By Carol Frenier
The emotion-laden debate on American public education has been ramped up by the controversy over teaching critical race theory (CRT) in the public schools. Even more than teaching theories on gender identity or climate change, CRT raises basic questions about our philosophy of public education.
The American public school system assumes that state-run schools are somehow “objective.” It claims to run a strictly secular curriculum, relying heavily on the concept of separation of church and state as a justification for excluding faith-based religious content. According to Ashley Rogers Berner of John Hopkins University (No One Way to School), our system “fears the potential of diverse belief systems to undermine democratic life” and views the “state-controlled school system as an important mediator of diversity and the primary source of a common political attachment.”
By contrast, many school systems around the world operate on a very difference educational philosophy known as educational pluralism to achieve the same end. In this type of system, says Berner, “state governments fund and hold accountable a wide variety of schools, including religious ones, but do not necessarily operate them. It accepts the fact that education is a community concern but also honors the beliefs of the nation’s families, allowing each school to teach according to its own values and mission, provided the school meets the state standards. As such it provides a way out of the winner-take-all mentality that characterizes so many educational debates.”
In the Netherlands, for example, the state gives block grants for staff, facilities and operations to each of its 36 different types of schools. In Belgium, half of its French-speaking students attend Catholic or independent schools that are fully funded by the state. School choice is their “mediator of diversity.”
Berner thinks that we Americans are “too ready to believe that our schools are somehow ideologically neutral.” Rather, she says, “uniformity potentially breeds indoctrination of the worst kind,” because it is “implicit” and “unacknowledged.” She defines indoctrination as, “when pupils are given one view of the world in such a way that they are unable to see any other.”
This is a perfect description of what critics of liberal indoctrination in America’s state-run schools see happening. Those who promote CRT, new theories on sexuality and, yes, even climate change, believe those theories are the truth every bit as much as those who believe in their religion as truth. But as we all know, the Constitution prohibits the state from imposing religious truths on others precisely because everyone has a right to their own beliefs.
Ask yourself: Are these subjects taught to our children in such a way that they are able to see alternative views? Are these alternative views studied as part of the curriculum and with respect?
Indeed teaching knowledge is distinct from teaching doctrine. Perhaps this is a useful starting point for a real dialogue between proponents and opponents of teaching liberal — or conservative — theories in public schools. For example, I would have no objection to teaching CRT in public schools if it was among several theories considered in a course on race in America and at the high school level when students have acquired enough capacity to digest the material. As a new teacher in the 1970s, I did just that, so I know it can be done.
Educational pluralists — and there are many around the globe — rightly, I believe, “fear the state’s power to determine orthodoxy for a plural population” more than they fear that pluralism will reinforce divisions in society. Although limited, the data suggests that students educated in pluralistic systems are at least if not more engaged in productive civic life than their secular school peers. It appears that “tolerance comes more readily from encountering … the differences in why and how citizens construct their lives” than it does in adopting generalized theories about human relationships. As Berner asserts, whether we like it or not, “there is no neutral place from which to view the world.”
The great irony here is that we as a people, so dedicated to diversity and liberty, are behind so much of the rest of the world in trusting the ability of our children to encounter and value real, as opposed to theoretical, differences in the course of their education.
Carol Frenier is a business owner living in Chelsea, Vermont. She is the chair of the Orange County Republican Committee.