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Again Magazine Volume 19 Number 1 March, 1996 Page 4-6
EDUCATION IN THE 90s:
LOOKING FOR OPTIONS
By Deacon R. Thomas Zell
The bad news?
A Gallup survey of a group of American students recently revealed some startling statistics. Among other things, the survey disclosed that 25% of those students tested could not pinpoint the date of Columbus’s voyage to the New World within the correct half-century. Further, 25% could not distinguish the words of Winston Churchill from those of Joseph Stalin, or differentiate between the ideas of Karl Marx and the U.S. Constitution. Forty percent did not know when the Civil War occurred, and most of those surveyed could not identify the authors of works by Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton.
The really bad news? The group being surveyed was composed of seniors from America’s colleges and universities!
Doubtless this survey and the mountain of similarly incriminating evidence piling up against our modern educational system would have been more understandable had it represented statistics from some impoverished third-world nation. But as educators Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn, Jr. report, such a convenient escape is not available to America’s young people:
Few people their age, whether in this country or abroad, have had equivalent educational opportunities [to the average American high school students]. Not only do they have more years of schooling than most young people in the world today (and most Americans of yesterday), they are also surrounded by the riches of an “information society”: television, newspapers, magazines, computers, movies, books, radio, libraries, and countless educating institutions such as Scouts, unions, museums, universities, political parties, and so on.
We wonder whether this generation knows enough of the past to enjoy these benefits, enough to be able to reflect on what others did and believed long before they were born, enough to compare their own experiences with those of previous generations. We wonder how they will be able to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ if they do not know who are the giants and who are the pygmies. (What do our 17 Year Olds Know? Harper and Row, 1987.)
Ravitch and Finn were not just falling prey to overactive imaginations when they expressed the above concerns. They had just concluded a ground-breaking study which tested nearly 8,000 17-year old students for their knowledge of history and literature. The results, as feared, were very poor. Especially troubling to the educators was the shocking reality of just how poor they were. In both categories, history and literature, the average score for the group tested was just over 50% correct. In other words, according to a standard grading scale (60% = passing), this group of 8,000 of America’s lavishly endowed, information-saturated high-school students had flunked out. The title of the last chapter of the Ravitch and Finn report tells all. They call it “A Generation at Risk?”
If the functional and cultural literacy crisis in American public education is reaching epidemic proportions, many observers fear that the crisis in another arena—moral literacy—is now teetering on the brink of disaster. William Kilpatrick, in his book Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong (Touchstone Simon & Schuster, 1992), adds the following grim statistics:
An estimated 525,000 attacks, shakedowns, and robberies occur in public high schools each month. Each year nearly three million crimes are committed on or near school property—l6,000 per school day. About 135,000 students carry guns to school daily, one fifth of all students report carrying a weapon of some type. Twenty-one percent of all secondary school students avoid using the restrooms out of fear of being harmed or intimidated. Surveys of schoolchildren reveal that their chief school-related concern is the disruptive behavior of their classmates. Teachers have similar concerns. Almost one third of public school teachers indicate that they have seriously considered leaving teaching because of student misbehavior.
Continuing, Kilpatrick reports that the scene off campus is no better than on. Suicides among young people are up 300 percent over the last thirty years. Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant. Sexual promiscuity has gone off the scale. His findings show that 40% of today’s fourteen-year-old girls will become pregnant before they reach the age of nineteen.
Why this disastrous slide into moral dementia among the young? One researcher into the dilemma of cheating in the classroom (a phenomenon which increased almost 50% between 1969 and 1989) states, “From coast to coast students are cheating and getting away with it. Honesty and integrity have been replaced in many classrooms by a win-at-any-cost attitude that puts grades, expediency and personal gain above all else?’ He goes on to quote Boston University’s Kevin Ryan (founding director of the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character), “Moral standards have become so eroded that many children can no longer tell right from wrong.”
With the massive disinformation campaign currently in place across American campuses concerning the topic of religion in general and Christianity in particular, it will come as no surprise that the indicators of spiritual and ethical vitality are dropping off rapidly. This is not to say young people have no interest in the subject. A special report in National Review last fall found that more than two-thirds of the college freshmen surveyed at twelve colleges and universities across the country believed in immortality or the continued existence of the individual soul after death.
The report showed double digit figures for all twelve schools in favor of the “once a week or more” response to the question, “How often do you attend religious services?” At no college did fewer than 37% say they prayed to God outside of religious services at least several times a week. When asked concerning the Person of Christ, students at six of the twelve schools came in above the 50th percentile selecting the response “Christ is divine.” The lowest affirmative response to this question was 27%.
Perhaps a better indicator of what these young people really believe came in response to questions designed to test the strength of religious conviction in the area of morality. Freshmen were asked whether they would approve of extramarital sex, abortion, homosexuality: a) without taking religious precepts into account, and b) taking them into account. For most of these behaviors, the number who said they approved—even taking religious precepts into account—was “far higher than the students’ religious affiliation would have suggested?”
Explanations for these results vary radically depending on the perspective of the reviewer. For Warren A. Nord, author of Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma (University of North Carolina Press), the implications of such surveys are clear. Educators have gone too far in their efforts to adhere to the Supreme Court’s mandate for neutrality in regard to religion in education. Nord contends that in attempting to define neutrality, educators have managed to entirely exclude religious points of view, even when this exclusion means ignoring the ways in which religion has shaped, and continues to shape, human behavior.
“More frequently,” adds one reviewer of his book, “teachers, textbook authors, and administrators assume religion’s irrelevance. They proclaim that humans are wholly self-interested beings (in economics courses), that evolution is purposeless (in biology courses), and that students must decide, by themselves, what positions to hold on such controversial matters as sexual behavior or drug use….The cumulative result is an implicit endorsement of unbelief, a message to students that religious faiths merely reflect personal, seemingly irrational, choices.”
No doubt if John Dewey were able to look at our educational system today, he would be amused and pleased to see how far his concepts concerning life, religion, and education have prevailed. (That is, until he checked out the latest test results.) Dewey, an avid proponent of the humanistic theories of enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, has been called the prototype of the twentieth-century secularist. He once wrote that “faith in the prayer-hearing God is an unproved and outmoded faith. There is no God and there is no soul. Hence, there are no needs for the props of traditional religion. With dogma and creed excluded, then immutable truth is also dead and buried. There is no room for fixed, natural law or moral absolutes.”
While Dewey no longer maintains his former preeminence in educational circles, his influence can still be felt in practically every facet of contemporary education. Not only has his worldview as a thoroughgoing secularist been preserved and maintained, his understanding of the nature of man, the nature of reality, morality, and the ways in which children develop, have provided the framework upon which much of today’s system is constructed. Most important, his devotion to the writings of Rousseau provided and still provides a direct connection spanning the centuries and linking the humanistic and experimental philosophies of the developing Enlightenment with the minds and hearts of American schoolchildren.
If men such as Rousseau and Dewey helped provide the initial philosophic basis for much of what is happening in our school system today, many critics look to the massively powerful National Education Association (NEA) as the major vehicle for carrying those as well as many new humanistic and secularistic philosophies through this century and on into the next. An organization boasting two million members, with a dues-based annual budget of $375 million, the NEA has become the superpower of American education. The careers of politicians have been known to rise or fall on the support or lack thereof of the NEA. For many years this megalithic entity has been actively lobbying on the state and federal levels to maintain its rights. It has its own agenda to fight for, and the teeth to help insure it gets what it wants—which it usually does!
Television ads sponsored by the NEA portray the group as patriotic and concerned only with the task of providing the highest quality education possible for every student in America. Is this their only agenda? A growing number of critics say no. One outspoken critic is Dr. Ronald Nash, a 25-year professor of philosophy and religion at Western Kentucky University. His excellent book The Closing of the American Heart (Probe books) adds the following less than altruistic agenda items to the NEA list:
The consistent advocacy of left-wing social programs which do not reflect the views of the majority of NEA members.
* Achieving a monopoly of control over public education through controlling the process of teacher certification as well as teacher’s colleges.
• Gaining control over private schools and home schooling by mandating (if possible) strict adherence to state-approved curriculum taught by (NEA) licensed teachers.
• Controlling the content of American education and maintaining its clearly secular and naturalistic viewpoint in all curricula.
• Maintaining a monopoly on federal funding which continues to stifle the growth of private schools.
No, it would not be possible to lay all the blame for the current crisis in public education at the feet of Dewey, Rousseau, and the hierarchy of the NEA. However, there can be no denying that between the early experimenting with humanistic Enlightenment philosophies on the one hand, and the guerrilla-like implementation policies of those and more modern humanistic theories on the other, a state of virtual lockdown has been achieved in regard to the public school system.
And all the while, the statistics keep piling in.
LOOKING FOR OPTIONS
What is the Christian response to all of this? Perhaps New York University professor Paul Vitz summarizes the level of frustration when he states,
Tens 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. (Censorship and Our Schools, Servant Books, 1986.)
The simple bottom line? There is a growing discontent within the Christian community-even in the broader sense of that phrase—over the issue of education. Not the grumbling, do-nothing kind of discontent that goes nowhere, but a discontent leading to action. No longer are Christians willing to look placidly on as an unresponsive bureaucracy continues resolutely down a path they consider to be functionally irresponsible—and morally and spiritually unconscionable. Indeed, even in the unlikely event that the educational system were to manage a way to patch the leaks and tears of its academics and improve SAT scores, many Christians would still consider the moral and spiritual failure of the system to be a cause for action.
For some, this means standing and fighting. As they point out, and not without justification, simply to withdraw from the system into the private sector is to allow educators in the establishment the luxury of not listening. They remind us that those groups concerned about racial injustice refused to drop out and pull away when things were bad. They stood up for their rights, got involved in the system, lobbied, struggled, demonstrated publicly if necessary, until finally people began to listen and change began to occur.
For others, the option of using their children as fodder in a seemingly hopeless battle against a relentless foe is unacceptable. In these cases private schooling, or perhaps home schooling, becomes the option. Thankfully even the best efforts of the NEA to date have not managed to slam the door on this freedom of choice, which can and must be offered to every parent.
Especially encouraging to Orthodox Christians is the fact that in small but pervasive ways, this holy discontent is beginning to spill over into action for us as well. The rest of this issue of AGAIN is dedicated to this reality and to helping all Christians sort out the options.
The only option not proper for us is the option of inactivity. Now is a time for action, not lethargy. When some future reader of TIME or Newsweek picks up a magazine in 15 or 20 years, may he not find our own children or grandchildren listed in the grim litany of statistics of an educational system that has gone awry!
Of All Holy