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In recent years, reports of a national culture war have saturated the popular press and academic journals. Commentators warn us that opposing forces are waging a fierce political struggle for the heart and soul of America, potentially threatening the Republic itself. Common values and ideals rooted in shared religious beliefs and nationalistic spirit have lost their resonance, we are told. Admittedly some of this discussion has begun to wear thin with exaggeration. Some even sounds faintly apocalyptic. Nevertheless, the truth remains that our diverse values are shaking our national identity to the core and eroding our understanding of those values we do share. Nowhere is this struggle more volatile than in that bastion of cultural definition and reproduction that is public education.
The public school curriculum has served as the most visible target in these battles. Over the past decade, school districts from Maine to California have been caught in gridlock over value conflicts, capturing the attention of the press and the imagination of the American public. In Lake County, Florida, community members successfully fought back against a conservative Christian school board takeover and the required teaching of American culture as superior to others. In New York City, a controversial multicultural curriculum and the now-infamous book Heather Has Two Mommies precipitated the chancellor's downfall. In Pontotoc, Mississippi, a mother and her six children were harassed by teachers and students and ostracized by the community for legally challenging various prayer practices in the local public school.
These stories are believable but, nevertheless, startling and troubling in view of the history, purpose, and promise of the common school as originally conceived more than a century ago. The public school was to be the crucible in which our democratic and republican roots would blend. School reformers of the mid-nineteenth century designed the common school with a view toward developing civic virtue and a national character through a shared set of values reflected in the curriculum. The common experience would create citizens who could respect each other's differences while sharing a common ethos of what it means to be an American. Mass compulsory schooling would permit individuals across the economic spectrum to both realize their own potential and support civic purposes through enhanced participation as informed citizens sharing a public philosophy. Underlying this ambitious enterprise was an unspoken assumption that Americans, old and new, could coalesce around a broad, almost all-inclusive set of values and vision of educational purpose and process on which the indoctrinative forces could build. There was a faith that education was scientifically determinate in its means and politically unified in its ends.
Social and political events over the course of the twentieth century have seemingly fractured this grand scheme so badly that some believe it may be near the breaking point. The Protestant morality that served as the bedrock of cohesion for the early common schools has given way to a secularist perspective that pervades public schooling and American popular culture. With roots in the progressive movement and the educational philosophy of John Dewey, secularism later was reinforced in the Supreme Court's prohibition in the 1960s against school prayer and Bible reading. The Court's rulings gradually but profoundly shaped the perception among the public and among educators regarding the role of religion in public education. While some communities have persistently flouted the school prayer decisions or devised ways to circumvent them, most school officials have interpreted them as an absolute ban against any hint of God or Judeo-Christian beliefs from public schools. And although numerous Americans demonstrate deep religious commitments, the expression of those commitments has been removed from the public square and from public discourse while becoming increasingly diverse with each new wave of immigration. Growth patterns among non-Judeo-Christian faiths, particularly Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, demand special attention. Over the past two decades, the number of Muslims in the United States has nearly quadrupled, while Buddhists and Hindus now make up sizeable religious minorities. At the same time, the nonreligious population presently constitutes between 8 and 10 percent of the population, up from 2 percent in 1952.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s had an equally indelible influence on educational values. In the process of promoting equality for racial minorities, women, and other disenfranchised groups, the movement redirected the public's focus from commonalities to diversity and individual and group differences. In the process a new language of rights including the rights of children became a dominant mode of legal and political communication. Following on the heels of that movement was a cultural revolution introducing a broad range of lifestyles, worldviews, and social issues that reinforced neoprogressive ideals and gradually became reflected and addressed in the materials and practices commonly used in the schools.
Through the 1970s, the content of education underwent two main changes. Educators became increasingly uncomfortable with the concept of schooling as indoctrination. In classrooms across the country, teachers no longer taught right and wrong as moral absolutes but rather led students to define and clarify their own values, which did not necessarily reflect those of their parents. Meanwhile, a new generation of neoprogressives expanded the curriculum beyond cognitive skills and knowledge in an attempt to educate the "whole child" and to address such social issues as sexuality and drug abuse along with the psychological needs of students. Some of these programs slowly ignited a firestorm of controversy in communities around the country.
Education was no longer confined to the basics, to the proverbial three R's. Over the following two decades, visualization and relaxation techniques, sex, drug, and AIDS education, environmental and global education, decision-making programs, sensitivity toward gays and lesbians, and recognition of nontraditional roles for women and men were included among the established offerings in schools throughout the nation. These topics and perspectives became part of the established canon of public schooling and, to a large extent, private schooling as well. Major textbook companies and publishers of children's literature shaped, fostered, and reinforced the new creed.
Some Americans hardly noticed this dramatic transformation in the substance and process of schooling. Many of those who did take note, particularly members of the educational establishment, hailed the changes as reflecting diversity, tolerance, and self-awareness. It was progress. Others passively acquiesced, deferring to the expertise of professional educators. One group, however, watched carefully and with grave concern. In pockets throughout the country, conservative Christians gradually embarked upon a grassroots campaign to wrest public schooling from the secularists. This concerted effort gained momentum and national attention as the religious right began to mobilize politically in the late 1970s. As far as they were concerned, schooling had strayed from its core mission. Railing against what they perceived as a one-way street to pluralism and tolerance, they set their sights on two issues-school prayer and the curriculum. Their goals were well focused and ambitious. They wanted to reintroduce organized prayer and other forms of religious expression, to rid the schools of offensive anti-Christian ideas, and to redirect the curriculum back to the basics.
Beginning in the 1980s, efforts to promote some form of religious expression in the schools began to engage Congress and state legislatures in endless political maneuvering. By 1994, 60 to 70 percent of Americans would respond favorably to the idea of some form of school prayer, while at least twenty-five states had enacted legislation permitting a moment of silence to be observed in the schools. Similar sentiments are reflected in the Religious Equality Amendments, which have been introduced in Congress repeatedly and unsuccessfully over the past decade. Variously worded, these all protect the "dictates of conscience."
In the early 1990s, religious conservative organizations expanded their efforts beyond the prayer issue into a more ambitious endeavor to reconfigure public education in a way that would reflect their traditional values and religious worldview. In doing so, they adopted the lobbying and litigation strategies and even some of the constitutional arguments developed by civil liberties groups in the 1960s. In 1995, the Christian Coalition stepped into the national spotlight with its Contract with the American Family. Coalition leaders described this document not as a Christian agenda but as a profamily agenda, including a provision supporting the right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children. According to Ralph Reed, then-executive director of the coalition, the ten provisions outlined in the Contract "enjoy support from 60 to 90 percent of the American people," a startling yet nonetheless compelling assertion. As the 1990s wore on, religious conservatives stepped up their decades-long battle against the preeminence of evolution theory. Instead of trying to impose creation science onto the curriculum, which the Supreme Court had rejected a decade earlier, they redirected their strategy to keeping Darwin out of the classroom or ensuring that, if evolution is taught, it is presented as only one unproven theory. By the close of the decade, Georgia, New Mexico, and Nebraska had made changes to varying degrees, including disclaimers in science books noting that "evolution is not fact," while the Kansas state guidelines had deleted most references to biological evolution and big bang theory.
The educational establishment and local school officials have strongly resisted individual and organized efforts to advance this agenda. Obviously it poses a serious threat to public schooling as it has evolved in recent decades. In the face of local opposition, a growing number of parents have used the courts as a vehicle for redressing what they perceive as educational wrongs growing out of the prevailing curriculum. Relying on liberty interests, rights to religious freedom, and mandates of church/state separation founded in the federal Constitution, parents have asserted a legal right to opt their children out of certain textbooks, materials, programs, and practices, many of which are widely used in schools throughout the country and officially acknowledged by educational experts. Others have raised the specter of secular humanism and New Age philosophy to remove offensive materials and programs from the school setting, eliciting cries of censorship from the larger community.
Still others, spanning the political continuum, have abandoned institutionalized education and claimed the right to educate their children at home. Home schooling traditionally was branded a fringe activity-the domain of Bible-toting parents and off-the-grid hippies. Each group rejected public schools for different reasons-the first because it viewed the schools as undisciplined and amoral and the second because it considered them authoritarian and dehumanizing. But now, aided by technology, the concept is inching its way into the mainstream. In recent years, a new breed of home-schooler has emerged, motivated less by religious beliefs and political ideology than by practical concerns, including the escalation in school violence, the decreasing quality of the academic program, and increasing peer pressure and competition. In fact, in the 1995-96 school year, parents for the first time ranked dissatisfaction with the public schools above religious reasons as the most important impetus to home school their children. As Education Week noted in 1996, "Some see it as no less than a battle between parents and the state for the control of a child's mind." By 1996-97, there were an estimated 700,000 to 1,150,000 children in grades kindergarten through twelve being schooled at home. Yet, regardless of their motivational concerns, home-schoolers place high priority on family autonomy and familial bonds.
At the same time, a growing number of Christian fundamentalist parents are educating their children in their own church-affiliated schools. In fact, Christian day schools have expanded at a faster rate than any other group within the private sector in recent decades. Between the 1960s and 1980s alone, eight to ten thousand such schools were established, with an estimated total enrollment of one million students. Many of these are unaccredited, and some resist any form of government regulation. These typically are "total institutions" designed not as a variant or "better expression" of public schooling but rather as a closed system based on absolute beliefs, a rigid point of view, and "scriptural Truth with a capital T."
Although Christian day schools conventionally have served white student populations, an increasing number of African American communities and churches are now aligning themselves with the movement and establishing schools, notably in urban areas. Since the 1970s, what has been termed black flight to the private sector has steadily increased, marking a clear departure from the historical support African American families have shown toward public education. In 1970, less than 4 percent of African American students were enrolled in nonpublic schools. That figure rose to 8.1 percent in 1987-88 and to 9.3 percent in 1993-94. Coinciding with the growth in Christian schools is the revival of Catholic schooling, especially in urban areas. Often with support from private philanthropy, church leaders have maintained a commitment to educating the children of the working poor, many of them racial minorities, who are fleeing the neighborhood public school in record numbers in search of a more academically rigorous, safer, and values-focused education for their children. Between the 1992 and 1998 school years, total Catholic school enrollment nationwide increased by more than eighty-one thousand students.
For most families, however, the alternative of home schooling is impractical or undesirable, while the option of private schooling lies beyond their financial or geographic reach. Others simply prefer the religiously and economically diverse student body along with the cultural enrichment and athletic programs that public schools frequently offer. Some families silently struggle to remain within public education while compromising their deeply held values and beliefs. With greater frequency they challenge the system, often at considerable emotional cost to their children.
Excerpted from Visions of Schooling by Rosemary C. Salomone Copyright © 2002 by Rosemary C. Salomone. Excerpted by permission.
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|2.||The Common School: Past as Prologue||10|
|3.||From Children's Rights to Parents' Rights||42|
|4.||The Supreme Court as Schoolmaster||75|
|5.||Voices of Dissent||105|
|6.||Struggling with Satan||142|
|7.||Education for Democratic Citizenship||197|
|8.||Re-Envisioning Common Education||228|