Public education is nearly a fixture not only in this country but nearly everywhere in the Western world. It is pretty much agreed by most concerned parties that children need to be placed into school, starting around age 6, and kept there to be provided with schooling – for public school teachers to instruct – until they reach around their 18th year of life. Some have dubbed this the "12-year sentence," but most of the public, not to mention those who are members of the educational establishment, find it quite acceptable, if at times in need of some upgrading.
While the fundamental issue of whether there ought to be such a system is rarely discussed directly, it is usually believed that several vital needs are being fulfilled by it, including education for the poor, preparation for democratic citizenship, socialization and, of course, basic education for purposes of introducing children to the world in which they will carry forth with living.
Despite the somewhat inglorious birth of the system in the United States of America – having been prompted in large measure, as reported by the late E. G. West in his Education and the State, by people who were upset about the nonexclusive racial policies of private schools – only one major figure who is welcome within establishment intellectual circles (having been featured prominently in The New York Review of Books) has found fault with. This is the late rebel priest, Ivan Illich. Jim Holt, too, has criticized public education, at least indirectly, but not in principle, if I am not mistaken.
In the main, however, major political figures, who might actually have a chance to implement serious reforms, do not seem to find anything wrong with herding children into schools and making citizens pay for this privilege via property taxes. National political leaders all kinds support public education per se, although nearly all have some kind of agenda of basic reform for public schools, ranging from sex education, school prayer and creationism instruction, to environmental indoctrination, fostering of ethnic and racial diversity and sensitivity training.
One disturbing feature of these agendas is the moralizing tone the advocates use as they attack their opponents. Those who want school prayer find major fault with the motives and actions of those who do not, while the same is true with those who find it objectionable that teachers indoctrinate kids about recycling and the ozone layer. Neither side in each of these cases seems to realize something very simple: What sort of education young people ought to receive is largely their parents' responsibility to identify and the results could vary drastically throughout the student population.
This matter emerged rather forcefully back when the Amish community focused upon whether the state is authorized to make the Amish pay for something they completely reject, namely, an education not designed by the Church fathers. And they were much clearer about what is at stake.
In a free society matters that are in significant contention, such as what children ought to be taught about sex, evolution, religion, history, race, etc., must be left to open debate. The rest will take care of itself – electrical engineering tends not to generate a whole lot of debate until it turns to matters environmentalists are worried about. Arithmetic, geometry, chemistry, physics, biology and so forth tend, also, to remain peaceful and the teachers of these subjects pretty much fit into nearly any elementary and high school setting, unless they begin to discuss abortion, euthanasia, cloning or stem cell research. Even if there were no attempted uniformity about these disciplines, de facto there would be little disputation from one school to the next on a great many fronts.
But when it comes to the contentious topics, it is intolerable in a free society to shove one doctrine down the throats of children whose parents consider the "teaching" to be false or pernicious. Yet that is just what the various parties of the debate aim for. They want to rule the schools the way governments in dictatorships want to rule the press, radio and TV.
There is no way within the public school context to resolve the disputes about what should be taught about evolution or creation, sexual habits, or religious doctrines. Sure, at times the fervor may simmer down, when some common concern has siphoned off attention or the emotional heat. But the potential for such disputes is endless.
The lesson is fairly simple: If one believes in public education, imposed on kids and paid for by taxes, then there is no principled resolution of what gets taught in the schools. Whatever side wins is always a matter of power, never of principle. It is no different from how it would be if we had a public press – and, indeed, this is exactly what afflicts the National Endowment for the Humanities and Arts, the Public Broadcast Service and National Public Radio. So long as there is a common pool from which the service is funded and so long as it is delivered to the public at large, the issue of content cannot be settled.
In some cases this is totally unavoidable – there is no way in principle to make education uniform for children, since they often require different treatment, have needs for different emphasis. If you add the fact that many of the topics are subject of widespread debate among other than obvious kooky folks, the situation becomes even more extreme. There is no resolution apart from decoupling the state and the education of our young people.
One thing more. There are many people who are proud to be among the principled defenders of the separation of church and state. They would never consider it a proper function for the government to establish any kind of church or official religion. That this is a radical stance escapes most of them, as they are so used to it in the context of the American political tradition. Great Britain, in contrast, has its Church of England. Iran, of course, is officially Muslim, while Israel is official Jewish. Other countries, such as Spain, Ireland and Italy, are at least de facto supportive of a given religion as the dominant one within their culture.
Yet it seems not to occur to American supporters of the radical and unusual separation of state and church that separating education and the state could very well be equally vital, albeit quite radical and unheard of even in the USA. A little history would help anyone appreciate this situation.
What occurred during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries is a gradual demolition of the philosophical base of feudalism and other doctrines that regarded the state as necessarily representing a hierarchy within the human race. The king and the members of the nobility had been seen as innately superior to the common people, which then was taken to have entitled them to rule the latter, to treat them as subjects, while seeing themselves as sovereign rulers.
Eventually, punctuated with some force by the American Revolution, the idea began to take center stage that everyone is a sovereign, so that each member of the society is understood to be a citizen, not a subject. Accordingly the various social projects evident throughout human history were to get their initiative no longer from the crown but from the diverse population that inhabited the society. Whether a church was to be established, whether commercial enterprises were to be undertaken, whether a club or association was to be started – all these matters were gradually, by the logic of the radical change in the understanding of the nature of society, to be initiated by members of the citizenry.
Education was left out in most Western societies, as were in some of them such functions as delivering the mails, running the trains, building the roads, etc. While the idea of limited government caught on to a very large degree in the United States of America and to a lesser degree elsewhere, it didn't get carried to its logical conclusion, so that the state would be no more than a judicial, legal, military, and police authority – concerned with nothing but stemming violence among people – with the rest of the business of society being undertaken by the citizenry apart from government.
This is what underlies the troubles we see on many fronts in Western societies, including in the current conflict between the state and education in America. If education were separated from the state, its association or disassociation with religion would be of no great legal consequence, any more than the association or disassociation of commerce with religion happens to be. If a corporation or athletic organization, separated as they generally tend to be from politics, wants to hold prayers, so be it; if it doesn't no one complains to the government about this.
There will not be a resolution of the education-state-church association until it becomes clear to the intellectual leadership in a society that the state cannot be kept separate from the church unless education is also kept separate from it. Once that is acknowledged, the transformation to a country with no state sanctioned, supported, or fostered religious tradition might commence. But without this all we will see is the continuation of the current confusion and unprincipled struggle for power.