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Wake-Up Call

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I read a sobering New York Times Magazine article Sunday evening about the Texas State Board of Education and how a number of its members want to use the public education system (to the extent they believe in it) to transform the United States into an overtly Christian nation. Then I wrote a blog post about why I found the article so scary.

Because the Texas state board has disproportionate influence over textbook publishers, this near-majority of religious extremists could succeed. They may not transform the nation, at least in the short term. But they are patient people, and they could soon transform some of what kids are taught into outright religious propaganda and pseudo-science.

My brother David wrote an incisive comment under the blog post:

I know that Christian fundamentalism has had increasing influence over the last couple of decades, but the increasing individual liberties championed by Western societies arouses the ire of religious fundamentalists of all stripes. They see the hegemony of the individual as a decadent and dangerous distraction from the service of the Divine, which must be upheld by an entire society in order to receive the Divine's protection and blessing.

They also tend to want the state to serve as a mechanism for promoting and coordinating religious activity. All our ills are, in this view, the result of a kind of idol worship, of placing ourselves above God. They don't have to look far to find developments that look like evidence to support their view.

The question is: Does a society that sees individual liberties as sacred, and in which everyone can do as they please as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else, have the backbone to confront this development? The devotion of religious extremism to the cause of indoctrination makes education the main battlefield.

David crystallized (as usual, far more articulately than I could) why this article stayed with me through the night and into this bright holiday Monday.

I also recommend the thoughtful comment from EdNews blogger Ben DeGrow, a conservative Christian. Ben places the issue in a different context. His argument is characteristically well-reasoned.

And then, Denver school board member Andrea Merida, with whom I have taken issue on several occasions, added this comment to the blog:

I couldn't agree with you more, Alan. What a great initiative for us to rally behind, huh?

Andrea's comment reminded me of an old mantra of mine, that I have forsaken in recent times. Public education (and, for that matter, freedom) has plenty of powerful enemies. So why do those of us who believe in this bedrock institution spend so much time fighting one another tooth and claw? We only weaken ourselves, while our real adversaries patiently build their strength.

Most often, I have bemoaned this infighting during labor disputes. School district officials and teachers' union leaders savage one another as they squabble over steps, lanes and COLAs. Meanwhile, people who would like to see public education die lick their lips and chortle with glee.

These days, however, the battleground has shifted. Among public education advocates, there are those of us who believe that the underpinnings of the public education system have weakened to the point where fundamental change is essential. There are others who argue that schools are under-funded and hideously managed, and that more competent stewardship of this public trust, combined with a lot more money, would cure what ails public education.

Both sides have legitimate points. Rather than acknowledging this, however, leading voices on both sides go out of their way to heap scorn upon those with whom they disagree.

After reading the Times Magazine article, I have to ask myself: How stupid are we? Or is it naïve? Do we believe that public education in some form is guaranteed to survive into the endless future?

If so, we had better wake up.

Don't get me wrong. Family squabbles are healthy. It's good to disagree, frequently and vigorously. Debate helps push new and better ideas. But when the debate gets personal and nasty, when people assume ill-intent on the part of their adversaries, then it becomes unhealthy and counter-productive.

I fear we have reached this point in the education debate, locally and nationally. So let's not forget: There are people out there who do have ill intent, who want to transform our country into a Christian version of what the Taliban made Afghanistan in the late 1990s. As Ben points out, only a small faction of conservative Christians endorse this agenda.

But no, Ben, I don't think I'm overstating the case when I raise the specter of the Taliban.

This faction may appear to be on the fringe. But it is a well organized fringe, with powerful allies inside and outside of our government.

If we keep focusing all our energies on fighting people with whom we should be allied, then we do so at our peril.