Public Funding vs. Education

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

I almost never listen to talk radio anymore, but if I did, I bet I'd hear this story get beaten like a dead horse today:

A kindergartner's mother cannot read Scripture during show and tell, even if the Bible is the boy's favorite book, a U.S. appeals court said Monday in the latest challenge over religion in public schools.

The Marple Newtown School District in suburban Philadelphia told plaintiff Donna Kay Busch in October 2004 that she could not read the Bible passages during her son's "All About Me" program. The school did permit the boy to discuss a poster that included references to his church as well as his family, pet and best friend.
The reasoning behind the ruling is sound: A mother was attempting to proselytize and the state, having no business promoting any specific viewpoint, had to forbid the activity from taking place in a forum intended for education and paid for with public funds.

Within the context of this case, the judge did well. What's interesting about the case is the context in which it occurs, and the questions about government funding of education it quickly leads to.

Why should the state not be in the business of promoting one ideology or another? (And yes, theocratic protests to the contrary, Christianity is an ideology.) Because government's modus operandi is the deployment of physical force against individuals. Properly, this force is retaliatory in nature, and employed only for the protection of individual rights. In short, the government makes us safe to live our lives as we see fit.

Since life does not come with an instruction manual, a crucial part of this freedom involves the free examination and exchange of philosophical views. Should the government give even the remotest appearance of taking sides in such a debate, that debate is stifled, if not ended outright. That is precisely why the Founding Fathers wrote religious freedom into law and why America is under attack on all fronts from religious totalitarians today.

This case is an example.

Even if the Bible really were this child's favorite book, no one had any business reading from it at a government function. [Note: Except students. See first two comments.] (We'll get to the question of whether this should be a government function shortly.) But later in the story, that assertion is cast into doubt. The boy's mother apparently reads it to him every day and, being an evangelical Christian, also seems to feel that her mission is to do exactly what she was doing, preaching to the captive audience this event provided her.

Conservatives on talk radio and elsewhere -- and not even particularly religious or zealous ones at that -- will pooh-pooh this, asking what harm a little Bible story can do to a child. They will hold this decision up like a leper's shroud as a blatant example of "the left-wing agenda" gone mad. They will be right that one story might be harmless, but wide off the mark about the important point, and especially so if they complain that freedom of speech has been abridged.

That point would be that the government should not be telling us how to educate our own children, and the conservatives will be wrong because freedom of property was abridged first. Were the education system completely private, parents like Donna Kay Busch would be perfectly free to read Bible verses to their children all day in kindergartens run by like-minded individuals or, failing that, within their own homes. But they would not be free to force this on the children of other parents who do not agree that pounding Bible verses into the skulls of children all day is the best way to educate them.

If most rank-and-file conservatives appreciated the danger to property rights posed by public education, they would not support it. And if theocrats were sincerely interested in freedom of speech, they would also fight against public education because they would realize that every attempt on their part to inculcate their values in a school setting would, at best, end up in court and that other values will necessarily end up being taught. (Read on.) But they find the opportunity to preach at captive audiences too great to resist.

And it is these "other values" that "will necessarily end up being taught" that make this case really interesting. Like America's Founding Fathers (but for different reasons), leftists will insist that we must have public education so the citizenry will have the skills and knowledge necessary to function as responsible citizens of a republic.

This is true, but how do we decide what skills are appropriate or what constitutes knowledge? Should children be taught to obey the alleged word of an alleged god? Should children be taught to question all assertions? Should they be taught the scientific method? Should they be trained to accept any and every "consensus", so long as it is held by men who claim to be scientists?

Ultimately, the question of what constitutes knowledge is a philosophical one, and any educator, state-sponsored or not, will end up having to take a stand on it. In other words, public education, by its very nature, involves government interference in the realm of public debate. Specifically, public education forces anyone who has to pay for it, to promulgate ideas one may or may not agree with. This is always wrong.

So the left is also wrong here. While the conservatives mouth pieties to freedom of speech while ignoring the fact that nobody is keeping Ms. Busch from reading the Bible to her own child, leftists will, for example, hide behind the "scientific" "consensus" while ignoring the fact that environmentalism is an ideology, is not scientifically sound, and would not equal political guidance even if it were.

Freedom is of a piece, and violating part of it eventually endangers all of it. Stealing property by government force, even for a good purpose like education, lands people in court for things they ought to be free to do on their own, and obscures the proper political solution, freedom, from view.

-- CAV


: Added parenthetical note.
: Corrected typo, HT: Jim May.


C. August said...

I agree completely with your last statement: "Freedom is of a piece, and violating part of it eventually endangers all of it.... lands people in court for things they ought to be free to do on their own, and obscures the proper political solution, freedom, from view." The mere existence of public schools warps the entire debate.

But I'd like to pick at one part of your earlier argument that the ruling in the case was sound. You said that the state has no place promoting the proselytizing of Christianity in a public school (I agree). But if it's a kid's show-and-tell, how is the _state_ promoting it? Is it because the mother is reading the verses? What if the kid read his own favorite verses himself? Should that also be prohibited?

Let's draw this out a bit. What if little Rama then wanted to get up and read verses from the Bhagavad Gita? Not her mom, but her. Would the state be promoting Hinduism? Or would it just be another kid talking about the junk she's being indoctrinated with?

Then, what if Klaus got up and wanted to read moral lessons from the Critique of Pure Reason? Is the state then promoting Kantianism?

What I'm struggling with in your argument is that the state, through the public school, is actively _promoting_ an ideology by allowing show-and-tell about it. If it goes over the line because the mom -- basically a professional God warrior seeking to convert the masses -- is the one doing it, then I can see the distinction. As a mom, she's an authority figure, and that plus her missionary position (ahem!) makes her presence an implied sanction by the state.

But if little Jane wanted to describe the Baby Jesus in the Manger she made, and even talked about all those silly myths, I don't see the issue.

You said, "Even if the Bible really were this child's favorite book, no one had any business reading from it at a government function." No one? Is the Bible special, then, and other books promoting other ideologies would be OK? Or none of them? What then counts in the "not acceptable" list?

Perhaps this is ultimately an impossible question, because as stated earlier, the mere existence of public schools warps the debate beyond all rational argument. The only _real_ solution is a full separation of state and education. But I am curious what you might think about this.

Gus Van Horn said...

Excellent question.

I think the answer would depend on the context.

I would say that as long as the students themselves were the ones presenting (and AS individuals rather than as, say, an organized effort or part of an official school program) that it would usually be fine. The difference between the kid and the mother is that the latter is an authority figure while the kid is not, and it is through authority that the state is able to affect how YOUR child is raised. (And issues still remain about just how far such things can be presented/discussed without the appearance of state sanction.)

So I do have to amend what I said about NOBODY reading from the Bible, insofar as students are concerned. But the overarching concern about such fundamentals as what constitutes good content and good pedagogy remain.

Roger said...

You're one of my favorite bloggers. Welcome to New England.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you, Roger!

Seerak said...

Hi Gus,

Great piece. It flows very nicely from root premises, especially the idea that "Freedom is of a piece" (though you might want to fix the typo "freesom" there).

I used that line to link here from my post at (PLUG ALERT) The New Clarion on this idea of liberty as indivisible. I argue that liberty is a single thing, not an agglomeration of parts that the collective can arbitrarily take or leave -- as both Leftists and conservatives believe.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, Jim, for the compliment, the proof-reading, and the tip. I look forward to reading your piece.