected will be brutal and bitter (as we witness today). I doubt that forcibly educating all children in one set of beliefs, and forcibly excluding the formal teaching of opposed beliefs, will promote social harmony.

Suppose that my child were in a government school and my neighbors were more politically powerful than me, with the result being that my son’s school taught him that god created the universe. I’d be none to happy at my neighbors. I’d not only disagree with them; I’d despise them. And I’d live to free my son and his classmates from their influence. Likewise, of course, if my co-irreligionists and I were more powerful than our religious neighbors.

Only by freeing each of us from the domination of others will mutual toleration emerge.  I know that my friend, quoted above, would be most unlikely to accept and tolerate a government school system that rejects Darwin and teaches "intelligent design" or any other form of creationism.