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Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Educating the System

Educating the System

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” It’s a French saying, and the French understand how the game is played.

The state of Illinois, like many states, is having a budget crisis. Allegedly, one great way of cutting back on expenses is to de-certify all private schools for athletic competition. This move will save the superintendent about $300,000 a year. Enough to pay ten teachers. Of course, it will also make hundreds of non-public schools in Illinois ineligible for many state and federal grants, hobble tens of thousands of non-public school student admissions to some colleges and universities, and deny the possibility of athletically based scholarships to these same students. But, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, eh?

Though the state now says non-public schools don't need their curricula examined, at least one regional superintendent in Illinois disagrees. Sort of. Despite the fact that the US Supreme Court recognizes home schooling as a perfectly legal and reasonable method of assuring your children’s education, this state official is willing to spend his department’s funds to thoroughly investigate the various curricula used by home schooling families throughout his region. He’s afraid student education at home might be worse than their education in the public school system. His deep concern touches the hearts of dozens of families, and has already brought many to tears.

For Catholics, none of this is surprising. The American public school system was specifically designed to enable this kind of abuse. Indeed, that’s why the Catholic parochial school system was created: Catholic bishops recognized the dangers inherent in the public schools and developed their own alternative. The state has never been very happy about that development, neither in this country nor elsewhere.

Back in the mid-1800’s, when the state began requiring schooling for all children, the proponents of the move had two motives. First, it was recognized that education improved productivity and general citizenship. Second, the huge wave of Catholic immigrants terrified most of Protestant America. The extremely influential Justice Hugo Black summed it up best when he referred to Catholics as "powerful sectarian religious propagandists" who were "looking toward complete domination and supremacy of their particular brand of religion." Compulsory public education in a Protestant environment was explicitly held up as an important tool towards stopping the infernal papists from taking over the country. Catholics had to be made to conform religiously.

As a result, only certain “acceptable” elementary schools were made eligible for public funding, and, lo! the only schools that qualified for funds were Protestant! Catholics yawned in amazement, and kept right on building their own schools. But even this was attacked. In 1889, Wisconsin made it illegal to send a child to an out-of-district (read parochial) school. By 1922, Oregon made it illegal to send a child to anything but a public school. The Ku Klux Klan lobbied in favor of such laws. So did the Republicans, for, by now, public school was good for business.

In the early 1900’s, public school had been partially re-engineered, adopting the Prussian system of schooling the lower classes. The Prussian system defined for the child what was to be learned, what was to be thought about, how long to think about it and when a child was to think of something else. Disciplines that were formerly an integrated whole were now broken up into artificial “subjects” to prevent the student from seeing the whole. Bells were used, not to enhance concentration on a subject, but to enhance obedience to bells. Industrial America needed workers who embraced repetition, responded to bells, and lived only for working the process and consuming the product. It was a new kind of conformity.

Jewish and Catholic immigrant families understood that this system of schooling was an offense against human dignity. Diane Ravitch’s book, The Great School Wars, documents the three week long riot that ensued after Andrew Carnegie tried to implement the Prussian system in New York. Though the Republican party had always been the anti-slavery party and a stronghold of immigrant support, the successful implementation of this method of schooling was one component which helped to destroy that support. The Prussian method, which viewed man as a machine to be harnessed, eventually destroyed the religious content of education, replacing it with the secular humanist bent that now pervades the system.

Today, teachers’ unions (ironically, “teacher certification” was also a Carnegie idea) have made the maintenance of the existing school system the province of the Democrats. Republicans, who made union-busting a national sport, have reversed their position and now support the underdogs: voucher-based education and the homeschooler. Now, not just Catholics, but all Christians are opting out of schools that push the new religion, secular humanism. And the system fights back, just as it did a century ago, attempting to use the courts and the laws to impose its worldview on families who don’t want it.

Alexis de Toqueville, at the beginning of the 1800’s, found America a most amazing country. Every farmer could read, and did so, balancing a book on the plow. It was not unusual to find the butcher conversant in Latin or Greek, the baker having an opinion on Plato or Descartes.

It is too bad the French are not always right. Times change. De Toqueville’s America is one thing that has truly changed, and is not likely to return. If the system has its way, that is.

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