Acton Commentary

School's In: Look Out!


America’s children have returned to the classroom, and so it is time for their "protectors" to go on alert again. What seems to terrify these protectors most is not the danger of drugs, violence, the sexualizing of young children, or even teacher incompetence—things about which most parents are concerned. Rather, these protectors aim to keep America’s impressionable youth from corruption by—God!

Surely, I exaggerate. I wish that were true. However, consider the stance of leftist activist group People for the American Way (PFAW) . PFAW, along with the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is a major force of opposition against what it judges to be infringements on the religious neutrality of American public life. Included as targets for PFAW's opposition are prayer in public schools, religious symbolism in town squares, Internet filtering in libraries, education vouchers, and public affirmations of faith by any elected or appointed officials. On the PFAW Web site is its back-to-school feature, a piece titled "Back to School: Has Your District Been Targeted by the Right?"

The opening paragraph of this editorial reads, "As a new school year begins across the country, parents, students, teachers, and school officials in many districts will find themselves confronted by right-wing efforts to violate religious liberty in public schools." Two "threats" are targeted. The first is "a curriculum by a group called the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS)." The second threat focuses on efforts to display posters proclaiming "In God We Trust" in classrooms. Though PFAW considers the motto to be legal on currency (after all, it was so declared by Congress), they judge it to be wholly improper in public school classrooms. The reason? "When these words are directed at captive audiences of young school children in their schools and by their schools, they send an impermissible message of government endorsement of religion."

Rather than debate the specifics of PFAW’s stance, I wish to highlight what seems to me a remarkable perception of schools, children, and government. Neither as a teacher nor as a parent have I ever considered students as somehow "captive" to the imposition of a teacher’s ideas, including my own. Furthermore, considering an idea that is being expressed by a public school teacher or entertained by a student in a public school as somehow carrying the weight of governmental endorsement simply boggles the mind. To me, it suggests a statist view of society, family, and education, where public schools exist to indoctrinate children with state-approved ideas. One cannot help but ask this question—When leftist organisation such as PFAW accuse their opponents of vast conspiracies to take away liberties of American citizens, are they not really seeking the same control over classrooms?

My own view of education is quite different. I believe that parents are the primary teachers of children, particularly with regard to religious and moral instruction. Schools and teachers ought to support parental and familial values; they should not deliberately undertake to undermine them. This, of course, means greater parental choice in education, a goal bitterly fought by PFAW and its kindred spirits on the Left.

At the same time, I do not think of children as "captive" empty vessels lapping up "endorsed" views but as free, thinking, believing, learning image bearers of God endowed with dignity and responsibility. This includes the ability to discriminate between a reality that needs to be heeded (natural law) and mere opinion. That is what a good education does; it does not brainwash children but expands their vision. It also teaches them to filter out moral and religious nonsense.

If my analysis above is correct, we have here another example of the political Left’s bias against liberty itself (in the name of liberty!). As we now see in American classrooms from kindergarten to graduate school, this passion to control what may be discussed or read in a classroom is well entrenched in politically correct curricula. There are, however, exceptions to what PFAW does and does not censor. PFAW proclaims itself as a champion of free speech when it comes to use of the Internet in public libraries and public school libraries. Censorship of Web browsing, they claim, is a violation of a student’s First Amendment rights. However, I have to question any movement that seeks to repress the display of "In God We Trust" posters but strikes a free-speech pose when it comes to protecting children from potentially inappropriate Web content. The question remains: Who will guard us from the guardians?