08/02/2011 11:04 am ET Updated Oct 02, 2011

The Triumph Of The American Madrasahs

This piece was co-authored with Sir Harold Kroto.

New legislation suggests a more appropriate name for the U.S.A.: The Unenlightened States of America.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced the "Defending Childhood" campaign, focused on violence prevention, offering an opportunity for us to reflect upon sectarian violence, religious indoctrination and ethics and education. In the 40 years since the April 20, 1971 Supreme Court decision of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the landscape of American education has changed beyond its original goal of racial desegregation through busing. Unintended consequences have included "white flight," in which white families fled from public schools with a high concentration of poor, minority schoolchildren to predominantly faith-based private schools believed to provide a higher quality of education -- but this was an excuse, as racism appears to have played a major and overt role. Today, many secular families now have no option if their children's education is a priority other than to send them to faith-based schools and try to correct the endemic religious indoctrination at home. Alternatively, these families can choose public schools, whose resources are diminishing as we speak. This is an ethical issue of supreme importance.

Such a shift has created ripple effects, beginning with a gradual, inexorable erosion of the Jeffersonian ideal of separation of church and state that reaches from early childhood education to public policy that is being played out every day in our State Houses, Congress and the Senate. From 1980 to 2001, the opening of private schools outpaced public schools by nearly two to one (15,131 vs. 8,130). During the same period, the number of private schools increased by 73 percent, whereas the number of public schools only increased by 9 percent. Current data show that about two out of five schools are private, compared to one out of four in 1980. Three out of four private schools are faith-based, and private schools serve more than 6 million children.

How has this affected the American ethos? One result has been the gradual takeover of governmental and judicial institutions by religiously indoctrinated and motivated politicians and workers, whose decisions are increasingly faith-subservient, exemplified by the weekly Prayer Meetings currently taking place in the U.S. Capitol, established by The Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, which asks members of Congress "to trust God again." Of particular concern is the increasing sectarian violence observed in schools well beyond the Madrasahs of Pakistan. A recent Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics study pointed out that boys attending American faith-based schools are more likely to have used racial slurs and insults as well as to have mistreated someone belonging to a "different group." Most discouraging in this report is the fact that boys at faith-based schools not only tend to believe that it can be acceptable to physically abuse someone with whom they disagree but admit openly that they have on occasion done so. A more peaceful outcome might be possible if teachers in faith-based schools focused more on empathy and tolerance and less on xenophobia.

Federal legislation such as H.R. 471, the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act that the House recently passed, with similar "scholarship programs" already in place in several states (including Florida and Pennsylvania), aiming to use taxpayer's money to subsidize more and more faith-based schools, is even more disturbing. American children could ultimately have only "American Madrasahs" available to provide their education, and the final nail in the most morally precious aspect of the U.S. Constitution -- indeed implicit in the Statement on Religious Freedom of Virginia -- will be hammered in. It is a real paradox that America, the country that has benefited more than any other from the technological advances resulting from the doubt-based rational philosophy of the Sciences, is now on the verge of being dragged, by irrational, ideologically-motivated, paranoid cart-horses, back into a new Dark Age from which it may never emerge.

The only hope of avoiding this catastrophe is the acceptance by educational institutions that their primary ethical purpose must be the teaching of young people how they can decide what they are being told is actually true. The evidence-based philosophical construct of Science is all we have for that. President Obama was right on target when he said, "We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of science fairs," in his 2011 State of the Union address. Such refocusing can produce better-educated citizens and public policy makers poised to make decisions based on facts and not on beliefs, and, as a byproduct, save what little is left of democracy in this country.

Sir Harold Kroto is a Francis Eppes Professor of Chemistry at the Florida State University and recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.