America's Public Schools: Crisis and Cure - Chapter 1

The Crisis in America's Schools

In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education published a report titled “A Nation at Risk.” The document warned that “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people.” The report went on to say, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.” I often describe this decline in American education in terms of three kinds of illiteracy.

Functional Illiteracy

Every year, at least a million functionally illiterate students graduate from America's high schools. What this means is that these youngsters cannot read, write or use numbers sufficiently well to get along in our society. According to Time magazine, 13 percent of all American 17-year-olds are functionally illiterate; among minority youth, the rate of functional illiteracy jumps to 40 percent. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that our educational system has already left us with 24 million functional illiterates. These are not people who never went to school; they are for the most part, individuals who have spent 8-12 years in America's public schools. Ninety-five percent of American 17-year-olds cannot read well enough to understand technical materials and literary essays. This means that only about 5 percent of America's 17-year-olds can read well enough to understand the Bible.

Cultural Illiteracy

Even when the students in our public schools and colleges are functionally literate, they often suffer from a different problem - cultural illiteracy. People suffering from this malady lack the information they need to get along in society. For example, almost one-third of 17-year-olds do not know that Columbus discovered the New World before 1750! Forty percent are ignorant of the fact that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred between 1939 and 1943. Almost 75 percent can not place Lincoln's presidency within the correct twenty-year span. Almost 50 percent can not place Franklin Roosevelt's presidency in the years between 1929 and 1946. These are not difficult or trivial matters of information. This cultural illiteracy about history is not something found in the backwoods of some third-rate nation. This abysmal ignorance exists among American youth who have had eleven years of public school education, who are one year away from getting a high school diploma, and who soon will be college students.

Based on information from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 85% of American eighth-graders in 1994 lack proficiency in American history. In the same year, 57% of high school seniors tested as “below basic” in this area. Seventy-five percent of high school seniors produced test scores identifying them as lacking proficiency in geography; 30% of high school seniors fell below even a rudimentary grasp of the subject. According to the same source, 40% of fourth-graders in 1994 could barely read. Among black and Hispanic fourth-graders, the level of reading illiteracy approached 70%. With few exceptions, the largest “academic” department in most state colleges in America is remedial education. These departments teach college students how to read, write and do arithmetic. In 1994, close to 50% of the freshmen entering the California state-university system had to take courses offering remedial training in reading, mathematics or both. According to the February 26, 1995 Seattle Times, half of public school students in the State of Washington lack proficiency in math,science, history and English.

Not long ago, a local newspaper carried a story about the tainted athletic program at a well-known East Coast university. One of the school's prize athletes was being tutored in the hopes of prolonging his athletic eligibility. The tutor asked the student to name the country immediately to the South of the United States. His answer was Canada. “No,” the tutor replied, “let me give you a hint. This is a country where the people speak Spanish.” With a confident smile, the student gave his new answer: “Spain.”

As author Samuel Blumenfeld sums things up, “The plain, unvarnished truth is that public education is a shoddy, fraudulent piece of goods sold to the public at an astronomical price. It's time the American consumer knew the extent of the fraud which is victimizing millions of children each year.”

Where, we should ask, is the nationwide anger resulting from the millions of young people who have been deprived of a proper education? Where is the anger about what those individuals, their families, and our nation will lose as a result? The Government school systems of America readily took billions of dollars of public and private money and have through incompetence, ignorance, greed, and assorted other intellectual and moral vices created the intellectual and moral crisis that now afflicts every level of American education.

The government solution today, as newly re-elected President Clinton acknowledges, is to spend billions more. Since the 1983 “A Nation at Risk” study, many billions have been spent and all results are simply worse, far more negative than before. The unaccountable bureaucracies that have created the disaster in the schools can only be counted on to make matters worse, yet both Democratic and Republic “leaders” love to spend your tax dollars on “sound good” programs. “Fix the schools” rhetoric from Washington and its paramour, the National Education Association, are a continuing formula designed to further destroy the nation's youth.

One way to judge the job that public schools are doing is to see how people are voting with their feet. As reported in a cover story from U.S. News & World Report: “Many parents view the public schools as ineffective and dangerous, and are exploring other options before it's too late.” The magazine warns that the “The nation's faith in its public schools is fading fast.” In large urban areas, upwards of half of public school teachers send their own children to private schools. Not surprisingly, many families have decided to pull their children out of government schools. Since 1990, the enrollment of private schools has grown faster than that of government schools.

Moral and Spiritual Illiteracy

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. No real progress towards improving American education can occur as long as 90 percent of American children are being taught in government schools that ignore moral and religious beliefs. There has been an all-out campaign at many levels of our society to cut moral and religious values from our schools. There is an unmistakable bias against religious and moral values in our public schools and in higher education; the bias runs deep and can no longer be corrected by anything as simple as a reform of our present system.

While writing this book, a private school teacher told me about a recent visit she made to a large school supply store. The teacher had gone seeking material she could use to decorate her school room for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The helpful manager of the store regretfully told the teacher that her store used to stock large quantities of material for holidays like Christmas and Easter until public school teachers stopped buying this kind of material out of disinterest or fear of what their administrators would do to them.

During my first lecture trip to what was still called the Soviet Union in 1991, a highly placed official in the Soviet government admitted a major reason for the collapse of the U.S.S.R. He said: “Seventy years ago this nation kicked God out and ever since, there has been a moral and spiritual vacuum at the center of this nation.” In the years since that analysis of Soviet decline, Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union have reached unbelievable depths of corruption. According to some analysts, as much as 80 percent of the Russian's non-governmental economy is controlled by thugs and killers representing different factions of the Russian Mafia. Each month, dozens of businessmen are assassinated on the streets of Russian cities. Even members of Russia's political leadership who dare to speak out about this corruption have been murdered. Regrettably the day is coming, it appears, when Americans will look back to the generation that threw God out of their country and mourn the moral and spiritual vacuum that took control of the center of our nation.

The Link Between the Mind and Character

The decision by educationists and politicians to eliminate moral virtue from our public schools is one result of our nation's headlong decline into secularism. The moral and spiritual illiteracy cultivated in today's schools is grounded upon an educational philosophy that ignores or denies the intimate relationship between the development of the intellect and of moral character. Just as there is an order in nature ( the laws of science), an order in reason ( the laws of logic), and in the realm of numbers, so too is there a moral order. One thing we must 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 such as Plato have contended that there is a higher order of permanent things (like moral standards), that human happiness is dependent on our living our lives in accordance with this transcendent order, and that peace and order within human society require respect for this order. The ancient Greeks recognized that excellence is not intellectual alone. The good man or woman is the well-rounded individual, sound of mind, strong in body, and healthy in spirit. A good education will be concerned with the whole human being, and this requires that something be said about moral and spiritual values. Continually reminding students and their families ( to say nothing of our political leaders) of the existence, importance and content of this transcendent order is an essential task of education in America. As things stand at this moment, however, America's public schools want no part of this task. Moral and spiritual illiteracy is the order of the day.

It is bad enough that our public schools are failing to teach reading, writing, mathematics, spelling, history, geography and just about everything else that cannot be lumped together under the headings of self-esteem, political correctness, secular humanism, and sex education. They have also repudiated character as a legitimate objective of public education. It is hardly surprising therefore that so many American families are giving up on public schools and opting instead for alternatives such as private schools and home schooling. Regrettably, these alternatives only educate some 10% of today's youth. The tragedy is that millions of American families cannot afford these alternatives.

Providing American families with the freedom and power to choose an alternative to the public school monopoly without the burden of double taxation is a matter of justice. As even the liberal USA Today admits, “Educational choice has become a civil rights issue of the 1990s...” As psychologist Paul Vitz argues: “[T]ens of millions of Americans are paying school taxes -each taxpayer is providing hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year -to support a system that fails to represent their beliefs, values, history, and heritage. Indeed, the present public schools are actively supporting anti-religious positions and pushing liberal permissive values and politics. This is a serious injustice. Quite simply, it is a classic case of ”taxation without representation.“ We are being taxed to support schools that are systematically liquidating our most cherished beliefs.”