June 01, 2018 10:00 AM
Updated June 01, 2018 10:00 AM
When the Rev. Franklin Graham was in Fresno last week, he said “the enemy has gotten control of our schools, our education.” This language is disheartening. To claim that “the enemy” is in control of the schools either suggests that teachers are our enemies or that the devil is in charge.
This sort of distrust of our public schools is unnecessarily divisive. We can disagree without being enemies.
Unfortunately, a number of people think that secular and scientifically based schooling is a dangerous sort of brainwashing. Some people, including House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, have blamed school shootings on a lack of religion in the schools. And in Arizona, the superintendent of schools, Diane Douglas, attempted to water down the teaching of evolution. She said that the teaching of evolution was “indoctrination.”
Some prominent individuals have in fact suggested that evolutionary theory is the work of the devil. Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, once claimed that Darwin’s theory was the work of “the adversary.”
A number of people believe that schools are indoctrinating children with liberal ideas about abortion, sexual morality and gender identity. William May, president of Catholics for the Common Good, suggests this indoctrination extends beyond state-mandated sex ed. He said recently, “It’s being integrated into history and literature in the classroom. It’s essentially getting to the point where parents will have to opt out of public education.”
People have a right to opt out. But secular public schools must abide by First Amendment limitations that respect religious liberty while preventing the establishment of an official state religion.
Secular education is not brainwashing. Science and the humanities offer a method of investigation. They do not propose a body of dogmatic truth. Critical democratic education is open-minded and inquisitive. It focuses on examining evidence. It encourages us to critically analyze what we think we know. The goal is to generate broader understanding of the world and ourselves.
And let’s not forget the practical results of all of this. Science helps us build and move things. It cures diseases and increases crop yields. It helps us predict the weather and understand the movements of the stars.
Religion is important — but it is different. Religion offers an interpretation of the meaning and purpose of life. But religion is not useful for building or predicting. We want engineers to build bridges and airplanes, not priests. If you want to know if it will rain tomorrow, you consult a meteorologist, not an astrologist. Astronomy explains the movements of the heavens better than theology.
The discussion of the meaning and purpose of things nonetheless remains essential. Human beings do not live by facts alone. We imbue facts with value. We wonder about the meaning of life. And we treasure rituals, myths, poetry, music and ethics.
But — and here is the important point about secular education — human beings have different treasuries and storehouses of meaning. We value different things in different ways.
Some eat pork. Others do not. Some sing and pray. Others chant and meditate. Some trace the source of meaning to the ancient Middle East. Some look elsewhere for inspiration.
A broad and inclusive education enriches us by helping us appreciate all of the wonders of the human condition. The biological sciences help explain how digestion works. Psychology and neuroscience help explain the affect of singing, chanting, praying and meditating on the brain. And historians and archeologists explain the development and dissemination of ancient ideas.
Comprehensive secular education thus helps us understand our disagreements about morality and religion. Perhaps some would rather have a school system that indoctrinates students into a religious worldview. But religious diversity and the First Amendment are not going away.
This means that public education cannot pick sides in religious or moral disputes. Secular education must teach all children without indoctrinating them into an official religion. This is not the work of the devil. Rather, it is an essential value for a diverse democracy.
Nor is this easy. Public school teachers work hard every day to produce the next generation of citizens. They respond to the needs of diverse children in the middle of an ongoing culture war. They are friends of democracy, not its enemies.
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