More than ever, opportunities should be afforded to families that wish to bring their children up with a moral education in accordance with their beliefs. A system of choice allows parents to choose schools that inject moral or religious themes into their children’s education.
Americans love myths. By "myth," I do not mean the old-fashioned myths that my generation read in grade school. Many Americans would find reading at that fifth-grade level too difficult these days. What I mean by "myth" is what older generations used to call a fiction.
One of the more influential myths presently affecting the American family is the myth of a value-free education. A value-free education is described as one in which students are supposed to be free from any coerced exposure to the values of anyone.
One way the defenders of value-free education frame their argument is this: they argue that because America ceased to be a homogeneous society a long time ago, the watchword today must be pluralism. In the new setting of today, they insist, we can no longer stress the values and beliefs of some, while ignoring the values of all. And so, they say, we’ll avoid all the problems inherent in this situation by simply agreeing to ignore all values. This specious argument deceives Americans into thinking this is the only way to achieve fairness in our schools.
College students today are surrounded by an allegedly academic setting in which the things they find most obvious are confusion, conflicting claims and the absence of any fixed points of reference. America’s colleges have become centers of intellectual disorder. As David Gress explains, "Instead of being havens of independent thought, universities have become channels of indoctrination…confirming the prejudices of those who control the agenda of public discourse." Ralph Bennett is surely right when he warns that "behind its ivy-colored camouflage, American higher education is a fraud—untrue to its students, untrue to itself."
The inadequacies of contemporary education are not exclusively matters of the mind. Traditional religious and moral values are under assault at every level of public and higher education. Our educational system is engaged in a systematic undermining of these values.
Our educational crisis is to some extent a closing of the American mind, as Allan Bloom examined in his best selling book of that title. But it is also something more profound, a closing of the American heart. No real progress towards improving American education can occur until all of us realize that an education that ignores moral and religious beliefs cannot qualify as a quality education. Recently, no less a person than Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that the major reason his nation is in such trouble is because his people are ignorant of moral and spiritual values.
The development of the intellect and of moral character are intimately related. Just as there is an order in nature (the laws of science), in reason (the laws of logic), and in the realm of numbers, so too is there a moral order. One thing we need to do is recover the belief that there is a transcendent, unchanging moral order, and restore it once more to a central place in the educational process.
Throughout history, important thinkers have contended that there is a higher order of permanent things (like moral norms), that human happiness is dependent on living our lives in accordance with this transcendent order, and that peace and order within human society require respect for this order. The most important task of education is to continually remind students of the existence and importance of this transcendent order as well as of its content.
If teachers are doing their job properly, they serve as an essential link in the chain of civilization. Without this link, the chain cannot hold. Teachers are the conservers of culture; they are also its transmitters. At least, that’s the role that teachers used to play.
Modern education in America has largely separated virtue and knowledge. The Sophists of our age have severed the link between reason and virtue, between the mind and the heart; there is objective truth out there, which it is our duty to pursue and discover. But there is also an objective moral order out there, as well as in here. An adequate education dare not ignore either the mind or the heart. Just as we dare not divorce education from matters of the heart, so too we must not separate education from religion. Like any important human activity, education has an inescapable religious component.
Religious faith is not just one isolated compartment of a person’s life—a compartment that we can take or leave as we wish. Religious faith is rather a dimension of life that colors, affects and influences everything we do and believe. Human beings are incurably religious, as John Calvin once said. Paul Tillich was right when he defined religion as a matter of "ultimate concern." Every person has something that concerns him ultimately and whatever that may be, the ultimate concern will have an enormous influence on everything else the person does or believes.
Since every human being has something about which he is ultimately concerned, it follows that every human being has a God. No human being can possibly be neutral when it comes to religion. When an individual encounters people who claim that education should be free of any religious content, he should recognize that this is not a religiously neutral claim. Rather it is an assertion that reflects the religious commitments of the person making it. There is a sense in which education is an activity that is religious at its roots. Any effort to remove religion from education is merely the substitution of one set of ultimate religious commitments for another.
It is absurd then to think that a choice between the sacred and secular in education is possible. Whatever the state and the courts do regarding education will only establish one person’s set of ultimate (religious) concerns at the expense of someone else’s.
Nothing will remedy the problems of American education more quickly and more effectively than the introduction of greater freedom and choice in education. We should seek a permanent end to the situation that allows the state to determine where children must attend school, if that child is to receive a free public education. American families should have complete freedom to send their children to any school they wish, without the added financial burden of paying private school tuition. One way to realize this objective is through educational vouchers. Following the institution of a voucher system, public monies for education would not pass directly to schools. Rather, that money would be given first to the families of school-age children in the form of vouchers. Parents would then use those vouchers to pay for their children’s education at a school of their own choosing.
Perhaps the major reason why public schools are so bad is because they have no competition; they are immune to market-discipline. Consequently, public schools have no incentive to offer a better product at a lower cost. A pro-choice movement in education would give public schools serious competition for the first time in more than a century. (Notice the implication here: many Americans are unaware of the fact that for generations, America’s public schools did not enjoy a monopoly with regard to public financial support.)
It is not enough that we simply increase choice among public schools. The governmental monopoly over publicly funded education is a large part of our problem. It is imperative that educational choice be expanded to include the option of attending without financial penalty, without the burden of double taxation, any school that any family wishes, including church-operated private schools. The best and quickest way to improve the quality of education is to allow families to choose their school and let the competition of the market determine which schools prosper and which schools die. In the process, families will be able to select schools, not only on the basis of academic quality, but also with a view to the moral and spiritual values fostered by the school.
Dr. Ronald Nash is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary