In March of last year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Congress that an estimated 82 percent of America’s schools would fail to meet education goals set by No Child Left Behind that year. “We should get out of the business of labeling schools as failures and create a new law that is fair and flexible, and focused on the schools and students most at risk,” Duncan said. This statement is tragically amusing against the backdrop of the failure of American public schools to measure up to national standards time and again.
On the 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) Reading Test, one out of three fourth grade students scored “below basic”. More than 67 percent of all US fourth graders scored “below proficient,” meaning they are not reading at grade level. That means that well over half of America’s fourth grade students are failing in the field of learning that is the most important.
Unfortunately, these figures don’t seem to right themselves by high school. The same test showed that around 26 percent of eighth graders and 27 percent of twelfth graders scored below the “basic” level, and only 32 percent of eighth graders and 38 percent of twelfth graders are at or above grade level. In 2007, 69 percent of eight grade students scored “below proficient” in writing.
However, although these damning numbers are prompting a creeping national distrust of the public education system, the case against government education does not rest on the discouraging nature of our test scores, or even on the demonstrable failure of the system, but on principles as lovely and as old as our country’s founding.
In the 1786 Virginia Act For Establishing Religious Freedom, Thomas Jefferson wrote,
“To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical.”
Jefferson was referring to a law in Virginia which required Protestants to pay taxes to support the clergymen of the Church of England. The act he was drafting would liberate the people of Virginia from this seemingly absurd obligation, and acknowledge their right to choose which religious teachers they wished to support. Elsewhere in the document, Jefferson asserts that,
“the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time.”
This same “impious presumption” which Jefferson so hotly condemned is at work today in public schools which are not only deplorably deficient but also shockingly arrogant and assuming.
It is impossible to educate children without imparting values, opinions and beliefs to them in some way or another. A young child’s mind is largely devoid of context, so that a teacher has no choice but to provide the persuasions of his or her own mind to fill the gaps in the child’s mind. As every truly educated person knows, there are at least two sides to practically every assertion save those regarding numbers and mathematics and some evident scientific laws. It is beyond naïve to suppose that teachers, even should they desire to do so, can present all sides of an issue objectively and give them equal weight in the consciousness of every child entrusted to their instruction.
What does this lack of objectivity mean for us, the taxpayers, who fund our local schools whether we want to or not? It may mean that we’re being compelled to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which we disbelieve. If it doesn’t, it means someone else is. There’s no way around that in a diverse society which welcomes people of all creeds, cultures and nationalities.
In the eons before the current multicultural era, the trouble of taking and giving offense was a far lesser one. In days before technology had knitted the globe together into one vast mass of symbiotic organisms, societies shared more common values because people were forced by the geography of the planet to remain in more or less one general location. Government education systems, although still problematic and potentially dangerous, rarely created the issues they create today, because people accepted that the prevailing popular opinions of a nation would be reflected in the education system provided by the state.
In this present age, we can no longer be governed by this system of the past, because the circumstances of the world have changed. Ideas are no longer geographically-bound, but travel the circumference of globe in seconds. So divided is the nation that on many issues of national significance, it is no longer possible to determine what the prevailing popular opinion is. A system that worked, albeit imperfectly, 150 years ago, will no longer serve for this bitterly contending country.
It is time for America to embrace the education option of the future: private institutions that will allow families to choose the best fit for their children and that will not rob one ideological group in order to give to the other. The political correctness mania that pervades our government and our schools should come to an end, and the stifling “orthodoxy” of the establishment should no longer be forced on our children. Thomas Jefferson would be proud.